Wee and wild Willie (Hanna Schygulla), a born seductress, knows how to play both sides of the game. The romantic lover of a rich Swiss Jew named Robert Mendelsson (Giancarlo Giannini) – a man whose wealthy family is deeply involved with the Jewish resistance as those that make falsified documents and smuggle assets out of Germany for their fellow Hebrews, not to mention their deeper involvement with the Jewish paramilitary terrorist organization Haganah – Willie finds herself in a peculiar position when she becomes one of the most popular singers in the Third Reich (and all of Europe). Naturally, Robert’s father David Mendelsson (Mel Ferrer) – one of the richest Jews in Switzerland – finds Aryaness Willie to be a lady with most dubious intentions, with her German ancestry being “enough” to make him “suspicious” of her. Although Willie admits jokingly that she is “Aryan back to the Stone Age” in terms of racial ancestry, she is genuinely in love with Robert and vice versa, but they picked a most unfortunate time to fall head over heels for one another. Robert’s father David goes behind his son's back and uses his quite questionable political influence (i.e. money) to have Willie declared a 'persona non grata' by the Swiss government and an expulsion order is declared so that Willie cannot enter the country, thereupon severing the two miscegenation-celebrating love birds' relationship, at least geographically speaking. Like Schygulla’s character Maria Braun in Fassbinder’s previous cinematic success The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Willie’s separation from her Yiddish beau only strengths her motivation to go on with her rise to fame paralleling the upsurge of wartime chaos in Europa. Needless to say, Willie displays a real ‘triumph of the will’ to be able to juggle her rise to Nazi fame as a fascist diva with her rebellious reputation for rabid Rassenschande ("race defilement") and rampant racial treason due to her love for Robert and behind-the-scenes activity with the Jewish resistance. Both Udo Kier (as “Drewitz”) and R.W. Fassbinder (in an uncredited role as “Gunther Weissenborn”; Führer of the Jude resistance) play members of the shadowy Jewish Underground. Interestingly, upon superficial glance, there seems to be no innate difference between members of the Jewish resistance and members of the Gestapo in terms of their dapper fascistic leather-clad dress style and dubious conspiratorial actions as Willie soon learns herself, but the same can be said of the numerous unknown soldiers from both the Axis and Allie powers, who look to the song “Lili Marleen” for a few moments of solace in between bloodshed and brutality.
At the conclusion of Lili Marleen, it seems that only the Zionist international network has won the war with Willie’s romances having withered into bitter resentment, the Jewish Mendelsson family coming out of the war completely unscathed and more prominent and powerful than ever, and with many of the ‘good German’ characters corpses rotting away in a far off land, Fassbinder’s dark wartime romance is not an uplifting cinematic affair, thereupon putting it in bittersweet synchronicity with the song that guides the film’s dispiriting essence. Although I thought absurdist German auteur Christoph Maria Schlingensief was playing another preposterous prank when he argued in the documentary Christoph Schlingensief und seine Filme (2005) that he believed Fassbinder was more influenced by the campy melodramas of Nazi filmmaker Veit Harlan than the Hollywood melodramas of Danish-German filmmaker Douglas Sirk, the aesthetic influence of the man who directed the National Socialist arthouse flick Opfergang (1944) is more than obvious in Lili Marleen, especially during the ‘Strength Through Joy’ party scene where determinedly decadent Nazi officers take a ride down a figurative slide of doom, not to mention the Third Reich style inter-titles and Harlan-esque set-designs featured throughout the film. Writing-off the Nazi Party itself as something akin to a big show business act of sorts as especially epitomized in a number of Riefenstahl-esque rally-like performances given by protagonist Willie, Lili Marleen is hardly the sort of World War II film you would expect Hollywood to produce, even if it is Germany’s cinematic equivalent to such a fundamentally formulaic style of film, albeit riddled with Fassbinder’s pronounced pessimism of strikingly Spenglerian proportions, thus it should be no surprise that the reluctant Nazi singer meets her Jewish beloved on ‘Oswald Spengler Street’ during a happy yet hopeless scene where the two lovebirds temporarily reunite and make love. One almost must appreciate the irony of a scene in Lili Marleen where Willie’s Nazi handler mentions that despite the fact that Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels feels that the singer's popular song lacks “the spirit of National Socialism,” the tragic tune was enjoyed by no less “6 million German soldiers” via Radio Belgrade.
On why Fassbinder refused to portray Jews as exclusively honorable and holy characters as Hollywood and most of modern German cinema does, he stated in an interview: “I think that the constant practice of making Jews taboo, which has existed since 1945 in Germany, can lead to an antipathy towards Jews, especially with young people who have no direct experience with Jews. As a child, whenever I met a Jew, someone whispered to me, that’s a Jew, act polite, be friendly… I was never able to think that was a correct attitude…philo-Semites are anti-Semites who love Jews…I cannot say I am not unaffected about what happened to the Jews in the Third Reich. But I am absolutely more unaffected than those who are attacking me.” As for why Fassbinder portrays the Jewish underground, especially those tied with the Mendelsson family, as two-faced Zio-Gangsters of sorts, a statement he made in another interview offers possible insights: “The Bourgeoisie needed the Jews in order to stop despising its own attitudes, to be able to feel proud, important and strong. The final result of such subconscious self-hatred was the mass annihilation of the Jews in the Third Reich. It was really an attempt to weed out what people didn’t want to acknowledge in themselves. This relationship means that in some way the history of the Germans and the Jews is linked for all time, not just during the period from 1933 to 1945. Something like a new original sin will be passed on to people who are born and live in Germany, a sin that is not less weighty because the sons of the murders now wash their hands in innocence.” As depicted in Lili Marleen and countless other films Fassbinder directed over the years, especially during his late period, the anti-fascist filmmaker certainly carried this supposed burden of “original sin,” albeit quite antagonistically, thus the importance of his films historically and culturally, especially when combating the one-sided kosher propaganda of Hollywood.