“Your father was a tasteless man with his elk hunting and bear-rounding, but you’re even more of a dilettante. “
The old saying: “marry in haste, repent at leisure” comes to the fore in La Habanera a film directed by Douglas Sirk.
Swedish Astree Sternhjelm (played by German songstress Zarah Leander) travels to Puerto Rico with her aunt. There, Astree falls in love with the steamy climate and culture of this Latin American country, and when her aunt returns home to Stockholm, Astree remains behind and marries local landowner Don Pedro de Avila (Ferdinand Marian). The film jumps ahead 10 years when fate brings Astree’s old flame, Dr. Sven Nagel (Karl Martell) to Puerto Rico to investigate the dreaded Puerto Rico Fever. Sven finds that Astree is terribly unhappy. Locked in a loveless marriage with a domineering, unreasonable husband, she longs to return to her homeland. Unfortunately Astree now has a child, and she is turn between duty and longing.
La Habanera really is a peculiar film. It was made in 1937 by UFA studios, part of the Goebbels propaganda machine, and so film content was essentially controlled by Goebbels and his Ministry of Propaganda. The end result is a film that’s a curiosity. On one hand, there’s the simple story of a homesick Swedish woman who lives to regret her rash marriage, and on another level, there’s the propaganda message. Finally there’s the end result–a film that’s a rather bizarre blending of Nazi ideals with psuedo Puerto-Rican culture.
In the beginning of the film, Astree is captivated by Puerto Rica’s climate and culture. She lives to regret this decision, and the message is that it’s foolish to leave one’s own culture. There are some subtle racial messages entwined in the plot; for example, Astree’s son, although half-Puerto Rican is pale with blonde hair. Sven even notes at one point that the boy is “German.” When you tie that comment and this aspect of the film in with all the racial profiling the Nazis conducted to ascertain “German-ness,” well the film moves away from just being a curiosity to something else…. Dr Sven Nagel’s Brazilian companion sports a Hitler-esque mustache and it’s nothing less than bizarre to hear these Puerto Rican natives say things like “Ja Wohl.” Yes, the Puerto Ricans all speak in German.
For me, and I love Sirk films, La Habanera is an oddity. The film does not reach the heights of his masterpieces Tarnished Angels, Written on The Wind, Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, All I Desire (well, I could go on, but you get the point). Still if you love Sirk films, you won’t be able to resist watching La Habanera–if only to rejoice that he made it to Hollywood and left us some spectacular films. Sirk (Hans Detlef Sierck), who was married to a Jew, immigrated to America after making this film, and La Habanera is the last film he made for UFA. In German with subtitles.