Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Saga of Lili Marlene

I've been Donnie Downer recently because of the news so now for something lighter.
Lili Marlene was one of the most memorable songs from World War II. It started as a poem written by a German soldier during World War I. The poem tells the story of a sentry on watch remember the beautiful prostitute he would meet under the street lamp outside the barracks. This soldier remembers his love for this girl, how he would rather have gone off with her than gone to war. He thinks painfully of who will be meeting her under the lamplight while he is gone and he longs for the time he can leave the battlefield behind and return to his lady of the lamppost.

Lale Andersen
The poem was put to music in 1938 and became wildly popular when performed by a 34 year-old Berlin cabaret singer named Lale Andersen and even more popular when she recorded it in 1939. The song was not at all popular with Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. He believed the song undermined the soldiers at the front with its longing for love and peace. Goebbels banned the song and forbade Andersen to perform anywhere. However, Andersen was too popular, he allowed Andersen to return to the stage but ordered her to not perform Lili Marlene. That didn't stop Andersen's adoring public from begging her for the song and when she refused the audiences would sing the song to her. In 1942, Goebbels ordered Andersen to record a martial version of the song.

The Allies had their own songstresses. Marlene Dietrich had been a Hollywood star since 1930 but by 1937 she was no longer the "German Garbo" and her films generally failed. Nazis tried to lure her back promising she would be the biggest film star in the Third Reich. Dietrich responded by immediately applying for US citizenship. After the war started Dietrich recorded both an English and a German version of the song. Her German version was the original song made famous by Lale Andersen and was broadcast frequently by the Allies to German troops in Europe and North Africa. Dietrich's English version was very different and more closely resembled Goebbels' pro-war lyrics.
When we are marching in the mud and cold
And when my pack seems more than I can hold
My love for you renews my might
I'm warm again, my pack is light
It's you, Lili Marlene
It's you, Lili Marlene
~ Marlene Dietrich's English language lyrics
England's songbird Vera Lynn recorded an English version that, while not a direct translation, was more in the spirit of the original poem. French singer Edith Piaf performed it too.

The song is haunting especially in German and you don't need to understand the language to feel the song. There are at least two statues in Germany dedicated to Lili Marene. There is one on the island of Langeoog where Lale Andersen lived and this one in the town of Munster.

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