Lili Marleen (1981)

I think it’s possible to say something about National Socialism, which is specifically German, simply by showing what was appealing about it. The parades had a certain aesthetic of their own that appealed to people. The swastika had a certain aesthetic appeal. The slogans about community and Volk and so on all had their appeal.

—RWF, interviewed in 1980, reprinted in
The Anarchy of the Imagination (p. 66)

After the pinnacle of Berlin Alexanderplatz I reckoned Lili Marleen was going to require some downshifting—from Fassbinder’s most important, personal, and highly idiosyncratic work to his most expensive, most commercially mainstream one. I expected this to be a tough one to write about (a little glossy, a little slick). But at least I knew the production values would be high.

As it turns out, the toughest part of reviewing Lili Marleen in 2014 isn’t having to reconcile an uncharacteristic idiom or a depiction of the Third Reich that focused more on spectacle than atrocity, but rather finding a decent copy of the film at all. After some fruitless searching, I settled for a DVD-R copy I found at a legendary San Francisco video store. No doubt transferred from somebody’s VHS cassette, the color and the resolution were, not surprisingly, abysmal. And because, like Despair, the movie was shot in English, then dubbed, it sounded more like a Japanese monster movie than a European film festival entry. (Why didn’t this bother me in Despair, also shot and dubbed in English? Maybe because they used Dirk Bogarde and Andrea Ferreol’s actual voices? Or maybe the sound mix was just better?) So much for those production values.

My husband found a streamable version on the Internet. Dubbed in German with no English subtitles, at least I could hear Gottfried John’s voice rather than some hired hack who does spaghetti westerns. And the color was stunning, so I could appreciate the gorgeous cinematography, too. After about five minutes, however, Part 1 (it streams in two parts) started to lose sync. This continued until the image track was at least five minutes ahead of the soundtrack. Bad enough for any movie with dialogue, but in a movie centered around a song (i.e., set to music)? Oh, and did I mention the commercials that blasted every fifteen minutes, usually in the middle of a scene? Back to the DVD-R.

How does a movie of this scale and stature just disappear? With one of Germany’s most successful producers behind it and the biggest budget RWF would ever have at his disposal for a single feature film (10.5 million DM), you’d think Lili Marleen would be the one movie sure to have survived. (Berlin Alexanderplatz, which is seven times longer, cost only 2.5 million more.) Instead, you can go to practically any video store with a decent foreign film catalog and find Love Is Colder Than Death or Katzelmacher or even Whity, while Lili Marleen is nowhere to be found.

Ironically enough, it may be precisely the big-production provenance that ensured the movie’s disappearance. My assumption is that it all comes down to video rights, and that the Fassbinder Foundation must not have them. Which, if I’m correct, is especially sad, since RWF publicly proclaimed his eagerness to enter into this strange partnership as a means of ensuring both artistic freedom and large-scale distribution.

There are many reasons RWF would have chosen to make this project in this way at this time, not least of which would have been his love of Hollywood cinema: if, as he pronounced with such grandiosity post-Berlin Alexanderplatz, he really had “mastered this craft” why wouldn’t he want to prove it by finally making that blockbuster? At the same time, independent film in Germany, which relied heavily on grants, appears to have been in crisis. Only a few years before, RWF had announced that he was leaving Germany, proclaiming he’d “rather be a street sweeper in Mexico than a filmmaker in Germany.” Maybe he really believed that big money and infrastructure would give him the artistic freedom he felt he was losing as the state-subsidized climate became less hospitable to the kind of work he wanted to do. (And it’s not like he was alone: Wim Wenders actually went to Hollywood around this time to make the reportedly disastrous Hammett.)

Or maybe to make sense of this paradigm shift all you have to do is remember why and for whom RWF repeatedly claimed to make films in the first place. He was always clear that he was not interested in merely pleasing critics or a cult following of like-minded purists. His goal, I think, was always to reach a broader audience, to make them think, to help them help themselves in some way by opening up new ways of thinking about society and their place in it. That’s why television was such a logical medium for him: it enabled him to reach a lot of people all at once, people who would probably never have bought a ticket to go see a film like Rio das Mortes or Pioneers in Ingolstadt—or even Berlin Alexanderplatz. In this regard the whole notion of “selling out” seems irrelevant.

