Friday, August 05, 2011

Bitch Problem

Often I have compared movies to women; a whirlpool from which my gaze cannot escape; a search for understanding.
Personally, I wonder if I go too far seeing things in binary terms. (Like, I like girls and movies.) But I feel Der blaue Engel (1930, Josef von Sternberg) has just cause for this perspective. The plot centers around Rath (Emil Jannings), an aging college professor, and his tragic downfall after falling helplessly over travelling cabaret star Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). These two principal characters depict a pair of one of the most extreme generalizations of how to live life. She is sharp, tough and cynical--takes the hand she's dealt. He is a bitch, weak and sentimental--he curls into a slobbering mess and cries. This distinction alone suffices to cement this film's place in the canon of feminist cinema.
I can't believe when I first saw this movie I empathized with Rath. To identify with his docile victimization is naive and masochistic. Furthermore, I am dismayed to have scorned the Lola character, reproaching her betrayal of this man who loved her so dearly. Lola has real problems, but doesn't let them get to her. She's also a victim, but by fighting, instead of giving up like Rath, she's actually the more virtuous. This brings me to another pair of themes.
The film's title comes from the name of the nightclub Lola first performs in where Rath sees her--The Blue Angel. As a woman, Lola is a contradiction of just these terms. She's an angel onstage and in public; while she's blue in her private life. That's my guess, anyway.
Rath doesn't see Lola for the woman she is, and that is his undoing. It's also evident in the songbird that dies during the film's introductory Rath sequence. Rath doesn't even comprehend that the bird is dead. It is as though he is incapable of appreciating that the bird is mortal--he just expects it to sing and keep him company. Although I don't empathize with Rath, I feel sorry for the tragic ending he represents and hold it as a warning of what can happen if you act like a bitch.

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