Lili Marleen: a celebration and critique of the Hollywood musical tradition and its historical context

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Lili Marleen” (1981)

An unhappy tale of thwarted love, Fassbinder’s “Lili Marleen” plays hard and fast with its original source material, a biography of Lale Anderson who originally performed the famous World War II song “Lili Marlene”, beloved of Allied and Axis soldiers alike. The film is set during a period spanning a decade from the late 1930s to mid-1945. German cabaret singer Willie (Hanna Schygulla) and Swiss Jewish composer Robert Mendelssohn (Giancarlo Giannini) meet in Zurich and fall in love; but Robert’s father (Mel Ferrer) is concerned that his son’s affair with a German citizen will jeopardise his secret mission of rescuing Jews and spiriting them out of Nazi Germany. He tricks the couple into leaving Switzerland and going into Germany on business; when they arrive back at the Swiss border, they discover that Willie is banned from entering Switzerland. The lovebirds are forced to go their separate ways.

Alone and heart-broken, Willie sings Robert’s song “Lili Marleen” in a night-club and a senior Nazi military officer Henkel (Karl-Heinz von Hassel) happens to be visiting at the time. He hears the song and arranges for Willie to cut a single of it. Although Willie is hardly a great singer and her pianist is a fairly ordinary musician, the song enjoys a huge amount of air-time on Radio Belgrade, a German military radio station in the Balkans, and Willie is catapulted to fame. Robert makes a risky trip to Berlin to see Willie and ends up being arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. His father, repenting of his cruel trick, agrees to support a clandestine mission in which Willie tours Poland and picks up a roll of film detailing the plight of Jewish prisoners in the Treblinka concentration camp. Willie carries out her part of the mission but an informant reports her to the authorities and her career is ruined. However the film reaches Robert’s father safely and Robert is eventually freed and returned to him. Robert becomes a successful and famous composer while Willie, under constant surveillance, attempts suicide and ends up even more of a pawn of the Nazis as the war drags on and Germany’s war-machine and society are sapped and spiral downwards into ruin.

The film is a fine illustration of the ways in which the individual’s quest for love and freedom is thwarted and denied by society and its institutions, and by other individuals as well. Willie is forced to pay a heavy price by Robert’s father for her love of Robert. Naive and guileless, she ends up in the grip of the Nazi war and propaganda machine. Robert suffers a great deal as well and the fame and fortune he enjoys at the end of the film suggest he will do much better than Willie, materially at least anyway if not in his private life. Schygulla and Giannini’s acting is adequate for the roles though Schygulla seems old for a role that basically calls for an innocent dumb blonde who knows zip about the Nazi government’s policies against non-Aryan Germans, the scale of the war and its utter violence, and the privations suffered by ordinary Germans as the war continues without end. Everything Willie does, she either does wrong or she gets caught out and she eventually pays a price. The pity of it all is that Willie is essentially an innocent who of all people does not deserve the bad luck she attracts; but she lives in a harsh world in which to survive successfully, one must give up child-like artlessness and become hardened and hollow inside.

The film gives full rein to Fassbinder to indulge his love of Hollywood musicals with an extended sequence of chorus girls and other performers dancing and leading massed singing on stage while soldiers and Nazi officers engage in revelry. The cinematography is excellent and gives prominence to an artful use of colour and interior props, especially doors which are used to herald changes in mood and a character’s development. The film does a fairly decent job of highlighting how far removed Willie and elite German society are from the realities of war, the suffering of ordinary Germans subjected to rationing and endless propaganda and the treatment of Jews, gypsies, POWs and other social and ethnic misfits in concentration camps. The song “Lili Marleen”, repeated ad nauseam throughout the film to the point where it becomes an instrument of torture – Willie sings nothing else – despite it being a mediocre effort, can be seen as a metaphor for the banality of popular culture and its purpose as a mass sleeping pill to be ingested daily by a gullible public. This point is driven home by the Nazis’ spiteful drafting of Willie’s clueless pianist as a soldier: he is sent to the Eastern front where he is promptly gunned down by Soviet forces: deliberate murder using your enemy has perhaps never been so cynical and malicious.

Apart from all this, the film is not all that remarkable: it has a distant air and the actors don’t seem fully engaged in their characters. That may have been intentional on Fassbinder’s part – the film is as much critical of its period as it is a celebration of the style of film associated with it. Fassbinder must have recognised the propaganda value of Hollywood musicals and musicals made in other countries that sought to emulate the grand American style and in “Lili Marleen” spoofs it and its associated elements.

 

 

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