Der Bewegte Mann (Maybe Maybe Not) (1994)
The scene is almost familiar. The time is the Second World War, and a beautiful singer with a deep voice has come to entertain the troops; she has been quarreling with her boyfriend, a dashing air force pilot away at the front, and during her concert she will try to boost her own morale along with everyone else’s. Her first number begins somberly, with a verse written in a minor key, vaguely Hebraic, like the German jazz-age numbers Marlene Dietrich sang in The Blue Angel, or like some American torch songs from the late Thirties and early Forties. The chorus is rousing, waltzlike. The camera moves back and forth between the singer, her conductor (who is secretly in love with her), and the soldiers, who eventually lock arms and sway, joining in the choruses.
If the movie had been American, Alice Faye, perhaps, or Betty Grable, or even Dietrich, could have played the singer; but the movie is German, released in 1942, called Die Grosse Liebe, and stars Zarah Leander, the full-figured basso contralto from Sweden and Nazi Germany’s highest-paid, most glamorous movie star. Leander, who looked like a combination of Dietrich and Garbo, with a trace, somehow, of Loretta Young, often played versions of herself. In Die Grosse Liebe, she is Hanna Holberg, famous Berlin Revue singer. Hanna’s conductor is Viennese, and the concert is being given in Nazi-occupied Paris, in a grand salon; the swaying soldiers are wearing Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and SS uniforms. The song’s lyrics are knowing but upbeat: the title “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter” means “the world isn’t collapsing.”
Eventually, Hanna makes up with her boyfriend, played by the Sudeten German matinee idol Viktor Staal: they agree to marry, quarrel, then separate again, and finally are reunited after his plane is shot down. (The story is set in 1941, against the backdrop of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.) Hanna gives up her career to nurse her husband back to health and, it is later suggested, as Stukas fly overhead just before the credits, help win the war. At her final concert, at a theater in Rome, Hanna sings what would become Leander’s signature tune, her “Over the Rainbow” and wartime Germany’s “White Cliffs of Dover”: “Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen.” (“I know someday a miracle will happen.”)
By the end of the war, nearly 28 million Germans had seen Die Grosse Liebe, the most popular German movie up to that time. As with all German films made during the Nazi period, every aspect of its production was controlled by Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry; from the earliest days of the regime, feature films, with subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, messages of service to the Reich, or, for that matter, with no particular message whatever, were an irresistible opportunity for exerting control over public opinion. During the war, when Germans, like Americans, were going to the movies in record numbers, the stakes …