Josef von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel (1930) was supposedly based on Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat (literally: Professor Garbage or Excrement, 1905). But the story and theme actually owe much more to Thomas Mann than to his older but less well known brother. Von Sternberg and his scenario-writer, Robert Liebmann, abandoned most of Heinrich’s plot and took the dramatic climax of the film from Thomas’ short story ‘Little Lizzy’ (1897).
In his introduction to The Blue Angel, his first film to break the sound barrier, von Sternberg proclaims his own genius, claims absolute authority over every aspect of the movie and defines his work as director: ‘he controls the camera according to his vision, uses light, shadow and space as his mind dictates, dominates the tempo and content of sound, controls the sets, chooses and edits the actors, decides their appearance and make-up, arranges the scenes in rhythmic progression … and is solely responsible for every frame of his film.’ But neither von Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965), nor Steven Bach’s life of Marlene Dietrich (1992) nor John Baxter’s recent biography of von Sternberg (2011) mentions the real source of the film.
In rough Germanic English von Sternberg also explains the differences between Heinrich’s novel and his film. Professor Unrat portrays ‘a teacher falling in love and marrying a cabaret singer by name of Rosa Fröhlich with child, resigning his position and then using his wife to obtain a footing which enabled him to make a gambling establishment that was to settle his score with society’. In the film, by contrast, the director and writer make the singer Lola-Lola ‘heartless and immoral, invent details that are not in the book, and best of all change the role of the teacher to show the downfall of the enamoured man à la [Somerset Maugham’s novel] Of Human Bondage’. Bach adds that ‘the major alterations fromthe novel were the addition of the professor’s degradation as a clown and his madness and death at the end instead of imprisonment (for running a gambling house corrupting the bourgeoisie)’.
Thomas Mann, who had published Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain (1924) and won the Nobel Prize in 1929, had an exalted reputation by 1930. With nice irony, von Sternberg jettisoned the conclusion to Heinrich’s novel and covertly replaced it with Thomas’ early story. The title of ‘Little Lizzy’ is ironic for the huge anti-hero is neither little nor a little girl. The lawyer, Christian Jacoby – insecure and cowardly, self- tortured and disgusting, is a stout colossus, gigantic and flabby, with thick column-like legs. His wife, Amra, combines malice with ‘a sensuality both tormented and cruel’. When Amra plans to have a lavish party and to entertain her guests, she orders her husband to be the striking finale: ‘Christian, suppose you come on at the end as a chanteuse, in a red satin baby frock, and do a dance. … And you must sing, too.’ And she personally designs his infantile drag costume. The shy and miserable Jacoby at first refuses to appear on stage but, wishing to please his wife in every way, finally submits to her will.
At the party, a conjuror ‘performed the most amazing feats’. One of the guests, dressed in a Marie Antoinette powdered wig and shepherdess’s costume, sings a racy popular song, That’s Maria! The lyrics, not quoted in the story, are: ‘She is like a mortal sin/That will condemn you little by little/She is a sexual mirage/That will drive you crazy crazy.’ Amra’s lover, Alfred Läutner, who has written the music for Jacoby’s song, accompanies her on the piano. When Jacoby appears on stage, ‘The whole audience stiffened with amazement as that tragic and bedizened bulk shambled with a sort of bear-dance into view. … The lamentable figure exhaled more than ever a cold breath of anguish’. Jacoby’s cynical, femme fatale love song foreshadows Lola’s first song in The Blue Angel. He sings, ‘I can polka until I’m dizzy,/I can waltz with the best and beyond,/I’m the popular pet, little Lizzy,/Who makes all the menfolks so fond’.
But his performance is not a success and the audience, more horrified than entertained, feels outraged sympathy for the pathetic victim. In the midst of his performance Jacoby suddenly realises that Amra and Läutner are lovers and are deliberately mocking him. He then collapses and is pronounced dead by the young doctor, whose final words, ‘All over’, refer to the performance, the party, the marriage, Jacoby’s life and perhaps even the liaison of the guilty lovers. In this story of sadism and sex, Amra is not satisfied merely to betray her husband, but must also twist the knife by having her lover play a musical part in his public humiliation, degradation and death.
In The Blue Angel film, von Sternberg transposed Thomas Mann’s fin-de- siècle decadence into the decadent end of the Weimar era. He portrays a grotesque cast of stage manager, magician and clown, and the strangely tilted houses in the shadowy German Expressionist sets seem about to collapse into the narrow streets. Like Christian Jacoby, Professor Rath, a pedantic and boring secondary school teacher of English, descends from his well ordered and carefully structured life to emotional chaos and self- destruction. The dead caged canary he finds in his room at the beginning of the film foreshadows his precipitous fall.
