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Zarah Leander was the most popular singing movie star during the Nazi period. Born Zarah Hedberg in Sweden, she came up through the ranks of small-town Swedish vaudeville and operetta to establish herself on the Viennese stage by 1935, appearing in Ralph Benatsky's Axel an der Himmelstür. UFA studios in Berlin had lost Marlene Dietrich to Hollywood in 1930, and had since then been seeking a suitable replacement. Although not a strong actress, Zarah Leander's looks combined the sultry sensuality of Dietrich with the Nordic iciness of Greta Garbo. Her singing voice was suitable for Viennese operetta, and from the standpoint of sheer musical talent, she could certainly outpace what Dietrich had been able to offer in this respect. These aspects of Leander's talent proved enough to convince UFA to sign her as a contract player in 1936.
She first hit it big with movie audiences in two films directed by Detlef Sierck (later known by his Hollywood name of Douglas Sirk) Zu Neuen Ufern (1937) and La Habanera (1937). Sirk had the wisdom to engage composer Ralph Benatsky to write the music for the first of these films, and by the second, he had established Leander's basic character of type: an exotic foreign entertainer who, after being duped through some unscrupulous means, manages to recapture her dignity and find fulfillment through a twist of fate. While Sirk fled Nazi Germany not long after La Habanera was completed, this formula was able to sustain Leander's unchallenged popularity in Germany for her next nine features, including huge hits such as Heimat (1938) and Es War Eine Rauschende Ballnacht (1939).
With Die Grosse Liebe (1942), Leander played against type, and as a result, enjoyed her greatest success. She appeared as a music hall entertainer ensnared in a love triangle between a jealous composer and a soldier. Although ruthlessly butchered by both Allied and Axis censors, Die Grosse Liebe somewhat surreptitiously mirrored the exhaustion and futility felt by most ordinary Germans during the Second World War, and reflected a common hope that the war should soon end. Theo Mackeben composed the music, and two of the songs from Die Grosse Liebe, "Mein Leben für die Liebe" and "Ich Weiss, Es Wird Eimal ein Wunder Geschehen," were among Leander's biggest hits.
During the making of Damals (1943), Leander received a communiqué from Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Under the terms of Leander's 1936 contract, her salary as a UFA contract player was deposited directly into her Swedish bank account. Goebbels informed Leander that her contract was to be re-negotiated into Deutschmarks, and that the time had arrived for her to become a German citizen. In return, Goebbels offered Leander property in East Prussia, but she would also have to surrender her Swedish-based businesses and property to the Reich. Her German home had already been destroyed by bombs, so Leander left for Stockholm, abruptly ending her career as the top operetta star in Nazi Germany. The Third Reich itself would not long outlast it.
This was the beginning of a 15-year period where Zarah Leander would find most of the doors of opportunity closed to her. During this period, Leander relied on her Swedish interests, including running a fish cannery, and worked occasionally in minor films. But her association with Nazi Germany and its film industry proved poisonous to her reputation, and many Swedes reviled her as a Nazi collaborator. In 1958, Leander finally managed a comeback in the Viennese production of Madame Scandaleuse, an operetta written by Peter Kreuder. From that point until her retirement in 1972, an older and wiser Zarah Leander was celebrated as a legendary performer in German-speaking lands, appearing on-stage and in television, but only seldom in movies. Leander wrote an autobiography, Es War so Wunderbar, and several documentary films have been made on her admittedly interesting life, both before and after her death at age 74 in 1981.