To Live According To the Decision-makers, Not By Your Own Will and Mind – To Be At the Mercy of A Political System and/or Family Patriarchy

Fassbinder’s “Lili Marleen” is the story of love between a courageous fighter with the injustice and cruelty of Nazism (Robert Mendelssohn – Giancarlo Giannini) and a woman gifted with liveliness, a person with a sensitive soul (Willie/Lili Marleen – Hanna Schygulla), whose relationship was destroyed by the interests of political groupings (which are often incompatible with “anarchic” and “stubborn” youthful love).


Introductory note (youth and militarism)

For young people sexual need is almost never only sexual – it’s impregnated by or enveloped with passion to emotionally bond with, correspondingly, girls or boys, close in age. The ultimate reason for this is the phenomenon of the eternal return of the mother (in the form of Lacanian object petit a) – the passionate need for the mother psychologically hidden inside the need for intimate partners. Sexual desire is organically connected with the need for emotional closeness to others, to project/to share our feelings. The hierarchical adults feel oblige to control and direct the youth “carrying the baggage of irrational sentiments and anarchic sexual desires”. The decision-makers – socio-political leaders and the heads of the families try to lead the youth away from various “self-indulgences” to “serious adulthood”: the ability for “rational perception” of human life. But in “real life” “serious adulthood” means either participation in the militaristic plots the elder males seduce the young into, through propaganda of glorious violence and violent glory, or cutthroat socio-economic rivalry or conformist career-making. Today the intensity of these “rational” “adult” activities traumatizes the psyche – stimulating defensive psychological fragmentation (for example, separation between love and sex) and making human beings much more indifferent to other people.

The elder males with the need for domination need the young to advance the social elite’s megalomaniacal plans for social and international dominance through military force and money power. The powerful and the wealthy need “the young bodies” not to spontaneously love one another, but to fight/kill/die for the goal of “serving their country” (in the name of which those at the top of the social hierarchy need to advance their ambitions). “Only through helping your country to advance itself in the world, only through believing in exceptionalism of your country the boys will become exceptional men”! The elder males in charge are prone to create wars or, during peaceful times, extreme rivalry situations trying to tear the young people away from what youth really wants – to love, and they lock them in trenches and put them in ultimate fight dens and profit- and poverty-making offices. They program the young to become uniformed murderers and self-sacrificial martyrs. And they gave them high-tech drugs to make it more natural for young people to be torn away from their loves and mothers. This is the semantic basis, on which Fassbinder made his “Lili Marleen”. The young German guys in the trenches, in the bunkers and in the barracks listen to Lili Marleen’ song feeling the presence of the girls and mothers they have left for the sake of loyalty to Hitler and Germany, in their hearts.

But is it something like being sissies in sitting in the trenches and crying while listening to Lili Marleen’s song about separation from loved mothers and beloved girls? “Real men must fight for their country and hate their enemies who’re out to destroy ‘us’ and our way of life!” But it is not because they are sissies that the German soldiers reacted on Lili Marleen’s song about the tragic separation from women’s love, but because love for all ages, but especially for the young is a life asserting experience and as such “objectively” it is much more valuable than destruction of life. They love and suffer from being separated from love not because they want to use love not to fight (hate is much easier than love, and to kill is psychologically much easier than to nurture another human being), but because they, with the help of Lili Marleen started to feel that loving a particular human being is superior occupation than “violent hate” and military aggressiveness with its glory, bravery and bravado. Yes, the simple and not educated German woman Willie (Hanna Shygulla) was transformed by the fascist wars of occupation and by her personal experiences of separation from her beloved into a pedagogue of existential love as a spiritual experience. Unfortunately, it was too late to save the innocent German youth from the war of aggression and unconditional belief in their leaders, and too late for her to reunite with her own beloved.


Gruppen-Fuhrer Henkel – Are you German?
Willie/future Lili Marleen -Yes
Henkel – Why are you in Switzerland? Too Many international rogues here – immigrants like Jews, intellectuals and Gypsies.


Fassbinder with Hanna Shygulla (Willie/Lili Marleen) and Giancarlo Giannini (Robert Mendelssohn)

Fassbinder plays in the film the leader of an anti-Nazi underground organization, which is different – a much bigger and with more universal responsibilities than the one under the leadership of Robert’s father David Mendelssohn.

