Lilli Marlene (1951)
Director: Arthur Crabtree.
Starring: Hugh McDermott (Steve), Lisa Daniely (Lilli), John Blythe (Holt), Stanley Baker (Evans), Russell Hunter (Scottie), Arthur Lawrence (Lieber), Irene Prador (Nurse Schmitt), Aud Johansen (Nurse Melk), Estelle Brody (Estelle), Carl Jaffe (Propaganda Chief ).
set in North Africa before El Alamein
Spoiler warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
This story begins in North Africa. The tide of war, ebbs and flows across the western desert. Here in the small town of Benghazi lived someone who was to became very dear to me. Here had been her home for as long as she could remember. A quiet home at one time, but now the dusty streets were full of the sounds of war. The British, Australians and New Zealanders were still in occupation, but everyday the threat of Rommel grew closer. Here her uncle ran a café, the Café Cigale. She used to help her aunt in the kitchen and sometimes sang to the soldiers the songs that made them think of home. Then one day the threat became reality. Where had flown the Union Jack now hung the swastika. The Germans took the town and from then on anyone thought to have helped the British was under suspicion. Being French in an Italian village they were among the first to be investigated."
The uncle, named Pierre Lestoque, has to appear before the local German commandant. Pierre’s sister-in-law was German, but she died some time ago.
He has a niece living with he and his wife. So the twenty year old niece comes out to talk with the German officer. She says that her name is Lilli Marlene. The officer thinks she is mocking him and doesn’t believe her. How could she be the girl "Lilli Marlene" of the song that so many Germans are singing? So Lilli explains to him that she lived in France, but went on vacation to Bavaria in Germany where her mother came from. She met a young composer and they thought they were falling in love. The composer said he would write a song for her.
She came back home. Later he sent her the song. He couldn’t get it published. And then one night she heard her song being broadcast to German troops. That was the first time she ever heard her song sung.
He tells her that if this is true, it’s a great day for Germany and a great day for Lilli Marlene. She can sing for the German troops. Lilli Marlene tells him she cannot do this for Germany is the enemy of France. The officer says that Lilli will be confined to the café and a German officer of propaganda will talk with her. If her story is true, then she has a bright future before her.
The narrator, Steve, an American war correspondent, says that the British 8th army was in retreat. Rommel had thrown them back, but he broadcasts that soon he will be telling the story of the advance of the 8th army as Rommel will be retreating. He and Corporal Berry commandeered a German armored car.
(In March 1940 Rommel pushed the British back toward Egypt as he took nearly the whole of Cyrenaica, the eastern coastal region of Libya. He took Benghazi and by April 8 he had captured Gazala, just west of Tobruk. He begins the siege of Tobruk, which lasted 240 days.)
A British officer, Major Phillips, says that they have learned that a high ranking officer of German propaganda is in the town of Benghazi and he wants a group of volunteers to go and get him. A lot of men volunteer for the job. Among the men selected for the mission are: O’Riley, Jim, Holt and Brownie. The American Steve asks permission to go along with the men on the mission. Phillips says absolutely not. Steve replies that he’s the one who can assure the success of the mission. He and Cpl. Berry took a German armored car from its owners by force. He says he thinks four men could get to Benghazi using the armored car. Phillips says officially no to Steve, but indicates that if Steve and others happen to be in Benghazi and capture the German propaganda chief, then there’s nothing he can do about that.
Steve, Berry, O’Riley and another leave for Benghazi. Meanwhile, the propaganda chief says Lilli Marlene is not the true Lilli Marlene. But he thinks he can use her to pretend to be the true Lilli Marlene: the pin-up girl of the German army. Lilli says that she won’t do it. The chief says they have their ways of convincing people to agree. But first, he wants her to sing for him.
Just as the piano-playing German soldier starts up with the tune, the captured armored car arrives at Café Cigale. Lilli refuses again to sing, so the chief gives her two minutes to think about it. If she does not decide to sing, then he will have her aunt and uncle shot. So she decides to sing.
She sings and the mission crew sets up to strike. They rush in with their weapons pointed at the Germans. O’Riley has to shoot the piano player as he goes for his weapon. When the Germans are corralled, Steve is critical of the fraulein. She gets angry and sets him straight on what is going on. She had to sing or her aunt and uncle would have been shot.
