Cinema Verite (2011)

Add Cinema Verite to the list of worth-catching HBO films. This interesting, well-acted and thought-provoking film is based on the story behind the very first reality TV show, and after watching the film, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard the story of the Loud family–the subjects of a 1973 PBS documentary miniseries called An American Family. Attractive Santa Barbara based Pat (Diane Lane) and Bill Loud (Tim Robbins) along with their 5 children seem like perfect raw material to producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini)–the man who had the creative idea to film an American family as entertainment–not a particularly easy sell according to Cinema Verite. Gilbert is directed towards the Louds by a mutual acquaintance, and when he pitches his idea of filming the Louds in their upscale Santa Barbara ranch style home, at first Pat is resistant but then folds and agrees to participate. The cameras move in and the action begins.

On one level, the Louds appear to be the perfect American family with a stay-at-home attractive mother, a hard-working Nixonite dad and 5 talented children, but under the surface everything isn’t as Disney as it first appears. Cinema Verite depicts Gilbert as being fully aware of the potential for cliff-hanging drama within the fractured family structure.

This 2011 film which runs to 86 minutes cannot, of course, do justice to all the drama contain in the 12 episodes that aired in 1973, so while some issues and events are given centre-stage, other aspects of the Loud family drama are given short shrift. Nonetheless, this is a very entertaining film which asks some relevant questions: is there such a thing as reality TV when participants are aware that cameras are recording their every word? Does the presence of cameras inevitably cause people to commit acts they wouldn’t otherwise? Do people get caught up in their own roles and, in essence, subconsciously write a script for the roles they are playing? Does a camera turned on the family dynamic cause more introspection? Finally, of course, there’s the question of whether or not the series subjects are exploited, and that’s covered in the film’s final scenes.

The Loud family saga explodes through Bill’s exposed infidelities with numerous women including one brainless wanna-be actress, and then there’s the oldest son, Lance (Thomas Dekker) who takes up residence at New York’s Chelsea Hotel, and becomes best friends with Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn before he decides to go and find himself in Paris. The film doesn’t emphasis the radical cultural impact that Lance’s homosexuality must have caused through the episodes weekly beamed into American living rooms. Lance Loud was the first openly gay person to appear on American television, and he basically comes ‘out’ during the course of the series. One scene depicts some of the nastiness he faced as a result of the programme.

Diane Lane as Pat Loud is as superb as ever, and she’s also a very sympathetic character–a woman who’s managed to submerge her suspicions about her husband’s infidelities until the cameras arrive. Cinema Verite argues that the Louds participation in the series caused the family to implode. Perhaps a meltdown would have occurred without the camera crew on hand, but there’s a very strong argument that at the very least the Loud family’s participation in the series hastened the family crisis.

From directors Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini

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Familia (2005)

The Canadian film Familia from director Louise Archambault appears to begin its focus with divorced, single parent Michèle (Sylvie Moreau). A brief glimpse of Michèle’s gambling addiction and a short encounter with her current steroid-selling boyfriend/boss, Scott (Claude Despins) illustrate a life of failure, irresponsibility and flux. Unfortunately, Michèle’s bad decisions pour down on to her 14-year-old daughter, Marguerite (Mylène St-Saveur). A confrontation between Michèle and her latest boyfriend results in yet another midnight flit with Michèle and Marguerite’s few belongings stuffed into the car, and what doesn’t fit in the car is tied onto the roof.

Time to hit the road… Michèle, a part-time aerobics instructor, would really like to start afresh in California, but she needs money to fund this make-over. Off to mum’s to plead for cash, but Madeleine (Micheline Lanctôt) doesn’t have any to spare and seems fairly oblivious to Michèle’s dilemma. No matter, Madeleine’s much younger husband, (Jacques L’Heureux) lusts after Michèle, and he’s perfectly happy to offer some cash in exchange for a grope.

