Marlene Dietrich became an international star following her role as the seductive cabaret singer Lola Lola in ‘The Blue Angel.’ It’s not hard to see why, she is utterly captivating as the fame fatale responsible for the downfall of Emil Janning’s Professor Rath. In fact, ‘The Blue Angel’ with its familiar tale of respectability brought low, makes for an interesting contrast with the source story; Mann’s novel has a far more active tragic hero if a less iconic heroine (Rosa Fröhlich doesn’t have quite the same ring as Lola Lola).
Names are all-important in this book, so we should start by getting some straight. The author was Heinrich Mann, brother of the more famous Thomas, and the full German-language title literally translates as ‘Professor Filth or The End of a Tyrant.’ The tyrant in question has been cursed with the name ‘Raat,’ changed by generations of students to ‘Unrat,’ a cruel nickname, the validity of which will be explored throughout the novel.
Professor Unrat’s life is fuelled by antagonism towards everyone who has ever insulted him, essentially, the entire population of the small town as each student passes through his class and is found to be insubordinate and unworthy. His pathological hatred of current and ex-students is almost Roald Dahlish, you feel he might have got on well with Miss Trunchbull from ‘Matilda’, though his anger is matched by his impotence rather than any physical sadism. Just as he never actually catches students calling him by the detested nickname, so he is unable to enact any but the most petty of punishments on his tormentors.
And then, in a beauty and the beast moment, Unrat meets Rosa. Although his original aim is to catch, humiliate and expose the students who illicitly form her entourage, this drive is shaken by the encounter with an outsider. In a different novel, such an experience of love could temper what Mann describes as ‘the accustomed malice of his world‘. For the professor however, it makes things more complex, but no less vindictive.
‘Professor Unrat’, is available in English as ‘Small Town Tyrant’ (though I can’t find the name of the translator), and the title is appropriate. Although, in one sense, Unrat is brought low by Rosa, he never loses his desire to dominate his enemies and his vengeance becomes inextricably linked to her demi-monde life-style with all the opportunities this affords for disgrace. Mann subverted everything I expected from this story, from the seduced Rath to the good-time-girl Rosa, nobody conforms to their traditional roles. If you haven’t seen ‘The Blue Angel,’ I recommend it for Dietrich’s captivating performance and Jannings’ tragic starring role. Even if you’re familiar with the film, I really recommend you seek out the book, for a very different and genuinely enthralling take on a story you think you already know.