“You are a shining light in this regime.”
Lili Marleen from German director Fassbinder is very loosely based on the autobiography of WWII singer Lale Andersen. This is one of the three films Fassbinder made in English, and it tends towards the epic soap in its depiction of the love story between the German chanteuse Willie (Hanna Schygulla) and her Jewish lover, pianist and composer Robert Mendelsohn (Giancarlo Giannini). When the film begins, Willie and Robert live in Switzerland where Willie–a mediocre singer–has a nightclub engagement. Here she comes to the attention of some visiting Nazis who urge her to come back to Berlin so they can boost her career. Robert is involved in smuggling Jews from Germany to Switzerland, and when he leaves for Berlin on another mission, Willie accompanies him. Unfortunately, Robert’s father, who doesn’t approve of Willie, pulls strings to forbid her reentry to Switzerland, and so the lovers are parted.
Willie reconnects with the Nazi officers she met in Switzerland, and she records the song “Lili Marleen.” Willie’s singing ability leaves a lot to be desired, but the song is, by chance, picked up on the airwaves and rapidly becomes extremely popular with the soldiers at the front. While the soldiers identify with the song’s theme–a soldier who longs to return home from war to the woman who’s waiting–propaganda minister Goebbels hates it. To Goebbels, the song has “the stench of death” and isn’t patriotic enough, but Willie enjoys Hitler’s patronage, and so she remains a popular singer and entertainer until she crosses her Nazi masters and is blacklisted.
In a different film, Lili’s character could contain some depth and complexity–after all she’s swept up in a maelstrom of moral complexity and chooses to survive through Nazi patronage. But Fassbinder’s Lili isn’t depicted as a complex character–instead she’s portrayed as a woman caught up by circumstance who operates solely on a desire to survive and her love for Mendelsohn. Hanna Schygulla–one of Fassbinder’s greatest actresses–plays the role with a slightly distracted, naive air. Still the story raises some interesting moral questions regarding the price of survival. The plot is problematic and a bit muddled in some parts of the film. This may be due to the fact that Fassbinder did not work with his own script here–but one he revised that was originally written by one of his arch-enemies Manfred Purzer. Fassbinder also plays a small role as an underground operative involved in rescuing Jews.
But in spite of its flaws, Lili Marleen is a feast for Fassbinder fans. The film contains moments of pure power. Some very moving scenes depict Willie singing and her words are broadcast over the airwaves to soldiers–some in the trenches, some in open fields. Soldiers bow their heads and fall silent as they recall the bittersweet memories of all they’ve left behind. In one of the best scenes in the film, Willie performs to a packed house of Nazi elite, and scenes of huge bouquets of flowers are juxtaposed with the bodies of soldiers falling from explosions. If you’re new to Fassbinder, I recommend starting with The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronica Voss or The Stationmaster’s Wife.