Film criticism in the 1930's generally disliked the films of Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich as the leading star. His use of her was considered to be nothing more than a way of conveying an erotic flavor to his films. His way of giving her legs and face an exquisite aesthetic quality through lighting and close-ups in the somewhat decadent milieus of Berlin, Morocco, Vienna, Moscow, Shanghai, New York and Seville were seen as a modern exploitation of the vamp-type belonging to the roaring 1920's - as "a realization of tasteless dreams of puberty", as Siegfried Kracauer chose to express it. Sternberg, who himself loved to fuel the gossip about a mysterious masochistic alliance with Dietrich, was nevertheless fully aware of the provocative aesthetic statement that he made with his films. He was deliberately playing with the star as a fetish with metaphoric qualities, that could represent the chimerical status of the screen in film production and reception. The movie-goers were - as most of the male protagonists in his films - presented as voyeurs in their relation to the screen. Kracauer almost fitted too well to Sternberg's representation of this public - critic or not. His kind was more or less the target of Sternberg's experiments.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who had almost the same precarious relation to his own contemporary audience - staging himself as he-man and an obviously tasteless person (homosexual) in most of his films - has contributed to the memory of Sternberg's aesthetics in the film Lili Marleen (1981). It has had almost the same destiny in the critic's review. It was never as strong and clarified from a social point of view as his other films. Paul Coates valuation of the film is exemplary. He states:
Although one may imagine that Fassbinder sees himself as a more self-possessed, populist Von Sternberg to Schygulla's Dietrich, he can also be read as setting his lead actress up: She really is devoid of singing and dancing talent, and it is hard to know whether her pact with Fassbinder is a Warholian folie à deux, deliberate parody, or even masochistic submission to his effort to turn her into the glitter queen whose mindlessly excessive femininity is so ludicrous as to reinforce the misogyny of the gay.Coates is aware, that Fassbinder tricks our imagination to a dizzy ahistorical mythological tour de force of the popular culture reaching from the 1940's to the 1980's, stating the ambivalence of a German aesthetic in delusion. But from my point of view Coates is too obsessed with the loose ends of the narrative trails to actually be aware of the way Fassbinder is paying homage to Sternberg's aesthetic. Keeping this in mind, my reading will differ considerably from that of Coates.
In the following I will try to compare Sternberg's Der Blaue Engel (1930) to Lili Marleen on the basis of the chosen topic of P.O.V.: functions of the film title.
Words cannot describe an image in motion, words cannot describe an image. Today The Blue Angel is used to describe night clubs, air squadrons and re-makes; before I gave that title to a film it had no existence. As everyone knows, The Blue Angel was seen by a contemporary public as a description of a certain depraved milieu that flourished for about ten years in the German Weimar-republic. The film narrative originated from the story by Heinrich Mann, Professor Unrat (published in 1905). It did not refer to Lübeck, as did the book, but to any small German town. What became important in the reception of the film was that it was produced and shot during the winter 1929 in Berlin - the metropolitan melting pot of European art and mixed (political) forces in 20th century culture. This was also part of Kracauer's argument based on social psychology, as he described Der Blaue Engel , in From Caligari to Hitler in 1947, as a kind of apocalyptic prediction of the social forces that would form the framework of the Nazi period. The fall of the public man in front of the legs of Dietrich and the disobedient behavior of the students all corresponded to what Kracauer recognized as the public "sadistic" feeling in Germany before the Second World War. He saw the debasement of Professor Rath to Unrath (dirt) as an anticipation of the methods that would be used in the concentration camps toward the Jews and Rath's students as prototypes for the "Nazi-Jugend". Sternberg of course never agreed with Kracauer's diagnosis. His objection - that the film product was a result of his own (the director's) imagination and that the figure of the star, Dietrich, was as far from reality as possible - had no force in the mixture of psychology and social history that formed the basis of the critic's arguments. Sternberg never again received any praise for his work from Kracauer, who was unable to alter his own arguments and point of view. He disliked the mass appeal, which he thought was the main argument for Dietrich's central placement in the six Sternberg-films for Paramount: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932) The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil is a Woman (1935). It is only recently that film criticism has actually tried to describe the special aesthetic of Sternberg's Dietrich-films in terms of visual reflection.
