March 15, 1930
at present Nice, Hotel de Nice
Dear Mr. Karl Lemke;
I shall have to face anyway the question which you pose in your letter. The film will be shown to me in Paris in the near future. In Berlin I saw certain parts of it but never the whole thing, since my departure intervened. Having seen it in its entirety, I shall know more than I do now about the problems involved in the transfer from the literary to the cinematographic medium. But even judging by my present knowledge, I am convinced that the operation was successful in the case of The Blue Angel. Some sort of transition is imperative in every instance—that much I have learned while collaborating on the film. The adapters of the novel simply must build a bridge to the film, for a true novel cannot be filmed integrally. It has many sides, only one of which faces the film, which has to be shot in its own terms, as has here been the case in my opinion. This was done, by the way, with the help of seven persons altogether. You must not think that the director himself made all the decisions. I had a voice, and so did, in addition, two other authors [Carl Zuckmayer and Karl Gustav Vollmöller], a script writer [Robert Liebmann], a representative of the [film company] UFA [Erich Pommer] and, finally, [Emil] Jannings and [Josef von] Sternberg.
The decisive split between the film and the novel is due to an idea conceived by Emil Jannings who, from the very beginning, thought of his part in cinematographic terms. Sternberg wanted to enlarge on the scenes set in the harbor dive, a location dear to this director of films about the underworld.1 The action now has a new twist, and the problems are slightly different; but this does not affect the characters, who remain basically the same. They now disport themselves in the film rather than in the novel, which changes their actions but not their nature. From another of his mental predispositions, Unrat [the professor, Emil Jannings’ role] may well end as a clown (as he does in the movie) instead of as a croupier (as he does in the novel). The action unfolds along the same lines but is simplified in view of the fifty million viewers Sternberg envisages.
The more insight I gained, the more I abandoned the literary point of view, and the farther I was from exclaiming: “How much you have changed!’’ The plot of the film differs only in the second half from that of my novel. But even if it were totally different, I would still welcome it that these characters, bursting forth with life, have been transplanted just as they are. And even a few of my lines have been salvaged.
I probably will have to broach these views in public and I take the pleasure of communicating them to you as a kind of warming-up exercise. Please do not quote them literally but merely use them, if you wish, in order to characterize my attitude toward the film.
Looking forward to a continuation of our dialogue, I remain
From Heinrich Mann’s Briefe an Karl Lemke, 1917-1949 (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1963), pp. 34-36. By permission of the publisher. Translated by Ulrich Weisstein.
Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930) directed by Josef von Sternberg, starred Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. The film was based on Heinrich Mann’s novel, Professor Unrath oder Das Ende eines Tyrannen, 1905.
The events which unfold there came first to my attention while I was watching a play in Florence. During the intermission, a newspaper was sold in the theater which reported from Berlin the story of a professor whose relations with a cabaret singer had caused him to commit a crime. I had barely finished reading the few lines when the figure of Professor Unrat, that of his seductress, and even the place of her activities, the Blue Angel, arose in my mind’s eye.
At that time, I was young enough for the experiences of my boyhood still to be close and at instant recall. As a child, one does not yet know a host of people; they do not crowd each other out, and each one appears as soon as his tone is sounded. Professor, for me, meant simply high school teacher. The unusual linking of a professor with a chanteuse immediately suggested to me a stern but inexperienced man who, usually lording it over his students, now becomes less than a student, a mere toy in the hands of a girl. Once and for all, the girl looked as she would have had to look in order to make an aging man forget all his principles. As for the joint, it was always called the Blue Angel, was located in a side street near the harbor and suffused with the odor of tar, beer, and powder. The hearts of the boys who secretly sneaked there had beaten violently. Accordingly, the professor I envisaged during that intermission possessed a number of boyish traits.
From the very start, I knew him inside out. He and his fate had only to be elaborated and put down on paper. They had made their appearance without my having to invent them. A chance report had summoned them, and a vision had introduced them to me.
A few days later, by the way, the Italian newspapers rounded out the story. The chanteuse՝ s friend was actually a journalist covering the stock market and calling himself professor. He probably was the very opposite of my fictitious character who had gained so firm a foothold on my imagination.
