Masculine Hierarchies, Voice, and the Clown-Cuckold Figure in The Blue Angel
Alongside Lola (Marlene Dietrich), Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) is reduced to a clown
The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel, Josef von Sternberg, 1930) is a film built almost entirely on diegetic sound and use of the human voice. In fact, the vast majority of the film makes no use of non-diegetic sound at all, often reminding the viewer of the diegetic nature of what music is present in the film by cutting it off with the closing of a window or door. Director Josef von Sternberg does this to bring the viewer’s focus to the voices of each character. All of the central characters in the film have a specific relationship with voice and speech that defines much of their character. These relationships with speech and voice interact with each other, often (for the male characters) being the basis of hierarchies of masculinity that are expressed through voice, and then reinforced through physicality or violence. The way each of the central characters in The Blue Angel use their voice is essential to their very being within the film, however, it is most central to the Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) and the clown/cuckold figure (Reinhold Bernt), which Rath is at first separate from and then later becomes.
While most discussion of The Blue Angel revolves around Marlene Dietrich’s show-stealing performance as Lola Lola (Williams 54-72 and McCormick 640-68), less attention has been paid to Rath and even less to the mantle of the clown/cuckold that are ultimately just as important, if not more, in revealing the film’s attitudes towards systems of masculinity in Weimar Germany. The clown/cuckold figure is a silent character in the film, both when we see Rath’s predecessor as the clown/cuckold figure early in the film, and towards the end of the film when Rath becomes the clown/cuckold figure. This silence stands in stark contrast to the rest of the characters whom the film defines by their voices and how they use them. The clown/cuckold figure’s inability to use their voice signals not only their complete emasculation (as masculinity is most often expressed through loud, commanding and masculine voices, and through articulate, educated speech), but their complete lack of personhood. Sternberg tracks Rath’s transformation from Lola’s lover to the clown-cuckold throughout the film with his voice. In the beginning of the film he is an eloquent speaker (although not unflappable so as to forecast his future as the clown/cuckold), one who corrects his students’ pronunciations and speaks loudly and confidently, signaling his masculinity and status. However, his time with Lola causes his voice to transform, first into a softer spoken and feminine expressiveness, then into a disturbed, feral crowing, and finally into complete silence, his transformation into the clown/cuckold figure complete. This transformation occurs within the film’s broader matrix of masculinity and emasculation within the film and ultimately reveals the structural weakness in the hierarchical nature of masculinity that necessitates that each interaction between men must have a winner and loser, that one man must be more masculine and the other less so. The ultimate anxiety that is the crux of The Blue Angel is that Lola, who is representative of the Weimar concept of the “New Woman” (which is to say an independent woman, who had at the time just recently gained the right to vote and were exercising their independence through alternative lifestyles and artistic expression), has the ability to exploit this structural weakness through her sexuality, demeaning men and ultimately placing herself above men through that exploitation.
Sternberg wastes no time in establishing the role speech plays in the matrix of hierarchical masculinity in The Blue Angel. In only his second scene, Dr. Immanuel Rath enters into his classroom to find that someone has graffitied “Unrat” (or “Garbage”) on his notebook. Rath suspects the most effeminate and feeble student in his class of doing it and reprimands him, the student too feeble to offer any sort of challenge to this reprimand despite having seen the more masculine group of boys in the classroom writing the graffiti on Rath’s notebook. This initial sequence immediately introduces the viewer to the dynamics of masculinity in the film, in which men constantly challenge each other, seeking to assert masculine dominance over the other, in a constant state of either defense or attack. Rath introduces the role of speech in this matrix when he demands that one of the more masculine students recite Mark Antony’s famous monologue from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The student fails to remember it, and stutters over lines. When he reaches a “the” in the second line and fails to pronounce the English “t-h” sound correctly, Rath yells out for him to stop, standing up to approach him. As Rath approaches the student, whose shrugged posture and facial expression suddenly suggest boyish fear and embarrassment, the camera pans to look at them from a side profile emphasizing that Rath stands over the young student. Here Rath chides the student by saying “You can’t even pronounce the English article” and then makes the young boy repeat “the” over and over again. Each time the student fails to pronounce it correctly Rath becomes more enraged, projecting his voice louder and louder as he demands the student pronounce it correctly. It is through this assertion of his superior command of speech that Rath asserts his superior masculine dominance and authority over the young student. The young student on the other hand suddenly becomes feeble and in response to the exposure of his lack of command over speech, each failed repetition of “the” sinking him lower and lower beneath Dr. Rath. This is emphasized by Rath’s voice in this scene, a commanding and masculine bark, as juxtaposed to the stuttering and soft-spoken student. During this sequence however, Sternberg also foreshadows Rath’s downfall by allowing the viewer to see the cracks in the front of Rath’s masculinity. As Barbara Kosta puts it in “Willing Seduction: The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich and Mass Culture,” “His ungainly posture and the repetition of the line ‘to be or not to be’ from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, along with the malleability of his name, the slippage from Rath to Unrat (rubbish of refuse), reflect his vulnerability and question the very foundation of his identity.” (39-40) Rath’s vulnerability even as he asserts his superior masculinity over the student is an instance of Sternberg’s broader portrayal of the fraught and delicate nature of each man’s position in the competitive hierarchical system of masculinity present in this film, as well as Rath’s personal vulnerability within this system.
It does not take long for this constant, overbearing cycle of the determinance and re-determinance of the masculine hierarchy to begin to victimize Dr. Rath. In the next scene when Rath goes to the Blue Angel club to hunt for his students, the introduction of Lola (as well as the clown/cuckold figure) confronts him. The song Lola sings as he enters the Blue Angel club introduces Lola’s voice. While there are many characters whose voice plays a key role in their interactions with the masculine hierarchical matrix, Lola is an outlier because she is the only notable female character whose voice is both essential to her character and significant to how she interacts with this matrix. Lola’s singing and speaking voice exudes both confidence and independent sexuality, which emphasizes the lyrical content of the song that highlights her lack of interest in bending to the will of men, as well as her prowess at deterring those men that would overstep their boundaries with her. These lyrics emphasize Lola’s control over her own sexuality and desirability. S. S. Prawer comments on this in “The Blue Angel,” writing “this first song makes it clear that Lola is neither a conventional vamp nor a victim of a male-dominated society. We are confronted with a well-built young woman who makes use of her natural endowments (including her voice) and revealing costumes to earn her living…” (89) Lola’s lack of submission to men and masculinity, while still interacting with Sternberg’s system of characterization through voice, marks her as symbolic of the Weimar “New Woman.” However, it also positions her firmly above the men and the structures of masculinity in the film. This is most visible in how Lola’s presence has an immediate effect on the cycle of determinance of the masculine hierarchy, both speeding it up to a breakneck pace and deepening its volatility, while she remains unperturbed. This is visible in the introduction of the drunken sailor during Rath’s second visit to the Blue Angel club. The sailor pays for time with Lola and immediately faces challenges from the infatuated Rath who drives the sailor away and onto the stage, at which point the drunken sailor loses his ability to speak clearly and cries out in panic and semi-incoherence. This moment signals his emasculation at the hands of Rath, who continues to be articulate and masculine in his voice and speech during this sequence; this sequence also foreshadows Rath’s eventual emasculation in the same way, by being driven onto the stage of the Blue Angel and robbed of his ability to speak coherently. The cycle almost immediately begins anew for Rath, however, when hides from the cops in the cellar and then finds his students hiding down there as well. Rath drags the students up, lines them up and begins asserting his superior masculinity to them. At first, he succeeds, his confident masculine bark juxtaposed to their collective reservedness followed by his physical assault and chasing them out appears to be yet another victory for Rath. However, as they run out onto the street they pass by the window and yell into the room their derogatory nickname for him, “Unrat”, causing him to spill his beer all over himself. As he leans out the window to yell after them, infuriated, his voice (and simultaneously his posture) takes on a shaky and wavering quality, once again signaling the inherent delicacy of the constantly shifting hierarchy of masculinity. In contrast to the constantly changing quality and confidence of Rath’s voice–expressing his precarious position in the masculine hierarchy, along with the mercurial and utterly subject-to-change quality of the students’ voices–Lola’s voice remains unflappably cool and sultry. Lola’s stability and confidence as expressed through her voice, both when she sings and when she speaks, in contrast to the utter chaos she seems to incite in the masculine hierarchy around her, clearly indicate the power she has over men and masculinity itself.
