Only one song can reliably make me weep, and then only when rendered in German, a language I barely understand. That song of course is "Lili Marlene," which by happy chance is now the title of a book by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller. And what a story they tell!
Begin with Lili and Marlene, for they are actually two women. The first is rather plain-"black hair tied in a bun, thick arms, a round, alabaster face," as the authors describe her. Marlene (actually Marleen, but the authors wisely decided that the Anglo-American spelling is too embedded for challenge) is more glamorous. What they have in common is proximity to a Berlin barrack in April 1915.
Enter the poet. Hans Leip is a cadet in the Prussian Guard, who on a foggy night steals a kiss from Lili but can go no further because he's late for sentry duty. Soon after, he's blessed by the presence of the naked Marlene in the hall outside his bedroom, only to have his landlady (Lili's aunt, as it happens) interrupt the tryst.
What's a frustrated young man to do? Why, write a poem! In minutes the verses are finished, melding Lili and Marlene, standing her at the lamp-post outside the barrack gate, and-crucially-putting her in the past. Now the composite Lili Marlene is remembered by the sentry, later in the war, imbuing him with all the aching loneliness of all the young men who will march off to battle in that bloodiest of centuries.
Thirteen years later, "Song of a Young Sentry" is put to music by a Berlin tunesmith named Norbert Schultze. Again the work is done in minutes, and again Germany is marching to war, so Schultze dresses up the melody with a bugle call and some drumbeats to suit the prevailing mood. The composition is recorded by a cabaret singer called Lale Anderson.
Then comes the war, and the recording is banned. Mr. Leibovitz and Mr. Miller quote no less an authority than Josef Goebbels, the Reich propaganda minister: "A dance of death lingers between its bars," Goebbels complains, coming as close as anyone to explaining why "Lili Marlene" will soon bewitch soldiers of all nations.
Among them is Lt. Karl-Heinz Reintgen, sent to Belgrade to set up a radio station to entertain the troops in the Balkans. Among his few assets is a box of old records, including Ms. Anderson's banned disk, which he broadcasts for the first time on August 18, 1941. To his astonishment, the station is deluged with letters from North Africa, where the German-Italian Afrika Korps is locked in seesaw combat with the British Eighth Army. Four thousand letters a week! The recording is in such high demand that the lieutenant fears it will wear out, so in a momentous decision he restricts it henceforth to the last three minutes of his broadcast day-9:57 p.m. in the desert, as it happens.
Now the letters arrive from Britain, and even from the United States (with a $20 bill enclosed, and a request that "Lili" be played for a friend in the desert). Three minutes till ten has become a de facto truce in the North African campaign, while German landsers and British Tommies stop their war in order to hear Ms. Anderson's throaty lament, sometimes actually sharing a radio across no man's land-"throbbing lingeringly over the ether," as a British officer later recalls, "the sweet, sugary and yet almost painfully nostalgic melody, the sex-laden, intimate, heart-rending accents of Lili Marlene."
Toward the end of 1942, the Americans join the North African combat, and Lili Marlene goes worldwide. And of course it is rendered into English, most famously by Tommie Connor, creator of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and other musical landmarks. Alas, the British songwriter's version has none of the ambiguous sting of the original. There's another and better English-language version, supposedly recorded by Ms. Anderson in 1944, which can be found on the internet, but which Mr. Leibovitz and Mr. Miller ignore because its bona fides are suspect.
By the authors' reckoning, "Lili Marlene" eventually inspires 39 movies and television shows, 200 recordings in the United States alone (by stars from Marlene Dietrich to Hank Snow), and bans by governments from East Germany to South Vietnam. (It wasn't Hans Leip's or Tommie Connors's verses that annoyed the Saigon regime, but a homemade variant called "A Rainy Evening on the Frontier.")
For all its wartime and postwar success, however, the single great version remains the Schultze-Anderson recording from the fall of 1938, before the "dance of death" was leached out and the saccharine ladled on. Hear it (and the English-language versions as well) on Afrika Korps dot org. Listen and weep, and thank these two young men for bringing Lili to life again.
The review was written in 2008 for the Wall Street Journal. Since then, alas, the Afrika Korps website has gone out of business, but you can listen to Andersen's version on YouTube. And you can still buy the book on Amazon.com!
Vor der Kaserne, vor dem grossen Tor
Stand eine Laterne, und stebt sie noch davor,
So woll'n wir uns da wieder seh'n:
Bei der Laterne wollen wir stehn,
Wie einst, Lili Marleen--wie einst, Lili Marleen!
And here's how I would translate those lines:
By the caserne*, by the barrack gate,
There stood a lamp-post, and if it stands there still,
We must meet there again:
We must stand by the lantern again,
As before, Lili Marlene--as before, Lili Marlene!
As a song, why is this so affecting? I suspect it has to do with the the repetition of "Lili Marlene" in the last line of each stanza. As Norbert Schultze wrote the music, the first cry of "Marlene" is on a rising note, as if to confirm the joy of their reunion. But the second cry is on a descending note. The young soldier knows in his heart that he'll never recapture their idyll under the lamp-post--that he'll die in the war, or if not, that Marlene won't be there when he returns.
*Caserne poses a bit of a problem for the translator--in English, it's only two syllables, but in German it sounds as three. And strictly speaking it doesn't mean a barrack but a small, self-contained military installation within the city limits. Here for example is Coligny Caserne in Orleans, France, where I spent the bulk of my U.S. Army career:
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Posted July 2016. Websites © 1997-2016 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.