La Habanera

La Habanera (1937) was the last film Douglas Sirk made for the Nazis, before he fled Germany in 1938. It stars Zarah Leander, the Nazis’ answer to Garbo and Dietrich.

The film is, of course, a melodrama. Leander’s character, a Swede vacationing in Puerto Rico, is charmed by the romance of the tropics and swept off her feet by the romantic local landowner. She jumps ship, stays in Puerto Rico and marries the landowner. Cut to ten years later; she is miserable, and dreams only of returning to Sweden. But her husband, revealed as a corrupt dictator and a jealous sadist, won’t let her take their son away with her if she leaves. Meanwhile, an old flame of hers, a doctor back in Stockholm, comes to the island with the double aim of rescuing her and finding a cure for the mysterious “Puerto Rico fever” that kills hundreds yearly. You can imagine where this is going. The picture ends “happily,” with the landowner himself dying of the fever that he didn’t want cured, and Leander returning home with the dashing doctor.

The film works as Nazi propaganda, since the bad guys are associated with US-style capitalism, and since the Aryan woman is recalled from the dirty tropics to her pure and proper racial roots at the end. Still, there are many signs of Sirk’s irony, undercutting the official ideology of the film in much the same way that irony worked against the overt messages in Sirk’s 50s Hollywood melodramas. (By applying the same doubling strategies to the films he made for Goebbels as to those he later made for Ross Hunter, Sirk in effect validates Theodor Adorno’s gloomy observations on the similarities between out-and-out fascism and the ultra-commodified “administered society” liberal democracies were more and more turning into; though Sirk of course has a lighter touch, and an empathy with the characters whom he depicts as subject to these constraints; Sirk is utterly free of Adorno’s elitist disdain and condescension for anything even remotely popular).

For one thing, Sirk’s irony is evident in the ways that he makes the heated tropics seem appealing; so that when Leander is about to return to Sweden at the end of the film, she seems to be more regretful than anything else at the prospect of leaving the island. The use of the title song, “La Habanera,” as a leitmotif throughout the film, sustains the mood of fantasy and romantic regret (both of which would be utterly repressed in the Aryan homeland). At one point, Leander sings this song, wearing sort-of ‘native garb,’ in a hypnotic performance, with the camera lovingly dwelling on her face in a moment that nearly attains a von Sternberg/Dietrich level of camp hysteria.

But the greatest scenes in the film are those betweeen Leander and her nine-year-old son, who comes out as a perfect, idealized specimen of blond Aryan youth (despite the swarthiness of his father). The child is an utter mama’s boy, who yearns desperately for the Sweden he has never been to, playing with a sleigh and dreaming of the snow he has never seen. Leander sings several duets with him, all about snow and winter and longing for the homeland: these scenes are cloying, static, suffocatingly oedipal, and gorgeously designed in exquisite contrasts of extreme light and dark, black and white. These scenes are as over-the-top delirious as anything Sirk later did in Magnificent Obsession or Written on the Wind; they theatricalize and estrange the film’s ostensible ideology in ways that were presumably not available to the original audience, but which seem glaring in retrospect.

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