Lola (Marlene Dietrich) commands the stage at the Blue Angel
It is also during these first two scenes in the Blue Angel club that the viewer is first exposed to the clown/cuckold figure. The first clown/cuckold figure (before Rath inevitably takes up the mantle) is markedly present in these scenes, frequently walking directly in front of the shot or standing visibly in an outside corner of the shot. No matter how he interacts with the mise-en-scène, however, his role within it is always the same: he looks longingly and despairingly at Lola as she flirts with Rath and he looks with the same despair and longing at Rath during sequences in which the professor asserts his superior masculinity over other men, such as the drunken sailor. His prosthetic nose (which Rath also adopts later) and heavy makeup emphasize this longing and despair, elevating it to grotesque proportions and making it deeply unsettling. However, despite his prominent physical presence and his constant gazing, the clown goes unacknowledged by everyone around him, to such an exaggerated extent that he at times appears to be almost a ghost or apparition rather than a real person. This lack of recognition is largely explained by his complete and unbroken silence. Without a voice, the clown/cuckold is unable to insert himself into the ecosystem of masculine hierarchies, lacking the primary tool the men of The Blue Angel use to assert their own masculinity. Thus, the clown/cuckold is essentially irrelevant to the male characters whose interactions are almost completely made up of challenges and defenses of masculinity and masculine status. Furthermore, the clown/cuckold is just as irrelevant to Lola as he is to the male characters because of his lack of voice, without which he lacks the tools to engage in the masculine posturing, flirtatious, and coy banter that makes up the majority of Lola’s interactions with the men around her. This lack of ability to engage with the ever-shifting hierarchy of masculinity, either through the challenging of other men or the wooing of the object of desire, Lola, marks the clown/cuckold’s complete emasculation. His presence in these early scenes not only foreshadows Rath’s eventual transformation into the clown/cuckold, but asserts that Rath is no exception to the rule. Rather, by including the clown/cuckold predecessor to Rath in all his emasculated pitifulness, Sternberg assures that the viewer understands Lola’s effect on Rath is her effect on men and masculinity at large.
Rath’s degradation coincides with the disappearance of the predecessor clown/cuckold figure, who never appears again in the film after Rath’s first true humiliation at the hands of Lola when he loses his job because of his late awakening in her bed. This sequence is the first clear example of Lola’s manipulation of Rath leading to his first major emasculation in the film. When Rath arrives to find his students drawing parodic cartoons of him and Lola, mocking his infatuation with her (and suggesting that infatuation itself may be somewhat effeminate), he is unable to control their collective challenge to his masculinity, which is expressed through their united yelling. Their collective jeering swells to cavernously loud extremes as it fills the halls of the school Rath teaches in, his stuttering inability to quell them recalling the drunken sailor’s emasculation in front of the audience of the Blue Angel. This inability also signals that Rath’s once superior masculinity is now far too feeble to resist the constant challenges his students put forth. In response to this signal Rath is promptly fired by the headmaster/principal who chides Rath’s inability to assert masculine dominance over his students while also criticizing his association with Lola, whom he sees as an inappropriate association for a man of some stature such as Rath. Having faced this emasculation at the hands of the students, Rath begins the process of down-sliding to the clown-cuckold figure. Sternberg tracks this process through the mutation of Rath’s once commanding masculine bark to his ultimate silencing. This transition begins during Rath and Lola’s wedding. After the magician produces a few eggs from Rath’s nose (a foreshadowing of his eventual humiliation as his assistant) Lola imitates a soft feminine cuckooing of a chicken. At first perplexed, Rath eventually begins responding to her in seemingly good humor, producing an almost alien sounding, high pitched crow that contrasts sharply with his commanding and literate speech earlier in the film. As Rath continues, Lola noticeably stops cuckooing in unison with him, and begins laughing in unison with the wedding guests, leaving Rath the lone spectacle of the wedding. Sternberg makes it clear Lola’s prompting of Rath’s crowing is part of his transformation to a less-masculine form, not only by the un-masculine sonic quality of the crowing, but by refusing to give Rath any other speaking lines during the wedding, reducing his voice to only the crowing he adopts from Lola’s effeminate cuckooing and silencing the former vehicle of his masculinity. This crowing returns in spectacular fashion upon the troupe’s return to the Blue Angel. Rath, now having become the clown/cuckold figure (complete with prosthetic nose and heavy makeup), must take the stage and is savagely humiliated by the audience, Kiebert (Kurt Gerron), and Lola, whom he sees backstage kissing the strong man Mazeppa (Hans Albers) during his onstage humiliation. When