Why I Love Emil Jannings

I am more partial to over-the-top scenery chewing than understatement. I'm looking at my Top 100 Performances and ones considered to be underplaying are usually done in a larger than life way. My favorite movie is The Godfather and my favorite director is Sergio Leone, so it makes sense that I'm so in love with watching Emil Jannings. As of last night's double feature I've seen 4 Jannings performances and his most subtle work was as Mephisto in Faust, which says a lot. The Last Laugh is my #87 film of All Time, mainly for the brilliant double team of Jannings and Murnau. Last night I watched The Blue Angel.

The Blue Angel
* * *

I always knew this as a star vehicle for Marlene Dietrich. Didn't even know Jannings was in it, let alone that he was the true star. It starts out okay, with a rather obvious (now) cautionary tale about falling in love with a cabaret girl. Dietrich is given the spotlight for most of the film. Director Josef von Sternberg presents her with a casual attitude towards men and a sexuality that is tantalizing in a happily sinful way. I've seen Dietrich in a couple of other films where her acting was better, but here it's that personality on full display. I especially love her reaction to Janning's proposal of marriage. She's not making fun of him, she's genuinely flattered and aware that her assets will not sustain her through life.

There's a great scene after the Professor and the Showgirl are married that shows this is not going to last and the film is not going to end well. Here both actors are working at equal strength. It reminded me of the calm center scene between Jared Leto and Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For a Dream before everything goes to hell. It's here that von Sternberg sifts his attention from Dietrich to Jannings and he takes off like a monster let off the chain.

The final section of The Blue Angel is a marvel of performance, done mostly through Janning's amazing face. There's no denying this walrus of a man loves to act. He loves putting on the makeup and pouring everything out of his face and frame. While his characters often are destroyed during the course of the film, Jannings shows great exuberance while leaping headfirst into hellfire. The performance ends up every bit as good as in The Last Laugh and the final shot which uses Janning's body but not his face is p-e-r-f-e-c-t. von Sternberg should get the credit for it as well as the moody lighting of the finale, but I was in performance ecstasy over Jannings. I had to watch another one right away. So I went into IMDB and found...

The Last Command
* * *

Also by Josef von Sternberg, this is the film that - along with the lost film The Way of All Flesh - won Jannings the Best Actor Oscar. It's much more focused on Jannings, though I was excited to see a young William Powell and an actress every bit as energetic as Jannings, Evelyn Brent. The plot is gimmicky with Jannings playing a former Russian general now working as a background artist in Hollywood. There's an elaborate set-up/trap in the climax that doesn't quite work (along with a final line that's a complete 180 for one character.) The bulk of the movie is a flashback of Jannings fall in Russia.

The Last Command is more consistently entertaining than The Blue Angel, but the melodrama plays more like a writer's idea than something organic. It lacks the simple Tragedy of The Blue Angel. It's also very strange to watch Jannings fall from grace for two films in a row, though he does give two very different performances, neither of which is like his descent in The Last Laugh. So, even if he plays this character type in 10 more films I feel I could easily watch all 10 of them. Someone asked me "Any examples of really melodramatic acting, which are more to your taste?" My answer is Emil Jannings. Emil Jannings. Emil Jannings.


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