National Cinema: The Blue Angel

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Two methods for establishing a specific national cinema includes a comparison to other films and looking at a film in relation to what defines a pre-existing cultural identity of a nation. A nation’s identity can be seen as a set of ideologies and values, and, as scholar Andrew Higson claims, cinema acts as a sort of advertisement for the cultural standing of a nation. Cinema acts as a business, using a nation’s identity as a marketing strategy to set up expectations of a film. In this way, a nation’s film can then be defined by a comparison to other nation’s films. To paraphrase Higson, national cinema can be defined by what it is not. But this does not take into account a nation’s identity based on existing economics and cultures of that nation state. National cinema must then be considered in relation to the prevailing political, economic, and cultural identity and traditions.

Another way to define national cinema is to look at the consumption and production of a film. For instance, to look at where the film was made and who made it might give us insight into how the idea of a nation’s identity might be explored in a film. We can see this in Josef von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel. Sternberg was an American director brought over to Germany to work on The Blue Angel under the German production company Ufa. The director’s background as a professional from Hollywood can perhaps be seen as an influence on the highly narrative structure of the film, focusing on the love story between Professor Rath and Lola. The film also draws on German film history, particularly Emil Jannings previous films, and Weimar culture. But the focus on the exploration of sexuality encompasses both American and German concerns during the 1930s.

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Modernity, beginning in the 1920s, was marked by the increasing power of middle-class women, among other things. In her chapter on The Blue Angel, Patrice Petro claims that female sexuality became a prevalent marker of what was deemed the “new woman,” which was aggressively publicized by radical new fashions that drew attention to the female form. Marlene Dietrich’s character Lola exemplifies the “new woman” very clearly in the film. She is first introduced through the use of a postcard that the Professor’s students are crowded around. These young men are continuously drawn back to the cabaret club where Lola performs and flaunts her sexuality, which is made explicitly clear through the lyrics in her songs. Lola is often seen surrounded by her admirers, but she is always in the position of authority. She controls their movements, clearly shown when she takes the Professor’s coat and places him the seat next to her, and has the ability to dispel them from her dressing room. Lola is aware of her effect on the Professor in particular and seems to enjoy his discomfort by her sexuality. Lola as the “new woman” type places The Blue Angel in the context and history of urban entertainment and the increasingly non-traditional expressions of sexuality that was prevalent in both America and Germany.

The film also reflects on the issue of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Lola is able to exert her power over her male audience even when she is not present. The postcard that the Professor’s students admire draws them in to the cabaret club to seek out the authentic source. However, the source of the original is questioned when Lola is constantly confronted with her own image. The walls of her dressing room are covered with these postcards and posters, leading to the question of which one determines the other.

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