When a major artist such as Fassbinder bombs, the results can be stupefyingly silly, as they are in Lili Marleen. Everything that was so right and hypnotic about The Marriage of Maria Braun, his one undisputed masterpiece, goes awry in Lili Marleen. The ironic tone is way off, the camera effects are gratuitous, the editing facile and the melodrama messy. Oddly enough,the two movies are sisters of a sort: Maria Braun symbolized Germany after the Second World War while Lili Marleen is, apparently, a reflection of the German mind before and during it. Both women represent
apathy and become pawns in a larger story. Maria Braun, her love for her lost husband unrequited, threw herself headlong into business success; Willie, the girl who becomes famous as Lili Marleen by singing the song of the same name (again played by Hanna Schygulla), has been separated from her one great love as well. The difference is that the barely talented Willie has success thrust upon her. She’s Maria Braun lobotomized, but lucky.
Fassbinder keeps intercutting Willie’s rise within the Reich hierarchy and to stardom, with the submersion of her lover, Robert (Giancarlo Giannini), into the Jewish underground in Switzerland. Yet the director seems so detached from his material that the lovers’ passion seems more a plot ploy than the governing emotion.
There is no denying that Fassbinder can do everything short of tap-dance with a camera. There are elegant tracking and dolly shots, scenes filtered and distorted through panes of glass, and gauzy cinematography catching light splashing off virtually every object in sight. All of this cinematic doodling comes to very little. When somebody lights a cigarette in Lili Marleen it’s like the special effects at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Willie is used by the Reich as a means of boosting morale, but when it’s decided her song doesn’t fit into the concept of National Socialism she becomes somewhat useless. The minute she does, she is very useful to the Jewish underground, smuggling a piece of film out of Poland for them. During her extraordinary success all Willie can think about is her beloved Robert. After all, Lili Marleen is “just a song” to her. Meanwhile, Robert has been caught and tortured in a room where a broken record of the song keeps endlessly replaying. Naturally, he nearly goes mad.
So do we for that matter. That damn song keeps coming back. Amazingly, Fassbinder has neglected to show what it meant to others. During the performances of it (which are very poorly staged) the director, in a grade-Z move, keeps cutting to dewy-eyed soldiers and the carnage of war. The case will be argued that this is irony. However, irony endlessly repeated and without subtlety comes close to schlock.
Making his most expensive and commercial film, Fassbinder seems to have lost interest in the project before it was begun. When Willie finally has the chance to be reunited with her lover, fate has different plans for her, as it did for Maria Braun. Robert has now become a conductor and he’s conducting Mahler’s Resurrection. That is as close as Lili Marleen comes to life. It has no heart and, come to think of it, not much of a head either. —LAWRENCE O’TOOLE
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