Michèle doesn’t make it to California and ends up on the doorstep of childhood friend Janine (Macha Grenon), and here’s where the family dynamics begin to get complicated. Janine is the sister of Marguerite’s father who was married to someone else when he impregnated Michèle. The complicated layers of deceit, self-deceit, and irresponsibility peel back as various family members appear on the scene, and the film raise the old nature vs nature question through its portrayals of three-generations of troubled characters.

As the film plays out, its focus shifts to Janine, nicknamed Hitler by her 13-year-old daughter Gabrielle (Juliette Gosselin),  Janine, a successful interior decorator runs a tight ship at her immaculate home and naturally and foreseeably, Michèle’s presence and influence wreaks havoc in Janine’s formerly orderly home. Unfortunately, Janine has too many distractions to see it coming. With her husband Charles (Vincent Graton) largely absent, Janine has good reasons to suspect him of infidelity.

When the multiple crises erupt, the film takes a step back from Michèle’s disastrous choices and Janine’s painful suspicions and takes a look at the larger family picture here. Janine’s mother, Estelle (Patricia Nolin), is a cold fish who believes that all problems can be successfully avoided through shopping while Michèle’s mother desperately tries to stay younger in order to keep her repulsive husband interested. By stepping back and taking a look at this older generation, Michèle and Janine begin to make a lot more sense–and by that I don’t mean that they were inconsistent characters, but rather their backgrounds explain their adult choices. 

And since the film takes a look at the older generation, it’s balanced by taking a look at the choices made by Gabrielle and Marguerite. Once again, these two young girls are very much influenced by their mothers, and in one poignant scene Michèle, who manages to largely ignore her daughter, asks Marguerite what she wants out of life. Marguerite replies that it’s very simple–she wants to not be like her mother. 

On the down side, the film comes dangerously close to condemning the entire male species–with the sole exception of Marguerite’s grandfather who seems the most stable of the bunch. However, that complaint aside, ultimately Familia, a highly entertaining film offers believable flawed characters caught in various economic and social dilemmas for which there are no easy answers, and we see generations of women paying for the mistakes and the irresponsibility of their parents. By the time, the film concludes, we see the characters overcoming patterns of behaviour, and one scene which includes Janine and her ever-disappearing husband has to be one of the best melt-down scenes ever made.

Familia, a Canadian film, is mostly in French, and it’s an entry into Caroline and Richard’s world cinema series 

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Manuela Sáenz (2001)

“If you wonder about Bolívar, it’s enough for you to know that I loved him when he was alive, and now that he’s dead, I praise him.”

Set in the 19th century, Manuela Sáenz from director Diego Rísquez is the story of the lover of Simon Bolívar, the Venezuelan revolutionary who fought against Spanish rule and united a number of South American countries into La Gran Columbia. Manuela Sáenz played a significant role in Bolívar’s life but seems largely lost to history. This film is the perfect companion film for the Columbian political satire, Bolívar is Me.

Manuela Sáenz begins in the year 1856 with the arrival of a whaling ship in Paitu, Peru. On the ship is the young Herman Melville (Erich Wildpret) who’s heard that Manuela Sáenz lived there at one time. He’s astonished to learn that she is still alive, and he seeks her out. Now partially paralyzed, she lives with her two faithful servants and a number of dogs named after Bolívar’s enemies in a primitive hut which overlooks the ocean. Impoverished, she’s managed to survive by translating and also selling tobacco. Melville meets and talks briefly to Manuela (Beatriz Valdés), but he only seems to stir unhappy memories (this actually happened btw). She asks him “Why do you want to meet this ruin of history?” He replies: “Well, I’ve always been interested in legends and you are one of them.” Meanwhile diphtheria arrives in Paitu and the death toll begins to climb….

The film is told with flashbacks and the ‘present’ is filmed in sepia while the past is in colour. Through the flashbacks we see a few glimpses of Manuela’s early life. She was a bastard child, the product of an Ecuadorian woman and a Spanish officer and grew up in a convent–although those 2 latter details are not made clear. Later her family arranged marriage with a British merchant, Dr. Thorne, but her life changed drastically when she met Simon Bolívar and they quickly became lovers. Scenes show how she left her outraged husband, and she was later made a Colonel in Bolívar’s forces. Other scenes depict how some officers were appalled by her behaviour and resented her presence while others embraced her commitment.

