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Marlene Dietrich:

The Saga of "Lilli Marlene"

MMDer Claus Kucher has a seemingly inexhaustible archive of songs and stories. He shares with us here the stories behind "Lilli Marlene", known in Germany as "Lili Marleen".

Lilli Marlene
Popular wartime song of early 1940's.
Music by Norbert Schultze
Lyrics by Hans Leip
English lyric translation by Tommie Connor

Perhaps the favorite song of soldiers during World War II, Lilli Marlene (or in the original German, "Lili Marleen") became the unofficial anthem of the foot soldiers of both forces in the war.

The lyrics were originally written as a poem by German soldier Hans Leip during World War I. Later published in a collection of his poetry in 1937, the poem's imagery and emotion caught the attention of fellow German Norbert Schultze, who set the poem to music in 1938. Recorded just before the war by Lale Andersen, the song was a mildly popular ditty until German Forces Radio began broadcasting it (among other tunes) to the Afrika Korps in 1941.

The soldiers made it their favorite tune, and British soldiers who were listening heard the wistful romanticism catch heartstrings, regardless of language.

The immense popularity of the German version spawned a hurried English version, broadcast by the BBC for the Allied troops. Eventually, both sides began broadcasting the song in both versions, interspersed with propaganda nuggets, and occasionally even blasting the song out of huge speakers mounted on trucks, intended to distract the enemy troops.

In the slapstick movie, "Riddle of the Six Boobs," a German officer in the cafe requests this tune from Madame Edith. Unfortunately, the airmen are inside the piano, rendering it unplayable. But to escape notice they "fill in" for the piano with their own voices: "Plinky plinky plonk plonk, plinky plinky plonk!" etc.

The first verse in English is:

Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate,
Darling I remember the way you used to wait.
'Twas there you whispered tenderly
That you loved me,
You'd always be
My Lilli of the lamplight,
My own Lilli Marlene.
* * * Sunday, 21 January 1996 The father of "Lili Marleen" turns 85: Norbert Schultze

Hamburg (dpa) [German Press Agency] -- The German soldiers of 1941 hummed his melody on the battlefields. Even the Englishmen had it on their lips as they swung through the Sahara. Marlene Dietrich sang personally to the American infantryman as "The Girl under the Lantern." Norbert Schultze is the father of the world-hit "Lili Marleen" and lives today on Mallorca. On this Friday (January 26, 1996) in Berlin he will celebrate his 85th birthday.

The propaganda secretary of the Nationalist-Socialist party, Joseph Goebbels, made a futile attempt to replace Schultze's melancholy melody with a march rhythm. The composer was anything but a clandestine defense-forces-subverter, however. He composed also the music for propaganda films such as "Bombs for England," "Tanks Roll into Africa," and the exhortation film "Kolberg," and subsequent marches and military songs. "It was well done -- I was adaptable," it would later be said about Schultze's music of those times. In 1945 the Allied Forces classified him as a sympathizer and forbade him to work in his profession. He worked in heavy-construction and as a gardener, before he resumed composing in 1948.

Schultze had lots of luck with "Lili Marleen". Goebbels wasn't the only one who didn't like the song -- vocalist Lale Andersen didn't want to sing it at first. And the radio moderator, for whom he had composed the song, also put it down. He felt that the text by Hans Leip was too lyrical. "So the composition just lay there," said Schultze. An employee of the military radio station in Belgrade finally discovered the forgotten song in 1941 in a dusty crate of records.

After the song was broadcast there was no holding it back. Marlene Dietrich also sang it "three long years in North-Africa, Sicily, Italy, in Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, in England," as she would later relate. It was sung in military hospitals and broadcast over loudspeakers from trucks to the German lines. It showed up again on the German Hit Parade in 1981 in a potboiler film. In 1986 it emigrated to Japan. Schultze hadn't "considered this possible!"

The composer was already well-known and well-off before the success of "The Girl under the Lantern", who awaited her lover by the barrack gate. His 1936 opera "Schwarzer Peter" ["Black Pete"] was a sensational success. With Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Rudolf Schock in their opera debut, it ran like a victory-train throughout Germany and was performed at over 100 theaters.

Schultze wrote subsequent operettas, musicals and songs, among them "The Girls from Immenhof" and "Captain Bay-Bay" with Hans Albers. In conjunction with his birthday Atlantis Verlag will bring out a book about his memories under the title, "Mit Dir, Lili Marleen" ["With You, Lili Marleen"]. Five years ago Schultze canceled the celebration of his 80th birthday because of a golf match -- this time it should be different!

[translated by Robbie Rhodes]

* * * Among the many anthologies of Marlene Dietrich songs is this production:
  • Der Mythos des "Blauen Engel" [ The Myth of the "Blue Angel" ]
  • Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt [I'm falling in love, head to toes]
  • Allein in einer grossen Stadt [Alone in a big city]
  • Mein blondes Bab [My blonde baby]
  • Johnny, wenn Du Geburtstag has [Johnny, when you have your birthday]
  • Lili Marleen
  • Die Antwort weiss ganz allein der Wind [The answer lies in the wind]
  • Paff, der Zauberdrachen [Puff, the magic dragon]
  • Ich weiss nicht, zu wem gehoere [I don't know to whom it belongs]
  • Fuer alles kommt die Zeit [The time comes for everything]
  • Peter
  • Lola
  • Kisses Sweeter Than Wine
  • Wenn die Soldaten [When the soldiers]
  • Ich hab' noch einen Koffer in Berlin [I have another suitcase (lover) in Berlin]
  • Das Lied ist aus. [The song is ended]
  • * Zyx Music GmbH
    Canada Free Press, CFP Editor Judi McLeod