Lili Marleen: Fassbinder’s take on Nazism.


Rainer Werner Fassbinder is famous for having spun out a large number of films before he died of a heroin overdose at the age of thirty-seven. It’s almost as if he knew he had a deadline date to try to get as much out there as possible. I’ve stocked up on a few Fassbinders this weekend – but Lili Marleen is the first of his that I’ve seen. It may not have been the best to start with, but it certainly doesn’t mean I’m not keen to continue with the exploration.

The first thing to say here is that this film was just made too quickly. There is brilliance behind it, but as with many artists who don’t push themselves properly, I found I was left unsatisfied. The annoying issue here is the film that slipped through the cracks – the one he didn’t take the time to make – would have been brilliant. The one he made is like a Derridean signpost to the one that might have been.


An English/German co-production with dubbed English dialogue and an evidently substantial budget  it was based on Lale Andersen’s novel The Sky Has Many Colours and tells the story of the famous song that gives the film its title. Its history is intertwined with the romance between a German-Aryan Zurich cabaret singer named Willie (Hanna Schygulla) who made it famous and a Swiss Jewish composer, Robert Mendelsson (Giancarlo Giannini), whose father David (Mel Ferrer) is a wealthy businessman engaged in helping Jews flee Germany and the burgeoning National Socialist phenomenon. Willie’s singing career parallels the rise and fall of Nazism. The central question of the film asks, is it right to use something like Nazism for personal gain, even if you are not sympathetic to its central tenants?

What is wonderful about this film is the hyperbolic melodrama and clever Fassbinder exploration of Nazi Kitch. This could have been so exciting if it weren’t for all the short cuts. The zooming camerawork becomes dull we see it so regularly. The song (the joke on us is that Willie can’t sing)  we have to hear over and over again. To stress this point the song is used to torture her lover at one point as he is held captive in the same repetitious monotonous way as it is used to torture us. The film becomes almost unbearable at this point, the melodrama turning ridiculous and our interest in the characters stirred in a perpetual motion like the song till  it completely dissolves. The start of the film (the better part – or perhaps I was just more excited about the project at that point?) is the better half. The second part is rambling and therefore what should be an exciting storyline becomes something that just fights against the first half.

Fassbinder liked to make films from a female point of view because he preferred what he considered a female way of thinking which was, he believed, dialectic. This means that not only is there a thesis and antithesis but also a synthesis of perspectives. Therefore we have Nazis and underground fighters in a chiastic relation:  that is the villain is victim and the victim is villain. Fassbinder wants us to see that black and white / good and bad / perpetrator and victim are not clear-cut dialects, but rather a synthesised chaotic mass of interpretations, motivations, misinterpretations and multiple desires.

However, in a world view based on logic, good and bad can have nothing to do with each other. They exist as each others polar opposite. Because Fassbinder wants us to see that synthesis – while possible – isn’t occurring, the relationship is the sacrifice as each represents a pole apart from the other.


I would like to make mention of the use of color, which is brilliant, and not let down by the speed in which the film is made (like the philosophy above). Aspects of the direction are exciting – the  use of doors as a portal to awareness. I love how people changed after they had been through a door, or they way they stewed in their own self behind a door they couldn’t get through. There are also some allusions to the famous German studio UFA, which are very nice.

Fassbinder also seems to be enjoying showing us the NAzi regime through external representations they themselves hoped exposed (hid) them. However, it is impossible to sustain or incorporate phallic representation. Every reference to a romantic utopia, to a fusion of reality and screen representation is elided in Fassbinder’s aesthetics. In Lili Marleen, he rewrites history through some of the historical mythology that was part of the fascist ideals.


Hanna Schygulla’s Willie, who is transformed to incorporate the song, Lili Marleen, which she performs over and over again, upholds the mythology of the Marlene Dietrich the Germans loved to hate and loved to love again. She becomes the great star of the German Empire, the metaphoric gestalt of victory. She represents the transcendent force in the new medias, the melodramatic, popular force of cinema, of a song that transcends frontiers and languages. The little fragment of the song “wieder sehen”, that becomes an instrument of torture for Robert, Willie’s beloved, contains all the melodramatic longing in the world.

Although Willie is transformed into a realization of this longing, of the experiment of the fascist ideal come true – as in the bedroom scene, where she kisses her own mirror image (I loved that scene) – she is clearly not presented by Fassbinder as a defense for fascist ideology. This becomes quite clear in the final song, where Willie is presented as a phallic, silvery, Oscar-like gestalt in the middle of the great Nürnbergian choreography, that totally swallows her. The icon disappears, the metaphoric center dissolves in the glittering light of the pomp and circumstance. What is shown here on the screen is the sign of lack and absence in the very center of visuality. The celebration of voyeurism as an insight or unveiling is negated. Instead, Fassbinder presents to us the hollowness of the major themes of fascist ideology: the mass, the mother and the spirit of power.


What fascism then demonstrates in the shades of light that Fassbinder offers, is masochistic and homosexual alliances in their most extreme form. Human suffering becomes internal and related to (the longing for) the force of the mother. She is the one who is obeyed, feared, longed for, and ultimately (inevitably) excluded.  The masochistic or homosexual men are placed both in the Jewish colony in Switzerland and in the top rank of the German officers. They are presented as feminine ( the feather scarf of the propaganda minister and the masquerade of Robert), and they act as a consequence of the mothers law: “I love you”. Robert doesn’t fear any kind of torture, as he doesn’t really fear his father. He is ready to forgive Willie – and the fascist pop-culture – were it not for the mother, who forces him to go and receive the applause of the public in the concert hall. The public, the spectators, the audience “can’t wait”. They are the real narrators of every drama. The performer, the director, the star is their hostage.

Bodil Marie Thomsen adds this wonderful observations in the essay The Spy and the Cabaret Singer:

One of the central utterances is in the scene where the spy Robert is exchanged for a documentary film showing a German concentration camp. The German officer pays almost no interest to the film, and answers, when he is asked (by Robert’s father), why it was not possible to exchange more Jews for the film: “You can copy a film, not people”. This is the answer that makes it justifiable for Robert’s father to denounce Willie, who actually smuggled the film out of Germany. The film could have been copied anywhere – in Germany before the smuggling and in Switzerland before the exchange. This is perhaps the most solid and cruel statement of the film: When reality is documented in a film, it can – like any fiction film – be copied and altered according to the purpose the public wants it to serve. It can result in joy, longing desire or torture as the song Lili Marleen. It can give a vague reference to reality, but the product itself will always be artificial. It is this insight, that the public all over the world wants to dismiss. We want to believe in history although most of it is ideology. We want to believe in big leaders or big ideologies that act as saviors or as evil incarnate.

The problem here, is that all of this simply isn’t explored deeply enough. These are wonderfully exciting ideals, but this film – this photocopy rather than a real film – should have brought this exciting subterranean dialogue to the surface more. What could have been a masterpiece is hidden behind repetition, a confused script and actors without the time to delve deep enough into their characters. While I am excited to watch more Fassbinder films, I do know it will be a long time before I see Lili Marleen again.