This is primarily the tale of the love story between Manuela and Bolívar, and the emphasis is on their relationship rather than the events that took place, so when revolts and battles occur, there’s little detail which really is a pity. The film doesn’t emphasise that in sympathy with the revolution against Spain, she’d already left her husband in 1822 before she met Bolívar. The sexual passion between Manuela and Bolívar is evident, and when circumstances force them to be apart, their correspondence keeps the relationship alive. Manuela’s greatest treasure is a box full of his letters.

When Bolívar is finally overthrown and sent into exile, Manuela remains behind, but her presence is a dangerous reminder of Bolívar. Bolívar’s enemies considered her capable of starting a counter-revolution, so she too is sent into exile. Scenes show a long arduous trek with her loyal supporters (former slaves) before she finally settles in Paitu where she  remains until Melville’s ship sails in.  

The film quality is spotty; some scenes appear more faded than others. One of the scenes depicting the burning of a body is a little over done, but apart from that, this is an interesting film in spite of the fact that it left this viewer dissatisfied with the patchy history of Manuela. While her passion for Bolívar is evident, her defiance of social laws, which includes leaving her husband and dressing in men’s clothing, hints at a fascinating woman. Other scenes however leave a lot unexplained. She holds a mock execution, for example, which angers Bolívar and he ultimately bans her from his presence–not a permanent ban, I should add.

Manuela Sáenz, a Venezuelan film, is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

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Happy Happy (2010)

Ok, so the Norwegian film Happy Happy (Sykt Lykkelig) from director Anne Sewistsky may not change your world, but it is an entertaining way to spend 85 minutes–especially if you’re interested to see how climate impacts personal lives.

Happy Happy begins with the arrival of a small family to a freshly rented house–Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), her husband Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), and their adopted black son, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy). They’re new to the remote rural area and are renting the house right next to their landlords, another young family composed of Kaja (Agnes Kittleson), husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelson) and son Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandso). Kaja, a happy go-lucky German teacher at the local junior high, can’t wait for the new family to move in. She’s hoping that they’ll become friends, and after an initial introduction, it’s clear that Kaja’s optimism and desperate need for friendship mask a lifeless marriage fraught with problems. Kaja’s neediness and obvious admiration for the other couple (she sees them as being sophisticated and glamorous) spell trouble, and Elisabeth sniffs that Kaja, although pleasant enough, is a shade too desperate. And when there are no other neighbours for miles around, who wants the woman next door to be so needy for any sign of human companionship?

As it turns out, proximity and social isolation can be a dangerous thing, and since there seems to be little to do on those long, Norwegian winter nights, after a  few awkward dinners, the 2 couples get together in the evenings to play games. Kaja and Sigve welcome the social interaction, but Elisabeth finds the evenings tedious, and taciturn Eirik would obviously rather be off on one of his mysterious moose hunting expeditions. After games of Charades falls flat, Sigve, much to Elisabeth’s annoyance,  invests in the board game Couples. An evening’s entertainment  which includes some pointed personal questions, reveals fractured relationships along with the rather embarrassing information that Eirik claims to no longer has sex with Kaja due to her perennial yeast infection–a condition she adamantly denies.

The film’s subplot concerns the relationship between the children, and while the adults play Charades and board games, Theodur decides to make Noa play ‘slave.’ So we see several games afoot–all of which have serious consequences. Sigve, Elisabeth, Kaja and Eirik all try to play at being happily married, duplicitous facades which slip as the film wears on, but even as the couples try to fool each other, honesty between the respective partners isn’t exactly on the table either, and a crisis must occur before some painful truths finally make it to the surface.

Nothing too earth shattering happens here, and the film takes a light, comedic approach to some serious issues. While I didn’t quite buy the ending, for this viewer, the culture and lifestyle adjustments made for climate made this well-acted film entertaining and worth catching.