Youthful love archetype (Robert, Willie and the world)

Willie is trying to cheer Robert who is depressed because of his father‘s despotic ways, always justified by impeccable logic. But Willie doesn’t know yet what or who makes Robert so subdued and rigid – she knows that she loves him and he loves her. So, she doesn’t understand what’s wrong – why sometimes he looks so unhappy? But pay attention to the size of Willie’s ice cream dish, as if, it can to transform the whole world into eternal sweetness.

Robert (Giancarlo Giannini) and Willie (Hanna Shygulla) are caught in bed by Robert’s comrade in arms Aaron (Gottfried John), and this has humiliated Willie’s lover very much – to be like a little boy in the perception of whole underground organization.

Love for Robert makes Willie cheerful and hopeful. By her visceral optimism she makes it easier for him to withstand suspicion of his father, friends and colleagues

Robert’s love makes Willie feel as though she is the very foreground of his musical talent, and he is behind her with his great future. And she is ready to dedicate her own dream of becoming a singer to his future success as a musician. According to the composition of this shot, Willie’s love keeps Robert as though inside something like a “piano box” of his future success, and she is ready to nurture him there and envelop him with her care and help.

Family relations and ethnic and/or ideological community archetypes (the decision-makers in Robert’s life)

Robert’s father David Mendelssohn (Mel Ferrer) – a highly educated and an intelligent man and a leader of anti-Nazi group trying to help Jews

David wasn’t very friendly with Willie (when worried about Robert she unexpectedly appeared in his house in Switzerland), because he is afraid that the German girl, as attractive as she is, but with her knowledge of Robert’s underground connections can be not discreet enough in her casual chats with other Germans.

David Mendelssohn is checking fake passports for the Jewish people (to the right of him Fassbinder’s mother Liselotte Eder in an episodic role)

Aaron (Gottfried John) is always suspiciously alert and distrustful of his friend and comrade in arms Robert

The members of the organization aren’t hiding from Robert their concerns about his relationship with Willie. He understands their worries and tries to assure them that he has the situation under control, but he senses that under the rational layer of their Willie-worries lurks an irrational distrust activated in them by the militancy of the Nazi ideology of Arian superiority. It’s, as if, Nazi ideology’s absurd claim to German global exceptionalism made the members of anti-Nazi group to wish to prove German weaknesses and inadequacies.

Archetype of macro- and militant political organization (decision-makers in Willie’s life)

Gestapo high rank Kauffmann (Roger Fritz) is checking Robert’s, as he thinks – fake identity

SS-officer von Strehlow (Erik Schumann), who, during the war helped Willie to transfer to the anti-Nazi Jewish organization (clips with information about German concentration camps,) is represented in this shot near a foggy (the fog signifies the coming defeat of the Nazi enterprise) portrait of Joseph Goebbels. Why did von Strehlow help Lili Marleen? Was it understanding that Germans are losing the war made him betray his country? Or sympathy for the Jews? Or, may be, the main reason was more than sympathy for Willie/Lili?

SS-Gruppen-Fuhrer Henkel (Karl-Heinz von Hassel) uses Willie sexually in exchange for promoting her career, but considers himself her generous benefactor. Interesting about this character is that he obviously doesn’t respect not only Goebbels (whom he patronizingly calls a “propagandist”), but even Hitler. For him popular leaders (with the appeal to masses) work for people like him, who, as he thinks, represents the real “all-worldly and bottomless power of German Nazism”.

Henkel, right under the bombing of Berlin by the Allies is sending one of his secret agents Blonsky (Raul Giemenez) to trace and watch Lili’s connection with Jewish anti-Nazi underground and, may be, other contacts.

Henkel, during a celebrative event is trying to occupy the soldiers with propaganda points about Fuhrer’s wisdoms, but they’re demanding to the stage their favorite star, Lili Marleen with her song about love and torment of separation from love for the sake of war, a song many of them perceived and loved as something like an irresistible lullaby into sweet grief.

