Video Essay. The World and Its Image: Josef von Sternberg’s "The Blue Angel"

A new video essay takes a different angle on Sternberg's immense cinematic achievement starring Marlene Dietrich.
Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin

The twentieth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI will be showing Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) from February 14 - March 16, 2017 in the United States.

The Blue Angel (1930) is a film that stands at many, superimposed crossroads. It represents a transition between the expressive language of silent cinema and the new technology of sound cinema. Before the reign of dubbing took hold around the world, it was a heroic instance of a project shot in two different language versions (German and English) simultaneously.  

It juxtaposes two very different sorts of acting performance: the expressive histrionics of Emil Jannings, characteristic of the silent period, and the more understated naturalness of its rising star, Marlene Dietrich. In its drama, it plays out the clash, and the changeover, between an institutionalized form of high, literary culture (as transmitted in Professor Rath’s classroom), and the unruly, vulgar, “popular culture” of the marketplace (represented by entertainer Lola-Lola).

And The Blue Angel transformed, in a single stroke, the careers of both Dietrich and her director, Josef von Sternberg. Together as a team in Hollywood, they would collaborate on an extraordinary run of films, including Morocco (1930) and The Scarlet Empress (1934). Much has been said and written since that time about the intriguingly pained gender dynamics portrayed in these films, about their autobiographical resonances, and about Sternberg as a grand stylist of “pure cinema,” a master of lighting, choreography, and rhythm.

Our audiovisual essay, The World and Its Image, takes a different angle on Sternberg’s immense cinematic achievement. Getting away from the humanist, psychological bias of much film criticism, it investigates patterns and resonances relating to what is precisely non-human, and phantasmic, in The Blue Angel. Sternberg said it himself: the cinema is a “theater of shadows.”

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