Happy Happy is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

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Bolivar Is Me (2002)

“He’s woven a dangerous thread between fiction and reality.”

Jorge Alí Triana’s Columbian film Bolívar Is Me (Bolívar Soy Yo!) is ostensibly a comedy that looks at exactly what happens when an actor loses his grip on reality. But under the surface of the film’s humour, there’s a serious political satire with a message about the inevitable demise of idealism within the political structure.

When the film begins, popular telenovela actor Santiago Miranda (Robinson Díaz) who is playing the role of Simón Bolívar, El Libertador in the television series The Loves of the Liberator, prepares for the concluding scene by reading Don Quixote. In real life, Bolívar died in bed from TB (although theories have recently floated that he was poisoned). The producer doesn’t think this sort of ending helps the ratings, and so the series has been rewritten to show Bolívar executed by firing squad. Everyone on the set is aware the Miranda has become a little too involved with his role, and even his real-life lover, Alejandra (Amparo Grisales) who plays Bolívar’s lover, Manuelita in the series can’t tell if Santiago loves her or the role she plays. Consequently Alejandro has dumped Santiago during the filming of the series and he’s suffered a breakdown. Today, Santiago, who in his role of Bolívar, is about to face the firing squad and the end of the show, goes berserk and storms off the set. He argues that since the show has re-written history to suit the ratings, there’s no reason why he can’t rewrite history too, and so in full dress uniform, he escapes to the airport and heads for Bogata. The director (Santiago Bejarano) and a psychiatrist (Gustavo Angarita), in hot pursuit of Santiago, intend to put the troubled actor into a strait jacket, lock him up and control his behaviour with medication: “something like a lobotomy but with drugs.” Alejandra believes that Santiago is so out of touch with reality that only she–as Manuelita–Bolívar’s trusted lover who once saved him from an assassination attempt–can bring him back safely. She’s told to avoid using the words “no,” and “death,” and so in a strangely twisted reality-mirrors-fiction way, she heads out to save Santiago.

Santiago’s misadventures are really very funny. Since he’s an actor, people accept that he’s stepping into a role, and it seems perfectly normal for him to show up at the President’s office in costume or riding on his horse, Paloma. He’s the star at a National Independence day parade, but the problems begin when Santiago opens his mouth at an important political summit meeting and begins talking about Bolívar’s  Gran Columbia–the countries Columbia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, and Bolivia, united.

Since the historical figure of Bolívar is symbolic, various factions want to co-opt his popular image. First the government wants to harness Santiago’s mass appeal–both as a telenovella actor and also as the symbol of Bolívar, but once Santiago breaks out into the countryside, guerillas, the Simon Bolívar Bolcehevique Front/Simon Bolívar Popular Revolutionary Army also see the value of this modern-day Bolívar.

Bolivar is Me is really a clever film. On one level, it’s about an actor who loses touch with reality and becomes his role. That’s the funny part, but it’s also the story of a man who has an ethical problem with playing a character whose historic mission has been co-opted, re-written and diluted into meaningless. We never quite know whether or not Santiago is completely off his rocker or whether he’s fully or partially aware that he isn’t Bolívar. In several speeches, Santiago lays out his discontent with the political system and his annoyance at the way Bolívar’s name has been used to decorate various shabby buildings. Santiago says that Quixote is “man as he should be,” and yet at the same time he states that “the three greatest dummies in history have been Jesus Christ, Don Quixote, and me.” Of course, at this point, Santiago appears to be speaking of himself as Bolívar.

One of the cleverest aspects of the film is the way it shows how casually history is rewritten until the truth is obscured by time, myth, and political expediency. Santiago is appalled to see what Bolívar has become:

Now I understand what a symbol is–to be a statue of bronze so that pigeons can shit on you.

The film also shows real footage of the M-19 Palace of Justice siege on 6th of November, 1985–an incident in which M-19 Guerillas (19th of April Movement) took over the building and held hundreds hostage. There are various versions about what happened, so who knows what the truth is anymore.  The 19th of April Movement removed Bolívar’s sword from a museum, and in Bolívar Is Me, we see the guerillas returning the sword to Santiago. By the film’s conclusion, we see the Society of the Spectacle–authentic life replaced with its representation. According to Guy Debord:  

“The Spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

And by the film’s conclusion, it’s easy to see that history is about to be rewritten again….

