One of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s later, more elaborate works, Lili Marleen is a loaded package that fairly aches to be controversial. It is definitely enjoyable, even if you realize how problematic its giddy exuberance is. Indeed, the pleasure is the problem, perhaps intentionally, certainly with consequences.
The film provides a highly fictionalized biography of Lale Andersen, a popular singer in Nazi Germany. Her career skyrocketed with the recording of “Lili Marleen,” a melancholy love song that captured the imagination of troops on both sides of the fighting. Despite the subject, however, Lili Marleen has little to do with the war, Nazism or Andersen. (Even Hanna Schygulla’s character’s name has been changed from Lale to Willie.) If the film is about anything of substance, it is about how popular culture can be used as a weapon.
To suggest that, however, is probably giving Fassbinder too much credit. The film may have started as a serious look at fascist culture, but the results are almost defiantly not serious. There are plenty of Nazis in the film, but the worst that can be said of any of them is that they have bad taste. And Fassbinder dodges any issues about antisemitism by giving Willie a Jewish lover (Giancarlo Giannini) who risks his life smuggling Jews out of Germany.
Which points to where the director’s heart lies, the gaudy flourishes thrillers, overripe melodrama and extravagant production make possible, not how fascism exploits any of them. The production design and cinematography sparkle and there are moments of sheer high spirits that, even if we recognize we have temporarily jumped on the fascist bandwagon, are exhilarating.
But the defense that he is making us aware that we too can be moved by fascist aesthetics is too easy (and, by 1980, the year of Lili’s release, too old and familiar). Yes, Lili is entertaining, but probably more for Fassbinder than anyone else. Working at the height of his powers, he is having too much fun to worry about the morality of his creation. He even has the gall to show concentration camp prisoners paused in their labor during some of the musical montages as Willie sings, as if they too were moved by the cheap sentiment. With his ’30s spy chic walk-on in leather coat and fedora, it is clear that Fassbinder is recreating this environment for itself, not to make any serious criticism of it.
The notoriously obstreperous director seems begging to be taken to task. I’ll oblige: Lili Marleen takes cover under the pretense of saying something about fascism, but is ultimately more about the director cocking a snook at anyone who questions his methods. When hapless soldiers or concentration camp workers are treated as decorative kitsch, that arrogance is highly questionable. Rebel Fassbinder may have been, but fascists were initially rebels too. His attitudes begin to smell strongly of the nostalgia that dares not speak its name.