Douglas Sirk proves his mettle as a consummate romantic storyteller in these part-musical melodramas from the peak of his career in Germany. They cemented stardom for Zarah Leander, a beauty who could have been an international success had the timing and politics been different. Both pictures send their heroines on far-flung adventures. In To New Shores Leander’s seductive music hall chanteuse is a victim of love, banished to a prison in Australia; in La Habanera she’s the wife of an all-powerful Caribbean landowner, who purposely downplays a plague because it will affect his business. Sirk’s order of the day is to put Leander into intolerable situations, just as he did Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman and Lana Turner in his later Technicolor pictures at Universal.
To New Shores & La Habanera
1937 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / Street Date May 18, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Zarah Leander.
Cinematography: Franz Weihmayr
Produced by Bruno Duday
Directed by Detlef Sierck
Kino taps its connections with the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung once again, for a great pair of early Douglas Sirk pictures. I wrote up a long-ago Kino DVD of La Habanera even though my review copy froze halfway through … now I finally find out how the picture ends. Both of these features are Ufa productions from 1937, made just as Josef Goebbels was completing the tranformation of the German film industry into a Nazi propaganda arm. The German-born Detlef Sierck moved from the theater into film directing, sticking with escapist, highly dramatic melodramas that often foregrounded music. The sober but classy soap opera Schlussakkord is about a woman who ends up the nanny for the child she gave up to adoption.
The two Zarah Leander pictures in this presentation certainly have their soapy aspects; they see Detlef Sierk reaching the apex of his European career as both a director and star-maker. Both films had tangential roles in helping Sierk formulate his exit from Nazi Germany, the most elegant escape since Hedy Lamarr ducked her Austrian armsdealer husband and split to Paris with a million in jewels.
To New Shores
102 106 min. / Zu neuen Ufern; Life Begins Anew; La golondrina cautiva
Starring: Zarah Leander, Willy Birgel, Edwin Jürgensen, Carola Höhn, Viktor Staal, Erich Ziegel, Hilde von Stolz, Lina Lossen.
Film Editor: Milo Harbich
Production Design: Fritz Maurischat
Original Music: Ralph Benatzky
Written by Kurt Heuser, Detlef Sierck from the novel by Lovis Hans Lorenz
One needs to refer to the documentary Hitler’s Hollywood to understand that German movies under the Nazis didn’t exclusively churn out propaganda. Were it not for its anti-British bias, To New Shores (Zu neuen Ufern) would be a straight potboiler about ironic romantic fates in a far-off land, given a fine production polish. Although set in London and Sydney, Australia the picture was filmed in the Ufa studios. With everyone speaking German the atmosphere is a bit strange at first, until we settle into the potent personal story.
In 1840s London the toast of the swank, decadent Adelphi music hall is the daringly costumed singer Gloria Vane. Gloria is romantically attached to Sir Albert Finsbury (Willy Birgel), a witty bachelor who is broke and heavily in debt. Albert forges a check as he departs for Australia, where he intends to buy a military commission. To protect him, Gloria confesses to the forgery charge. Convicted, she is deported in chains, to serve seven years at hard labor in Australia’s Paramatta prison.
Learning that Gloria is near him in Sydney (but not why), Albert lobbies the governor for her freedom, but won’t step forward in person as it would jeopardize his engagement to the governor’s daughter Mary Jones (Carola Höhn). The only way for Gloria to get out of Paramatta is to marry — arrangements made in very short interviews. Gloria hears the proposal of farmer-sheepman Henry Hoyer (Viktor Staal) and accepts after only a minute. She immediately leaves him to run back to Albert… only to witness the announcement of Albert’s engagement to Mary. I’m telling you, did even Joan Crawford ever have it this bad?
Zu neuen Ufern’s episodic structure is no detriment; two ocean voyages halfway around the world occur behind dissolves, and they aren’t missed. The highly emotional story sets up a heel of an Englishman and the woman whose love is wasted on him. Only in the last act does the liar and thief Albert come to terms with what he’s done. Zarah Leander’s Gloria makes her entrance in a scandalously revealing stage costume; her theatrical notoriety makes it easy for the court to sentence her to seven years at hard labor. For the balance of the picture the glamorous beauty wears a ragged prison uniform, and of course still outshines her fellow inmates. Sierck also co-wrote the screenplay, and avoids gratuitous cruelty or wicked WIP characters — even the woman warder is fair and sympathetic. The virtuous sheepman Henry chooses a criminal wife because he thinks he’s more likely to find an honest woman that way than by a normal courtship. Gloria breaks his heart by running away before they’re even married, but Henry doesn’t become vindictive. Sierck’s handling of the doomed Albert-Gloria relationship is unexpectedly intense; learning too late just how much of a dastard he’s been, Albert develops a real conscience.