Bolivar is Me is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

Some of the scenes take place at the Quinta de Bolívar Museum.

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The City and The Dogs (1985)

The first thing you learn in the army is how to be a man, and men smoke and drink, and fuck … but the ones that don’t get caught are the smart ones.”

Based on the Mario Vargas Llosa novel,  Time of the Hero Francisco J. Lombardi’s film The City and the Dogs (La Ciudad y los Perros) is an ultimately disturbing film which examines how morality and individuality are subsumed within a militaristic institution. The institution under scrutiny in the film  is a military college in Lima, Peru, and the film begins with scenes depicting the savage “baptism” of cadets. In N. America, the term ‘hazing’ would be used to describe the degrading activities that take place in the dormitories and showers with new cadets humiliated and being treated like dogs by the older cadets. There’s almost too much to absorb in the mayhem of these hellish scenes–a fiery hoop, one cadet hanging upside down, cadets on all fours with leashes around their necks, and two cadets engaged in a ‘dog fight.’ It’s clear that one cadet, a strange figure known as The Jaguar (Juan Manuel Ochoa) refuses to submit to the humiliations heaped on the others. But even more than that, The Jaguar, who’s a former gang member, fights back and establishes his dominance.

All of the cadets are supposed to abide by the college’s strict rules which include no alcohol and no smoking. The Jaguar, however, along with three other cadets: Cava, Boa (Aristoteles Picho) and Rulos (Tono Vega) form “the Circle” a shady organisation responsible for providing the other cadets with contraband: pornography, alcohol, cigarettes, uniforms and even, more significantly stolen tests. It’s almost graduation time, and The Circle arranges for the theft of the chemistry test, but when the theft is discovered, all the cadets who were on duty that night are confined to barracks until the thief is uncovered.

Part of the film follows the relationship between two of the cadets outside the Circle–The Slave (Esclavo) played by Eduardo Adrianzén and the Poet (Pablo Serra), who writes letters and dirty stories for the other cadets in the dormitory. When Esclavo is confined to the barracks following the theft of the chemistry test, he asks the Poet to go and visit Teresa (Liliana Navarro) a girl he adores. When barracks confinement continues, Esclavo, a quiet, friendless cadet who bears the brunt of nonstop bullying, breaks under the pressure….

Although the film’s plot seems fairly simple, there’s a lot going on in this complex film. On one level, there’ s the group behaviour of the cadets–all of whom are afraid to cross The Jaguar. After all since The Jaguar provides the other cadets with cigarettes and booze, to some extent, he’s made their confinement at the college far more tolerable. None of the cadets dare cross The Jaguar–no matter how cruel he is, and this is due in part to fear but also to the material comforts he provides.

When a death occurs at the college, an investigation is conducted and a report generated.  Lt. Gamboa (Gustavo Bueno), a decent man who wants to do the right thing, questions its accuracy with catastrophic results. Through the actions of Gamboa and the Poet, we see just how individual morality is squashed or perverted by institutional & military dictates.  Truth is trumped by such nebulous concepts as ‘duty,’ ‘honour,’ and ‘tradition,’ so we see that those who thrive within a militaristic institution or society are those who are willing to allow their individual morality to be controlled or subsumed. Therefore someone like The Jaguar thrives and even uses institutional dictates to run amok while gentler cadets are crushed by the system. Of course, on another level, life within the college could be symbolic of life within a militaristic society with bullies, sadists and conformists rising to the top.

The film also examines how individual motivation is affected by the perceptions of  ‘the group’. What motivates the Poet, for example? Is he motivated by guilt or something finer? And then what of the Jaguar? Can we believe his final statement? Or is he simply trying to be a ‘hero’ or a tough guy to the last? The film doesn’t give any easy answers to these questions, but the message ultimately is that if the individual decides to stand up against the ruling system, then one should be prepared for the system to strike back against the individual. Just how far anyone is prepared to go to fight the system, depends on just how much one is willing to pay.  