Pompous and despotic political agendas appropriate and dominate youthful love for their socio-political purposes

While the problem for Robert was to get from Switzerland to Germany, and it costed a lot of money to prepare and make fake documents, now, when Willie became a part of his son’s life, Robert’s father unexpectedly started to create problems for her crossing from Germany to Switzerland (love demands endless meetings) – the organization didn’t want to finance a frivolous and non-reliable affair: it needed members, not burdens.

For Robert it became necessary to quickly find a job to finance fake documents for Willie, and relations between the father and son darkened. Eventually, the father softened up, but the permanent pressure on Robert didn’t stop. Love as incredible, mythological power made Willie and Robert feel as though they were jugglers juggling Germany and Switzerland by their love for one another.

Robert continued to cross the border to Germany doing the business of the organization. Here, we see how Gestapo investigators secretly arranged a “casual” meeting between Willie who already became famous Lili Marleen (her career started to bring in very tasty fruits in the form of banknotes) and “her secret Jewish lover” (Robert) and covertly watched how they behave with each other. Of course, both of them (Willie and Robert) played it masterfully, but weren’t able to fool the Gestapo. Robert was thrown to the prison cell.

The torture chosen by Nazis for Robert was a constant replay of the same piece from Lili Marleen’s famous song. He almost went mad, but didn’t confess. He was eventually let go because Gestapo needed to observe the connections of both, the “Jewish criminal” and the “blind, weak and stupid wench”.

Robert explained to Willie/Lili the political and moral connotations of being successful (as a rich and famous star) in a Nazi society.

No, Robert and Willie/Lili are not just making love here. They don’t make love anymore, like before – now, when they make love they, as if, give to each other the oath of collaboration against Nazi regime in the name of their love for one another.

Personal success and career includes dependence on and surrender of personal choice to socio-political system. Vain pleasures of social success and tough ordeals connected with it. Willie/Lili Marleen’s destiny in action.

Lili’s partner in career-making (her accompanist Tascher – Hark Bohm) is sincerely loyal to her not only as a friend, but as a soulmate of a common success-making. When SS-high rank Henkel publicly insulted her Tascher intervened with a “noble lie” about their coming wedding, and for this reason he soon will be punished by being send off to the Eastern Front.

One of the main-vain pleasures of pop-stars is the ritual of signing their photos for their fans madly in love with the stardom of their stars.

SS-boss Henkel is shocked that Lili is collaborating with Jewish underground – not because she is “betraying Germany” or “dirtied by treason”, but because she is having an affair with Robert Mendelssohn (but don’t superior, Aryan men, from a superior nation have a superior procreative tools?) The Gestapo doesn’t want to arrest her – secret information is more useful, but Henkel is ready for personal revenge, which is coming very quickly.

Lili becomes for millions of German soldiers alive memory of their loves at home and personification of their loss

Lili Marleen’s art as a redemption of lost loves and castrated souls, for the first and foremost, young soldiers

Here we see a moment when for the first time Lili Marleen’s name was announced on the radio and her song was played for German soldiers around the world.

Men in uniforms are listening to Lili’s song about love, interruption of love and separation from it

Soldiers listen to the song of Lili in the trenches between military operations, and they are able to continue to fight for the victory and the glory of their country

Sailors listen to Lili in the submarines, and in these moments the war, as if, stopped for them, and their lost loves resurrect in spite of separating distance and become, as if mixed with a kind of a sweet grief

The time is inevitably moving towards Germany’s defeat. Soldiers celebrate the fact that they are still alive and that they still can fantasize about what they have lost. They take drugs (which the army provides for them) and feel that they are great.

Soldiers celebrate that they have the right to celebrate. Pay attention to the aggressive movements of their arms. Aggressiveness is mixed with a mood of sexual bravado.

Notice the officer jumping near the female performer. Spirit of the barracks, that of the battlefield and that of sexual permissiveness dance with one another

Military leadership of the Third Reich allows soldiers to tautologically celebrate celebration in order to block the feeling of despair connected with “possible” defeat

Soldiers are dancing and singing with maniacal self-forgetfulness, as if, the festive mood can freeze time and stop the movement of war to fiasco for Germany

For the sake of some viewers who can be lost in Fassbinder’s multi-handed and multilayered narrative, we make a note that the woman in white we see in the last five shots is not Lili Marleen, but a dancer/prostitute assigned to entertain the soldiers (to help them forget the reality, albeit temporarily).

