In "Lili Marleen," the latest piece of kitsch from Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hanna Schygulla waddles and croaks her way through the role of a no-talent cabaret chanteuse, Willie. Her proper fiance -- Giancarlo Giannini, is a combination classical musician-secret agent named Robert Mendelssohn, the scion of a wealthy Jewish family actively engaged in smuggling people from Nazi Germany to Switzerland. Circumstances force the lovers apart and turn Willie into a celebrated darling of the Nazi regime.
Enhancing the zany casting, Mel Ferrer appears as Giannini's proud, disapproving papa, who engineers the separation of Willie and Robert out of justifiable fear that his son might compromise the entire underground network by consorting with an airhead from Germany. Willie has also attracted the admiration of a German officer who catches her act in Zurich and wonders what a national treasure is doing wasting her charms on the insipid Swiss. When her visa is revoked, she returns to Berlin and leans on this sinister protector. He arranges a recording date that leads to fluky success: Willie's hoarse rendition of "Lili Marleen" becomes a great favorite of men in uniform. Rumor has it that she's also No. 1 on Der Fuhrer's Hit Parade.
Fassbinder repeatedly depicts the song comforting lonely soldiers and then accompanying scenes of carnage. The devastating effect boomerangs: calling attention to a trite sense of spectacle rather than the fleeting nature of melodic solace or the destructive nature of warfare.
The continuity is a disillusioning but comical jumble of episodes. Despite the prevailing solemnity with which Fassbinder observes the heroine's melancholy loss of true love and ascent to corrupted popularity, he can't resist an occasional bit of funning. When Robert is captured, for example, the Germans torture him by playing a record of "Lili Marleen" that keeps getting stuck, a strictly facetious bit cribbed from Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three," where Horst Buchholz was supposedly brainwashed by constant exposure to "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini." And the playful Fassbinder has cast himself as a shadowy underground contact who recruits Willie, implausibly, for a crucial courier mission.
Schygulla's vocalizing, if that's actually her tonedeaf growl rather than the sound of an indigent dubber, might really be effective as a form of aural torture. And like Willie's inexplicable hold over the troops, in the end Fassbinder's hold over a segment of movie criticism is one of the wackier obsessions in the contemporary cinematic booby hatch.