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La Habanera 1937
Description: Astrée and her aunt from Sweden are vacationing in Puerto Rico. Astrée is enchanted by the local habanera musicas well as by Don Pedro de Avila, a rich and strong landowner. Upon embarkation, she spontaneously decides to stay; she runs down the gangway, finds him waiting for her, and later is married. Ten years soon - it is actually 1937 - Astrée finds herself trapped in an unhappy marriage. Her paradise has turned to hell; only her son, Juan, is the reason for her to stay. Meanwhile in Stockholm, Dr. Sven Nagel, a former lover of Astrée, and his associate, Dr. Gomez, bid farewell. They are departing for Puerto Rico to investigate the mysterious and deadly Puerto Rico fever. On the island, their comeback is met with dismay by Don Pedro and his business associates as they fear the focus on the Puerto Rico fever will depress their business; so they plan to deny its existence.
Released: 30 Dec 1937 Director: Douglas Sirk Writers: Gerhard Menzel Actors: Zarah Leander, Ferdinand Marian, Karl Martell, Julia Serda Genres: Drama
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La Habanera Reviews:

I love this film. I love it for itself, and I love it for the light it sheds on Sirk's soon Universal pictures of the '50's. The DVD from Kino comes with a brilliant tiny essay by Jan-Christopher Horak where, among another things, he asks the question "But was it (this film) really transgressive?" This same question has been asked about Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life and all the others. And all of us who love Sirk's movies need to ask ourselves this question from time to time. I can tell that what I search transgressive in Sirk's work is the multiplicity of angles and approaches that the movies reveal. They dare to search the beauty and truth in melodrama. They dare to be ironic without snickering. For all the acclaim that Far From Heaven received, no one, as far as I know, commented on the fact that, compared to Sirk, Haynes stacks the deck. None of his minor characters have the emotional or psychological complexity that Sirk's do. They are stick figures for us to laugh knowingly at. They are "camp". But Sirk plunges into his work with such camp icons as Leander (here) and Rock Hudson (elsewhere) and comes up with a text that continues to resonate long after the photos have flickered away. Horak goes on to tell that in this film, Puerto Rico is exciting, exotic and dangerous, a typography of the Other, while Sweden represents "all that is Heimat". A vision of Aryan homeland, and thus a website for subliminal Nazi ideology. Did Sirk do no more than artistically mirror the status quo? I think not.Sirk was a successful director of "women's pictures" in the early days of the Third Reich, just as he was in the America of the '50's. What is oppositional in his work is not any type of obvious political subtext, but an attitude towards photo and material where the despotic Don Pedro is counterpoised with the smothering, nearly incestuous Astree. And both of them are covered in shadows, slats, mirrors, flowers - all of the accoutrements of the Sirkian hothouse atmosphere. Some sickly-sweet, unhealthy thing is everytime insinuating itself into the mise - en - scene. Sirk is like what Walter Benjamin named Baudelaire: a secret agent of his class and society. His missives send photos of that society to its members that correspond to the vision they have of themselves. And underneath that there is other lvl of text. Nothing so obvious as "critique". But portraiture - "la verite en peinture" - sometimes as devastating as Goya's.


On a vacation in Puerto Rico, Astree (Zarah Leander) falls in love with nobleman Don Pedro de Avila and marries him. Our storyline starts ten years later, when things have begun to come awry... And things are heating up for Don Pedro who, as patron of the island, has to contend with a pair of scientists who have arrived in Puerto Rico with plans to search a cure for Puerto Rico Fever, which de Avila doesn't wish publicised as existing, since it would be terrible for tourism.I love La Habanera. I've seen it twice so far. I was lucky enough to tape it one time when it was on TV, so actually i've got this tiny copy of it sitting on my shelf that i can watch whenever I like (there are no DVD or VHS releases of any Sirk movies in Australia - and I wouldn't have selected La Habanera if i was going to order some Sirk from overseas).It's melodrama, and designed as crap for the masses - but there's just something pretty about everything in it. The noble beauty in Don de Avila's face during the courtship scenes at the beginning, which has turned to harshness and brooding intensity when we slash to ten years later. His burning eyes and face burn up the screen. Some of my another favorite things in it are the ceiling fanatic during the card game, the light through the slats in the scientists' room, the face of Dr Luis Gomez, the stage where Dr Nagel goes out in the road on a windy night and finds the fever sufferer, and, greatest of all, the superb pond in the middle of the room during the stage where Ms Leander sings the Habanera, and in which we see the reflection of the room.There is a poetry to the photos that you may not notice unless you come in half-way through (like I did, on my first viewing), so that you can't really follow what's event in the plot. Doing this was a revelation for me. I was forced to just look at the cute pictures, and i found, to my surprise, that there was something transfixing and poetic about them.Second run through, when I watched it from the beginning, I found I also loved the storyline and the characters, which was a bonus. I found myself caught up in this tiny globe Sirk had made for me. And the seemingly outlandish soap-opera lines somehow seemed perfect!10/10. Mainly from surprise at how passionate i've grown for what is essentially a easy melodrama.