For me it’s exciting to see whether I can succeed in making a film that tells its story in such an expensive and expansive way, that is, tells it in such an audience-effective way, and in spite of that conveys all the inconsistency of human beings that I see in them. But if in the end it turns out just to be big and successful, I’d consider it a failure. But that’s precisely the exciting part, and it’s one of the factors that made me feel I just had to try. It’s a story which you could also fail completely with. [Anarchy, p. 59]

The fact is, if you can get past the hideous dubbing and the Hollywood patina and Giancarlo Giannini—not to mention your assumptions about what constitutes intellectual and political correctness in cinema, which I gather many people can’t—Lili Marleen is really a strange and fascinating addition to RWF’s oeuvre. It works in a surprisingly “audience-effective” way as a technicolor melodrama and a musical, while at the same time continuing his project to create a sort of social history of Germany in the 20th century, all while remaining true to his deepest values. The fact that the presentation did not conform to most people’s conception of what such a film should be is, I think, all the more to his credit.

Hanna Schygulla plays Willi, a cabaret singer living in Zurich in the 1930s. She has a wealthy pianist fiancé, Robert Mendelsson (Giancarlo Giannini), who is Jewish and, she soon learns, works for a sort of underground railroad operation, smuggling false passports for Jews into Nazi Germany, and their money and other valuables out. Robert’s father, David (Mel Ferrer), does not approve of or trust Willi—she laughingly describes herself as “Aryan back to the stone age”—and fears she could easily compromise their entire operation. He devises a clever plan to let her travel to Germany with Robert, only to ensure that she is denied re-entry to Switzerland on the grounds that she has too many outstanding debts. (Swiss neutrality famously did not benefit those without money.) Robert, ever the romantic hero, vows to remain true to his girl, however. If he can’t bring her back to Switzerland, he will continue to find ways to see her on his increasingly perilous trips to Germany.

In Germany, Willi calls on an admirer she met in Zurich for help. Not only does Herr Henkel (Karl Heinz von Hassel) turn out to be a big-time entertainment producer, he also happens to be a Gruppenführer in the SS. Willi knows an opportunity when she sees one and, under the guidance of her benefactor, records a song from the first World War called “Lili Marleen.” When the record gets played on Radio Belgrade, the song becomes a runaway hit with the troops. Willi, whom everyone now knows as Lili Marleen, becomes hugely famous. Although Goebbels doesn’t approve of the song, the Führer even invites her for an audience.

Willi and her partner on piano, Taschner (Hark Bohm), are invited to perform, presumably at the Führer’s request, in a grand Nuremburg-style extravaganza, accompanied by full orchestra, which is also broadcast on the radio. When Willi declines an invitation from Gruppenführer Henkel after the show, the latter has her followed—straight to an assignation with Robert, who is in Berlin on a mission and has chosen to disregard warnings from a colleague (Udo Kier), who tells Robert about Willi’s new life wining and dining and, by implication, sleeping with the Nazi elite. The next day Robert is arrested and “Lili Marleen” is put on the blacklist.

Willi agrees to embark on the German equivalent of a USO tour to entertain the troops on the Eastern front, from which Gustav Eisenmann, the leader of the underground (played by RWF, natürlich) asks her to smuggle film footage of the German concentration camps in occupied Poland. (How she is supposed to get this tour approved when her song has been blacklisted remains a mystery.) In Poland, however, she is betrayed to Henkel by one of the girls on the tour (Barbara Valentin), who spies Willi hiding the concentration camp film in her bra before returning downstairs for an encore.

Just when things are starting to look hopeless, Henkel’s ubiquitous right-hand man, von Strehlow (Erik Schumann), rescues the film from Willi before the men sent to search her room can find it. Who knew the Gruppenführer’s second in command was actually a mole for the underground? (Unless, of course, he only just decided to betray the Nazis to help Willi, for whom we later learn, he has feelings. This is never explained.) Willi gives him the film and returns downstairs where Henkel has ordered a strip search of the entire company, men and women alike. The next day he informs Willi that she has been summoned to Berlin and that her pianist will be sent to the Russian front.

David Mendelsson negotiates the return of Robert and a tiny group of Jewish prisoners using the footage from the concentration camps as ransom. The Nazis return Robert but significantly short them on the number of other Jewish prisoners returned, offering instead a tiny trickle over an extended period of time. Once Robert has been safely returned to the Swiss side, Aaron (Gottfried John), a key member of the underground, blows up the Germans on the bridge that connects the Swiss and German borders, despite their agreement.

