The story of an infatuation, and a man’s humiliation, finally going beyond endurance. The tables turn on pompous Professor Rath who had inflicted pain and humiliation on his pupils – but ends up as a tragic clown, openly mocked onstage in front of everyone who might once have respected him.
The Jannings character moves through the film like a man in a dream and offstage really was going through a slow and painful humiliation. He had been the original “Name” for whom the picture would be a vehicle, but even before the filming began, he had been demoted.
Not only was he being upstaged by his co-star but he must have realised that his style of acting was very much part of the silent movies era, already fading into the past. He ends the film returning to the classroom – the world where he was once at home, now already obsolete and soon forgotten – but caught, finally in the spotlight of the night porter’s torch beam.
This double-edged quality, where life echoes art, could not have been anticipated even by Von Sternberg beforehand (actually a more instinctive director than his self aggrandizing writings would suggest) but it gives the film an extra depth of pathos.
There is also the political aspect of the vampy chorus girl, representing the decadent, bohemian “other” – triumphing over the traditional male tyrant – which did not go down well with the rising Weimar preoccupation with the authoritarian alpha male.
Dietrich’s Lola is fully aware of her sexual power and attraction to men but courts a deliberate ambiguity – belying the provocative words of the cabaret songs, her agenda is not simply to please men but to please herself for her own reasons.
The name Lola deliberately echoed the “Lulu” of Pandora’s Box, made shortly beforehand and obviously a source of influence and reference.
One of the reasons it’s such a classic is that it’s a film about change – the change from silents to talkies, the erosion of European cultural/intellectual traditions, a film made between two worlds (made in Germany with American money) and cultures. The expressionist melodrama of silent cinema is giving way to Hollywood and the brasher world of the talking picture – like the Lola character, still finding its way but confident of its success.
It’s also about exile and leaving behind the familiar – mirroring Marlene’s exile and loss of her country (her move to Hollywood straight after the film’s opening coincided with the rapid rise of National Socialism and, along with many other artists who disagreed with the regime, she was unable to return for many years).
Jannings on the other hand embraced Nazism…
In some ways the film illustrates the struggle between these old and new worlds.
Towards the end, of the film, Jannings’ melodramatic acting style really comes into his own. As he leaves the stage, broken and bewildered, Lola/Marlene reprises her trademark song and confronts the audience with a defiant gaze.