First of all, no one should ask me to watch any Holocaust movies. I can’t watch any more of these movies, I started watching them too long ago. My parents sent me to a Yiddish Sunday school, and at the tender age of four, I was introduced to a certain, almost musical kind of darkness that is Holocaust consciousness. The teachers were all suicidally depressed, and we sang songs about lambs being bound for slaughter while, for no reason at all, eagles have wings and fly high and free. They showed us Holocaust films, footage from the Holocaust, and there was nothing artful about these films: just archival footage of the murder of Jews by Nazis. These films flickered and trembled; were vaudevillian in some horrific sense. There were babies thrown up in the air and shot. There were rows of people lined up, digging graves for themselves and then falling into them after the work was done, shot by Nazi soldiers firing at them from an unknown and invisible place, much like that of the filmmaker himself.
Second of all, you shouldn’t ask me to watch any stories about lesbian love affairs ending in violence and death. Why do they all have to end this way? We don’t seem to feel the axiomatic need to punish heterosexual protagonists; sometimes, in film and literature, it works out fine between a guy and his gal. Yet with the exception of Madeleine Olnek’s work absurdist, comic story lines in which lesbians often end up together, physically intact and in good moods there just aren’t too many feel-good lesbian love stories. Is it because homophobia is gentled aside by such built-in punishment? Does the depth of their suffering give an otherwise wary audience permission to sympathize? It just seems to happen again and again in literature: women fall in love and then they get beaten up or one of them commits suicide or gets decapitated on her bicycle by a telephone wire or gets hit by a car. Diana Son’s play Stop Kiss, a success a few seasons back at the Public Theater in NYC, had two women fall in love and find the courage to kiss, only to be immediately gay-bashed, putting one of them in a wheelchair, possibly for life. Whenever I see a wheelchair on stage or screen, I start looking for the lesbian.
You can understand my reservations, therefore, about sitting down to watch Aimée and Jaguar, a film that incorporates both doomed lesbians and Nazi cruelty. Directed and written by Max Farberbock (Rona Munro co-wrote), the movie portrays the lives of two women who fall in love against the backdrop of 1943 Berlin, which is teeming with Nazis rounding up Jews and flickering with the light of allied bombs. Lilly Wust (nicknamed Aimée), the wife of a Nazi officer, has been awarded a silver cross honoring her as the ideal Nazi mother of four sons; the other, Felice Schragenheim (Jaguar), is a Jew with an edge and a strong will to survive, working for a Nazi newspaper and active in the underground resistance movement. This story, told by the real Lilly Wust, now eighty-three and living in Berlin, to writer Erica Fischer (on whose book the film is based), has all the elements I can’t bear, yet I found many moments of great beauty in it. Believe it or not, I found them in the feel-good moments of the film, the quiet, interstitial scenes in which plot acquiesced to character, and simple, accurately-rendered human behavior was shown to me. Those moments were often hard to see, literally they were shot dimly, in bad lighting, like a poem; there were flashes of sudden vision, and then the loss of it, like the actual consciousness of mortality in people considered sane.
Such moments. Very near the beginning of the film, Felice, in constant danger as a Jew hiding her identity, walks through a scene in which police are rounding up Jews and putting them on a wagon for deportation. A little girl drops her hat, and Felice gives it back to her. The girl is delighted; she puts on the hat and smiles, looking over her shoulder at Felice. Nothing is said, and the girl turns and is led away by a Nazi officer with a large gun in his hand.
A New Year’s Eve party at Lilly’s house precedes one of the most extraordinary lesbian sex scenes ever brought to the screen. Felice has brought her smart coterie of lesbian friends (the physical vocabulary of the sexual and political outlaw is beautifully captured by the actresses who portray Felice’s friends) and the party culminates in a kiss between Felice and Lilly. Lilly slaps Felice, but her shock has the full power of self-recognition. Shortly thereafter, the two women are naked together. This first love scene is so slow, so lovely. Felice is an experienced lesbian, but her experience is diluted by the awe of conquest. There is something silent and virginal in this waiting. Nothing happens. There is no color in the scene the way there is no voice in a whisper. Things are murmured: Do you want me to stop? and, Do you feel safe? Body parts and words seem indistinguishable. Felice moves her lips down Lilly’s beveled belly in silent sexual monologue. It is a belly celebrated by the Nazis for its fecundity and reclaimed by a Jew. Lilly does not know Felice is a Jew: the withholding and giving up of secrets are, under the skin, sexual acts in this film. The encounter is smoldering, and in a tremulous, sensual and frightening overlay, it becomes clear that Lilly’s sexual naivete is a metaphor for her political naivete. As Felice’s lips bring her to a new consciousness of desire and identity, the simultaneous awareness of the horrors of Nazism seems somehow revealed to her as well. Both women tremble; they laugh that they cannot steady themselves.
Other moments of stunning, simple clarity follow: the women are lovers now, they are in love, they are familiar yet new to each other, and Lilly’s children are also in love with Felice. This ease with the children is such a perfect way to delineate the passage of time, the evolution of the women’s relationship: the children know their mother’s lover, have lost their shyness. She is in Lilly’s kitchen, and the children have become used to her; a cigarette in her mouth, a pair of glasses on, she is raucous and laughing, holding the youngest of Lilly’s sons, and he is delighting her with something he is saying. The luxury of that, so quotidian! She has lost her strangeness in the eyes of the children. I recognize that moment.
Aimée and Jaguar seemed best in its willingness to portray ordinary lesbians in extraordinary times. It seemed most at ease inside nonevents, moments of gazing, and became self-conscious and blurry when it attempted to happen.Lilly’s Nazi-soldier husband discovers the two women in debauchery; Lilly rises up and declares she wants to divorce him. Freed by Lilly’s newfound, Doll’s House courage from the most palpable source of oppression, the women frolic and play by the beach one day, and return home to be greeted by the Gestapo. Felice is taken away, and presumably dies in a concentration camp. Whether they offered her a wheelchair or not, ich vas nisht. We see that Felice had stayed on in Berlin to be with her lover well after she should have fled to safety; we learn that Lilly went to visit Felice in the camp when she should have stayed away. The Jew perished, the Nazi lived on in an exile of altered consciousness and grief. Two different ways to die of the same malady: erotic love.
Near the film’s beginning, a jealous lover criticizes Felice for flirting with the married Nazi Lilly, and Felice replies: Flirting is love which sometimes just looks funny.
I don’t agree with that statement, but somehow the small weaknesses and the great strengths of this film are secreted in it.
Deb Margolin and Nerve.com, Inc.