Leander sings at least three songs, a lusty stage number, a grim workhouse tune, and a sad tale of lost love when she appears on a Sydney stage but is too demoralized to give a good performance. A singer named Mady Rahl performs a bawdy tune about being a virgin. The movie is definitely ‘weepie’ material, and even ends in a church… the storytellers have to compensate for that sheer dress up front.
Perhaps some comment from director Sirk does slip into what might otherwise be a straight romantic pot-boiler: aspects of the ‘happy ending’ are ambiguous at best. Our heroine makes the right choice but her tale does not end with smiles and kisses. The look in her eyes shows that Gloria has never been in control of her life, that she’s always had to compromise.
Zarah Leander was the latest in a long line of Nordic actresses that bloomed in the German film industry. Like Garbo, she was from Sweden; unlike Garbo, Dietrich and several post-war beauties, the political divide didn’t allow Leander to take the next step to Hollywood. By the time Zu neuen Ufern cemented her stardom, there was no way Germany would let her or any other valuable performing arts asset just slip away.
Starring: Zarah Leander, Ferdinand Marian, Karl Martell, Julia Serda, Boris Alekin, Paul Bildt, Jürgensen, Carl Kuhlmann, Michael Schulz-Dornburg, Rosita Alcaraz.
Film Editor: Axel von Werner
Production Design: Fritz Maurischat
Original Music: Lothar Brühne
Written by Gerhard Menzel
Made soon after Zu neuen Ufern, La Habanera has a slightly stickier history — it was filmed in the Spanish Islas Canarias in late 1937, right in the thick of the Spanish Civil War, with the balmy Tenerife coast standing in for Puerto Rico. It’s a contemporary story despite its depiction of Puerto Rico as backward and ‘barbaric’ compared to civilized Northern Europe. It’s one of Douglas Sirk’s finest glossy melodramas and his last credit under the name Detlev Sierck. The Reich closely watched newsworthy artists and celebrities for signs of disloyalty. Now so important that he could suggest film shoots on foreign locations, Sirk used La Habanera to test the strength of Germany’s leash.
La Habanera is a pure romantic pot-boiler with a thick undercoat of anti-American attitudes — propaganda-lite. It begins on a sunny beach in Puerto Rico, in 1927. Rather than return to Sweden, vivacious tourist Astree Sternhjelm (Zarah Leander) follows the lead of the hot-blooded title song and stays behind to marry the dashing nobleman Don Pedro de Avila (Ferdinand Marian), who happens to be the island’s most powerful man. Ten years later, Astree is one unhappy expatriate. Her passion for her husband and for Puerto Rico have vanished — she now considers it a corrupt backwater, an unfit place to raise her son Juan (Michael Schulz-Dornburg). The possessive, jealous Don Pedro holds Astree by refusing to let her take his son away to her homeland. The annual plague of ‘Puerto Rico Fever’ is about to hit — a contagion, the existence of which Don Pedro publicly denies. Don Pedro orders his minions to prevent two visiting doctors from proving its presence, and causing publicity that would hurt the local economy. One of the doctors is the Swedish Sven Nagel (Karl Martell), an old flame of Astree’s. Discovering that the doctors are secretly studying the contagion, Don Pedro invites Nagel to dinner and has his hotel room searched. That’s when Don Pedro discovers his wife’s previous relationship with the researcher — and that she’s purchased two steamship tickets back to Europe, presumably to sneak away with her son.
Puerto Rico is introduced with Latin charm and music, with waves breaking on the promenade and lusty dancers for the tourists to admire. Sexy Zarah Leander’s Astree is sick of morose Swedes and their antiseptic asceticism. She’s especially tired of her old biddy chaperone (Julia Serda) who considers Puerto Rico a sty of unwashed natives, obscene dancing and barbaric bullfights. That’s when the emotionally volatile Astree is moved by the tune La Habanera and swept off her feet by the tall, dark Don Pedro. She doesn’t realize that he’s the local honcho in this semi-feudal island paradise.
