August 29, 2007

The woman from whom Marlene stole Lili Marleen

I love "Lili Marleen"! It is archetypically German, artless, yet deep and full of heavy melancholy. A young German soldier, Hans Leip, wrote the words 1915, in WWI.

"Marlene showing her loyalty to the 3rd Division."
I've never seen a more absurd euphemism. Loyalties indeed, my behind! When I walk my dogs in bad weather I hide my loyalties in green gum­boots.

To be honest, I do heartily dislike Marlene Dietrich. Was there really any NEED baring her legs to American GIs while her brothers were killed in Russia (metaphorically speaking)? No doubt whatsoever that it was right to support the American war effort, but it wouldn't have finished the war one day earlier had she stayed at home in Hollywood or had at least kept her legs covered. As it is, she appears as both, a war profiteer and an attention whore. So many Jews, who, different from her, HAD suffered, came back to Germany after the war, including Lucie Mannheim, another notable performer of yet another version recorded by the BBC in 1943. What effect did that pompous "...never on German soil again!" have, but some brownie points with the Americans? Germany had become a seventh-rate-entity when it came to arts and entertainment anyway. Gosh, WAS her anti-Germanism a cheap shot!

Here's the background: In 1940, a song appeared which, at first, nobody seemed to like. It was called "Lili Marleen" and Lale Andersen was the singer. Her feminine voice seemed somewhat incongrous for words, supposedly those of a soldier recalling the farewell from his girl in front of the barracks gate. After its launch, the record remained on the sales shelves. No one wanted to hear it.

By sheer chance, in 1941, "Lili Marleen" became the hallmark of the German armed forces radio station "Soldatensender Belgrad", broadcasting to the German occupation army in Yugoslavia.

The rest of the story is history. The slow, melancholic tune became addictive to all who listened to it, first the Germans from Spitzbergen to El Alamein. Later, people, soldiers, all over the world hummed the melody to themselves or sang out loud "Vor der Kaserne, vor dem großen Tor…" ("Outside the barracks, at the great big gate…"). In its melancholy, its artlessness and simplicity — the antithesis of dyke-drama-queen Marlene's version. And, as some might say, a voice of normality and humanness in the ferocity of war and thus so appealing to every soldier on both sides.

Unknown until then, the singer, Lale Andersen (Lieselotte Helene Berta Bunnenberg) born on March 23, 1905 in Bremerhaven, Bremen's seaport, became a star. A woman as unpretentious as the song, that led her into a legendary personal drama, when the borders between song and singer disappeared as it happens often if an artist is strongly identified with one performance only. For millions of listeners, Lale Andersen became Lili Marleen and the song for her both, her lucky charm and curse. However, at the height of her fame, Goebbels banned the singer from performing and from leaving the country because of her correspondence with Jewish emigrants in Switzerland. But in the meantime, the song had become so popular and the soldiers' demand for "their" Lili Marleen so high, that Lale Andersen was allowed to perform again after nine months.

Lale Andersen had considerable talents, one of them was the performance of folksongs in Plattdeutsch, the tongue of her native North Germany, but she continued after the war to sing Lili Marleen at every concert, and up unto her death, as if it were her only tune and her only talent. She sang it in other languages as well and it always made me smile. How can anybody sing as little as: "Outside the barracks…" and it is clear ALREADY that she is from Bremerhaven?

Lieselotte Helene Berta Bunnenberg, Lale Andersen to the world, died on a promotional tour in Vienna today, 35 years ago.

Norbert Schulze, who wrote the tune of "Lili Marleen", was (before the end of WWII, that is) a prolific composer of military marches, usually to aggressive texts. It is a sort of historical irony that this soft, un-martial song would be what mainly survived from his work. After the war he composed quite a few popular, though, somehow not surprisingly, unmilitary, tunes again and used to be, for many years, President of the GEMA, the only too-important German society for the protection of performing rights for composers, arrangers, authors and publishers. He died on October 14, 2002 in Bad Tölz at the age of 91.

The "Official Lili Marleen Page" contains several versions of the song, including the original version from 1939, Marlene Dietrich's version and the bitter parody recorded by the BBC in 1943, performed by Lucy Mannheim.