Meanwhile, Willi has attempted suicide and been arrested by the Gestapo. Eisenmann orchestrates an announcement through Radio Calais in liberated France that Lili Marleen has been murdered in a German concentration camp, knowing this will destroy troop morale. At Goebbels’ command, Henkel hastily secures Willi’s commitment from her hospital bed to perform that night in her most spectacular appearance yet, disproving the rumor of her demise. Willi, half dead, drags herself on stage for this final pageant, dressed in an amazing form-fitting silver gown and turban. (Which made me think of the robot in Metropolis, although Barbara Baum says it was just supposed to look like a suit of armor, holding Willi together.) By the end of the song, Taschner and his company have been shot down on the Eastern front (he leads them to the sound of “Lili Marleen” broadcast from the other side of a hill, not realizing the radio is in the hands of Russian troops) and the German High Command has unconditionally surrendered.

Willi returns to Zurich, where Robert, now hugely successful, is conducting a symphony orchestra, and watches, ecstatic, from the dressing room. After the performance, Robert and his new wife, Miriam, enter, to Willi’s dismay. (We know about Miriam but Willi does not.) When Robert goes back on stage, Willi slips out and leaves the theater (and Robert), presumably forever.

So. Lili Marleen looks like a Hollywood-style WWII costume drama and uses that genre’s conventions, its language, very well. The color, the costumes, the lighting and compositions, the script by Manfred Purzer—with whom I gather RWF had fundamental artistic/philosophical differences, so more power to the director for making it work—these things all function as in a big-budget studio film. There are no Brechtian overtones here, no manic circular tracking shots and, most confusing of all, no emphatic or definitive statements about or depiction of the horrors of the Third Reich as you might expect or hope.

And yet. There is something slightly off about the finished product, which should be seamless and satisfying in terms of audience expectations, but is not, quite. If this were a classic Hollywood-style drama, for example, Robert would be a noble and tragic hero instead of the two-dimensional narcissist he comes across as. (More privileged than heroic, he’s like a prince who fights alongside the rank and file, but on a much better horse, knowing he will return from battle to a nice meal and a warm bed.) Henkel would be more sadistically evil and von Strehlow more heroic. (And Aaron would certainly never have blown up the Nazis on the bridge after a deal had already been struck.) The love story between Robert and Willi would be central to the narrative rather than the pretext it feels like. And Willi’s ultimate sacrifice would move us to tears, which it just doesn’t.

Willi is not a classic heroine—she is not even that much of a victim, especially when you consider what victimhood in Nazi Germany looked like (to put it mildly). By film’s end, she does not seem to have learned the usual lessons (the necessity of taking a stand against evil, for example, or even the importance of fighting for your man at all costs) nor do her goals—survival and success as an entertainer—appear to have changed in any significant way. Only her circumstances have. Similarly, neither von Strehlow’s enormous risk in helping safeguard the concentration camp footage nor his rejected love for Willi are depicted with any great dramatic intensity. These are just things that happen, things people do in extreme circumstances; these characters are who they are and they do what they do under the circumstances they find themselves in. Sound familiar? We’re in Fassbinder country now.

If this film doesn’t meet our expectations, however, it’s not just because RWF wants to show us characters who behave like real people (ambiguous, ambivalent, neither wholly good nor evil, worthy of understanding if not love), nor is it simply because the film does not satisfy our desire to see Nazis and their supporters depicted clearly and simply and, in the end, decisively punished (although, of course, both of these explanations are valid.). If Lili Marleen doesn’t quite work the way we expect it to, it’s because the actions and even the fate of a handful of characters—all of them flawed—are not really the subject of the film. The true subject of the film, and, I would even go so far to assert, its moral center, is the song “Lili Marleen.”

Recorded in 1939 by Lale Andersen (her biography was the inspiration for Purzer’s script for the movie), “Lili Marleen” really was the closest thing you could find to a “soundtrack” to World War II in Europe, used to sign off the Soldatensender Belgrad (Soldier’s Radio Belgrade) broadcast every night at 9:55 pm. The song was ubiquitous, selling over a million copies during the war alone, and became hugely important to the troops on both sides of the conflict. In the film, the song is a constant presence, so much so that it gets a little annoying.

In fact, the song is played five times—three times in its entirety—not including the record with the skip in it, which plays continuously while Robert is held captive. That’s nearly fifteen minutes of “Lili Marleen” in a 120-minute film! Each rendition of the song marks a significant moment in the war and uses subtly different instrumentation. When war is declared (during the recording session for the record) and in the first radio broadcast of the newly pressed 78 on Radio Belgrade, the accordian (connotations of Volk), and snare (that marching band mainstay) dominate. In the first major performance, which takes place at the height of the Blitzkrieg, when German victory looked all but assured, the orchestra features a huge brass section, strident and martial. And in the final performance, which closes with the radio announcement of Germany’s unconditional surrender, the balance shifts to the more melancholy string section.

