AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
BERLIN 1981 – THE 31ST BERLINALE FILMFESTSPIELE
♪♫ OUTSIDE THE BARRACKS...♫ ♫...
by Harlan Kennedy
"It's only a song," says the singer. Holding sway in Berlin cinemas, at a disdainful – even defiant – distance from this year's Berlin Film festival, Fassbinder's new movie Lili Marleen packed in eager filmgoers and created the biggest division in critical opinion, home and foreign, that even this schism-prone filmmaker in forty-odd movies has wrought. Berlin critics have given the film a resounding and near-unanimous "Nein". Other West German and foreign critics have registered confusion and fascination in almost equal measures.
It's hardly surprising. Fassbinder's almost unbelievably switchbacking career over recent years, bucking between mini-budget oddities like The Third Generation and international biggies like Despair and The Marriage of Maria Braun, have given his followers severe attacks of short breath and giddiness. Where's the next movie going to come from, they ask – Fassbinder the opulent Ophulsian or Fassbinder the shoestring Bohemian?
Lili Marleen, it turns out, comes in the first category, but so explosively that it practically bursts its own screen. Confronted by this visual feast set in Nazi-era Germany – with Hanna Schygulla (of Maria Braun) as a Dietrich-like chanteuse plying the legendary song through the flowers of fame and the fires of war – many critics were rocked back into reflex reactions. They tut-tutted at its glories and called it High Camp.
True, Lili Marleen is not the austerest of films. True, it does not tread lightly or soberly on post-war German sensitivities. True, Springtime for Hitler sometimes bobs into the mind as a reference point. But the film is far more than an empurpled reductio ad absurdum of the Nazi-chic tropes that have been common currency in the movies since Visconti's The Damned.
Fassbinder weaves a fictional story around the famous song that leaped trenches and crossed battlefields working its magical sehnsucht on both Allied and Axis alike in World War II. Though Marlene Dietrich didn't originate the song, her smoky lethargy is inextricably linked to it – she sang it, of course, for "our side" – and Fassbinder mantles his own heroine in her mournful magnetism.
The film's brilliance, though, lies not in the conjuration of a kitsch nostalgia but in capturing a picture of wartime Germany as vertiginous, hubristic and fulsomely cankered as the Roman Empire pre-Decline and Fall.
Fassbinder's songstress-heroine, who springs in giant steps up the social ladder with her immortal hit song until she's on calling-card terms with the Fuhrer himself, is a human being growing from poor-girl ambition into superstar automatism; by the final scenes she is clothed in an iconic splendor of metallic silvers and grays that make her seem like a war-machine herself.
The counter-force pulling her back towards a feeling humanity is a passionate love for a Jewish composer-conductor, played by a blonde-thatched and somewhat improbably Teutonic Giancarlo Giannini, who makes good his escape to Switzerland to live with his loyal wife and refugee father, played by Mel Ferrer.
You've hardly been in the cinema five minutes before you realise that what's happening upon the screen is a brainstorm of visual creativity. Fassbinder's visual strategy in Lili Marleen is both tougher and more brilliant than the chocolate-box baroque of Despair or the art-house anemia of Maria Braun. Color is resplendent and systematic, and compositions are a chunky-dynamic alliance of four-square Art Deco and Wellesian depth-of-field. Fassbinder allows visual associations to steal into your head so slowly and subtly that the high-point moment of discovery is stunning. One example: there's a scene in which one of the lead characters, a Nazi officer whose feelings for the heroine are more than purely comradely, is worsted in a confrontation with her, and suddenly Fassbinder isolates him, in a "one shot", at bay amid a sea of tawny-gold lampshades. With a trip-hammer realisation in the visual memory, we're aware that this color has been linked with the heroine all along – ever since her humble-gaudy beginnings in cheaply glittering cabarets.
Few color films, indeed few black and white films, have ever made better use of chiaroscuro than Lili Marleen. Fassbinder deploys it not to swathe the movie in aimless film noir atmospherics but to build a tenaciously symbolic counterpoint of light and shade. In scenes of menace, Fassbinder borrows a leaf from Fritz Lang and crowds down bars of darkness over the characters' heads. In night scenes, points of light are consistently diffused by the camera-lens into criss-crosses which suggest the double-threat of the star and cross. In a little climactic coup of allusive brilliance – a sort of Close Encounters of the Third Reich – Fassbinder shows Schygulla and her Nazi officer mentor disappearing into Hitler's office through a giant doorway awash with blinding-white, extraterrestrial light.
Lili Marleen also testifies to Fassbinder's perennial love of using glass for visual effect: windows, screens, and mirrors provide fold upon fold of trompe l'oeil. Fassbinder employs glass both as a form of multiplication-illusionism (mirrors to open out a scene or multiply the labyrinthine richness of his sets) and as a tantalizing filter to reality, a way of frosting his characters into history and legend. There's a startling scene in Lili Marleen in which the camera tracks along a rich, rectangular, glass-screened gallery away from the talking characters who gradually recede. Continuing its tracking, the camera smoothly makes a ninety degree turn down a second corridor shooting on a triangular axis and distancing the actors behind one, two, three layers of glass. And reflexed-triggered, like one of Pavlov's pets, you find yourself sitting forward in your seat intent upon a moment of time as it's being taken from you.
The biggest gamble the movie takes with visual hyperbole – and wins – is the intercutting technique used during Hanna Schygulla's repeated singings of the song. Cutaway inserts of soldiers in trenches, prisoners in concentration camps, bodies hurled against an exploding sky (from which we cut to flowers cascading onto the stage) could have been sledgehammer propagandist vulgarity. But Fassbinder has already built to the operatic climax – it's his target as much as his tactic in the movie – and the effect is stunning. Metaphor compacts time and in one flashpoint vision the song is seen to be fuelling the war, the war to be fuelling the song. It's Fassbinder's strength in Lili Marleen that he never stops short of hyperbole - he confronts it, overleaps it and goes further.
Around the film's periphery – especially in the casting – there's no shortage of Fassbinder quirks and foibles to irritate his detractors and lend them ammunition. The usual rogues' gallery of F's repertory troupe is on hand: his mother Lilo Pompeit wears the latest choice in fright-wigs ( bright orange) and there's also Fassbinder himself, wrapped in leather, wearing black pebble-glasses and looking like Peter Lorre attacked by the beard of Karl Marx. And why not?
For the most part the magic of Fassbinder's masters – Sirk, Ophuls, Visconti, Chabrol – has rubbed off on their pupil to produce a true genie from the lamp. Lili Marleen takes the hydra-headed mythology of a popular song and compresses it into one character and one doomed and complex thrust of history. By distilling the emotional and mass-cultural undertow of an epoch, the film has more to tell us about the roots of tyranny, and the submission of the tyrannized, than many a worthy documentary on Nazism packed with historical fact and takeaway indignation.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY-AUG 1981 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.