The Blue Angel (DVD)

No one in cinema history has ever smoked a cigarette quite like Marlene Dietrich. Without a hint of self-consciousness, she handles the process as if she's been puffing since infancy, passing the cigarette through her fingers with uncommon fluidity and blowing luxuriant curls of smoke that cloud the lights like a special effect. While cigarettes didn't carry her performances, they were the first cue to her otherworldly confidence and control, which she wields over her helpless suitors like a hammer ready to drop. Director Josef von Sternberg—an Austrian émigré who was already responsible for Docks Of New York, one of the silent era's most technically sumptuous films—found his muse when he cast Dietrich in 1930's The Blue Angel, the first of eight memorable collaborations. Newly restored and released to theaters in its original German cut, The Blue Angel arrives on DVD in a superb two-disc set that includes both the German and English-language versions, which were filmed simultaneously and run at different lengths. Dietrich received second billing to German expressionist icon Emil Jannings, but for all his raging, over-the-top bluster (an unfortunate carry-over from the silents), she commands the screen with nothing more dramatic than a well-timed cackle. An easy mark for the von Sternberg-Dietrich juggernaut, Jannings plays a morally pious and ironfisted college professor who scolds his students for carrying around bawdy postcards for "Lola Lola," the featured songstress at a local nightclub. Eager to catch the youngsters in the act, Jannings ducks into the club and finds himself mesmerized by one of Dietrich's scandalous song-and-dance numbers. So begins his fall from grace, as he woos Dietrich into marriage but relinquishes any authority over her career or his own dignity, which is whittled away to the nub. The Blue Angel follows his descent with accumulating speed, building toward a wrenching conclusion. Although the story essentially revolves around Jannings' character, von Sternberg seizes on Dietrich's gifts as often as he can, but he wouldn't fully humanize her until the superior Morocco, which he made later that year. Save for the exceptional songs, The Blue Angel might have been more transfixing as a silent movie, which would have elided Jannings' excesses and the frequent drop-offs in sound. But as Dietrich's breakthrough and a key transition into the next phase of von Sternberg's career, it's essential. Of the many special features on the DVD, Dietrich devotees won't want to miss her hilarious original screen test, in which she chastises the pianist for repeatedly botching her song. With typical aplomb, she strolls behind him and hisses, "Don't screw up again or I'll kick you."

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