When Lili, by the initiative of SS-Gruppen-Fuhrer Henkel, was taken to the concentration camp for her collaboration with the anti-Nazi underground, her song was banned. In this episode, the soldiers who are on their way to Eastern Front demand to hear Lili Marleen’s song, but people in charge are trying to subdue their wish.

Here we see Lili Marleen after concentration camp, and it was Robert, who liberated her by founding a way to announce on the radio for all soldiers the fact of her incarceration. This short announcement created a wide reaction, and Goebbels himself played a role in Lili’s urgent release. Almost dead of hunger and exhaustion, barely standing on her legs, Lili performs the song, which, according to Nazi bosses, can encourage the worn out soldiers continue to fight.

The common denominator of Robert and Willie’s destinies – of success and failure, of final happiness and final despair

The war has just ended, Germany capitulated, and a modest member of a small anti-Nazi cell (played by German film director David Schmid) contemplates about new life. This person was a guard of the organization’s hidden meeting place, but now he is a guard at the theater where Robert Mendelssohn happily returned to continue to develop his career as a composer and conductor.

Willie and the previous SS-officer von Strehlow (who helped Willie/Lili save and pass the documented material about the concentration camps to the Jewish underground) are crossing on foot from Germany to Switzerland, he to hide, she to find Robert.

But Robert now is a member of a happy and united Mendelssohn’s family and a famed musician. He looks like a child prodigy. He is mainstreamed – standardized and limited by family rituals and by the rules of building his success. And he is dutifully happy about it. He doesn’t need to make his own decisions and to risk anymore, he has reliable people around who happily enveloping him and his professional and family happiness.

Robert seen Willie who suddenly appeared in the theater, backstage between his triumphant returns to the stage, where public’s applauds demanded him back again and again. He didn’t even have an extra second to tell her “hello”. And he didn’t have a time to tell her “good by”. In a short intervals before repeated returns to the stage he looked like he wanted to talk to her, but while he was with public his future wife told Willie that they’re marrying. Willie is not the person who is prone to fight over love like people fight the enemies during war or financial rivals for extra buck during so called peace times. Willie left to nowhere – she didn’t have the intention to destroy family. Circumstances swallowed the poor happy Robert. And circumstances spat Willie out. Their destinies have been decided, but haven’t been chosen. Willie became a victim, Robert – a winner. But – Willie has lost by herself (she had the courage to leave), while Robert won by the circumstances. What does it tell us about the story of Robert and Willie?


Fassbinder’s film focuses on psychological and social organization of human life and how both structures are reflected in the human minds of the young lovers – Robert and Willie, and in their reactions on the society. The film starts and ends with their personal relationship, which socio-political life crudely and rudely intervenes in and finally fully triumphs over. We, viewers enjoy this childishly naïve and existentially beautiful love affair between Robert (son of a rich Jewish family – Giancarlo Giannini) and a simple and emotionally spontaneous German woman Willie (Hanna Schygulla), but the director makes us conscious that their love is self-absorbing, a bit vain and simple-mindedly idealistic and gives itself, without reservation, to the fatal combination of blind sentimentality and despotic sexual obsession. This potion makes love a feeling, which, like a monarch’s land, blindly fights for its determinations and self-absolutizations with any obstacle coming from outside of amorous kingdom.

While being not unreserved about youthful love, Fassbinder is severely critical about the anti-love sentiments on the part of the social structures trying to keep personal love under strictest control and finally succeed in robotizing and degenerating it. The characters in the film who personify hostile position towards personal love as “anarchic” and “resisting control” are the Nazi administrators and politicians, but so are the members of anti-Nazi secret militant organization, in whose justified opinion personal passion interferes with and disturbs its dedication to fight Nazism.

While experiencing the film we start to understand not only the fatal limitations of youthful love which is not conscious about its immanently and innocently narcissistic nature, but the social structures monstrously organized to stifle and masterfully exploit the youthful passions. Fassbinder concentrates on Robert’s intra-family ties and relations with his comrades-in-arms, and on Willie’s “common-sense” justifying her acceptance of being sexually exploited by the top SS-officer with necessities of “surviving” in the society. Of course, she never believed in any piece of Nazi ideology, but her intellectual indifference towards political reality in general is (retrospectively) alerting by its comparability with widespread philistinism in 21st century.

