Max Färberböck’s Aimée & Jaguar , from a screenplay by Mr. Färberböck and Rona Munro, based on the book by Erica Fischer, deals with a taboo-smashing wartime love affair between two women of contrasting backgrounds and temperaments. Lilly Wust (Juliane Köhler), a German officer’s wife, mother of four boys and casual, pro-Hitler anti-Semite, becomes enraptured by Felice Schragenheim (Maria Schrader), a covertly Jewish member of the underground and a promiscuous lesbian in her spare time away from her job as the editorial assistant of a pro-Nazi publisher. Lilly and Felice give each other the pet names of Aimée and Jaguar, respectively, almost at the beginning of their relationship.
They write passionate letters to each other, and Felice even writes a poem to celebrate her undying love for Lilly. Lilly is willing to give up her husband and children in a divorce action so that she can live out the rest of her life with Felice. But these are real people in a real world of war and hatred-in short, the bomb-ravaged Berlin of 1943 and 1944, a madhouse of men and women living recklessly for the moment, most of all Lilly and Felice.
Mr. Färberböck thought at first that this material was not for him, but for someone like the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In Nancy Ramsey’s recent New York Times interview, the director says he changed his mind on his way to Berlin to meet a producer to turn down the project, when Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, came over the car radio. “Furtwängler went for a very strong emotional dynamic!” Mr. Färberböck said. “You have very destructive moments and, within half a second, the most tender violin you can hear. Filmmaking is a question of rhythm, and as I listened to the symphony’s clash of feelings, so many images came into my mind. The film chose me.”
Germany and its cinema have always had a difficult time confronting their dark Nazi past, which, even with a true story like Aimée and Jaguar, runs the risk of being trivialized or sentimentalized. It is to the filmmaker’s credit here that he never lapses into cheap nostalgia or national self-pity when the bombs are falling all around his protagonists in the chaos of Berlin in 1943 to 1944. Nor are Lilly and Felice surrounded by facile characters of Nazi evil. Felice’s hard-line Nazi editor Keller (Peter Weck), for example, remains a kindly employer to the end, though he suspects she has a dangerous secret that he dare not fathom.
Yet there may be objections raised to an alleged “normalization” of the Nazi past by making it serve more as background than foreground of a lesbian love story, even one that ends unhappily because of Nazi bigotry and brutality. Indeed, the ever-present danger to Felice makes the love scenes with Lilly seem as if they are perched on the edge of a precipice. The carnival atmosphere in nightclubs and hotels during this period is reminiscent of musicals made in Germany with a distinctively Latin beat. This is Berlin, after all, not Bavaria, and the people of Berlin-cosmopolitan to the core-voted against Hitler’s party in 1933. The Nazi regime despised the women of Berlin because they preferred having a good time to working for the Fatherland in factories. One wonders if the Gestapo was as relentless in its pursuit of lesbians as it was of Jews and male homosexuals, since in the end it was Felice’s Jewishness that did her in and not her flagrant lesbianism.
When Lilly’s husband, Günther Wust (Detlev Buck), discovers his wife’s deviant involvement with Felice, he is shaken to his core as a man, but he offers to forgive her if she desists from her “unnatural” behavior. When she refuses, he threatens-not without hope in the Nazi judicial system-to take her children. Lilly’s bourgeois parents never take such a harsh attitude. Lilly’s father even embraces Felice as a gesture of making her part of the family. Still, there is a suggestion in the film that Felice’s love for Lilly costs her her life sooner rather than later. Once the damage is done and Felice has been arrested and deported to a death camp, Lilly spends the rest of her life in good works, notably by sheltering three other Jewish women from the Nazis.
Lilly Wust is now 85 and living in Berlin. Five years ago, she told her story to Erica Fischer, and the 1994 book was written after long discussions, research, and careful study of the letters and poems that she and Felice had written to one another. Ms. Schrader and Ms. Kohler do full justice to the characters of Felice and Lilly by delighting in the intoxicating humor and emotional excitement over their discovery of an unexpected affinity. They do full justice also to the spasms of jealousy that wrack Lilly during Felice’s unexplained absences, and to Felice’s final, fateful, almost suicidal decision to reveal to Lilly that she is Jewish. But Felice cannot help herself. She refuses to join her underground group in a well-planned escape from the Nazis because it would involve leaving Lilly. Any blame we may be tempted to place on Lilly is tempered by her lifelong devotion to the one great, liberating love of her life. For Lilly, as for Felice, this is what love is all about.
