In 1923, Marlene Dietrich appeared in one of her very first films, Der Mensch am Wege (The Man at the Wayside), a movie that also marked the directorial debut of Wilhelm Dieterle.
At the start of the following decade the paths of Dietrich and Dieterle, while not crossing, certainly ran in parallel. Their respective 1930 films – The Blue Angel and Ludwig der Zweite, König von Bayern (Ludwig the Second, King of Bavaria) – premiered in Berlin within a month of each other. Ludwig the Second, which Dieterle both directed and starred in, was included in a programme of the recent Berlinale film festival that highlighted lesser-known contributions to Weimar-era cinema. Comparing it with Josef von Sternberg’s far more acclaimed Blue Angel, rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece of the era, reveals stark contrasts but also some fascinating commonalities. Particularly interesting is their differing responses to cinema techniques then undergoing rapid change, while the fractious time in which they emerged is reflected in the converging and diverging destinies of their makers.
Both The Blue Angel and Ludwig the Second reach back in time for their source material; Sternberg’s film to Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat, originally published in 1905, Dieterle’s to events in the life of the notoriously eccentric Bavarian king half a century in the past, a time still within living memory but on the cusp of becoming ‘historic’. Considering it had a pre-packaged narrative at its disposal it is surprising to note that The Blue Angel took greater liberties with its source, turning Mann’s critique of society into the minutely chronicled downfall of a single figure who transgresses that society’s codes.
Ludwig the Second aimed for veracity, using psychological assessments, official documents and Ludwig’s diaries to offer a plausible reconstruction of his decline and death, and filming on location in the monarch’s famous castles – Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee. The film’s fault, it appears, was to have followed the facts a little too closely. Such was its candour, not only about the nature of Ludwig’s oddities but the perfidy of his courtiers as well, that the film was banned in Bavaria, and even in the rest of Germany it was ruthlessly edited. Ludwig’s fifth cinematic outing (I have recently discovered another to add to this list) was in fact an outing, more or less – Ludwig’s sexuality is certainly broadly hinted at. In one charged yet enigmatic scene Ludwig wrangles with a handsome manservant while admiring some Greek statuettes; at the end he appears to have paid off the servant off with a watch.
Of course the erotic disgrace of the protagonist is far more germane to The Blue Angel, with the hapless Professor Raat falling for Dietrich’s Lola Lola, a feckless, frank-talking showgirl. Like the king, the professor has much of his persona invested in the dignity of his station. The deference with which Lola’s producer originally greets Raat, although not entirely free of irony, reflects German respect for academic attainments which if anything increased with the decline of the aristocracy. But the respective compulsions of Ludwig and Raat pull them in different directions; Raat descends to the artistic demi-monde while Ludwig ascends to the mountains, to his fantasy castles, into an absolutism of his imagination where the bourgeois parliament has no power over him or, in particular, his building programme. His peers were not to be found among the cohort of his day, but dead French monarchs with whom he dines in delusional splendour.
The most obvious differences between the films are in technique. The Blue Angel is not just a talkie, it talks in German and English in two separate versions. This gives it a directness that is magnified by Dietrich’s performance, which even now seems astonishingly real, rounded and unfiltered; certainly we never doubt Lola’s fleshly existence. Updating Mann’s novel to more or less the time the film was made meant audiences were seeing a world that was at least theoretically if not socially accessible to them. This realism turns remorseless in its depiction of Professor Raat (or ‘Unrat’ – garbage – to his students). We have an hour in his company until he pledges his troth to Lola, and we are invited to pore over his pomposity, awkwardness and loneliness at length. His ultimate humiliation is almost unbearable.
Ludwig the Second, meanwhile, is a late silent, which on the showing I caught had excellent piano accompaniment by Günther Buchwald which included – what else? – Wagnerian motifs. But with its acting styles already transforming, and spare use of intertitles, it is not so much silent as mute. The modernity here is largely visual – Dieterle’s film is far more mobile and vital than a sequence of set pieces. Especially impressive are the early use of montage effects with kaleidoscopic layering of images and sometimes text. We begin by breezing through a collage of the monarch’s early years, the hot young king flashing by in official portraits before the action begins and we encounter Ludwig well into his portly demise. It feels strange to talk of naturalism in this context, or with this personality, but Dieterle brings an awkward humanity to the role. Despite operatic touches toward the end, there is nothing to match the eye-bulging kabuki excesses of silent movies just a few years prior. One patently fake alpine backdrop viewed from the portico of Neuschwanstein jars at first, until it becomes apparent that we are inside Ludwig’s imagination as his beloved Richard Wagner, now dead, comes down the mountainside toward him as if descending the stairs at Wahnfried.
The death of the films’ respective protagonists comes from psychological collapse brought about by public humiliation. The end of Dieterle’s film, which finds Ludwig and his physician expiring in the Starnberger See, is no more able to satisfactorily explain how two able-bodied men could drown in waist-deep water in daylight than posterity. Emil Jannings’ professor, meanwhile, unravels as he is exposed to the mockery of his hometown, the faithlessness of his new wife, the crushing awareness of what he has relinquished.
What did these films say about their era? Is it overly fanciful to read the anxieties of the time in Ludwig’s thrashing, Professor Raat’s dying grasp? Certainly the scandal that attended each suggested they had touched a nerve. Nazi organ Völkischer Beobachter criticised both films, and naturally it didn’t escape the writers’ attention that their respective directors were Jewish. They, and Dietrich, left a Germany already on its descent into barbarism for the US; Dietrich famously signed up with Paramount the day The Blue Angel premiered. She made a string of successful films with Sternberg before reuniting with Dieterle for the 1944 film Kismet. All three enjoyed fruitful careers into late life, while Emil Jannings came to a Mephisto-esque accommodation with the Nazi regime and never recovered from the association after the war.