The forbidden love affair between Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim was made for the movies. The setting: World War II Berlin. Lilly, the wife of a German army officer and the mother of four children, met Felice, an aspiring journalist and a Jew. While bombs rained down on Berlin and Lilly's husband was away at the front, the women set up house. At first, Wust, a Nazi sympathizer, didn't know that her lover was Jewish. When she found out, she helped Schragenheim keep up her pretense and shielded several other Jewish women as well. The efforts were for naught; Felice was eventually deported to Theresienstadt and likely died during a forced death march. After the war, Lilly waited in vain for her return.
Almost 50 years after her lover was declared dead, Wust revealed the story of their affair and shared their voluminous correspondence with Erica Fischer, a German writer. Her 1994 book Aimée & Jaguar was an immediate best-seller in Germany and has since been translated into 11 languages and two movies: first in Love Story, a 1997 BBC documentary as direct and unfussy as its title, and now in the sumptuous German drama Aimée & Jaguar. The winner of acting awards at last year's Berlin Film Festival and a favorite at gay and lesbian festivals stateside, Aimée makes its way to theaters this month.
What could be more compelling than the true story of illicit lovers separated by genocide? Well, fiction, as it turns out. Or at least fiction in the sure hands of a sensitive French director wise beyond his years. His name is Emmanuel Finkiel, and his first feature, Voyages, is slowly touring festivals, universities, and art houses. It deserves at least as wide a viewership as Aimée & Jaguar but may have a harder time without the built-in gay and lesbian audience. That would be a shame. Like the best Iranian cinema, or the work of Finkiel's mentor Krysztof Kieslowski, Voyages is meditative, humane, and heartbreaking. It takes seriously the irrevocable ruptures caused by the Holocaust, the brutal confusions wrought by diaspora. Yet it allows the audience a measure of hope that its own characters can't fully recognize.
Though their styles are dramatically different, both films are culled from the hazy, incomplete memories of old women. Their subject is "the afterlife of memory," a term put forward by University of Massachusetts professor James E. Young, among the most astute current commentators on Holocaust art produced by the postwar generation. Though he writes mostly about visual artists and architects, Young (along with others) has pinpointed the ethical dilemma of the contemporary artist, trying to respectfully depict history that was not experienced firsthand. Commercial cinema, with its limited tolerance for ambiguity, has an especially hard time with this. Hollywood will throw enormous resources into formulaic movies that celebrate "the human spirit" or recreate, with horrifying immediacy, life inside the camps. Presenting memory in fragments, conveying what Young calls "the void left behind," has proven far more difficult. Aimée & Jaguar and Voyages handle the challenge with differing degrees of success.
Despite the unconventional romance at its center, Aimée & Jaguar is for the most part a very conventional movie. Solidly made by Max Färberböck, a first-time director, the drama captures the heady, terrifying experience of life--and love--in a city under siege. Air-raid sirens interrupt dressy evenings at the symphony. The hulk of a hotel sits at the edge of a street in rubble. Inside, the upper crust engages in flirtatious cocktail chatter. Outside, injured bodies are carted away for first aid, and refugee families cluster in burnt-out vehicles.
"We live in exciting times," Felice announces, with characteristic gallows humor. Like Katharine Hepburn at her 1930s best, Maria Schrader is all angles and audacity as the risk-taking Jewish seductress. Planted in the heart of the hatred, Felice does more than stay alive; she thrives, smuggling documents and information from the offices of the Nazi newspaper where she works. She helps other Jewish women cloak their identities. And she takes lovers at will, setting her sights on Lilly from the first time they meet. "Jaguar," the alias by which she signs her letters, perfectly captures the woman: always on the hunt, yet trapped in a world where she is the prey.
Though she seems the proper Aryan hausfrau, right down to the bust of Hitler in her living room, Lilly (who writes as Aimée) holds secrets of her own. Yet the script, and Juliane Köhler's often tremulous performance, don't successfully integrate the contradictory strands of her personality. Lilly has had plenty of affairs with men and manages to keep her family together amid the bombardment, but a hungry glance or two from Felice and she melts into nervous giggles. It's unconvincing. Still, the couple's first time in bed, with Lilly trembling uncontrollably, is as powerful a sex scene as the movies have lately produced. And the swoony film seems true to Lilly's florid writings, though it indulges too many voice-overs from the women's letters to one another.
