The noisy, sellout crowd at the Somerville Theatre last Saturday attested that this special screening of Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film Der blaue Engel would be no sedate Harvard Film Archive affair. On offer was not just the latest restored print of the film but Jane Ring Frank’s Boston Secession (named after Gustav Klimt’s Vienna Secession) providing vocal and instrumental counterpoint.
Although its most famous moment is Marlene Dietrich singing "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt" ("Falling in Love Again"), Der blaue Engel has almost no background music (it could almost be a German precursor of Dogme 95), so it would seem an ideal subject for the Secession. Even this restored print, however, suffered from background noise (like old 78s) and, as emerging from the Somerville speakers, a harsh soundtrack. My memory — perhaps at fault — tells me that when the Secession "accompanied" Wim Wenders’s Der Himmel über Berlin ("Wings of Desire") at the Coolidge Corner back in 1999, the sound was turned down while the Secession sang. At the Somerville it often wasn’t, and the juxtaposition of the distorted 70-year-old voices and the modern musicmaking was jarring. The "Weimar cabaret band" posed another problem: the notion of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Stravinsky played by a chamber orchestra of piano, violin, cello, clarinet/alto sax, accordion, and percussion was intriguing, but to my ears it didn’t always work, not least because the sound system seemed to favor the musicians over the singers. During the selection from Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (which accompanies Professor Dr. Rath’s discovery that his students are frequenting the Blue Angel), I could see Frank’s well-drilled singers enunciating the Latin words, but I still couldn’t make them out. And the glorious harmonies of the chorale that opens Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (for Immanuel’s "morning-after" breakfast with Lola Lola) got obliterated.
When the singers performed a cappella, or nearly so, this Blue Angel took flight. Mozart’s Papageno-Pamina duet "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen" (for Immanuel’s marriage proposal) was sublime. Cellist Jan Pfeiffer and pianist Vytas J. Baksys proved that less can be more when they performed a snippet from Beethoven’s variations on Mozart’s tune. The less-orchestrated sections of the Verdi Requiem (for Immanuel’s less-than-triumphant return to the Blue Angel) were redeeming; so was the concluding, almost a cappella section from Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem that accompanies Immanuel to the schoolhouse. The crowd, which had seemed more interested in laughing than listening, roared its approval at the end. If there’s a suggestion box for future projects, I’d say turn down the soundtrack, keep the accompaniment to a minimum, and give those singers wings.