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4.26.2021 – Nate reviews the movie La Habanera (1937)

La Habanera film poster with faces of Astree in yellow and Don Pedro da Avila in dark blue imposed on a tropical beach background

Detlef Sierck’s (aka Douglas Sirk) film La Habanera (1937) was a film produced by the Nazis and is considered a propaganda film, thus it must be approached with a critical eye. Sierck was a German director who worked for the Nazis, but fled shortly after this film was released. In 1937, war had not yet broken out in the European Theatre, but the Nazi Party was attempting to utilize each and every potential media medium to bring the nation to its cause in. Being that film was a newer potential weapon, the minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbells, saw film as the future of propaganda.

In La Habanera, we see two notable actors, Zarah Leander and Ferdinand Marian. Zarah (a Swedish actress), plays our protagonist, Astree. Astree was once a girl living in Stockholm with her aunt and was soon to be married to a successful businessman. However, while on a trip to Puerto Rico, she was lured by the music of La Habanera and fell in love with the exotic and seemingly mysterious Don Pedro da Avila (Ferdinand Marian). Note that both these actors would go on to work heavily in the German film industry, while Sierck fled to the United States in 1938 and became Douglas Sirk.

After Astree decides to stay in Puerto Rico, to her aunt’s dismay, she has a son named Juan and we see a jump of eight years. By this point, “Puerto Rico Fever” is beginning to take hold of the island once again. The disease appears to be yellow fever and in order to stop it, two doctors are sent in. One doctor comes from Sweden and another from Brazil. Dr. Nagel comes from Sweden and he is a former lover of Astree, adding to the growing storyline. Naturally by the end of the film, the Swedish doctor finds an antidote but when Don Pedro, Astree’s husband and the leader of the town, falls ill, he is unable to save him because the Don (Don Pedro) had all the antidotes destroyed. The Don destroys all of the antidotes to attempt to show Puerto Rico’s prowess and as a result he, the villain of our story, ultimately perishes due to the fever. However, Astree then takes Juan, who looks in no way whatsoever Puerto Rican, back to Sweden with the Doctor, where they presumably fall in love.

Readers may be wondering exactly what this all means. Why does it matter? Well the larger idea behind this film is the furthering of the idea of Aryan superiority. Naturally according to the Nazi ideology, the blue-eyed, blonde- haired Swedes will save the day in the “backwater, exotic” Puerto Rico. And of course the Puerto Ricans appear too ignorant to do anything about their current plight. We know as viewers that this is not the case, but the objective of the film was to get people thinking like this. The film also plays on the old colonial ideas of “civilized vs. natural” people. Here the Swedes, who are representing the Germans as they share a Nordic ethnicity, are the civilized ones. We see briefly the modern medicine they have, the larger cities, and the better music. The Puerto Ricans are seen as natural folk, as they are allegedly closer to the Earth. We see bull fights and people crowding around each other, making it appear that the Puerto Ricans are more related to their livestock than other humans. We also see an influx of plants nearly everywhere a Puerto Rican person goes. In fact, in one of the last scenes, there are so many palms that it is difficult to actually see the characters!

The most interesting aspect of the film to me is the culture clash at the end of the film. When Astree, played by Zarah Leander, sings her final song by La Habanera, the artist who was singing when she initially was enchanted by Don Pedro several years before, she appears to be dressed in both Puerto Rican and Swedish elements. She is wearing a Puerto Rican dress and has a small hair curl, reminiscent of Puerto Rican women. However, she is wearing the much more visible Swedish style braids. She is representing the inner cultural conflict she is having. She appears trapped and depressed but soon after this, Don Pedro dies of the Puerto Rico Fever. She then is able to be freed and return to Sweden with the Doctor, representing her cultural victory. In a way, Sierck and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, are trying to show that no matter the scenario, Aryan people will be able to emerge victorious against the so called uncivilized people of the world.

This film was one of Sierck’s last in Germany, as he saw the way the state was beginning to completely control the creative medium of film. Rather than stay with this, he fled to the United States and went on to direct many successful films, also changing his name to Douglas Sirk. However, other German directors remained in Germany, notably Leni Riefenstahl, and throughout the course of the war went on to direct numerous other propaganda films, which like this one, attempted to truly change the way people thought and achieve a brainwash of the population. Propaganda films are usually filled with stereotypes and political incorrectness, but they are greatly informative in telling historians and researchers what the goals of a regime may have been, as well as cluing us in to how ordinary citizens may have felt living during this period, through the reactions of those who witnessed these films firsthand upon release. Given that Goebbells was in charge of the propaganda industry, the film was approved by him. Douglas Sirk made mention that the film went down well, even though Goebbells had initially doubted the star power of Zarah Leander in the role of Astree (Bonnell, 216).

Bonnell, Andrew G. “Melodrama for the Master Race: Two Films by Detlef Sierck (Douglas Sirk). Film History, vol. 10, no. 2, 1998, pp. 208-218.