Lili-Marleen

Lili Marleen, a 1981 West German/English co-production by the prolific director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, played (albeit with somewhat poorly translated subtitles) as part of Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist — the second of two month-long Fassbinder retrospectives at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this year. It is one of the high-budget post-war movies, that directly reflects on the incontestable mark that the Nazis left on German history. The film is based on Lale Andersen’s novel The Sky Has Many Colours and centers around a German cabaret singer Willie (Hanna Schygulla), whose song “Das Mädchen unter der Laterne” (“The Girl Under the Lantern”) serves as Nazi propaganda, but is ironically popular with Allied and Axis troops alike. The plot is driven by the love story between Willie and the Swiss-Jewish composer Robert Mendelssohn, whose father David (a notable appearance by Mel Ferrer) is a powerful businessman aiding the Jewish resistance. Somewhat too formulaically, the plot’s conflict finds the two lovers on different sides of the war — Robert manages to return to Switzerland, while Willie is forced to remain in Germany.

The films exposition briefly reveals the start of Robert and Willies passionate infatuation with one another and their separation once the complications of war keep them on opposite end of the Swiss-German border. The central action of the film then traces Willie, after she has abandoned her life as a cabaret singer in Zurich. With no place to go, Willie reaches out to a former acquaintance who happens to be a high-standing official in the National Socialist Party. With his help and influence, the singer records the song that will shortly become a Nazi anthem. A cult of personality develops around Willie throughout Germany and on the war front despite the fact that she is not a particularly talented singer. Soon, Willie is associated not only with the idealized Lili Marleen, a character from the song, but also with the Nazi cause as a whole. One of the most important questions that Fassbinder raises is whether it is morally objectionable to seize an opportunity for personal profit, if it means promoting a political system as heinous as the Nazi regime. Even though Willie does not explicitly espouse the tenets of the National Socialist Party, she is molded into a key propaganda symbol.

Though told for the most part from Willie’s perspective, Fassbinder is not particularly interested in her experience of fame, but rather in tracing the political impact of her song. Fassbinder excessively repeats the song throughout the movie, often juxtaposing it with scenes of war, death and destruction. This combination of images and sound creates cynical distance, a comment on the absurdity of the war. Death is seen as comic and meaningless when soldiers foolishly rush into battle, supposedly uplifted by the woman’s song. As her fame increases, Willie becomes more and more emotionally alienated from her lover Robert, who attempts to get in contact with her, but is eventually captured in Berlin. At this point in the characters’ love story the song is employed as a means of torture with a short fragment of it played loudly over and over again in Robert’s prison cell. With this perhaps overly dramatic flourish, Fassbinder both elevates the man’s love and gives ironic expression to the woman’s nonchalance who, although disturbed by the news of his capture, must follow the path that fame has outlined for her and perform the role of Lili Marleen for the whole German nation. One of the song’s last appearances is a literally dizzying performance that Willie gives before a huge audience of Nazi officials. Her hesitant rendition is both symbolic of the fall of the German National Socialist Party and of the dissolution of Robert and Willie’s love.

The movie’s finale brings this narrative to a close with Willie’s return to Switzerland after the war. She attends an orchestral performance that Robert is conducting. Music once again asserts itself as the unifying factor that brings the lovers together, for better or worse. This time, however, it is Robert Mendelssohn’s optimistic post-war symphony, a symbol of liberation and hope that fills the silence. Still, Willie and Robert cannot comprehend just how much they have both been changed by fame and the war. Their love is impossible in these circumstances, after all this time. Willie’s encounter with Robert’s wife makes her quickly rush out. Ultimately, Fassbinder leaves the story open ended; we are not aware what happens to the characters after the film’s end, only that the death of Robert and Willie’s love is irrevocable.

Lili Marleen is original as far as it reflects on the particularly emotional repercussions of the war for individuals. However, with its melodramatic core, it pushes these emotions beyond the point of believability. In the end, it is little more than an overwrought story about the unfortunate end of one love, rather than a memorable statement about the effects of war on people’s lives.