Saturday, August 3, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Zarah with a Zee

To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized -- or at least apolitical.
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp" 

 It struck me this morning that it's been far too long since we spent a little time with that Nazilicious star of stage and screen, Miss Zarah Leander.

Here we see the Teutonic Hummingbird (well, Scandinavian, really, but it's in German that she made her mark) in a big number from her 1937 epic Premiere, a backstager that was filmed in Vienna.  It's a tad disorienting; the broad strokes are all pure Hollywood - a mix of Warner's Berkeleyismo and RKO Moderne - but with little details that by '37 would never have passed U.S. muster, among them the rather fetishy tux-and-garter-belt-clad chorines and the upskirt shots when they've changed into filmy evening gowns.

To me the highlight is the moment when, for no apparent reason, the stolid diva wanders offstage and into what at first looks like a cocktail lounge on the Normandie, but which rapidly becomes one of the odder shooting galleries one can imagine, setting the stage for the number's abrupt ending.  I'm not sure that a Hollywood lady would have put up with either the shocking lack of closeups or the, for want of a better word, bulky costume with which she is saddled - an unflattering combo of white satin and what looks like black latex that clearly gives her trouble on the steps (note the crotch grab - not something one can see Irene Dunne getting away with, no?).

A number like this is riding on a knife's edge.  It's nothing but bubbly kitsch, really, indistinguishable from hundreds filmed before and since (well, maybe except for the top-hat trampling - that's a neat little bit).  But, at the same time, it's burdened with the time and place in which it was filmed.  Those garter belts wouldn't have been verboten only in Hollywood - they seem like a last shred of Wiemar excess, a touch of depravity that La Leander left behind decisively shortly after filming Premiere, as the film's success proved to be her entrée to a contract at UFA in Berlin and her subsequent elevation to wholesome semi-official diva of the Third Reich.

"Ich hab' vielleicht noch nie geliebt," she sings, "Maybe I've never loved."  Maybe she never did, except herself.  The woman long perceived as her great rival, Dietrich, was every bit as self-obsessed as Leander, but considerably less short-sighted.  She was able to glimpse, beyond her narcissism, the cataclysmic upheavals that engulfed the world as she rose to stardom and made her choices accordingly; Leander didn't.  She wandered out of Premiere's soundstage shooting gallery to the evil heart of a real one, and while she emerged more or less unscathed, physically, her choices reveal a spiritual vacancy that colors every moment of her subsequent career.

Like her fellow state-approved superstar, Riefenstahl, when faced after the War with the choice of being seen as a collaborator or a dupe, Leander chose the latter.  It preserved her career, after a fashion, but it makes it impossible today to see her as anything but a kind of glamorous patsy, amoral not in the enigmatic Dietrich fashion (her own woman to the core), but as a joke, endlessly bellowing "Wunderbar" on a hundred tacky European chat shows.  Camp may be apolitical, per Sontag, but life is not.

If you're interested, Premiere is available in full here.  Give it a whirl and let me know if it reaches any greater height of dementia than we've already seen.


  1. Camp this number may be, but one cannot help but muse upon what horrible fate awaited Frau Leander's «Sicherheit Homosexuellen» under the Nazis (by whom she claimed to be so duped) ... Jx

    1. That's it exactly - as with others involved in Nazi culture (or what passed for it), the survivors had to make themselves out to be idiots to try and excuse ignoring what went on around them. Leander seems to have been fairly blithe about it, actually, as if being Swedish somehow gave her an easy out. As for Leni, watching her try to justify her history (in the film Wonderful Horrible Life) is one of the queasiest things I've ever seen.