Steve likes her feistiness and he says that he will be back to see her. As he goes out the door, he stops to remind her that they have a future date coming up. The guys get into the armored car with their prisoner and head back out into the desert.
They have to drive fast and zig-zag by a group of British tanks firing at the German armored car. Soon the British start advancing on Rommel and his forces. The guys are able to join up with their unit and they turn their prisoner over.
Now they are back in Benghazi. Steve gets congratulated by Major Phillips. Then Steve records for broadcast the news. The Allies have advanced all along the line. He keeps on recording as he explains he has a treat for the audience back home and for the men here in Café Cigale. Now he introduces Lilli Marlene, who refused to sing her song for the Germans, but now will gladly sing it for the Allies in English and then French, but not in German.
The broadcast is heard by all the Allied troops in the European theater. Now the Germans plan to capture Lilli Marlene and bring her to Germany.
The guys from the mission are brought in to clean up a bombed theater so a show can go on for the Allied troops in Benghazi. The guys start working, but the sergeant soon comes in to tell everyone that the theatrical performance will not take place because it is thought that Benghazi is too close to the fighting and someone might get hurt.
Steve tells the sergeant how disappointed all the men are going to be. The sergeant says the only thing they can do is put on a show themselves. Steve takes up the sergeant’s idea and goes over to see the entertainment officer, Lt. Murdoch. Murdoch is very obliging, so now Steve is going to talk to Lilli Marlene.
German paratroopers land near Benghazi as the show starts. A man sings a piece from an Italian opera. Steve picks up Lili and they head for the theater. They arrive just in time for her introduction. The soldiers are really happy, because she not only can sing, but is pretty too.
Two German soldiers burst into the Café Cigale looking for Lilli. Of course, she is not there. Lilli’s aunt won’t tell them where she is, but her uncle says she’s over at the town hall doing a concert.
The men really clap for Lilli. She keeps on singing. The German soldiers take out the sentries on the perimeter of the building. They grab Lilli and try to get out. O’Riley arrives just in time and his friend Holt orders him to shoot the German paratroopers. He opens up with his automatic weapon and mows them down, but not before his friend is killed.
Steve fights with the German who grabbed Lilli. He is able to knock the man down.
Back at the Café Cigale, Steve dries the dishes that Lilli washes. He can tell that she feels guilty about what happened. He tells her anyone of them could have been killed while performing their duty of defending their country. Lilli is upset that the one killed could just as well have been Steve.
Steve shows her an invitation to stay in Cairo and do broadcasts that will be heard by Egyptians, Europeans and Americans. He tells Cpl. Berry to bring in all her fan mail. She literally has hundreds of letters thrown in front of her.
Lilli doesn’t want to go to Cairo alone. Steve says they want him to come with Lilli. On the flight to Cairo, Lilli says that she’s worried because all of this has happened to her so quickly. She has had no real time to think the matter over.
Once in Cairo they are put up in a fancy hotel. Right next to Lilli will be a room full of security men. Steve is also staying at the hotel. He tells Lilli that he will settle into his room and then they will go have a glass of champagne.
After their drink, Steve says he has to report to General Headquarters, but he will be back and they will go for a steak dinner. He in interrupted by the arrival of Estelle. Steve welcomes her and then introduces her to Lilli. Estelle invites them to dinner with her, but then asks if she is spoiling something between the two of them? Lilli says no and adds that they would be delighted to have dinner with her.
After Estelle leaves. Steve says he’s disappointed because he wanted to have Lilli all to himself. Lilli tells him not to worry for they can still dance together.
Estelle introduces the couple to Mr. Eric Wintertree. Eric is absolutely thrilled to meet her. He loves her singing. Before Steve can ask Lilli to dance, Eric asks for the first dance. Alone together, Estelle tells Steve that she can tell he is in love with Lilli. Steve hasn’t told Lilli how he feels about her and Estella tells him that he can’t go wrong by telling her, as long as he plays the game "on the square".
Lilli and Eric return to the table and now Eric takes Estelle dancing. Steve takes Lilli for a drive in an army jeep. He deliberately loses the security boys following them. Now he drives her to a quiet place where he can talk to her without being interrupted.
They tell each other: "I love you." He says he knows she’s the girl for him, always. Just after they say they love each other, security officer Colonel Wharton and the security guys come driving up. He scolds the loved birds for running off.
Back at the hotel bar, a girl named Shirley comes up excited to see "Stevie". Steve introduces her as his ex-wife, but Shirley says she’s his current wife. Lilli is upset and says their relationship was just a temporary infatuation and leaves the bar with the colonel.
Steve now asks Shirley why didn’t she get that divorce? She had hooked up with a guy named Paul and she had written Steve that she was divorcing him while they were in Mexico. Steve was just waiting to sign the divorce papers. Shirley says that she changed her mind. She had an argument with Paul.
Back in her hotel room, Lilli cries on her bed.
The next day Steve is very happy. He gives Estelle a hug and says that everything has worked out fine for him. Now he has to find Lilli. Estelle says that Lilli just went out with Mr. Wintertree.
Lilli tells Wintertree to take her back to her hotel. He agrees but tells her first he will take a her on a little ride. Steve catches up with them and he tells Lili that Shirley was just joking with them. They were divorced months ago.
Wintertree knocks Steve on the head with a piece of metal and Steve goes out like a light. Wintertree now takes off with Lilli, who tries to get him to stop, but he knocks her back into her seat.
Wintertree turns out to be a Nazi. He tells Lilli that in six hours she will be in Berlin. The colonel tells Steve that an unidentified plane took off last night. He figures Lilli right now is in Berlin. The colonel now says he never trusted Lili. Her uncle is a well-known German collaborator.
In Berlin five Nazis interrogate Lilli. They keep asking her questions and always say: "You lie!" to her responses. Then they ask the same questions again. Her only respite from this is when she faints.
The Nazi in charge of her interrogation says that now that they have destroyed Lili’s mind, they will build her a new identity. Her nurses tell her that the British tortured her and made her think that she was French, but they lied to her. She is a German born in Germany. Her real name is Lilli Marlene Muller.
Once the Germans think that Lilli has been transformed into a loyal Nazi, they set up for her to do English broadcasts for the Third Reich.
Robotically, Lilli does broadcast for the Nazis. And she sings the "Lilli Marlene" song for the German troops.
The British troops who came to know her are very disappointed in Lilli. And that includes Steve.
1943 comes, 1944, 1945 and now it’s 1946 and there is a big reunion for members of the British 8th army. Steve broadcasts the news to the public. As the men file into the meeting place, Lilli waits outside and stops O’Riley and some of the other guys. They are definitely not pleased to see her. One of the guys goes to get Phillips. Lilli asks to see Steve so the guys take her over to see him.
Lilli runs over and hugs Steve. He tells her he never thought he would see her again. The guys starts grousing about Lilli and Steve tells them that Lilli never did a dishonest deed, at least knowingly she did not.
The security guys come to arrest Lilli, but Steve throws her in the back of his broadcasting van and they take off. Ex-corporal Berry now works with Steve and he drives the get-away van. Lilli says the man in charge of her broadcasts for the Germans, Leiber, gave her the name of a German living in London who could help her. Steve gets the man’s address and tells Berry to step on it.
Lilli goes into talk with the German, while the security officers and Steve’s pals pull up in front of the residence. When she goes into see the man, he turns out to be Col. Leiber himself. Lilli is absolutely shocked to see him.
It turns out that Col. Leiber is actually a British intelligence officer who was working undercover when Lilli was brought to Berlin. He tells the security guys and Steve and his pals that Lilli is not a traitor. The colonel says that in all her communications, there were encoded messages to the British intelligence service back in England.
Now all the fellows in the room want to tell all the guys at the reunion that Lilli was not a traitor. She sings the Lilli Marlene song and the men sing along with her.
At the end of the song, Steve and Lilli kiss.
There is not a lot of history here. Mostly it's a love storey between the American Steve, a reporter, and a young French woman named Lilli Marlene and for whom a German composer wrote the famous song Lilli Marlene. The war provides a lot of obstacles to true love as the Germans keep trying to snatch Lilli Marlene and take her to Germany. The twists and turns are interesting and surprised me a couple of times, but I still wanted to learn more about the war in North Africa. In the film Stanley Baker makes several appearances on the screen.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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