But that’s just a prologue to what becomes a cleverly pro-German propaganda piece hiding within a romantic soap opera. Like most propaganda pictures, Nazi-flavored message movies tended to be flops. But careful pruning yielded popular movies that gently promoted Nazi aims. La Habanera is about Swedes but the inference is that the Scandinavians are aryan blood-brothers to the Germans. The forlorn Astree sings lullabies to her young son about how beautiful it is back home and how clean and magical snow is. This attitude plays into the Nazi repatriation campaigns of the middle 1930s, that encouraged Germans in other countries to return to the Fatherland. Astree and Don Pedro’s son Juan is a perfect-looking German tyke, as fair as Snow White. The image of Juan’s wavy, silvery blonde hair asserts that Aryan blood is stronger than Don Pedro’s corrupt tropical genes.
Some telling political snipes are aimed at the U.S.A.. Puerto Rico Fever kills hundreds every year yet nothing is done about it because the corrupt local officials don’t want to upset the tourism applecart or hurt fruit sales to America. The ultimate blame is laid at America’s doorstep. Everyone keeps mentioning a ‘Roosevelt medical investigation’ of nine years before that swept the fever-death issue under the carpet and issued a worthless serum. The fact that the anti-Hitler Roosevelt is attacked by name is proof of the German intentions, considering that nine years previous to 1937, F.D.R. was still three years from becoming President.
Deep parallels with the 2020 Pandemic.
The benevolent Swedish doctors are blocked by the local medicos, who are under orders to suppress any evidence of the killing disease. The head doctor won’t let anybody use the term Puerto Rico Fever, and victims are officially listed as suffering from disentery. Sven must sneak to the harbor area and surreptitiously take a blood sample from an infected person. He and Dr. Gomez work on the sly in their hotel room, and perfect a serum overnight without lab animals or testing, just a microscope. Don Pedro’s minions later confiscate and destroy the potentially life-saving work. His defense is that bad publicity from the first outbreak hurt the economy so badly, that 20,000 of his miserable peons died of starvation.
A frightening plague? An autocratic leader who downplays the threat, silences doctors and makes the resulting death toll that much worse? I’ll refrain from further editorializing, except to say that it’s pretty strange to find this particular message in a film made in Nazi Germany. An underlying thread in La Habanera is that, thanks to American greed, Puerto Rico is now a hell-hole ruled by petty aristocrats in an outmoded system. Don Pedro’s official lies go contrary to the general welfare.
Sirk keeps a firm focus on the personal story even if relationships are repeatedly spelled out in on-the-nose exposition speeches. Don Pedro has an aristocratic tendency to describe people’s motivations while they’re standing right in front of him. Astree is essentially a prisoner; she can’t order a steamship ticket without her husband finding out. She sings more songs to her blond son about the pure snow of Sweden. There’s an interesting Rebecca– like parallel involving the housekeeper and the villa’s ring of house keys. As the noble Dr. Sven shares Astree’s sophisticated Nordic culture he’s the logical Sir Galahad to rescue her.
The recipient of the full-bore glamour treatment, the beautiful Zarah Leander earns her position as one of Germany’s top female stars. Her acting reminds us in turn of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Kay Francis. Astree is romantic and playful in the opening and a motherly martyr in the middle passages. Unlike Gloria in To New Shores, Astree isn’t a performer. Yet she expresses herself in song. For the big party at the finale she dons a costume and delivers the title tune in an emotional musical number.
Austria-born Ferdinand Marian is excellent as Don Pedro, making the imperious Hispanic seem cold but not totally unsympathetic. His final statements of devotion to Astree are genuine and heartfelt. Various other Puerto Ricans haven’t a trace of Latin flavor, including Sven’s partner, a Brazilian doctor named Gomez. He’s played by an actor named Boris Alekin … wearing a Hitler-like mustache.
All the dialogue is in German, even the lyrics written by Sirk for the faux-Latin songs of Lothar Brühne. The title tune is not traditional but part of the movie score. When watching we need to remember Hollywood’s habit of anglicizing every other culture on Earth with English. The only likely Hispanic in the cast, at least by name, is the flamenco dancer Rosita Alcaráz.
Douglas Sirk’s assured direction equals that of his ‘fifties pictures at Universal. His camera moves gracefully and his expressive compositions underscore the appropriate moods of the soapy scenes. The (presumably Berlin-shot) interiors are as impressive as Hollywood product, and the sun-drenched exteriors have a tropical feel. Again, the conclusion is ambiguous. Ten years after making her impulsive choice to jump ship and marry a man she’s only known for a day, Astree claims that she can’t wait to escape from the island forever. But as she looks back from the boat, her face shows no triumph… does she realize that Don Pedro did love her, in his proud and harsh way?