prompted to crow by Kiebert, Rath unleashes a deranged and animalistic crow that cuts through the clamor of the audience to haunting and discomforting effect. Rath’s crowing is clearly a strong contrast to his once articulate and composed speech, his once assertive voice replaced by an anguished, inhuman cry. Sternberg capitalizes on the emotive power of Rath’s crowing during this scene. When Rath rushes backstage continuing his crowing it appears for a moment that his crowing is meant to represent his masculinity as he bashes open the door that Lola and Mazeppa have locked themselves behind. However, Sternberg only dangles this possibility in front of the viewer briefly, as Mazeppa quickly emasculates Rath as Rath attempts to strangle Lola, lifting him off her and casting him aside. Rath’s anguished crowing is something of an abrasive swan song in this scene, giving an emotive climax to the process of the loss of his masculinity. It is in the aftermath of this scene that Rath’s transformation is finally complete. When Kiepert comes to see Rath in the corner of a room in a straightjacket he briefly offers his sympathy for Rath, who is now unable to respond. As Rath escapes from the Blue Angel club he sees Lola singing for one last time. Sternberg emphasizes here how unchanged Lola is in contrast to Rath. She sings the same song she sang when Rath first entered the Blue Angel and met Lola years ago in the film’s timeline and yet Rath is completely transformed; her presence in his life has destroyed him, his presence in hers has changed almost nothing at all. Like his clown/cuckold predecessor, Rath disappears from Lola’s life as a new man enters in his place, and like his predecessor, he is so emasculated he no longer speaks. As Rath leaves Sternberg brings in non-diegetic music for the first time. Throughout the film there is little overlap between music (including diegetic) and speech, each usually occurring in separate spaces from one another. The introduction of non-diegetic music as Rath dies indicates that he is completely silenced and thus the true clown/cuckold figure, as Sternberg has effectively eliminated the sonic space that would normally be allocated for characters to speak.
Rath’s downfall and the broader cycle of Lola and the clown/cuckold figure that Sternberg presents are something akin to a cautionary tale. Sternberg focuses on diegetic sound and voice to highlight the precariousness inherent to competitive hierarchies of masculinity. By creating an ecosystem of competitive masculinity that is expressed most clearly and reliably through voice and tone of speech, Sternberg capitalizes on the flexibility of the human voice, pushing male characters to emphasize the full range of both triumphant masculinity and pathetic emasculation. Sternberg views Lola’s ability to take advantage of the precariousness of this never-settled hierarchy through her desirability and carefully controlled sexuality, pitting men against each other and sending them into a competitive frenzy while she remains unaffected by their chaos. This composure is her, and by extension the “New Woman’s,” primary tool in the destruction of both the individual man and men’s role in society at large. The Blue Angel is a film that explicates this anxiety in minute detail, but it essentially is a product of fear of the clown/cuckold’s fate; silenced, humiliated, and emasculated, the clown/cuckold is castrated in a metaphorical sense; his manhood and masculine status removed by the “New Woman”, his ability to compete with other men non-existent. However, while this anxiety may be Sternberg’s primary fear, in the process of explicating the danger of the “New Woman” Sternberg reveals the structural flaws in competitive masculinity. In retrospect, these flaws appear to be equally to blame for the clown/cuckold’s fate, if not more so, than the “New Woman’s” self-regulated, independent sexuality and ability to manipulate the intricacies of this competition through that sexuality. This distinction is evident in each of the scenes that focus primarily on the humiliation and degradation of a man, such as Rath’s firing, which Sternberg frames as being the result of Lola but is actually the result of his students’ eagerness to overthrow their teacher and stamp out his masculinity. Likewise, it is not Lola who humiliates the drunken sailor, but Rath and the crowd at the Blue Angel, Lola simply pushes Rath ever so slightly to initiate. While Sternberg consistently frames Lola as the one to blame, the complex framework of voice that builds the hierarchies of masculinity in the film suggests almost independently that the instability and delicacy of competitive masculinity is vulnerable to self-regulated female sexuality only because it is so inherently self-destructive.
Kosta, Barbara. Willing Seduction: The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich, and Mass Culture. New York: Berghahn Books, 2009.
McCormick, Richard W. “From ‘Caligari’ to Dietrich: Sexual, Social, and Cinematic Discourses in Weimar Film.” Signs, vol. 18, no. 3, University of Chicago Press, 1993, pp. 640–68.
Prawer, S. S. The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel). Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.
Williams, Jennifer. “Gazes in Conflict: Lola Lola, Spectatorship, and Cabaret in The Blue Angel.” Women in German Yearbook, vol. 26, no. 1, University of Nebraska Press, 2010, pp. 54–72, https://doi.org/10.5250/womgeryearbook.26.1.0054.