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The Blue Angel (1905)

by Heinrich Mann

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608531,390 (3.75)28
One of the major German novels of the early 20th century.

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If you've seen the film, you'll know Professor Unrat as a story about an authoritarian middle-aged schoolmaster who makes a fool of himself by falling in love (or rather - four-link in luff-again...) with a music hall singer. It turns out that there's a lot more to it than that. After twenty-six years in a small, provincial town indoctrinating middle-class boys with the authoritarian values of Wilhelm II's Prussia, the lonely, widowed Dr Raat has lost all sense of proportion. For him, the struggle to maintain his authority and fight against the hated nickname "Unrat" (=rubbish) has become a life-and-death matter. Everyone in town is either a current or former pupil or one of their family members, and he imagines that all of them are fuming over the unconcluded schoolroom battles of twenty years ago as much as he is. It never occurs to him that they might now think of the punishments and humiliations he inflicted with affectionate nostalgia...

What happens when Unrat visits the Blaue Engel and meets the singer Rosa Fröhlich is thus not just about sex: more importantly for Unrat, it's the first time in decades that he's talked to someone who is completely outside the closed world of the small town and the school. It gives him the liberating opportunity to realise sides of himself that have been locked up by the overriding concern for authority and appearances, and it lets him see that behind all that repressive force there is a huge anger at the community he's been living in for so long, and a corresponding desire for revenge. Rosa turns out to be the instrument he can use to strike back at them, to reveal the hypocrisy and double standards in the respectable pillars of the local establishment and to use it to push them over. Unfortunately, he is also in love with her, and he finds himself torn between his desire for absolute possession and his strategic need to use her as a disturbing influence. The book moves slightly oddly from vicious classroom satire via backstage realism into Balzac-style black revenge, but then at the last minute seems to escape back to a slightly unconvinced moralism. Very strange, but interesting.

You can't help feeling a little sorry for Lübeck's 500-year-old grammar school, the Katharineum, which managed to appear (unnamed, but quite recognisable) in the worst possible light in two of the best-known German novels of the 20th century before we were even halfway through that century's first decade. Apart from being the school where Unrat taught, it's of course also the one where Hanno Buddenbrook spends what might well have been the worst schoolday in literary history. But I suppose that's the risk any school runs with famous pupils.

The book was used as the basis for the film Der blaue Engel by Josef von Sternberg in 1930. The film is supposed to be a classic of German cinema, but it doesn't have all that much to do with the book, and is only really interesting (unless you're a big fan of early talkies) because of Marlene Dietrich's brilliant performance and a couple of memorable songs. Emil Jannings is wooden and unconvincing as Unrat, and the three schoolboys have obviously been kept back for 15 to 20 years, rather than the one or two called for in the book. ( )
  thorold | Oct 19, 2016 |
The main person was not very likable and you were rooting for his downfall. And his lady just wanted to use him for the money and status.
Everybody is just obsessed. ( )
  kakadoo202 | Jan 18, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (22 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mann, HeinrichAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Blijstra, R.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maffi, BrunoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stark, MartinIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Information from the German Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Da er Raat hieß, nannte die ganze Schule ihn Unrat.
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Disambiguation notice
Originally published as Professor Unrat until the film version was released as The Blue Angel. Subsequent book editions were released under the film name.
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One of the major German novels of the early 20th century.

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Average: (3.75)
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