The Tragedy of Clowning: On The Blue Angel

Note: This is the hundred-and-fifty-seventh in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1930 film, THE BLUE ANGEL, directed by Josef von Sternberg.

I’ve written about director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich’s second collaboration together, MOROCCO, their first in America after the big success of the German production THE BLUE ANGEL. I’ve also written about Charlie Chaplin’s THE CIRCUS, and how it celebrates clowning and its beauty. And now I’m writing about THE BLUE ANGEL, which inverts the themes of those movies to demonstrate a more modern, or postmodern, consideration of the clowning paradigm, and all its tragedy and sadness.

In THE BLUE ANGEL, professor Rath (called Unrath [garbage] by his students) begins investigating the titular club because his students are visiting the cabaret and are presumably up to no good. Emil Jannings, one of the biggest stars of the silent era in Germany, plays Rath with a proper, stern manner, and the ultimate fate of the character reminds one of the transformation of Jannings’ Sergius Alexander in Josef von Sternberg’s THE LAST COMMAND (1928). Jannings was top billed, but just as Lola Lola steals his dignity, so too does her actress, Marlene Dietrich, steal the show. THE BLUE ANGEL is now best remembered for introducing Dietrich to the world, and not as Jannings’ swan song.

After protesting too much, Rath falls for the performer Lola Lola. He falls in with the troupe that is touring and playing at The Blue Angel, led by the pompous and harsh magician Kiepert (played quite well by Kurt Gerron). After Rath’s students prank him in the classroom, mocking his love for the cabaret singer, the head of the school tells the professor he will have to report him. Rath goes for broke, proposes to Lola Lola, and begins touring with her company.

From there, Rath continues to degrade himself time after time, after saying he’ll never do things like sell Lola’s naughty postcards, or perform as a clown for the show. But he does all of these things. And it ends in his demise, as he sees Lola “making love” to the troupe’s new strongman after they’ve returned to The Blue Angel, five years later. Rath, back in his hometown, returns to his old school, breaks in, and lays down to die at his former desk, where the night watchman discovers him. The closing shot pulls away from Rath, whose hands are gripped tightly to the desk in rigor mortis, and we see the unlit lamps in the room and the rows of empty desks.

This whole arc, as mentioned, is an inversion of the romance of MOROCCO, in which cabaret singer Amy Jolly and French Legionnaire Tom Brown fall in love. In THE BLUE ANGEL, Dietrich’s outsider performer comes into Rath’s world, as Amy Jolly did into Tom Brown’s. Brown seems more interested in her than Amy Jolly is in him, at first, but the affection becomes reciprocated. With Rath and Lola Lola, the infatuation becomes desperate for the professor, as she seems to marry the professor on a whim. He performs deeds that are “beneath” him to stay within her orbit. And through it all, she seems relatively ambivalent in receiving his affection.

Rath’s love in THE BLUE ANGEL is as irrational as Brown’s in MOROCCO. They both fall for their cabaret singer within a day or two; it is idealized, and extraordinary. But as Rath falls into darkness, it is as a function of Lola Lola’s indifference. It is a colder, more tempestuous indifference than Amy Jolly’s inability to truly love La Bessiere, the victim of MOROCCO’s love triangle. Rath is told a number of times to not get involved with Lola Lola and that things will not end well for him, as if she is a force of nature rather than a person who can feel and change from the love of the professor.

All of this natural force warps Rath’s mind into a shadow of its former self. At his and Lola’s wedding dinner, they participate in a little joke, in which she coos like a hen and he crows like a rooster. As a clown, this little joke is turned into a punchline against him, as Kiepert smashes an egg on his head and hisses at him to crow. The crowd’s reaction when Rath finally gives in, desperate and apparently in psychic pain, is not of joy, but of general unease. It reveals the line clowns tread, entertaining the masses by debasing themselves. It reveals the sadness in the position, at least as THE BLUE ANGEL and von Sternberg see it. Only Rath’s return to his place as an educator legitimizes him once again, only in death.

If MOROCCO celebrates irrational romance, THE BLUE ANGEL reveals the darkness and vulnerability of it. The dichotomy between the American and German sensibility could not be more clear, as similar ingredients are twisted in different directions. Perhaps most chilling about THE BLUE ANGEL, a detail I had not noticed before, is the previous troupe clown’s fascination with Rath at first glance. This clown is never named and he never speaks, and he disappears from the film without an explanation or a trace. But when he first sees Rath, he stares at him, and indeed, every time after he stares at him. It is almost as if this clown sees what is within Rath. This unknown figure sees the desperation and the loneliness that will turn the professor into him, the unappreciated and abused clown that no longer has a name, a voice, or a real identity; always in makeup, and always on the fringe.

Again, this is an inversion of similar ingredients, a darker interpretation of the clown than Charlie Chaplin’s THE CIRCUS. In it, the Little Tramp’s loneliness, his bumbling nature, his desperate, unrequited love, give him a new family in the circus, in spite of its ringmaster’s disdain for him. Although the movie’s ending is sad, sure, the Tramp’s decision to “end his life” (in the circus) is his own, a sacrifice to make his love truly happy and to prevent any more pain for himself. In THE BLUE ANGEL, Rath’s spontaneous death upon returning to the spot from which he once ruled his own world is his decision, but of course it’s ultimately fatal. It’s sad, but it’s also pathetic.

You see, THE BLUE ANGEL doesn’t always portray Rath as a sympathetic figure. Indeed, from the start, he is a harsh, fun-hating character. He employs a little teacher’s pet snitch to learn what he can about his delinquent students, putting the boy in harm’s way with his peers. But just as the “immaculate conception” of romance endears us to an irrational display of love in MOROCCO, Rath’s desperation for Lola Lola is a sympathetic thing…and ultimately, as mentioned, there’s a focus on the “pathetic.” There is not an aspirational quality to THE BLUE ANGEL, and perhaps not even a warning within it. It is simply the portrayal of the end result of pride, love, indifference, and indeed, show business combining to break one man down so far so as to necessitate his death. We’ve seen that story before and since.

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