At the same time, Aimée & Jaguar wants to signal to viewers that they're watching memory at work. It relies on the easiest of devices, a flashback structure, but the effect is unsteady and confusing. The film opens in present-day Berlin as the aged but regal Lilly is moving from her apartment into a nursing home, where she meets a figure out of the past--her former housekeeper Ilse, the woman who, we learn, first introduced her to Felice. Their bitter banter unearths a romantic rivalry; all these years later, both women still hold a torch for the effervescent Felice. As the film moves back to wartime, it's Ilse, not Lilly, who narrates the central romance. Dramatically, this is a very odd choice, since for the most part the film shares Lilly's logicbe-damned romanticism. Färberböck and co-screenwriter Rosa Munro may include this critical observer as a reminder not to take at face value what we hear and see. But the effect is distracting, not enriching. Pivotal historical and political developments are presented sketchily, or fade into the background completely. Key moments in the story, like Lilly's futile attempt to see Felice in Theresienstadt, are hurriedly described by a third party and never pictured.
At the end, when the film returns to the present, the two old survivors are chiding each other over who lived a more sexually adventurous life. It's a bittersweet yet truthful note--a refusal to turn women buffeted by history into heroines or martyrs. Their memories of a most horrific time are individual, partial, even petty.
Stooped under the weight of age and overcoats, a group of old people shuffle off a tour bus at the gates of Auschwitz. Members of a younger, spryer entourage rush past, a video cameraman leading the way. "Every year,'' a survivor remarks, " another film."
It's an understatement, to say the least. Fictional stories set at the time of the Holocaust continue to arrive at a steady pace. Official outlets, like the Shoah Foundation and an archive at Yale University, are recording survivors' testimonies for the historical record. Increasingly, though, the survivors and their families are seizing the camera. Documentaries that follow aging Jews as they return to Europe, tour the camps and cemeteries, or try to find living family members have become almost a genre of their own.
Voyages understands and explores this impulse, yet concludes that cinema will be no better at putting together the pieces than painting, poetry, or memoir. Documentary and testimony certainly have their purposes, but also their limits. In a brilliant stroke, Finkiel at one point unveils clips from an imagined documentary that follows survivors back to the camps. Shot, of course, on video, the film-within-a-film is gritty, immediate, and full of anger. On site and in front of the camera, the survivors enact the grief and fury that one expects. But Voyages, the fiction film, is about complicated emotions--aloneness, and aloneness inside togetherness--that the documentary camera can't capture quite so easily. Its sensuous details--the rain-streaked windows of a bus, a tight hug at the end of a barren hallway--convey beauty, joy, and sadness with extraordinary delicacy.
The three old women lovingly depicted in Voyages share a sense of displacement and a fading language, Yiddish. In a deep way, their stories are connected, but they're not intertwined. Each is "living with ghosts," as one character puts it, and despite their efforts to find answers and make human connections, to travel half the world or return to places of horror, those ghosts will not be put to rest. In the wake of the Holocaust, there are only "tracks" (the film's title as translated on-screen). They can be followed, but they don't always lead to a healing destination.
Voyages opens with Rivka (Shulamit Adar), a 65-year-old Frenchwoman living in Israel, on a bus trip through Poland. Brimming with survivors from all over the world, the bus is full of chatter and kvetching, everyday arguments and complaints that testify to postwar life lived as normally as possible. But Rivka sits apart. Overwhelmed by sadness, she won't even talk to her husband, for whom the journey seems far less fraught. When the tour bus breaks down, she snaps, lashing out and questioning their bond.
Set in Paris, the second story follows Régine (Liliane Rovère), a widow of the same age locked into stultifying routine. Her lonely life seems to magically open up when an old gentleman steps inside and announces he's her father, believed to have died in the camps. Key details challenge this conclusion, but Regine wants to believe otherwise, for herself, her family, and for the old man.
The promised land of Israel is the setting for Finkiel's third story, about Vera (Esther Gorintin), an 85-year-old Russian woman with no family of her own. On a whim, she emigrates to Tel Aviv with her neighbors but quickly has to fend for herself in a bustling and brusque new country. A reunion with a long-lost cousin ends in disappointment, and it seems that Vera will be swallowed up in the hubbub. Then, as if by fate, she crosses paths with the woman we recognize is Rivka, the thread of whose life we pick up once again.
It feels like we've come full circle, and to some degree we have. People find each other. Or there's hope that they may. Yet Finkiel carefully demonstrates that the circle doesn't neatly close. It's been distorted, misshapen. The women (and men) of this generation will always be exiles. Their children and grandchildren, who ache to understand, who gamely follow them back to concentration camps, who make movies as empathetic as Voyages, can only travel so far. In the matter of the Holocaust, memory is a passport that cannot be duplicated. ¤