The fact that the Nazi regime goes pretty far in destroying love between an Arian woman and her Jewish lover is not surprising. Just to separate them would not be efficient enough for the Nazis who demanded from Willie to provide them with secret information about Robert, and for Robert’s relatives and friends who wanted the same service from Robert. It is the position of Robert’s family towards his love and his dream of future marriage with Willie is shocking (like today’s many Israelis’ position towards marriage between Jews and Palestinians). Many American viewers are not prepared for Fassbinder’s uncompromising orientation on truth (we’re used to taking sides even when no one of two opposing positions is satisfying, instead of taking courage to invent a third position contrary to the both). The reason is that our thinking is formed by the needs of the dominant socio-political structures directing our thinking by authoritarian explanation of human world.

When at the end of the film Nazism collapses, and Willie is free from manipulation and punishment by the Nazis, it is she who, with Robert’s help, also invested in Reich’s defeat by providing Jewish organization with information about the existence of Nazi concentration camps. But she wasn’t able to help Robert in the same way he helped her. Robert explained to her the truth about the inhumanity of universal fascism, truth which she with her background of being occupied with personal “survival/success” is unconsciously tried to ignore, but she already didn’t have a time to explain to him the truth about mental manipulation of their relationship by the powers on his own side. Willie left Germany with nothing except freedom and truth about her country. It is incredibly important if we are lucky to understand how much we were disoriented by propaganda on our side. But Robert is much less lucky – encouraged by his family and friends, he got the both – his professional success and his wife of the same ethnicity. With the horizon now opened by the disappearance of the enemy, he is free now to practice his musical talent and his family happiness.

After the last scene of the film, where Robert and Willie met one another for the last time we start to comprehend that Willie’s role in giant structure of German Nazism as a popular singer Lili Marleen is the same as the place of Robert in the structure of his after-war family and career. Robert becomes Lili Marleen – the rich and successful man has the same ontological destiny as the pauper Willie without the place to live. Robert repeats Lili’s existential mistake. Robert, as if, personifies Lili Marleen in the next historical epoch.

Only at the end of the film we start to get that Willie-Lili Marleen now is free to keep the truth as a homeless woman could hold onto her baby, while successful and prosperous Robert became enslaved and not able to understand it. Robert and Willie-Lili are people of the same destiny of being used by the two different socio-political structures treated them as their property. When Robert completely surrendered his autonomy (after the last courageous act of admirable but impulsive disobedience) he was rewarded generously by the standard happiness. He didn’t even had a chance to make his own decision when he unexpectedly saw Willie during his concert.

In “Lili Marleen” Fassbinder analyses the very style of manipulation of a human being by the system s/he is a part of. Intellectual virtuosity with which Fassbinder represents the final scene of the film – Robert and Willie’s meeting amidst the glory of his performance as a conductor, is more than impressive. Robert has just finished his performance and the public demanded him to the stage to reward him with additional applauds. We noticed that he desperately wants to talk to Willie but he cannot do this in intervals between his returns to the stage, forced by applauds. In short intervals Robert’s future wife tells Willie that they‘re about to marry. Of course, this information which technically can be not a lie, makes Willie leave – she still keeps the ability to react on the circumstances as a decent person. While Willie was still standing in the backstage, Robert was returning to the stage for several times in spite of Willie’s presence. Yes, he was transformed, not by deprivations, but by success. By showing that Robert is trapped in a mechanical behavior (in running between backstage and stage), Fassbinder demonstrates how the circumstances decide the destiny of the relationship between Willie and Robert-robot (not Robert’s will). Social success as one of the strategies the system uses to manipulate human beings, has become more important than freedom and autonomy. Willie/Lili at the end has lost everything except the freedom to hold the truth (of what she understood about her country – Nazi Germany, while Robert after war gained everything by the price of losing freedom in tune with the truth. All those war years Robert and Willie were equally free to love each other in spite of all the terrors of life, but now Robert has lost what he was keeping close to his heart and soul despite deadly risks, arrest and deprivations. He didn’t lose his love for Willie, he still loves her, but love stopped to be as important as before.

Posted on 9/27/2017 –   “Lili Marleen” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1981) by Acting-Out Politics