I purchased La Habanera for two, very different reasons. At the time, I was exploring melodrama in my own work and was interested how other directors have treated the genre. Douglas Sirk, the director of La Habanera was an acknowledged master, but I had only seen his American, not his German films. I was curious to see if his vaunted visual sophistication was present before he went to Hollywood. I also wanted to get a sense of what standard, non-political German film from the Nazi era was like.
The second reason proved more important, because, while not explicitly political, it is difficult to overlook the film’s division of the world into right thinking “Nordic” types and everyone else. The story revolves around the dissatisfaction of a Swedish woman (Zarah Leander) who, on a visit to Puerto Rico, falls for a rakish local baron (Ferdinand Marian). They marry, with unhappy consequences, although exactly what is wrong between them is never clear. Leander is rescued by an idealistic physician (Karl Martell) who knew her in Sweden. He’s visiting Puerto Rico to fight a tropical disease that American officials are trying to cover up for fear it will interfere with tourism. (A crude touch that rings remarkably true regardless.)
Any criticism of this kind of story is pointless, since the film operates on an emotional logic that has nothing to do with rational discussion. It is no doubt for that very reason that Sirk flourishes, for La Habanera is indeed a lush, lovely example of his skills with décor and lighting. The film should remove any doubt that German cinema continued its high level of technical achievement during the Third Reich.
It is this very tendency to overwhelm the rational that leads many academic film critics, particularly feminists, to describe melodrama positively as “subversive.” For example, Marian, despite being positioned as the problem in the story is, in many ways, the most interesting and appealing character. (Marian is a darkly handsome Mephistopheles; Martell is stalwart, but more than a touch dull.) No doubt Sirk enthusiasts would argue that the director’s treatment undercuts the dubious message that Aryans monopolize virtue, that the film’s excessive style and over-ripe empathic appeal transcend the story’s retrograde politics.
The problem with the “subversion” scenario is that it so often feels like wishful thinking or special pleading. Sirk’s finesse certainly raises La Habanera above its dime novel content. It is questionable, however, whether the style works against the story. It seems likelier that most viewers walked out of theaters convinced that Leander finally makes the “right” choice. Even if audiences thought she had made a mistake, however, I doubt German authorities lost any sleep over their conclusions. Sirk’s style may be beautiful, but “subversion” without purpose is little better than mental nose thumbing, an excuse to value what you otherwise cannot admit you enjoy, impotent at best, dangerous at worst. For no one knew how to exploit emotions better than Adolf Hitler.