For those wishing to dip into Peruvian film, Lombardi’s film, Mariposa Negra is superb, and Ojos Que No Ven should not be missed. There’s also Tinta Roja, Don’t Tell Anyone, and Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras

The City and the Dogs is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s Foreign film festival

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The Blue Angel (1930)

“The films that von Sternberg made with me speak for themselves. There is nothing, and there will be nothing in the future, that could surpass them. Filmmakers are forever condemned to imitate them.” (Marlene Dietrich)

Based on the novel by Heinrich Mann, the film The Blue Angel (Die Blaue Engel) follows the obsession of a reclusive bachelor schoolteacher with a sexually liberated nightclub singer. The night club singer is, of course, Marlene Dietrich, and her unforgettable performance as Lola Lola catapulted her to international fame.

The Blue Angel is the story of Professor Rath, played by the portly Emil Jannings, who teaches at a boy’s school in a small town. While he is meticulous and stuffy in his personal and professional lives, he is also the object of ridicule. Scenes show him in the classroom where as a petty tyrant, the good students fear him and the poor students torment him at every opportunity. The class swot is appropriately named Angst (Rolf Muller). When Rath notices that some of the boys possess racy postcards of scantily dressed women, it’s Angst who tells Rath that the women on the postcards are from The Blue Angel–a popular hangout for the boys after hours. Rath decides to go to The Blue Angel and catch the boys himself, and of course, this is a very intriguing decision since Rath imagines that his jurisdiction spans the boys’ lives outside of the classroom. But there again, given Rath’s own evident surreptitious sexual interest in the postcard which depicts Lola Lola, perhaps moral intervention is just the excuse he tells himself in order to visit the nightclub after dark.

Once in the nightclub, the professor, who’s there ostensibly to catch the pupils drinking and ogling the dancers, falls under the spell of the fabulous Lola Lola. The Blue Angel is definitely a low-rent club, and the women who sing and entertain the crowds are a motley crew–one young woman just stands there and rotates her eyes in her version of ocular bellydancing. Lola Lola is clearly the star of the show, and for each of her songs she dons a different outfit–all of them managing to display her underwear. One costume is a huge farthingale. Not only is the skirt see-through (so we can see her bloomers), but it’s also backless–as the Professor discovers to his astonishment once he’s inside her dressing room.

The initial scenes with the Professor at The Blue Angel are comic, and much of the humour comes from the Professor’s reactions to Lola Lola. He very quickly falls under her spell, and once he’s lost his social position, he is gradually ground down by humiliation and eventually destroyed by the very sexuality that drew him into Lola Lola’s life.

Thanks to the advent of talkies, the career of thick-German accented Emil Jannings was on the wane when he cabled von Sternberg to join him in Berlin in order to make a film–the first sound film at UFA studios. Director Josef von Sternberg was engaged by Paramount and UFA for this joint German-American co production, and Jannings, who’d fought with von Sternberg on the film set before, argued for the employment of this director for what would be his first German speaking film. Jannings stated that “he had the choice of every director, even Lubitsch,” but that “his heart” was “set on” von Sternberg. In reply, the director said that Jannings was “a horrible affliction and a hazard to any aesthetic purpose.” Then he accepted, so Jannings set out to find a project that von Sternberg would accept and direct. In Berlin, Jannings came to von Sternberg with Heinrich Mann’s novel, Professor Unrat, and this is what the director says in his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry:

I liked the idea of the first part of the novel, met Heinrich Mann and asked him if he had any objection to my changing the structure of his story, eliminating and adding whatever suited my purpose. I told him of my plan to call the film The Blue Angel, to change the name of the girl to Lola, and to alter the ending completely …. Mann had no objections; on the contrary, he told me that he wished he had thought of the suggested changes himself, and gave me full liberty to alter or add whatever I thought advisable.