Lola-Lola, whose name comes from Frank Wedekind’s plays featuring the destructive Lulu, probably inspired Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Nabokov was living in Berlin in 1930 when The Blue Angel first appeared. On stage, Lola reveals her frilly underwear, bare white thighs and gartered black silk stockings. Her first, husky-voice song clearly echoes Jacoby’s: ‘My name is naughty Lola/The fav’rite of the gang/I have a pianola/At home with lots of tang.’
Rath visits Lola-Lola’s dressing room to rescue his students who have gathered around her and become enchanted by her beauty. But he himself is soon seduced by her. She begins to trap Rath by throwing her lingerie over a screen – a careless gesture later repeated in a thousand movies. When she slyly climbs a spiral staircase and drops her enticing undies on his head, one of his students secretly slips it into Rath’s back pocket. Back in his room, he is astonished to find the lacy fetish and becomes obsessed by it.
Professor Rath, Lola’s pompous and absurdly inappropriate suitor, smiles coyly when she flatters him and is comically flustered when she blows a cloud of powder on his face and jacket. Von Sternberg may also have taken this detail from ‘Little Lizzy’, in which Jacoby’s ‘fat neck is stippled
with white powder’. The bewitched and possibly virginal Rath spends the night with Lola-Lola and suddenly decides to marry her. She greets Rath’s impetuous proposal with a burst of immoderate laughter. But, impressed by his personal dignity and social status (both of which she destroys), she decides to accept his offer. After descending into the abyss, he loses control of his class and is fired by the headmaster from his job at the gymnasium.
Instead of rescuing Lola-Lola from her low life, Rath becomes dependent on her. For five years he lives by selling her nude photos and works as a clown in her travelling troupe. His ludicrous costume is a battered top hat (a shabby version of Lola’s glittering top hat), long strands of wig hair jutting out beneath it, huge rubber clown’s nose, outsized starched white horse collar with tiny black bow tie, long black shabby coat and black trousers buckling over his scuffed shoes.
When they return to his native city (based on Heinrich’s home town, Lübeck), Rath – like Jacoby – refuses to go on stage, but finally appears with ‘his eyes wide, looking completely bewildered’. Finally, Lola-Lola takes a dashing lover, the strongman Mazeppa (named after the hero of Byron’s poem), and kisses him while standing in the wings and watching Rath perform. He is mocked not only by the lovers, but also by his former colleagues and students. When the magician produces an egg out of thin air, Rath the cuckoo-cuckold is forced to crow like a proud rooster. This crowing bitterly reprises his futile whistling to the dead canary at the start of the film. When Rath sees Lola-Lola with Mazeppa, he is overcome by jealous rage, violently chokes her and is confined to a straitjacket.
Lola-Lola’s reprise of her song Falling in Love Again (in German: I’m from head to toe made for love) is now meant for her latest conquest, Mazeppa. When Rath calms down and is released from confinement he staggers back to his old classroom in a pathetic attempt to regain his former life. In a final spasm, as the caretaker looks on with horror, he collapses and dies while clutching his old desk. Rath has betrayed the uplifting mottos that hang above his bed and above the school clock: ‘Be just and fear no one’ and ora et labora (prayer and work). As the magician observes, Rath has destroyed himself, ‘all for the sake of a woman’.
By changing Heinrich Mann’s title from Professor Unrat to The Blue Angel, von Sternberg effectively shifted the dramatic emphasis from the stuffy professor to the barroom singer. Von Sternberg said that humiliation was ecstasy for Rath and called Dietrich ‘a pictorial aphrodisiac’. Her revolutionary screen character is completely amoral and, as Steven Bach observed, ‘she is provocative, seductive and unsentimental … a self- adoring, self-caressing Circe’.
In both ‘Little Lizzy’ and The Blue Angel an older, tall, fat, ugly, insecure, masochistic and self-tormented man is married to a beautiful, sensual and cruel young woman. She betrays him with a more attractive and much younger lover: a musician and a theatrical strongman. Magicians perform in both works. Lola-Lola sings sexy and seductive songs, like That’s Maria! and Jacoby’s I Can Polka until I’m Dizzy, in Thomas’ story. The reluctant husband, dressed up as a little girl or as a clown, is forced to perform on stage before people who know him. While dressed in a ludicrous costume, he is mocked both by the audience and by his wife and her latest lover. At the end of both story and film, the husband realises, while on stage, that he has been publicly betrayed. He then collapses and dies, attended by a young doctor or watched by a horrified school caretaker. Both works emphasise the brutal humour, cuckold’s crisis and spectacle of subjugation that outrages the audience. The degradation and humiliation of the older man is a favourite theme in the early stories of Thomas Mann and frequently recur in the films of von Sternberg.
After the tremendous success of the film, Heinrich Mann became primarily known as the author of The Blue Angel. In real life he followed the disastrous story of Jacoby and Amra, of Professor Rath and Lola-Lola. Heinrich married and was tormented by Nelly Kroeger, a low-bred bar girl, alcoholic and suicide, whom his fastidious brother Thomas absolutely loathed.