The Tortoise and the Engineer
Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us , from the director’s screenplay, based on an idea by Mahmoud Ayedin, may not be your cup of tea, and it certainly isn’t mine. But it deserves some attention as the kind of high-minded and humane film that has earned the respect and admiration of many dedicated cinephiles around the world-particularly at film festivals, those quasi-religious ceremonies of the cinema, as the late André Bazin regarded them.
If you have seen Mr. Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997), winner of the 1997 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, you may find The Wind Will Carry Us somewhat similar in concept and execution. A single man from the city drives through a rural countryside in what turns out to be an absurdist enterprise. Actually, the absurdism is piled on more heavily in Wind than it was in Cherry . A friend remarked that The Wind Will Carry Us reminded him vividly of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot , and I can see his point.
The only “acting” part in the conventional sense is given to Behzad Dourani, who plays the “Engineer” in charge of a crew dispatched from Tehran to the remote village of Siah Dareh in Iranian Kurdistan. After driving around for a while in voluble confusion, the Engineer and his unseen (but not unheard) crew are met by Farzad, a young boy from the village who has been appointed to serve as their guide. In these and subsequent encounters with other villagers, the camera is in long-shot and the soundtrack in close-up, thus preserving all the time the stony grandeur of the rural landscape.
At first, no one in the village seems to know the mission of the newcomers. The prevailing view among the inhabitants is that the outsiders are archaeologists looking for buried treasure in an old cemetery. Curiously, there is never the slightest flicker of greed or even curiosity over the incursions of the strangers. Instead, everywhere the Engineer goes, he is treated with generosity and hospitality, which leads one to wonder if Mr. Kiarostami is entirely accurate sociologically about rural behavior, or if the Engineer is seen from a Pirandellian perspective simply as a benign benefactor shooting a movie on location.
What the Engineer and his crew are really seeking in the village is a filmed record of the colorful funerary ceremony that will follow the death of an aged crone known as Mrs. Malek, who is said to be dying. Between you, me and the lamppost, the buried-treasure story sounds more plausible than the funeral-ritual story. But that is just one of the many problems I have with the production.
Unfortunately for the Engineer and his companions, Mrs. Malek refuses to cooperate with the mission and proceeds to get better and better, exasperating the Engineer to no end. An assignment that was supposed to require a few days has now been stretched out to a few weeks, and there are repercussions from the Engineer’s superiors in Tehran.
Here Mr. Kiarostami hits a high note in his absurdism, as the Engineer is compelled to drive up a hill every time his beeper goes off because he cannot answer the call down in the valley. On one of his hillside jaunts, the Engineer converses amiably with a well-digger, also unseen, just below the hillside. After his last disagreeable phone conversation, the Engineer spots an indigenous turtle wending its way slowly nearby. The Engineer is so frustrated by all the delays in his project by this time that he expresses his malaise by tipping the turtle over so that it cannot move any further, a metaphor for his own immobility. In an American movie, the animal-rights people would have gasped at this gratuitous act of cruelty, and then would have waited patiently for the protagonist to return to undo his malicious mischief. Nothing of the sort happens here. Instead, the camera returns to the struggling turtle and shows it righting itself into a mobile position. The moral is clear: These “backward” people have learned instinctively to survive without any benevolent intervention from the outside.
The Engineer does, however, make one contribution to the community, by alerting the farmers to the plight of the well-digger trapped in a caved-in hillside. He lends the farmers his car for the rescue and is instructed by a visiting doctor on a motorcycle about the abiding miracle of life taking precedence over the dismal nothingness of death.
This movie was beautiful to look at, but it seemed to me very, very long for what it had to say. It’s your call.
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