Josef von Sternberg filmed two versions simultaneously–the English version and the German as the technique of film dubbing was not yet possible. Emil Jannings, who was paid  200,000,  stars as Professor Immanuel Rath, the strait-laced, sexually repressed bachelor professor. Marlene Dietrich was paid a mere 5,000 for her role.

With the leading man already in place, von Sternberg’s biggest task was to find the woman to take the role of Lola Lola, a cheap nightclub singer who is the object of the professor’s obsessive desire and the woman who ultimately leads the professor to his doom. Jannings wanted Lucie Mannheim or Trude Hesterberg for the role, but after seeing Dietrich perform in a play (he’d already passed over her photograph,) von Sternberg knew that he’d found his dark angel– “here was the face I had sought.” 

Moreover, there was something else I had not sought, something told me that my search was over. She leaned against the wings with a cold disdain for the buffoonery, in sharp contrast to the effervescence of the others, who had been informed that I was to be treated to a sample of the greatness of the German stage. She had heard that I was in the audience, but as she did not consider herself involved, she was indifferent to my presence.

Von Sternberg also noted Dietrich’s “impressive poise,” and also that she conducted herself with a remarkable “bovine listlessness” with eyes “completely veiled.” For von Sternberg, she was perfect.  Jannings and producer Pommer were not impressed, but von Sternberg pushed for a screen test, and she got the part. During the filming, von Sternberg and Dietrich began an affair.   

Take a look of Dietrich’s first rendition of Falling in Love Again, the song that bookends her relationship with the Professor and then compare it to the second which appears almost at the end of the film. In the first rendition, even though the song is sung with a certain amount of indifference, Lola Lola effectively woos the Professor, and in the second rendition, she rejects him with defiance, triumph and an acknowledgment of her nature. Lola Lola appears to have undergone a transformation between the two songs or is it Dietrich we see transformed?

While the film appears to have a simple structure, it’s full of repetition and doubling. The Professor’s world of order is in complete contrast to Lola’s world of make-believe and chaos. The Professor frequently engages with the clown (the clown was entirely von Sternberg’s invention), but the relationship with the Professor and the clown consists of them both staring at each other–as if they are trying to fit this alien being into some sort of frame of reference. Yet the way they stare at each other is also reminiscent of a person staring at a reflection in the mirror–and this is, of course, a foreshadowing of the Professor’s tragic fate.

It’s clear that The Blue Angel, light on dialogue is just one short step from the silent era, and perhaps this is why the English version is a curiosity. The English spoken is heavily accented, sometimes unintelligible, and clearly this is a German film–the word “achtung,” for example, appears from the pupils when they hear Professor Rath approaching. Kino released a splendid dual DVD release which includes both the English and the German versions and Dietrich’s screen test. Although the German version is superior, it’s still well worth watching both versions. During the Professor’s first visit to The Blue Angel, he spends time in Lola Lola’s dressing room, and as she leaves to go onstage to sing, she stands in the doorway of her dressing room, and somewhat coarsely readjusts her stockings, garter and underwear. This small, and yet deliciously telling detail is absent from the English-speaking version.  

The Blue Angel is an iconic, remarkable film. As the first talking picture made at UFA studios, it has its historic value of course, but it also is a product of the marvels and talent of Weimar Germany–soon to be washed away.  Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert, the magician, was forced by the Nazis to direct a propaganda film extolling the kindness of the Nazis to the Jews. After making the film, he and his wife were gassed in a concentration camp. Karl Huszar-Puffy who plays the innkeeper was trying to travel to Hollywood and, according to von Sternberg’s autobiography, he was removed from a ship and interned in a concentration camp in Kazakhstan by the Russians where he starved to death. Emil Jannings who played the Professor went on to star in a number of Nazi propaganda films, and he was named as Artist of the State by Joseph Goebbels in 1941. In contrast, Marlene Dietrich took a different path entirely. She opted for American citizenship and rejected Goebbels’ attempts to woo her back to Berlin with an offer of 50,000 pounds tax-free to return to Germany to make one film.

The Blue Angel is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

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