Many years ago, flipping through the channels, I came across an old black-and-white film, made in German with English subtitles. It was called Der blaue Engel—“The Blue Angel”—and I’ve never forgotten it since. Starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings, and directed by Josef von Sternberg, it’s become a classic of German cinema, and watching it again now, one can understand why. The story is simple but powerful, the message timeless, the acting utterly brilliant.
Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is a respected teacher at the local Gymnasium, in the waning days of the Weimar Republic. Demanding of his students, and filled with a sense of responsibility for their well-being, Rath is scandalized to learn that they have been secretly passing around pictures of Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), a singer at the nearby cabaret, The Blue Angel.
Visiting the nightclub in hopes of catching his wayward pupils, but also to confront Lola Lola for corrupting them, Professor Rath instead falls prey to the singer. Charmed and intoxicated by her sultry act, symbolized by her song, “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It),” Lola Lola becomes his all-consuming passion, and Rath tries to have an illicit romance with her. When he succeeds, he experiences a fleeting sense of liberation, but soon he realizes the consequences of his actions. His students and his school discover the affair, making his position as a teacher and moral instructor untenable, and he is forced to resign. But that is only the beginning of his miseries. While Lola agrees to marry Rath, she shows little affection for him and takes delight in humiliating him with menial tasks while expressing interest in other men. The Professor is eventually reduced to playing a clown in Lola’s stage act—just to pay the bills—complete with a false nose and ridiculously large collar. Rath’s progressive realization of what is happening to him leads, inexorably, to the film’s tragic ending.
Rath begins to wallow in his predicament, until the psychic pain overwhelms him, and he turns insane—believing he has become a rooster, and loudly crowing like one. During his last act on stage, the highly disturbed Rath witnesses his wife kissing another man and, unable to control himself, attempts to strangle her, until other members of the troupe rescue Lola, putting Rath in a strait-jacket. When the Professor is finally freed, he wanders into the streets and somehow finds his way back to his old classroom, where he collapses on the desk he once taught from, and dies, in disgrace and agony.
Since its appearance, The Blue Angel has been interpreted in many ways, not least as an intellectual critique of bourgeois society and middle-class German hypocrisy. But that strikes me as far too secular and reductive. To me, the film is a searing morality tale, with Biblical overtones. The story of Professor Rath could have come right out of the Old Testament—echoing the Fall, and showing what happens when temptation seizes the better part of a man and destroys him.
A psychiatric journal has actually given a name to the affliction that brings Rath down: “The Blue Angel Syndrome,” in which patients exhibit “pathological infatuation” and behavior that is “repetitively self-destructive,” as they “sacrifice themselves and their own best interests.” One might argue that Saint Paul anticipates all of this in his Epistle to the Romans, as he speaks of people doing profound wrong, even though they know it is wrong.
The Blue Angel Syndrome is a recurring phenomenon throughout human history, but it shouldn’t be seen as limited to individuals involved in immoral sex. It can involve other obsessions and false idols, such as money, drugs, power, and politics, and it can envelop large movements, even whole countries. Nazi Germany is the most notable example. But even democratic societies can be infected with the syndrome, when millions of their citizens embrace or excuse acts of unspeakable evil, such as abortion-on-demand or war crimes, and blindly support corrupt, mendacious, and dangerous leaders who abuse their positions and exhibit tyrannical tendencies.
The challenge for people of faith and conscience who seek to preserve the Biblical vision of man—at least to the extent we can—is never to compromise our principles, never to give in, and to do everything we can to avoid becoming complicit or entrapped in our own self-created nightmares.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.