The figure of Professor Unrat and the novel by that name are pretty old hat by now. The novel has been read by numerous generations of readers, and for many the figure has become one of those close acquaintances one frequently thinks of. For among the people we know intimately there are, upon careful reflection, more imaginary than real ones.
A novel is a world in itself, for it does not count in vain on man’s greatest and most fatal gift, his imagination. We build a city, a house, a room and fill the latter with people. We place other people in other rooms, lead the ones to the others, and, while they move, their fate is decided. Our fellow beings are in a dither because an unusual event and an extraordinary character have come to the fore. We stage these events, although only verbally. Still, they are made visible to the imagination. Our work is that of an extremely independent and ingenious stage director, and viewed from this angle, writing a novel is equivalent to putting on a play.
Is that the reason why, from the start, I felt sympathetic toward the film The Blue Angelí A film is no novel; its action cannot unfold exactly as it does in literature, for the streets, as well as human lives, require different perspectives. Like the other collaborators on the film, I, too, endeavored to effect the transition from one medium to the other. The director (Sternberg) and the actor Jannings had to have clear sailing when their work began.
Finally, the strange moment arrived when, together with Jannings (who wore the mask of Professor Unrat), I found myself in the professor’s messy bedroom. Jannings sat on the bed, with shelves full of dusty books above him. Dusty books everywhere, and a stove pipe ran right through the room. The technicians were working on their cameras, and we had to wait until they were ready. Then I recalled the first appearance of this “Unrat”: Florence, the intermission—a long time ago. Here he was and he had not changed a bit.
He had gone through many experiences in the meantime and had passed through different times and heads. But he still loved the same kind of women, was as ponderous and innocent as before, and was headed for exactly the same fate. A great actor, Emil Jannings, had borrowed his shape and was now displaying it to me. He had enlarged on the figure, following its innermost nature, for in the novel Unrat does not die; but Jannings knew and realized the manner of his death.
The director, Sternberg, knew every step which this and the other figures were to take through the little town. He knew exactly what gestures, sounds, noises, songs and screams were in store for it. The corners and nooks of the plastically reconstructed city and street came to life for him even before the actors made them lively. I, for my part, remembered all these corners from the past. Not only Professor Unrafs messy bedroom but the entire Blue Angel from top to bottom had been revived in the studios of Neubabelsberg. I passed through the hall and climbed the winding stairs, as I might have done previously. Everything seemed to have returned uncannily out of the blue. In Neubabelsberg, there were two steps at the entrance to the Blue Angel, and I was immediately convinced that the same was true of its model. The rather shady lane passing by the cabaret was certain to lead into the once familiar city. At any rate, it led to the downfall of the figure that was still close to me.
Later on, I repeatedly watched the shooting and felt sympathetic toward the work of the actors, as I always do. I was unable to see the completed film in Berlin. The producer, Erich Pommer, had to go to Paris and was kind enough to bring the film to Nice, where I was then dwelling. Here he showed it to me.
This happened in a large and empty theater at the beach, in the morning and while the cleaning ladies were at work. The operator had some trouble with the reels since the sound track system was technically rather advanced. Even the French exclamations which resounded through the building made me feel how long a road the Blue Angel and its protagonist had travelled—from the port city in the North, where they acted out their story with me as their only witness, to the beach in the South where they were now shown to me.
There were only three spectators in the large French theater; and we saw the admirable Jannings smile—the gentle, childlike smile of a late and dangerous happiness breaking forth and shining through an unhappy face. Many people in several conti־ nents will soon have occasion to see it, too. While they look at these gaudy pictures and this gaudy world, they ought to sense the terror of a fate lived to its bitter end.
From Heinrich Mann, Das öffentliche Leben (Berlin: Zsolnay, 1932), pp. 325-329, by permission of the Aufbau-Verlag. Translated by Ulrich Weisstein.
1.Josef von Sternberg's films prior to The Blue Angel include Underworld (1927), a gangster melodrama, and Docks of New York (1928) which has a fog-drenched harbor setting