Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Lilli Marleen

Price: free (it came with a $160,000 education, however)
Year: 1981
Run time: 120 minutes
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Hannah Schygulla, Giancarlo Giannini, Christine Kaufmann, Udo Kier

Although there aren't really any rules that we've made about it, on this blog I generally try to stay away from RWF and other cannonized, and arguably overrated, directors of European art cinema. Its not that I don't enjoy these movies. Many of them are worth every bit of the hype, and many of them... not so much. If it isn't obvious, I write about movies like Gold Diggers, and Out of the Wilderness because they are seldom given a critical treatment of any sort beyond the time surrounding their release, while movies by the Rainer Werners, and the Werners, and the Jean Lucs of this world are continuously written about, and will likely continue to be written about long after I am gone (if the world still exists!). However, to mix it up a little bit, I've decided to give in to Fassbinder's Lilli Marleen, a film I really loved, that I was lucky enough to find in a box of movies that were being given away for free in my department's building.
While I'm no Fassbinder fanatic, there are moments when his aesthetic really appeals to me. When he's restaging Sirk films as a venue to talk about otherness and old age, I don't really feel it. I'm more a fan of highly aestheticized, glossy fever dreams, many of which Hannah Schygulla stars in. This preference stems more from my doubts in RWF's ability to tell a convincing story about people of color or old women than from my preference for "sexy" looking films. Not that I don't like "sexy" looking films... In any event, Lilli Marleen is full of glamour, and it uses this in a most productive way.

Like one of my favorite films (Bob Fosse's Cabaret), Lilli Marleen tells the story of a female singer during the third reich. Like Sally Bowles, Willie starts as a torch singer in a night club, who is nice to look at, but not exceptionally talented. An immigration issue keeps her away from her lover Robert (Giannini), whom she lived with in Switzerland, so she gets work at a cabaret in Munich. By the sheer force of luck, she is able to wrap her voice around the "Lilli Marleen" song for which this film is named. The song, which is a narrative about love and war, enchants everyone who hears it. When she does a recorded version, it becomes a national sensation. Soon Willie and her star struck pianist are invited to stay at Hitler's mansion. Before she knows it, Willie has become a poster girl for the third reich.
Meanwhile, Willie and Robert (who is a jew) pine away fro eachother in seperate countries. Robert eventually marries a beautiful Jewish woman, but his love for Willie plagues that marriage, as he can never really let it go. Although in the time they are estranged Willie is too sought after to have much time for pining, they scenes when they (briefly) reunite show that she too is not past that love. It is her devotion to Robert, in fact, that leads her fall from grace in the eyes of the SS.

One of my favorite aspects of this film is that it gives the characters humanity, despite their support of the Nazis. It does this without condoning the Nazis (and in fact, as a whole condemns them). When looking back at that time, it is important to remember how normalized it must have been in German society to support the ruling party. Like in any state, more informed citizens probably dissented, while the lesser informed probably supported the ruling party, or were indifferent. Those supporters perhaps were swept up in the ideology so much, to an extent that it was the climate, rather than their own evilness that allowed them to support the nazis. Willie falls into this category. She irresponsibly puts on an identity, without much thought or care to its implications.

Like the rest of her countrymen, Willie is eventually maligned for her actions, or inactions. Her rise and downfall, is chaotic, glamorous, and altogether problematic. We enjoy the glamorous ride along with her, but can't help but criticize the place she carved out for herself.

On a purely aesthetic level, the film is visionary. Everything feels very set-like, in a way that compliments the way the story is told. The colors are evocative, and the images look like they could have been pulled from a Nazi Vogue. When the film portrays the violence on the battlefield, it provides a nauseating but enticing viewing experience that supports and contradicts the overall gloss of the film.

The movie stays away from many of the traps that such a film could fall into. For one thing, while it is implied that Willie interacts with Hitler on a fairly regular basis, he is not portrayed by an actor here. That would have been rather distracting and hokey. Also, the concentration camps are referred to, but not shown. Some might view this as irresponsible, but since the film is portraying members of German society who lacked real knowledge about the full atrocities of the SS, it frames the story well.

Overall, Lilli Marlene is a gorgeous, and thoughtful film. It exemplifies the mix of ideology and aesthetic grandiosity that make Fassbinder an important film maker.

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