Do you know Zarah Leander, the attractive woman in the picture?
Probably not. However, everybody in Germany over the age of fifty would know exactly who she is. Not surprisingly this beautiful Swedish redhead was the quintessential movie star of the Third Reich.
There were many changes that the unfortunate year of 1933 brought to Germany. One was the final imposition of the “star system” into the German cinema standards, previously designed and successfully used in the film industry by none other than “the enemy” of Hollywood. Once a star had been created, a program was imposed that was meticulously crafted with every detail. That program included how she should dress, the parties she should attend and, of course, what to say and omit from the press. Zarah Leander was the perfect product and a satisfied victim of this system. It is said that when Frau Leander went shopping at a department store, the managers kicked all of the clients out of the building and closed the store just for her. Swedish and therefore endowed with a note of the “foreigner” exoticism, but without thereby ceasing to be an “Aryan”, in the Third Reich she could indulge in playing roles traditionally opposed to the ideal image of the German woman, becoming an innocuous but necessary object of desire and identification.
Her success was remarkable. But Zarah Leander had her own skills, including her extraordinary contralto voice. Unfortunately, the Nazis knew how to use her for their own interest, more so, when the war ceased to be a corollary of wins for Germany and civilians began to confront it’s ravages.
Everyday life may seem to us now greyer and tougher than it seemed before. In times like these, it is even more necessary for the State to do it’s utmost to compensate the situation and provide the people with the entertainment and relaxation that now more than ever they are entitled to claim. Without optimism you cannot win the war, it is as important as the guns and rifles.
(Joseph Goebbels in November 1939, two months after the invasion of Poland).
Zarah Leander became, so to say, the vocal “guns and rifles” of the German optimism, with meaningful titles in her songs, such as “Not for this will sink the world” or “I know that one day a miracle will happen ” these two incorporated in the musicals from her film Die grosse Liebe (‘The Great Love’, 1942):
Decades after the war, the sentimentally optimistic song with its jaunty chorus still buzzed the melancholy moments of that generation of German women. My mother, unaware of its ideological context, used to put it on the record player whenever she felt discouraged, attributing to it miraculous capabilities to resolve a problematic situation. That’s how I also learned to appreciate it as a child, before I knew who this woman with a sensual mellow voice and Scandinavian accent really was.
Now that you have seen the scene, have you paid attention to when Leander appears surrounded by dozens of extras dressed as angels? Have you noticed anything unusual? Look carefully:
Not yet? Look again:
Don’t you think that these starlets are a bit too ugly to accompany a star like Leander? Here you can contemplate them a little more closely:
You are right: They are men! Leander not only had some extra pounds (an aspect that producers tried to disguise with clever tricks), but she was also abnormally tall. At that time the producer did not have girls with those proportions, that could deceive the eye of the spectator, available. So they resorted to the extreme of hiring disguised men.
The chosen men certainly met the requirements of slenderness and height: they were nothing less than members of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, the “elite of the elite”, born from the praetorian guard of Hitler, educated for combat through the hardest procedures and directly subject to the orders of the Fuhrer. Men like these you see here, clumsily dressed as transvestites, were responsible for the first mass murder of Jews in Italy, named the “slaughter of Lake Maggiore”, or the indiscriminate liquidation of war prisoners at the massacres of Malmedy and Wormhout. In these photographs, for once, we are given the rare opportunity to laugh at them. Enjoy it!
(Translated from Spanish by Javier Senra)