A Sierckian Double Image: The Narration of Zarah Leander as a National Socialist Star

By Ascheid, Antje | Film Criticism, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

A Sierckian Double Image: The Narration of Zarah Leander as a National Socialist Star


Ascheid, Antje, Film Criticism


Introduction

Zarah Leander was without doubt one of the most popular female star figures of Nazi Germany, arguably even the most popular, male or female, within and beyond the borders of the Third Reich. She was known both as an actress and a singer and not only received one of the highest wages paid to an Ufa star at the time, but also sold recordings of her songs in various languages, including French and her native Swedish.

Her rise was as sudden as it was orchestrated. In 1936, the German Ufa signed Leander, a virtually unknown stage performer from Sweden with only scarce film experience, to an exclusive renewable three film contract that promised the future star compensation of 200,000 Reichsmark, of which 53% were payable to her in Swedish Kroners. On renewal, her wages increased even further, and in 1940 Leander entered an agreement with Ufa committing her to star in at least five films, to be produced over the following two years, for a total of 1 million Reichsmark. This salary put the star ahead of every other Ufa employee of either sex, topping such established performers as Emil Jannings, Hans Albers, and Gustav Grtindgens, and far surpassing any film director. Her films, with few exceptions, rank among the most popular and profitable in NS-film history.

Moreover, Leander's meteoric rise and enduring popularity did not end when she returned to Sweden in 1943 and consequently fell out of favor with the Nazi propagandists. Instead, she continued her career after the war, starred in further--however, much less popular--films and successfully traveled the world giving concert tours until her retirement in 1978. Zarah Leander died in 1981, yet she remains an icon in the gay community even today. New versions of her songs have been recorded by popular contemporary performers, and her persona is recreated by German drag queens nearly as frequently as is Marlene Dietrich or Judy Garland.(1) Many of Leander's films are regularly aired on German television, especially the Detlef Sierck classics Zu neuen Ufern/To New Shores, (1937), and La Habanera (1937), and even overtly propagandistic texts like Die gro[Beta]e Liebe/The Great Love (1941/12) are available on video. A Zarah Leander fan-club still exists in Paris.

Leander's career, as did that of Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, began in her native Sweden, where she performed in various musical revues and acted in three films. She was first noticed by the German film industry when, in 1936, she starred in her first German language role, the stage musical Axel an der Himmelstur, in Vienna. Her part, a Garbo-parody that had the newcomer exclaim such confident self-announcements as "Would you like to see a star?" introduced Leander to the German speaking public in the very role that Ufa officials, desperate to replace a Marlene Dietrich in exile, were seeking to fill: the role of the diva. Leander, as an instant "femme fatale," subsequently functioned as a "double" in several ways. On the one hand, she was an "inauthentic" celebrity, one who would never quite surpass her initial "ersatz" function, and on the other hand she was doubled in and of herself, insofar that she had to appear dangerously seductive and self-sacrificingly pure at the same time. In fact, Zarah Leander's star publicity was marked by a special emphasis on her two-fold persona.(2)

The necessity for this kind of doubling, which one also finds in other female stars of the period--aside from the general problematic many feminist film critics see as inherent in the representation of women in patriarchal society--in many ways derived from the repressive conception of femaleness that Nazi ideology propagated during the Third Reich. National Socialist philosophy declared that women's central contribution to the German people was that of wife and mother, and hence limited them to bearing children and rearing them in the home. Consequently, women were largely excluded from universities and driven out of the work place. …

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