Professor Rath, a middle-aged schoolmaster, visits a cabaret where his pupils have been wasting time, and becomes smitten with Lola, a singer. Dismissed from his position, Rath marries the girl and becomes a humiliated, abused clown.
A masochistic melodrama spotlighting what was considered great screen acting in 1930 from Emil Jannings and a first, raunchy glimpse of a plump-thighed, throaty-voiced Marlene Dietrich in the role that made her career. It owes something to the silent circus-themed dramas of Lon Chaney (He Who Gets Slapped) and in turn sketches several ideas developed in Hollywood in the horror classic Freaks, with Jannings – who was often cast as pompus, pathetic individuals who lose the last scraps of their dignity – at his best when he becomes a grotesque clown.
While acting as assistant to a sadistic stage magician, Jannings has eggs repeatedly smashed over his forehead and cracks himself, grunting cock-a-doodle-doo as attacks his wife and her strongman lover, then shambles like a refugee from Dr Caligari’s Cabinet back to the schoolroom where he dies grasping his old desk.
This was a last hurrah for Jannings, who (despite that terrifying rooster impersonation) was essentially a silent actor – but it was a beginning for Dietrich, who would later be polished into inscrutibility by the Svengali-like director Joseph von Sternberg. Here, she’s much more like a real person, and Lola is far more complex than the evil, scheming sluts of silent melodrama. Dietrich shows Lola’s compassion for her degraded husband as well as her estrangement from him, and (of course) is stunning on stage.
It was made in two versions – a German language film and a shorter, part-English talkie; on the whole, the German film is stronger, but Dietrich’s songs (‘Falling in Love Again’, ‘They Call Me Naughty Lola’) sound better in English.
A remarkable performance from Emil Jannings.