La Habanera (Douglas Sirk / Germany, 1937):

The setting is lush Costa Rica as dubbed by Civil War-era Spain, the first of various instances of turmoil masquerading as studio escapism. Douglas Sirk gives the idyll's tropical beauty with a curving pan from the sea to the rocky plaza, where castanets are clacked for tourists; the heated spirits that so repulse Margaret Dumonish aristo Julia Serda captivate niece Zarah Leander, especially when embodied by Ferdinand Marian, a wealthy El Macho so suave he woos the young lass minutes after jumping into the bullfighting arena to save a matador in peril. "A single thrust to the center of the heart" is how he operates, Leander ditches the steamer back to Stockholm and marries him -- the introduction to his mansion and servants was later transported into Rebecca, with a Creole Mrs. Danvers introduced in sinister anticipation. A decade passes and Leanderís paradise has turned into hell, the smolder that originally signaled Marianís Latin dash has hardened into villainous jealousy, the titular song now sounds nightmarish. Her aunt wants her rescued, so a dissolve from gelid Sweden to Caribbean skies teleports the appointed savior, bacteriologist Karl Martell -- his mission is to purify not only the heroine but the pestilent island (it's "colossally turbulent," Martell exults to his Brazilian sidekick, unaccountably a dead ringer for Hitler). Snow, doted over and warbled about ("millions and billions of frozen angel tears," cuz "they feel sorry for us humans"), is the insistent motif of Third Reich limpidness, but Sirk foregrounds the absurdity of propaganda by having "Juanito" played by an Aryan moppet (Michael Schulz-Dornburg), a royal jibe picked up for Starship Troopers by Sirkís great heir, Paul Verhoeven. Dearer to the auteur is the trenchant, fluctuating nature of romance, "prayers and curses back to back" or, as sung by Leander in Carmen getup, the wind that can bring love and disease equally -- too much for Nazi primness, so sheís shipped safely back to the Fatherland, sterilized but still a Sirk woman, regretting nothing. With Boris Alekin, Paul Bildt, Edwin Juergenssen, Carl Kuhlmann, and Lisa Helwig. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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