But on what kind of aesthetic were those films based? Studlar argues strongly for the concept of masochistic aesthetics, but she does not include The Blue Angel in her analysis. From my point of view, it would be quite acceptable to describe the driving force of the film as masochistic - with the addition the expressionistic style brings to it. Sternberg changed the ending of Heinrich Mann's story from a definitely social narrative about a teacher who married a cabaret singer, Rosa Fröhlich, with a child. In establishing a new life in the entertainment business, he was again accepted in society. Sternberg describes his changing devices as follows:
It took little time for me to make up my mind. Rosa Fröhlich would be Lola-Lola, deprive her of her child, give the pupils intriguing photographs of her, make her heartless and immortal, invent details that are not in the book, and best of all change the role of the teacher to show the downfall of an enamoured man à la Human Bondage. None of the distinctive features that fill the film are indicated in the story by Mann. It is interesting to notice how Sternberg shifts the focus from class and social placement to figures that first and foremost have aesthetic and artificial significance. Lola-Lola is a new, more mechanical version of Wedekind's and Pabst's (and Louise Brook's) Lulu in Pandoras Box (1929). She is a cruel, indifferent re-make of Fritz Lang's soulless copy of Maria in Metropolis (1927). Lola-Lola is the perfect ruler of the masochistic Rath. Heartless though not evil she induces him to meet his own failure and death in the same mirror that gives her face a new glamorous beauty. In this operation, Sternberg dismisses any expressionistic or dialectic law between good and evil, darkness and light, passionate love and cold business. He focuses on the effect of the picture, and that is the reason for the doubling of Lola to Lola-Lola. In the star figure of Dietrich, Sternberg presents a simulacrum "who had no existence except on the screen". His aim is to make a statement about the relation of the screen to reality, and he concludes with Dietrich's final song in the cabaret, that those who mistake the shadows on the screen for reality are fools. The stanza "men swarm about me as mosquitoes about the light", is in the final refrain transformed to "fools swarm...". So in the spirit of Sternberg's aesthetics, it is easy to conclude that Der Blaue Engel/The Blue Angel was meant to signify (apart from the actual cabaret in the narrative) the cinematic devices that created angels in the blue light from the film projector. In the combination of "blue" and "angel" in the title, Sternberg was able to specify that very modern transparent quality that made the new medium and its stars so attractive all over the world. In all of his films, he tried to fight against the striving for cinematic reality (i.e. the screen as window). He wanted to show the flat opaqueness of the screen and for that purpose, he used the indifferent face of Dietrich and the special light on her bone structure (See Figure 1).
No wonder, that the title in English has often been misunderstood as referring to Dietrich. Sternberg aimed at making the figure of the star synonymous with the screen.
The force in Sternberg's meta-textual remark has inspired at least three aesthetically important re-makes of The Blue Angel. Remakes that were all well aware of the implications of Kracauer's argument for film history. Cabaret (1972) with Liza Minelli reworked the special Berlinian atmosphere seen in an American musical tradition. As the title shows it focused its interest on the place and time - Berlin in the thirties as seen through the eyes of a male homosexual. Fassbinder's Lili Marleen (1981) reworked the historic tradition from Kracauer as well as the masochistic aesthetics of Sternberg. The title refers to a song Dietrich actually sang for the Allies during and after the war. It could also refer to Kracauers review, called "Mona Lilly", of Sternbergs fourth film with Dietrich, Shanghai Express. Fassbinder is clearly meta-textual in his comment, and he reinstates in the narrative the dizzy triangle involving the cabaret, the star and the screen. Wim Wender's Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1985) also clearly refers to the tragedy of German history and film production. The cabaret has been replaced by a traditional circus in the modern yet "auratic" ruins of Berlin's past. The film owes, according to Wenders himself, more to Truffaut, Tarkovsly and Ozu than to Sternberg and Fassbinder. The film is closer to the flux of Ruttman's Berlin. Symphonie einer Großstadt (1926) than to the stasis of Sternberg's cabaret. But the philosophical angels in the sky of Berlin still have some reference to the "blue", artificial light of The Blue Angel. As the commentators Kolker and Beicken suggest, the fall of the angel Damiel to human desire (and plain voyeurism) is bound to insert an unfruitful mixture of postmodern and classical cliché's to grasp the "interactions of Eros and Thanatos, of history and personality". So:
their [Damiel and Marion's] mutual desire to create a "story" for themselves leads to a rite of passage into the most mundane, even puerile, movie conventions that appear greater than they are because of the heightened visual and verbal language in which they are presented.This ending is not quite balanced with the rest of the film.
In the following I will give Fassbinder's Lili Marleen a closer look.
Figure 1. Marlene Dietrich in The Devil Is a Woman (1935) as Concha, a more cliché-ridden (and perfect) version of the figure of Lola-Lola.
It is true that Marlene Dietrich was seen as a kind of deserter during the war. She was a fable come true in Hollywood and yet she was very German. She was asked by Goebbels to become the greatest icon in history (in the German film industry), but she preferred to join the army in the uniform of the Allies. She became an object of hatred, though she had great success, when she returned to Germany on the biggest stages in Berlin in the 1970's. Dietrich was a true icon with forces like a religious icon. She was like a mirror, indifferent and multi-faceted, depending on where the light or the meaning would hit her.
