The walrus and the mink, a Germanic love story. ("Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan," as the old joke goes.) Josef von Sternberg at UFA is a wry ringmaster working an arena of knowingly heavy symbolism, like the maid who sees the dead parakeet in its cage and throws it away with a shrug. The barren classroom is the realm of the middle-aged bachelor (Emil Jannings), a clock chimes ponderously above its gates, grimacing figurines and all. Its opposite number is the smoky jungle of the nightclub, where "die künstlerin" Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich) reigns with spread, spangled thighs. Students crave the footlight siren, the professor stumbles past nets and veils to reprimand her: "You are corrupting my pupils!" "Think I’m running a kindergarten?" Pedantic academia is no match for cabaret intoxication ("Art and science," proclaims the resident conjurer), the dazed fussbucket mops his brow with the lady’s discarded bloomers and in no time the two are hitched. "I’m afraid I may have overindulged..." A doleful pagliacci wanders through the nautical décor (lifesavers, anchors, a ship’s bare figurehead), in due time he’s replaced by the husband with red nose and crumpled hat and egg on his face. The cuckold’s shriek reverberates to the end, and yet the tragedy is less that of a respectable man brought down by a vamp than that of a bourgeois tie insufficiently loosened, the surge of awakened emotion that can’t quite break him free from the petty decorum of the study hall. (He lifelessly clutches his desk at the close in a Munch image.) The café’s wandering lights and shifting backdrops distill the Sternberg métier, his experiments with off-screen sound are best appreciated by Hitchcock (Murder!) and Nabokov (Sobytie). Renoir is just around the corner with La Chienne, and then there’s Sawdust and Tinsel, The Servant, Death in Venice, and virtually all of Fassbinder. Dietrich the indelibly carnal icon has the final word, singing "Falling in Love Again" like a flame cautioning the moths with a wink: "And if their wings burn, I know I’m not to blame." Cinematography by Günther Rittau. With Kurt Gerron, Rosa Valetti, Hans Albers, and Reinhold Bernt. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce