Jannings plays Immanuel Rath, a strict, austere professor at the local prep school. Some of his pupils have been frequenting a sleazy cabaret, so he goes along hoping to catch them out. While there, he meets Lola (played by Marlene Dietrich), the headline act. Jannings falls for her and returns to the cabaret the following evening, spending the whole night with Lola. Upon his return to school the next morning, the principal forces him to resign for his behaviour. Jannings takes work as a clown in the cabaret, where he is routinely humiliated by having eggs cracked on his forehead and by being mocked by the braying audience. His jealousy towards Lola takes him to the edge of sanity when he catches her in the arms of strongman, Mazeppa. Jannings tries to strangle Lola but is put into a straitjacket by his colleagues. He is later freed, and walks back to his old classroom, where he takes his old seat at his old desk, and where he withers and dies, a pathetic, broken man.
Jannings’ journey with the character, from stern teacher to amour fou to humiliated clown is a tour-de-force, covering a broad scope of the human condition truthfully and with clarity. His performance is intense, artistic and compelling. It’s filled with provocative moments, as when he releases a strange scream after discovering Lola with Mazeppa – it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before, denoting pain, anguish, shock and humiliation simultaneously, but it also contains a certain element of repression, which gives it a very unusual flavour.
The lesson to learn from Jannings’ performance in The Blue Angel however, is that of the “minimum effective dose”; i.e. – the smallest dose to produce the desired outcome. Jannings does not drown his work in unnecessary “emotion”, he offers no additional “characterisation” to make absolutely sure we get the idea, and there is no extra “business” to ensure there is no misunderstanding – all of which serve to lessen the power and effectiveness of the performance by blurring the action, taking it out of focus. No, Jannings’ performance as Rath is a model of disciplined acting, of precision and control and purpose. He consciously structures his performance, working with the diktats of the script. He isn’t just flinging this stuff out there, he isn’t just doing whatever comes into his head – what he is doing is delivering meaningful results within a particular form. The net effect of this highly skilled approach, is that the final denouement, when it comes, is shocking, powerful and rings out with truth.