Since its 1930 debut, there have probably been as many unauthorized edits of “The Blue Angel” — originally shot in both German- and English-lingo versions — as young actresses working to capture the elusive essence of Marlene Dietrich’s complex, sultry cabaret singer Lola Lola. “Falling in love again,” she sang in this pivotal pinnacle of Weimar cinema, and, after years of abuse in the public domain desert, prolific U.S. distrib Kino on Video has streeted a definitive two-DVD set of “The Blue Angel” worth tumbling for.
Pic was first of seven visually florid melodramas Dietrich made with Vienna-born director Josef von Sternberg. The helmer, at the request of thesp Emil Jannings, traveled from Hollywood (where he’d already scored big for Paramount with the pivotal 1927 gangster template “Underworld”) to the new UFA sound studios outside Berlin to direct this reworked yet author-approved version of Heinrich Mann’s 1904 novel.
Jannings, who’d won the first ever Best Actor Oscar in part for Sternberg’s “The Last Command” in 1928, proved heartbreakingly expressive as Immanuel Rath, the pious high school professor brought low — way low — by his helpless obsession with Lola Lola and her seductive yet world-weary charms.
While the second disc consists entirely of the visually cleaner, 100-minute English/German version shot concurrently for American release but forever marred by what the menu admits are “somewhat hair-raising accents,” disc one features the preferred German version, at 104 minutes looking and sounding better than any film its age and history has a right to (both transfers are original full-frame).
Berlin Film Museum Dietrich archives curator Werner Sudendorf’s heavily accented commentary track is a satisfying mix of the scholarly and insightful: cue chapter 11 for details on Dietrich’s character and work habits; chapter 13 for Sternberg’s strategy of working with sound; chapter 20 for details on reshot English scenes; and chapter 21 for subsequent sad fates of some principals.
Elsewhere on disc one the clutch of production stills, bios and trailers (by now de rigeur on the serious DVD release) is complemented by a chronological timeline of the film’s creation, a short yet illuminating scene comparison between the versions and Dietrich’s mischievous October 1929 screen test. In tantalizingly brief clips she’s seen in color during a 1971 Stockholm interview; performing “Falling” and taking an extended curtain call in a pristine black and white kinescope there eight years prior (“Here’s a song I think you want to hear,” she says briskly); and offering “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” and “Lola” in clean color footage as part of her 1972 London “I Wish You Love” stand.
Pic was rescued from P.D. purgatory and licensed worldwide (sets that can be played on region 2 DVD machines exist in both Britain and Germany) by Munich-based Transit Films, working from material assembled, restored and controlled by Wiesbaden’s non-profit Murnau Foundation. Specialty firm DVDFabrik in Muenster handled the digital transfer of the superlative Italian lab work.