I recently watched Veit Harlan's 1940 Nazi propaganda "Jud Suss," "the most hateful" movie ever made. I had to see more of its star, the actor Ferdinand Marian.The first eighteen mins of "La Habanera" constitute one of the most beautiful, economical sequences in film. The camera glides like the most sinuous and strong of ballroom dancers; shots and sound collect artistic power like the carefully placed words in a sonnet. On the dramatic seaside cliff of a tropical isle, Astree (Zarah Leander), a sheltered Swedish tourist, watches Flamenco. The camera caresses everything it sees: sea, foam, rock face, palm fronds, the costume of the Flamenco dancer, her pride in her skill, Spanish and Indian physiognomies. With variations that create your heart ache, like the notes of a fugue, the same visual motifs replay throughout the film: exotically costumed girls performing for audiences, caged birds, boys telling goodbye, water, both wild and domesticated, fruits, flowers, and light filtered and fractured by venetian blinds, mosquito nets, ceiling fans, and snow. The ear as well as the eye is invited to participate in the dream: the shrill call of a bigoted aunt, "Astree, Astree!" frosts the most tender of moments, the bullfight crowd roars. "La Habanera" engulfs you; you're on vacation. Director Douglas Sirk's artistry never lets up till the final frame; symmetry serves as the strands of his web. "La Habanera," the game song, is insistently seductive as a toreador – you wish to sway with his hips and allow him dictate movement – and then it is grating and cruelly taunting – you wish to slam shut the window and silence the singers – and, finally, it is heartbreakingly poignant – you wish to follow, but realize that you no longer can.A jeep driver with one flower behind his ear, other in his teeth, and a song in his heart picks up Astree and her overbearing, very chesty dowager aunt. They encounter Don Pedro de Avila, the island's padrone, astride a black horse. His face is framed by a wide-brimmed black hat and embroidered lapels. This romance-novel character escorts the Swedish ladies to a bullfight. Don Pedro communicates his masterful inhabitation of his body. His steps spring; his arm, greeting spectators, sweeps with the majesty of inherited noblesse oblige; his hand nonchalantly tosses a handkerchief into a deferential peon's proffered hat, thus releasing a raging bull. When Don Pedro smiles his warm, crinkly-eyed smile at Astree, it is as if the sun is rising in the east. He is manly; when the bullfighter fails, it is he, at Astree's command, who dispatches the bull "with one thrust to the heart." He is attentive; Astree drops her fanatic in the bullring, and Pedro retrieves it, snaps it open, and returns it to Astree with a gesture that Nijinski should not perform with more seductive grace. Don Pedro accompanies Astree and Aunt Anna to their ship; he walks backward, away from the ship; there is a tension in his step as if he were a mime imitating a boy telling goodbye to his love who is leaving aboard a ship. He pauses behind dockside exports to light a cigarette; even that casual, mundane transport conveys erotic power. Within seconds, Astree has jumped ship; she's in his arms and her fate is sealed.Fast forward ten years. Don Pedro, much aged, addresses Astree, nowhere to be seen. In her place, across an elegant armchair, drapes a lovely, lacey cloud, reminiscent of a brides' wedding gown. With a riding crop, Don Pedro tentatively taps, then seductively strokes, this white dress. His aggression rising, again, using the riding crop, he lifts the dress, as if lasciviously lifting a woman's hem. He then grabs the dress, manhandles it, rips it viciously, and throws it down. Only then does a very changed Astree enter. Her youth is gone. She, who had been so wild, gay, and impetuous, is actually sober and resigned. Sirk has conveyed the previous ten years in Don Pedro's treatment of Astree's dress. Worship and passion morphed into obsession and then descended into oppression and contempt. Astree says Don Pedro that she's come to despise the island, and him; she deeply regrets ever leaving cold, blond, superior Sweden.Later, in a climactic scene, before hurting Don Pedro badly, Astree performs a profoundly sentimental gesture. She dons a traditional Caribbean costume Pedro had given her. By wearing this dress at a key moment, Astree gives Don Pedro a gift. Similarly, director Douglas Sirk, who was the husband of a Jewish wife, gives the audience, a gift. This stage undercuts the "Swede = superior; Caribbean = inferior" message. As Astree sings, Don Pedro watches her; he becomes ecstatic; it is clear that no matter how Nazi ideology or melodramatic convention dictate that this film end, no one will ever love Astree as her racially "inferior," dark lover has. Pedro breathes her in like air; she moves him as his drug of choice. You know from watching her watching him that Don Pedro has given Astree the most unforgettable nights of her life.There's so much else to talk about in this film, from the goofy font used in the opening game sequence to Astree's emotionally incestuous interactions with her strikingly cold, blond son. There's "Rosita," the male cross-dresser and Frieda-Kahlo imitator who plays Pedro's housekeeper. Rosita dresses like a nun, part of the film's anti-Catholic, pro-science, as well as anti-Caribbean, pro-Swedish, subtext. There's Dr. Gomez, a Simon-Abkarian lookalike, who, in a very funny scene, is regaled by a gallbladder-obsessed hypochondriac. There's Puerto Rico fever, perfidious islanders and the heroic Swedish doctor who wars both. There's the breathtakingly pretty Zarah Leander, marketed as Nazi Germany's substitute for Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. But what this movie amply demonstrates is that Ferdinand Marian was a compelling actor worthy of remembrance for so much more than having been coerced to appear in "Jud Suss," the "most hateful" movie ever made.



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