Tuesday, February 3, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Giancarlo Giannini, Mel Ferrer, Karl-Heinz von Hassel

A German singer, Willie, and a Swiss Jewish composer, Robert, are involved in a passionate love affair and plan to get married, until Nazism and Robert’s family get in their way. Though they are safely hiding out in Switzerland, Robert regularly sneaks back into Germany to help out the Resistance. Willie, wanting to be a bigger part of his life, helps him, but is not allowed back into Switzerland — thanks to Robert’s family, who don’t think she’s good enough — and Willie is refused a return visa. Forlorn, she takes a job in a cabaret and sings one of Robert’s songs, “Lili Marleen,” which suddenly becomes an overnight success. To her delight, she becomes a sought-after Nazi icon, but she risks her life to carry on a secret affair with Robert.

Based on the autobiography of German singer Lale Andersen, Lili Marleen is, in every way, a product of the success of The Marriage of Maria Braun. The latter was one of Fassbinder’s most internationally popular films and was lauded for its blend of art house style and accessibility. Lili Marleen is in this model, also stars Hanna Schygulla, and is also set in Nazi Germany. It is inspired more by historical fact, as Lale Andersen was skyrocketed to fame for her war-time performance of “Lili Marleen.” She was banned from performing for nearly a year thanks to her friendship with a number of Swiss-Jewish artists and attempted suicide.

But Fassbinder’s fictional “Lili Marleen” singer, Willie, is more a product of Hollywood melodrama than of history. With this film Fassbinder clearly attempted to harken back to the days of Technicolor splendor, while also exploring what was so appealing about the pomp of National Socialism. While Maria Braun’s life paralleled the transition from war-time poverty to the German economic “miracle” of the ‘50s, Willie’s life simply happens to cross wires with the height of Nazi power. Unlike Maria Braun, Willie is not fundamentally changed by this encounter. When she becomes famous enough to warrant a meeting with Hitler, his office doors open to reveal a blinding white light. Willie should have emerged from it altered – many of Fassbinder’s other protagonists experience a defining moment that permanently transforms them – but she does not. Perhaps what makes Willie (and the film) so fascinating, yet flawed, is that she remains untouched by and seemingly unaware of the monumental events and disturbing violence unfolding around her – despite the fact that her lover is Jewish and she is helping him smuggle footage of concentration camps.

Like the real-life Nazi anthem, the “Horst Wessel Lied,” “Lili Marleen” and Willie’s association with it is built on a lie, a fiction. Horst Wessel, an SA officer and the author of the song named for him, was martyred by the Party after he was shot, likely over a financial dispute. Willie’s fame is similarly a tool of Nazi propaganda, a convenient fairytale marred by her love affair with a Jewish man. But this is where Fassbinder subverts the Hollywood melodrama: the love story between Robert and Willie becomes a side plot or an afterthought with nothing of real substance to supplant it. The film’s romantic heroes — Robert and Willie — fail the audience. Willie does attempt to commit suicide when her fame is snatched from her and Robert’s life is threatened by the SS, but she soon reconciles with her Nazi handler.

Robert is even more troubling. He effectively allows his prestigious family to ostracize Willie because she is neither wealthy nor Jewish. After he is freed by the SS – his father exchanges him for the film of the concentration camp – he seemingly sheds his wartime experiences, marries a more convenient woman, and becomes a famous composer. Willie comes to find him and is devastated that he has so enthusiastically abandoned her for this new life – or rather, for the old life he previously ignored. Like Willie, though perhaps more disturbingly so, Robert is unchanged by his experiences.

Fassbinder was once criticized for being anti-Semitic, thanks to the play Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod, later turned into the film Shadow of the Angels. In it, a rich, old Jew is one of the film’s villains, a miser who ultimately murders the female protagonist. This misunderstanding deeply wounded him and caused the play’s early cancellation, but the same theme re-emerges here. What these audiences failed to understand is that Fassbinder spent his career examining the perpetrator as victim and the victim as perpetrator. His constant attempts to show that humanity is often stripped away in the face of survival and self-preservation can also be found in Holocaust literature like Primo Levi’s If This  is a Man or documentaries like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

Perhaps Lili Marleen’s most subversive element – its insistence on presenting everything on a moral grayscale – is also its primary flaw. It’s refreshing that the film refused to follow the rank and file of postwar, post-Holocaust films that depict Jews and other Holocaust survivors as automatically heroic. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, when WWII became a massively popular subject for narrative and documentary filmmakers alike, it was still taboo to suggest that Nazis could be anything other than embodiment of evil and Jews could be something darker than martyrs or survivors. For example, two decades earlier, in 1961, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem caused a firestorm of controversy when she claimed that the concentration camp organizer was not evil, but merely following the inevitability of thoughtless, compassionless bureaucracy. Despite being a concentration camp survivor herself, she was harshly criticized by friends, colleagues, and strangers.

It is no wonder then that Fassbinder tread lightly with this theme after Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod. The restraint shown in Lili Marleen, paired with its lack of character depth, unfortunately left me feeling cold. In some ways, this is an extension of the BRD trilogy – The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronika Voss – with a similar amount of style, but a strange lack of substance. It is nearly as colorful and stylish as Lola and exhibits Fassbinder’s love of mirrors, glass, frames, and art deco set pieces. It remains a flawed but fascinating look at what I think was a thesis in development, not at its conclusion. Fassbinder stated that The Damned was one of his favorite films and spent much of his career working out the issue of personal fascism, totalitarian brutality in every day society. He had only begun to explore National Socialist Germany later in his career, which was unfortunately cut short by his early death. It would have been fascinating to see where he took this theme begun in Pioneers in Ingolstadt, The Stationmaster’s Wife, Despair, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Despite its flaws, the film comes recommended, thanks to the wonderful style and solid performances from Hanna Schygulla and European art house heartthrob Giancarlo Giannini, among others. It’s not currently available on region 1 DVD, though a German disc exists. Hopefully a release with English subtitles will be on the horizon for 2015. If you’re planning to download it, beware: the subtitles were so terrible, that I wouldn’t have understood much of the film without a reasonable grasp on German.

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