But it’s not as a formal structuring device that the song is most important. Each of the major transmissions of “Lili Marleen” is intercut with haunting tableaux of men in the battle zones: some fighting, a few being blown to bits, most sitting silently, wistfully, transfixed by the song. You can’t even tell which army’s soldiers you’re looking at in most of these images.

And this, I think, is the point: For three minutes every night at five minutes before ten between 1942 and 1945, men on both sides of a brutal conflict they neither initiated nor chose were united in a shared longing—the essence of humanity, I would argue—by a sentimental song about a sentry who misses his girl sung by a woman they would never lay eyes on. For three minutes, in other words, the war lost its meaning, its momentum. For three minutes every night those men were in some sense free.

This is powerful stuff—a fact not lost on Joseph Goebbels (nor on Pol Pot, Mao Tse-Tung, and all the other totalitarians savvy enough to recognize the liberating, anarchistic potential of art) and I think it must have been what attracted RWF to this story in the first place. For me, these scenes, though disconnected and brief, are the heart of the film, while the rest of the narrative feels more like connective tissue. (Which isn’t to say that the story of Willi and Robert isn’t important—the film couldn’t exist without it—but I do think it goes a long way to explain why that story feels as hollow as it does.)

This is born out in what is surely the film’s climax, Willi’s performance for the troops in occupied Poland. After “Lili Marleen,” Willi walks off stage and the troops go wild, demanding an encore, chanting her name. Gruppenführer Henkel, the master of ceremonies of the event, tries to lead them in a rousing Sieg Heil! but is drowned out by their chants of “Lili Marleen”! “Lili Marleen”! Unable to regain control, he gives up and sends Taschner to bring Willi back. During her absence, the event degenerates into a free-for-all, a Dionysian bacchanal with drinking, dancing and a complete breakdown of discipline. By the time Willi returns, officers are dancing onstage, soldiers are climbing up into the rafters, and Gruppenführer Henkel is wearing a pink feather boa over his SS uniform. Total anarchy.

This, says Fassbinder, is what art can do.


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3 Responses to Lili Marleen (1981)

  1. The term ‘Polish concentration camp’ is incorrect. The German Nazis established the camps on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.

  2. ChrisJ says:

    Some ambiguities need to be corrected SYNOPSIS, para 4,
    “…concentration camps in Poland”, “…In Poland, however…”, and last para “Willi’s performance for the troops in Poland. After “Lili Marleen,…”.
    3 x “in Poland” without mentioning it was a NAZI GERMAN OCCUPIED country. The distinction is important to avoid the ambiguity of implying Polish collaboration or responsibility for the camps. The troops in Poland were GERMAN and were subjecting the Polish people to a brutal occupation.
    Please do not confuse the aggressors and perpetrators of war crimes and genocide with the actual victims. You should add “German occupied” before in Poland. Last sentence should be “German troops in Nazi occupied Poland”.
    Synopsis, Para 6 – “…a tiny group of Jewish prisoners using the Polish concentration camp footage as ransom”. There were – obviously – NO “Polish Concentration camps”. It is inaccurate and offensive to use this phrase. ALL the concentration( /death) camps were Nazi German and therefore must not be described as Polish.
    Please could you change the sentences to remove the (probably inadvertent) ambiguities and errors.

  3. Stefan Komar says:

    There were no concentration camps in “Poland”. There were camps in “German occupied Poland”.
    The terms “Poland”, “Germany” and “German occupied Poland” are not interchangeable. They are significantly different geo-political entities. Please change the text!
    Considering the 3 million Polish Slavs, 3 million Polish Jews killed, the millions of Poles forced into slave labor and the hundreds of thousands of children kidnapped from their Polish families in the name of “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles” and “Lebensraum” for Germans, by the barbaric German occupiers during the occupation of Poland by Germany, we ask that you be more precise with your wording.
    FYI. The proper reference to the camps would be one of the following:
    – Museum/Memorial of the former GERMAN camp in PRESENT DAY Poland
    – Museum/Memorial of the former GERMAN NAZI camp in PRESENT DAY Poland
    – GERMAN camp in occupied Poland
    – GERMAN Nazi camp in occupied Poland
    – GERMAN camp in Nazi occupied Poland
    – Nazi camp in GERMAN occupied Poland
    – GERMAN Nazi camp in German occupied Poland

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