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At the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater Sept. 24 to 30

At the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater Sept. 25 to 30

The new restoration of the German version of The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel) opens with a screen test of Marlene Dietrich staring at the camera, sensuously puffing on a cigarette and singing a song that she periodically interrupts to berate the clumsy pianist. The provenance of this clip is unexplained, but it’s an apt prelude: Both the major characters in this 1930 film have their songs, and if Dietrich is better known for hers, co-star Emil Jannings’ are more harrowing.

Shot in Berlin and set largely in the seedy German nightclub that provides its title, The Blue Angel is an amoral tale that would never have been told in Hollywood at the time. Yet the film was financed by Paramount and supervised by American director Josef von Sternberg. (Born without the “von” in Austria, Sternberg immigrated to New York with his family when he was 7.) Sound presented new difficulties for international productions, and the Hollywood studio decided to maximize the film’s appeal by making versions in both English and German. It’s not just language that distinguishes the two, though—the director shot them separately, so they differ in many details.

Although Dietrich was soon to move to Hollywood and never look back, the film seems more German than American. The shadowy ambience and angular streetscapes derive from the expressionistic style of such directors as F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene, and the central plot—the unraveling of a proud man—echoes Jannings’ star turn in Murnau’s The Last Laugh (visually, a much more accomplished work). Adapted very loosely from part of Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrath, the story also requires a European sense of social order: For a professor to fall under the spell of a nightclub singer is as much an outrage to the class structure as it is an erotic indiscretion.

Jannings plays Professor Rath, a solemnly portly English-lit professor whose students call him “Unrath” (a play on unrat, “garbage” in German) behind his back. When Rath discovers that his students are frequenting the Blue Angel and collecting postcards of its featured attraction, “naughty” Lola Lola (Dietrich), he goes to the club to order the singer to stop corrupting the boys. She responds by partially undressing in front of him and, after climbing a spiral staircase, dropping a pair of her frilly underpants on him. Bewitched, Rath is soon helping Lola with her makeup, protecting her from overzealous admirers, and asking for her hand in marriage.

She accepts, and at the wedding reception, Rath announces his willingness to discard his dignity by crowing like a rooster—a manly cry that will become increasingly pathetic over time. The ex-professor hits the road with his bride and quickly goes from protesting the existence of Lola’s risqué postcards to peddling them to her fans. Years pass, and Rath is reduced to playing a pathetic clown (literally) as Lola dallies with other men. Eventually, the couple returns to the Blue Angel, where Rath’s former colleagues and students gather to watch him abase himself. As Lola sings “Falling in Love Again,” whose lyric wearily shrugs at infidelity, Rath attempts to flee to the life he can never recover.

By contemporary standards, this scenario is stilted, not to mention misogynist. Still, the performances are powerful: Dietrich was an intensely icy presence even before her Hollywood makeover, which made her slimmer and blonder, and nobody unravels like Jannings, who embodies a bourgeois terror of anarchy. The Blue Angel’s 1947 reissue trimmed 16 minutes, mostly featuring Jannings, to emphasize Dietrich. Yet Rath is the film’s soul, a man who—in The Blue Angel’s first musical reference—doesn’t even realize that his caged songbird has been dead for days, and who later becomes a prisoner himself.

Although Dietrich wasn’t the ingénue Hollywood PR made her out to be at the time—she had already appeared in 18 German films—The Blue Angel created her American career. Ironically, the Swiss-born, half-American Jannings had recently lost his place in Hollywood; he had won an Oscar in 1928, but he had little choice but to retreat to Germany after sound technology revealed his heavy accent. Jannings would become a Nazi-propaganda-film star; he never worked again after the Third Reich fell. Dietrich, meanwhile, rebuffed entreaties from Hitler himself to return to Germany, leading to a ban on her films there. When Hollywood eventually deserted her, Dietrich ended her public life as a singer, again leaning against a piano and playing the amoral temptress who was her defining character.

This revival of The Blue Angel is one of several events leading up to Dietrich’s 100th birthday in December. An exhibition of photographs of the actress opens Oct. 6 at the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes, and a film series involving the American Film Institute, Films on the Hill, the Library of Congress, and the National Gallery of Art begins Nov. 9.

In 1955, when Henri-Georges Clouzot undertook to capture Pablo Picasso’s creative process on film, the painter was generally considered the world’s greatest living artist. Certainly Picasso himself thought so—which explains the swagger with which he—dressed just in shorts because of the heat of the lights—draws and paints in The Mystery of Picasso. The artist is glimpsed only occasionally in the film, but he’s as charismatic as you might expect.

Clouzot, best known for thrillers such as Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, originally conceived the film as a short and enlisted Claude Renoir—the grandson of impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir—as the cinematographer. The team set up translucent canvases and Picasso used an ink that penetrated the surface, so that the black-and-white drawings appear as they’re executed—in reverse, of course—rendered by a seemingly invisible hand. These doodles depict Picasso’s usual themes, including bullfights and naked women, mostly in loosely representational sketches, although some venture into cubism. Images are elaborated and sometimes obliterated as alternate ideas occur to the artist. The dancing lines are accompanied by jazz and flamenco music, giving them a cartoonish quality. In one of the film’s few exchanges of dialogue, Picasso says of the public, “I’ve never thought about them,” but there’s a lot of showmanship in his movements.

Picasso found the project more interesting than expected, and Clouzot had to scramble for additional funds to expand the film to its final length, 75 minutes. It was also expanded in another way: The painter wanted to work in oils, which couldn’t be filmed from the opposite side. The outcome is a more complex and more compelling work, but the additional scenes don’t play as well cinematically. The filmmakers shot these full-color paintings with a stop-action camera, so the development can be seen, but it’s less spontaneous and seemingly less alive. The final canvas, La Plage de la Garoupe, took more than eight days, so it could hardly have developed as intelligibly as a simple sketch. Still, the results are impressive. Picasso agreed to destroy all the artworks after the film was completed, but it’s not surprising that he couldn’t bring himself to obliterate several of them, including La Plage de la Garoupe. It hasn’t been seen in years, though, so The Mystery of Picasso offers both a look at the master’s method and a glimpse of somebody’s private collection. CP