This reference to the 'true' Dietrich is evident in Hanna Schygulla's Willie, who is transformed to incorporate the song, Lili Marleen, which she performs over and over again. She becomes the great star of the German Empire, the metaphoric gestalt of victory. She represents the transcendent force in the new medias, the melodramatic, popular force of cinema, of a song that transcends frontiers and languages. The little fragment of the song "wieder sehen", that becomes an instrument of torture for Robert, Willie's beloved, contains all the melodramatic longing in the world.
Although Willie is transformed into a realization of this longing, of the experiment of the fascist ideal come true - as in the bedroom scene, where she kisses her own mirror image - she is clearly not presented by Fassbinder as a defense for fascist ideology. This becomes quite clear in the final song, where Willie is presented as a phallic, silvery, Oscar-like gestalt in the middle of the great Nürnbergian choreography, that totally swallows her. The icon disappears, the metaphoric center dissolves in the glittering light of the pomp and circumstance. What is shown here on the screen is the sign of lack and absence in the very center of visuality. The celebration of voyeurism as an insight or unveiling is negated. Instead, Fassbinder presents to us the hollowness of the major themes of fascist ideology: the mass, the mother and the spirit of power.
Figure 2 |
Lili Marleen just before the downfall of The German Empire... Figure 3
- as a perfect yet transparent gestalt.
This is Fassbinder's message in Lili Marleen, where he succeeded in leaving the spectators confused. Was this a parody of rich Jews or a justification of the fact that the German people accepted fascist ideology? One of the central utterances is in the scene where the spy Robert is exchanged for a documentary film showing a German concentration camp. The German officer pays almost no interest to the film, and answers, when he is asked (by Robert's father), why it was not possible to exchange more Jews for the film: "You can copy a film, not people". This is the answer that makes it justifiable for Robert's father to denounce Willie, who actually smuggled the film out of Germany. The film could have been copied anywhere - in Germany before the smuggling and in Switzerland before the exchange. This is perhaps the most solid and cruel statement of the film: When reality is documented in a film, it can - like any fiction film - be copied and altered according to the purpose the public wants it to serve. It can result in joy, longing desire or torture as the song Lili Marleen. It can give a vague reference to reality, but the product itself will always be artificial. It is this insight, that the public all over the world wants to dismiss. We want to believe in history although most of it is ideology. We want to believe in big leaders or big ideologies that act as saviors or as evil incarnate.
We want desperately to believe in the picture, but what happens when the outline of that picture is unclear (as in Fassbinder's films) or deliberately makes a statement about the act of seeing (as in Sternberg's films)? We get dizzy and want the narrative to compensate for our unfulfilled expectations. We search for meaning in the story rather than in the aesthetics of the moving pictures. We tend to forget that the title (in most cases, if the director has been fully in charge) could always give us an indication as to the level at which the film is meant to give meaning. And if The Blue Angel still appeals to us to such a degree that the title could mean almost anything, this is because the title somehow reflects an aesthetic that is still relevant today.
1 From a review of Shanghai Express, 1932; in Kino: Essays, Studien, Glossen zum Film. Frankfurt/M, 1974, p. 198.
2 Cf. Bodil Marie Thomsen: Filmdivaer. Stjernens figur i Hollywoods melodrama 1920-40. Museum Tusculanum, København 1996.
3 Paul Coates:The gorgon's gaze: German cinema, expressionism, and the image of horror. Cambridge University Press 1991, p. 138.
4 Josef von Sternberg: The Blue Angel. Lorrimer Publishing, London 1968, p. 9.
5 The German version Der Blaue Engel was first shown on the first of april, 1930. The English version The Blue Angel was not shown in Amerika before Sternberg had introduced his leading star in an american style and outfit in Morocco (1930). The two versions - in German and English language - was shot one after the other, but the ladder of course was lacking the Berlin slang.
6 Gaylyn Studlar: In the Realm of Pleasure. Von Sternberg, Dietrich and the Masochistic Aesthetic. Urbana and Chicago.
7 Sternberg 1968, p. 11.
8 Josef von Sternberg: Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965, p. 242.
9 In the German version from "Männer" to "Narren".
10 Cf. Bodil Marie Thomsen: "Den Berlinske kabaret som film-topos", Kulturstudier 21: Berlin, Aarhus 1993.
11 Kracauer: Kino. Frankfurt/M 1974, p. 197.
12 Robert Phillip Kolker and Peter Beicken: The Films of Wim Wenders. Cambridge University Press 1993, p. 156.