More than anyone else, Zarah Leander satisfied the Germans’ desire for an enigmatic woman. Her heroic female characters were not consistent with the fascist ideas of a woman and yet, at the same time, confirmed them. She was a natural phenomenon, her deep voice enchanted audiences throughout Europe, her somnambulistic gaze was to obscure the abominations of the Third Reich. Perpetrators as well as victims adored the star with the biblical name Zarah. The Germans felt abandoned when she returned to her Swedish home country in 1943, even before Stalingrad fell. Her films were still in theatrical release; the film company Ufa could and would not miss the enormous box office revenues.
She was built up into a German Greta Garbo and as a substitute for Marlene Dietrich who had vanished to Hollywood. She was a vamp with her feet on the ground, a diva who mutated into a soldier’s wife in The great love (1942), luring over 27 million people into cinemas. Here her audiences’ own experiences were reflected and mixed with subliminal propaganda. After 1942, audiences in Sweden were hostile to her for being a Nazi star and her comeback to the stage was arduous. People in postwar Germany had not forgotten her, and she could tie in with her former successes as a singer without difficulty, especially in Western Germany. Despite her stage fright, no one could keep her from performing thanks to her self-ironic addiction to her audience’s admiration.
Sharp tongues alleged that her concerts always took place on Mondays because it was the hairdressers’ day off. Zarah always had a heart for gay men who in turn were extremely devoted and affected to her. No other star was so close to gay men – who were persecuted even after the Third Reich. Was it her deep voice, her ironic motherliness, the efforts it cost her to play the vamp even at an advanced age, or rather her frivolous song texts? She gave gays a feeling of being understood. Part of the blame can also be put on her favoured songwriter Bruno Balz, who – gay himself and with some personal experience with the authorities – knew what he was writing about and which desires his texts should serve.
The Schwules Museum is presenting an homage on the occasion of the diva’s 100th birthday, with opulent material from her creative life on stage and on the screen. It casts light on her friendship with Bruno Balz and Michael Jary and documents the gay adoration. The exhibits are courtesy of the Deutsche Kinemathek, the bequest of Bruno Balz, the Paul Seiler Collection, and numerous other private lenders and devotees.
Curator: Wolfgang Theis