Sunday, November 25, 2018

Lili Marleen

There's a difference between what people see and what they perceive. Take this performance:

I suspect that for many younger viewers, it means nothing. The song means nothing. The performer means nothing. It's not a part of their world.

In a sense, Dietrich was before my time. She was born in 1901. However, her life intersects with mine in complex ways. My maternal grandmother was born in 1885 (I was 19 when she died) while my parents were born in 1918. So Dietrich was an older contemporary of mine. Older than my parents, but young than my grandmother. Older relatives extend our contact with the past by connecting us to their past. They are living history.

As a kid, my parents took me to see classic movies from the 30s-50s, which included Dietrich. When I hit adolescence I took an avid interest in gorgeous, glamourous movie stars like Dietrich.

My parents had an LP of a Dietrich concert, which I used to listen to as a kid. But watching her perform "Lili Marleen" has a different vibe at this stage in my life than as a wet-behind-the-ears teenager.

Her father died when she was about about 6. She lived through two world wars. She was a teenager during WWI. During WWII she entertained Allied troops. Lived with them. It was a very dangerous assignment. She might have been killed or captured. In that regard she was admirable.

But according to the vindictive expose of her estranged daughter Maria Riva, Marlene was cruel and self-absorbed. It's possible that Riva's resentment creates a somewhat distorted or one-sided impression. However, her combative relationship with Maximilian Schell in his documentary confirms the brittle glassy image.

She was a survivor who triumphed over adversity. Unlike Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn, Dietrich had too much self-respect to remain in the limelight after she could no longer project the illusion of agelessness. She became a recluse in old age. A lonely alcoholic addicted to pain-killers. Yet lonely by choice.

She had an open marriage and numberless affairs. According to her, Jean Gabin was the love of her life. I believe there's footage of her searching for him in a tank bridge on the battlefield, with falling snow.

She was raised Lutheran. She said she lost her faith during WWII. I find that implausible. She was a cabaret singer in Berlin during the Twenties–which was notoriously decadent. So I doubt there was a turning-point during WWII. She seemed to be an infidel her entire adult life. Her autobiography is said to be unreliable because she confabulates to shape and consolidate her legend.

She was discovered by Josef von Sternberg. Her breakout role was The Blue Angel. During the twilight of her career as movie star she transitioned to become a nightclub songstress. I believe the video clip of her performing "Lili Marleen" (see above) was shot when she was 72. She looks amazing.

"Lili Marleen" was the most popular WWII song on both sides. In general, footsoldiers don't fight for ideology. What keeps them going is a sweetheart waiting for their return. My father was a WWII vet who mentioned comrades in his barracks writing a letter everyday to their sweetheart back home.
Despite her ruthless cynicism, she sings this number with great pathos. It reflects the longing, loss, bittersweet nostalgia, futility, and resignation of the godless. Grasping at a few fleeting moments of transcendent intensity. They slip away, beyond recall.

From a secular perspective, Dietrich no longer exists. All that's left is celluloid.

It's instructive to compare Dietrich with church widows. Dietrich never left her apartment for the last decade of her life to protect her image of ageless beauty and glamor. By contrast, there are elderly women in church who do whoever they can to be a blessing to others.


  1. the sources i have come across state she claimed to have lost her faith during ww1, not ww2...

  2. "She was raised a Lutheran."

    Apparently Lutherans don't have a good track record of maintaining their own: