La Habanera is a significant film for several reasons. It was the second German feature for Zarah Leander (born 1907 in Sweden) and it established her status as Ufa’s leading female star. Leander was a singer and an actress (on stage and in films) who began in Sweden but later moved to Austria and performed in German. She was seen by Detlef Sierck in Vienna and recommended to Ufa in 1936. Sierck (Sirk) directed her in two films in 1937, Zu neuen Ufern and La Habanera, the two films being released in the last quarter of the year. La Habanera was also seen as a success for Sirk, becoming a major money-spinner for the studio. The plot of the film and its genre elements place the film in the context of similar films in Hollywood and the UK. It is noticeable that some of the biggest female stars of the 1930s were actresses who were also singers and/or dancers: in the UK Jessie Mathews and Gracie Fields and in Hollywood Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland, as well as Marlene Dietrich were big stars. After 1939 Leander’s songs arguably made her more money than her films – she stayed in Germany and acted in Nazi productions up to 1943. Made during the period when Goebbels had established control over German cinema and was beginning to push projects that were openly propagandistic, La Habanera offers a typical Sirkian approach in which the nods towards Nazi ideology are possibly undercut.
The narrative begins in Puerto Rico, a ‘stop-off’ on a cruise taken by Astrid Sternhjelm (Leander), a young Swedish woman and her aunt Ana (Julia Serda). Aunt Ana is not impressed by a local singing event nor by a trip to the annual corrida, but Astrid is captivated by a local wealthy landowner, Don Pedro de Avila (Ferdinand Marian). When their ship is about to sail the next day, Astrid makes a last minute decision to stay and eventually marries Don Pedro. For ten years Astrid has no contact with Sweden but then her Aunt sends a pair of doctors to the island as part of her charitable work. They have a mission to investigate ‘Puerto Rico fever’. Dr Gomez is Brazilian but Dr Nagel (Karl Martell) is Swedish. He knew Astrid ten years ago and is charged with bringing her back. Meanwhile Astrid has decided to leave the island with her 9 year-old son, because Don Pedro has turned out to be a traditional patriarch who now wants to take over the boy’s education and make him into a true ‘Puerto Rican male’. The sub-plot about the fever involves an attempt by the local medical authorities to pretend that the fever doesn’t exist. A previous visit by American doctors resulted in bad publicity that damaged the tourist trade and potential investment opportunities on the island.
(The following comments draw on the interviews conducted by Jon Halliday in 1970 and published in an expanded form in Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997.)
The presentation of Puerto Rico is a mixture of fantasy and plausibility as the film was shot on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. In 1937 Puerto Rico had been under American control since 1898 and its people had been American citizens since 1917, although without full rights. The Canary Islands and Andalusian connections are ‘real’ in the sense that migration to the island from those regions contributed to the demographics of 20th century Puerto Rico with a mestizo majority formed by intermarriage between African, European and Native American indigenous peoples. The European élite represented by Don Pedro has been a minority. The ‘Caribbean’ presence is an important part of the film’s narrative, but not the African. The racial difference and ‘othering’ of the local population by Aunt Ana in particular (expressed in the English subtitles as “filthy natives”) fits in directly with Nazi propaganda. However, other elements in the film don’t attempt to create a distinct local flavour. I don’t know how the police were dressed in Puerto Rico in 1937 but I doubt they were dressed like the Spanish police on Tenerife.
The film’s dialogue is of course entirely in German. However, music is an important part of the film. The film’s title La Habanera appears to refer to the Cuban musical genre which became popular in the 19th century. The literal translation is ‘dance of Havana’. Bizet incorporated the musical elements in his opera Carmen and one of the opera’s most famous arias is known as ‘Habanera’ and sung by Carmen, a girl from a cigarette factory in Seville. The song in Sirk’s film with the same title is a different song in terms of both music and lyrics. Sirk himself wrote two of the songs sung by Zarah Leander as Astrid in scenes with her 9 year-old son Juan. Sirk used the term ‘melodrama’ in reference to his first major feature Schlussakkord (1936) and he appears to have used the term in its original meaning of melos (music) plus drama. In retrospect film scholars now tend to see many of Sirk’s films as melodramas. La Habanera is an obvious example and Zarah Leander was known for her singing as much if not more than for her acting. However, La Habanera begins as a romance but develops into a drama including thriller elements and comic moments as well, some focused on the actions of the Brazilian scientist Dr Gomez (Boris Alekin). It concludes in melodrama mode.
The big question is the status of the film as a Nazi propaganda vehicle and why Sirk was prepared to make it. Sirk referred to himself as a leftist and with his Jewish wife he was clearly in a very difficult position. By 1937 he was desperate to leave Germany. He explained that he realised in the early 1930s that as a film director rather than a theatre director/manager he stood more chance of becoming known internationally and possibly leaving the country for work abroad. His wife was given a passport because the Nazis hoped she would leave the country and that he would divorce her. In 1937 she was in Rome and Sirk had been able to get a passport himself in order to travel to Tenerife. A passport was necessary to apply for an American visa. After returning to Germany to edit La Habanera, Sirk then got permission to travel again, to Rome, to research his next film project ‘Wilton’s Zoo’ which was never made. Instead, with his wife he ended up in France via Switzerland then the Netherlands and from there to America before war broke out. Some of Sirk’s stories seem like just good anecdotes but this was a most unusual period and Sirk was in great demand as a director, with both Ufa and Goebbels wanting him. Many of the major German directors had already left the country.
During the shoot for La Habanera, when the island was a stronghold for Franco, Sirk claims he saw or heard about a concentration camp. Goebbels had complete control over the German film industry and he eventually realised that straight propaganda material was not as effective as strong entertainment films in which Nazi ideology was embedded in the film more subtly. La Habanera was the ideal film. Sirk had made Leander a star and this was a musical romance drama in an exotic location. The scriptwriter Gerhard Menzel according to Sirk was a talented writer who had won a major literature prize but who became a Nazi as it became apparent that it would be difficult to work otherwise. The story he came up with has as its basis the idea of a woman who travels to an exotic land and finds romance but eventually realises that she must return to Sweden (which here stands in for Germany) in order to reach the safety of the Aryan homeland (heimat, a German concept and a German film genre). The film also presents the Americans in a poor light, particularly the ‘Roosevelt medical team’ who fail to control ‘Puerto Rico fever’. The film could also be seen as anti-colonial and anti-capitalist which fits the overall Nazi ideology stance. But the figure of Don Pedro is problematic. It isn’t clear at the beginning of the film, but Don Pedro turns out to be the most powerful man on the island. He works hard to suppress knowledge about the fever in order to not risk investors withdrawing from his businesses, but at the same time he is happy to accept the deaths of 200 people from fever if it saves 2,000 workers dying of starvation when his businesses fail. It isn’t difficult to see Don Pedro as a dictator rather like Hitler.
It’s not giving too much away to reveal that Don Pedro is ‘hoist by his own petard’ and that Astrid and her son can leave the island for Sweden. Arguably, Sirk’s boldest move is to have Astrid dressed as a local woman when she sings a habanera song for Don Pedro’s party guests in the film’s climactic final sequence. I enjoyed watching the film and certainly I enjoyed Zarah Leander’s singing. I was struck just how much the film resembled Hollywood films of the 1930s and into the 1940s. The cinematographer on the film was Franz Weihmayr who had shot Sirk’s two previous films so we can assume that Sirk got the shots he wanted, including the opening and closing images of a choppy sea. Ferdinand Marian, like Zarah Leander, went on to feature in major productions of Nazi cinema such as the notorious Jud Süß (1940) and Münchhausen (1943). By all accounts, La Habanera was a box-office smash. I wonder what kinds of emotional responses the film provoked for its German audiences? Were they slightly confused in terms of the ideological implications? Here’s a French trailer for the film including both Leander’s habanera and a brief moment when the ‘Toreador song’ from Carmen plays at the local bullfight.