Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake is always going to divide opinion, those who see it as a conceptual art statement being able to argue, quite reasonably, that its failure to do the things Hitchcock's original does—create a consistent story world, stylized but credible characters, a sense of doom, suspense—is exactly the proof needed of its success as a conceptual artifact, dramatically redundant yet stubbornly existent.
Would the same people say the same thing for Edward Dmytryk's The Blue Angel, a faithful yet utterly arbitrary remake of Josef Von Sternberg's Der blaue Engel. Sternberg's production, Germany's first sound film, is so iconic and so utterly of its time—it marks the beginning of the Marlene myth, as well as the end of silence—that any kind of remake seems like an exercise in redundancy, like the Coens's joke proposal to re-shoot Stanley Kramer's well-intentioned liberal comedy of manners Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Story: severe schoolmaster Emmanuel Rath falls madly in love with a lowly cabaret singer, Lola Lola, and loses his position.
Dmytryk, a talented and intelligent man whose reputation started on a downward spiral after he defaulted from the Hollywood Ten by naming names to HUAC, replaces Emil Jannings with Curt Jurgens, which seems reasonable (it'd have to be either Jannings or Gert "Goldfinger" Frobe, I guess) but the film is hobbled into utter pointlessness by the absence of a Lola Lola to match the original. As author Heinrich Mann remarked of Sternberg's version, "The success of this picture will be found in the naked thighs of Miss Dietrich."
It isn't the fault of poor May Britt in the 1959 film. She can't be Marlene, and the only alternative to being Marlene in this film would be to be even more freakish, sphinxlike, vulgar, elegant and ferocious. She has a stunning wardrobe, a very smart hairstyle, and her indigo eyeshadow is a masterstroke, but she does everything as if she's been told to do it. We know the same was true of Marlene ("Come in, pause for three seconds, then look at that lamp as if you couldn't live without it"), but she somehow created the impression of a self-motivated person, even if somewhat unreadable. Where Marlene trails mystery, May leaves a series of gaps.
Theodore Bikel is very good as Klepert, the magician and MC, but he can't erase the memory of Kurt Gerron with a mere acting performance. Gerron was a walking George Grosz caricature. He's also the hero in a tragic side-story that adds still more resonance to the twisted tale of Der blaue Engel. Let Sternberg tell it:
"Another in the gathering, Kurt Gerron, was killed by the Nazis, after being forced to direct a film for them, showing how well the Jews were treated."
The screenplay of the Dmytryk shadow is by Nigel Balchin (author of the novel The Small Back Room, brilliantly filmed by Powell & Pressburger) attempts to fill in the blanks with characterisation and motivation. Realizing she's ruining her husband the ex-teacher, Britt's Lola deliberately kisses her would-be lover in front of him, to drive him away, back to his earlier life. Whereas in Sternberg's film, a strongman steals a kiss from Dietrich, as she looks at her husband in horror—but one brief shot suggests she's enjoying the whole thing.
Balchin does give us one lovely line, not present in Sternberg's film, in a scene where the headmaster offers Jurgens another chance. Now visibly gone to seed, the wretched protagonist pleads that he's not fit to teach children. "Nobody is really fit to teach children," protests the head. In one lovely shot, an ajar window provides a split-screen effect, the headmaster's image superimposed with a reflection of the schoolyard. Whereas Jurgen's half of the frame is an empty space.
Balchin softens the schoolteacher's character (Jannings plays him as pure petty tyrant), although he's still a study in hypocrisy so we don't really care. The portrayal of the kids is notably more abrasive: bullying and hateful brats, apart from the stuck-up teacher's pet. But the kids aren't present at the film's climax, where Rath faces the ultimate in humiliation. Sternberg was a poet of masochism, whereas Dmytryk's central humiliation, that he'd sold out his former friends to salvage his life and career, was buried so deep he could never face it. Perhaps that's why his film wriggles out into an optimistic ending. (How does Jurgens do in the clown scene? His expression is horrifying, and his cock-crow is certainly loud and painful, but nobody can touch Jannings, who produced the ultimate sound of human suffering, a soul-rending cry that charts in a single kri-kri-kri the path from vestigial human dignity to sheer animal degradation.)
The sense of meaningless repetition is most evident in the sets, which rather slavishly mimic those in Sternberg's UFA film, expressionistic jumbles of sloping angles that clash badly with the location work, just as the contemporary setting clashes with the social rules Mann's book is predicated on. Really the only thing holding this movie together is the Deluxe color cinematography of Leon Shamroy (The Girl Can't Help It, Leave Her to Heaven), which does its best to unite interior theatre and exterior travelogue. The searing neon hues add another dimension or raw vulgarity to the film's decadent night-spot, and are so altogether unprecedented in their savage intensity as to upstage director, stars and story. You've been admiring them as you read this article. Now go to the mirror and admire your new tan.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.