The German screenwriter Gerhard Menzel condemns the ‘filth and barbarity’ of the Caribbean location even as he romanticizes and exoticizes it. There is no accuracy of any kind; aspects of this 1937 ‘Puerto Rico’ belong in the 19th century, especially some of the costumes. All the good characters consider Puerto Rico a pesthole and the script rushes to show how readily the local businessmen, politicians and doctors embrace corruption. Frankly, I doubt that the U.S. government had a very good record with health issues in Puerto Rico, its territory since 1898. Not to make the Reich’s policies seem any better, but in the late 1930s some American studios wanted so badly to keep doing business in Germany that they complied with the Reich’s labor laws. Paramount, MGM and 20th Fox all fired their Jewish employees in Germany and purged Jewish names from American film credits.
The stain of German politics has understandably warped our appreciation of Reich-era movies, few of which were ever shown in the U.S.. Some of the talent involved in these pictures had ugly associations and others very sad futures. Writer Gerhard Menzel later wrote Heimkehr (1941), a hideous pack of lies to justify Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Star Ferdinand Marian was more or less forced by Josef Goebbels to play the rapist-torturer villain in the virulently anti-semitic Jew Süß, after Emil Jannings and others refused the role. The child actor Michael Schulz-Dornburg later died on the Russian front at age 18. The most chilling story involves actor Robert Dorsay from Zu neuen Ufern. He became a driver in the German Army and in 1943 was overheard telling a political joke. His mail was monitored, and a letter to a friend was intercepted in which he said of the Nazi regime, “When will this idiocy be over?” That one sentence led to his arrest and execution in the Plötzensee, by guillotine.
Zarah Leander avoided involvement in German politics and said her only interest was business. She continued to make movies in Germany after the war, after a failed attempt to continue her career in Sweden.
If you read Spanish, ‘tgalvarez’ has uploaded a nice blog article about La Habanera called Cuando Tenerife fue Puerto Rico.
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of To New Shores & La Habanera are very good Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung restorations of these films. Both features are intact and in mostly great shape, with a few scratches and blemishes here and there, plus a soundtrack warble once or twice. The pretty locations and the Zarah Leander close-ups are quite handsome, better-looking than photos I’ve seen in reference books.
Each film has been given a commentary. The Australian critic Josh Nelson gives a spirited analysis of To New Shores, covering the Zarah Leander mystique and Douglas Sirk’s ambivalent but rich treatment of the material. Olaf Möller’s talk about La Habanera includes a discussion of various critics’ opinions of Douglas Sirk’s German movies — some stress the consistency of his cinematic approach while others see him as aiding and abetting Nazi propaganda. Each commentator gives ample thought to Sirk’s emphasis on the plight of women — and debate to what degree Leander’s characters are imprisoned by social conventions. Gloria Vane does not carry her scandalous stage persona into real life but she’s judged by it just the same, as a woman who corrupts men.
As is covered in Jon Halliday’s fine interview book Sirk on Sirk (Viking 1972), ‘Detlef Sierck’ found himself in a strange position. He had far more mobility than the average German citizen but his movements were watched. After his first wife denounced his second wife as a Jew, the motivation to look for an exit became complete. Filming in Tenerife allowed Sirk to observe how passport control worked between Nazi and Franco authorities. A couple of film jobs later, he feigned a ‘location hunting’ trip to Rome and faked an illness to remain there while his wife made contacts and secured traveling papers to Paris. When a German agent and the Italian police came to whisk Sirk back to Berlin, Italian nuns found him a bed in a hospital ward and coached him on how to appear deathly ill. The ruse worked.
Good Old Chicken-Farm Doug.
As it turned out, Zu neuen Ufern was instrumental in getting Sirk and his wife to America just before the Germans occupied Paris. Warner Bros. brought the director to Hollywood and gave him a year’s contract to do a remake of To New Shores, but the project never got started. Question: could the Hollywood exile community have cooked up the whole deal to move Sirk out of harm’s way?
Sirk was just grateful that he and his wife were safe in America. When the contract ran out he figured he was a bust in Hollywood and would go back to Germany when ‘the Hitler business was finished.’ With his last thousand dollars he bought and ran a tiny chicken farm, and a year later an avocado grove in Pomona (What, no alfalfa field?). Fate took another path when a down-market assignment for the lowly studio Producer’s Releasing Corporation became a socko success, instantly establishing Sirk as a Hollywood director. They say that exceptional men create their own luck. Douglas Sirk’s adroit judgment, taste and talent repeatedly transformed career blind alleys into success stories.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
To New Shores & La Habanera
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentaries by Josh Nelson on To New Shores and Olaf Möller on La Habanera.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 28, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson