Movie Reviews

Movie Review: La Habanera (1937) – Go On Vacation, Fall In Love, Become Nazi Propaganda Tool?

Written by Gerhard Menzel
Directed by Douglas Sirk

Director Douglas Sirk was often touted for his melodramas of his era in the 1950s. However, many of his films dealt with issues not really talked about in society during the time the films were released. A common theme seemed to be race relations and the prejudice that surrounded them.

Sirk was somewhat hindered in this endeavor due to the constraints of filming in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s (he was known as Detlef Sierck then). Films such as La Habanera were prohibited from being shown in theaters in the U.S. The film industry in Germany during this time was largely a propaganda machine, churning out films to cast Germany in a good light and anyone Hitler deemed less than worthy of being included as part of the “Master Race” in a poor light.

Produced in Germany in 1937 and filmed in the Canary Islands, La Habanera tells the story of a young Swedish woman, Astree (portrayed by Zarah Leander) who is vacationing in Puerto Rico and falls in love. She falls in love with the island and with a man from the upper class on the island, Don Pedro de Avila (portrayed by Ferdinand Marian). Still, he would not be considered someone proper for her to marry. As she is about to depart the island with her aunt (portrayed by Julia Serda), Astree throws caution to the wind and departs the boat at the last possible moment, into Don Pedro’s waiting arms.

Ten years later, the bloom is off the rose. Astree no longer loves the island. She hates the heat, the fevers which come around every season, and even the music she once loved, La Habanera. She and Don Pedro have married and they have a son. Cultures clash as Don Pedro chides her for coddling her son when she refuses to allow him to accompany his father to the bullfighting. Ten years before, the bullfights thrilled her. In addition, Don Pedro is terribly jealous, even going as far as ripping apart a dress that another man once told her she looked pretty in.

An old lover, Doctor Sven Nagel (portrayed by Karl Martell), visits on a mission to study the fevers which are reported to plague Puerto Rico and possibly develop a cure. He and his colleague meet resistance from the local authorities, who are determined to drive them off the island and discredit them, fearing tourism would dry up if the truth were ever known.

Astree makes plans to leave with her son for Sweden. Before they have a chance to leave, the fevers strike the island…

Sirk has managed to craft a film that could have easily descended into something overdone with characters who came off more as caricatures than anything else. While La Habanera is melodramatic at times, the film is telling a story that for the most part is compelling and intriguing. How many women have taken a vacation and had a “fling” only to wonder all their lives about what could have been. Sirk takes the fantasy and adds a healthy dose of reality as the cultures clash. The huge difference in the climate is also an issue for Astree. While the warm climate of Puerto Rico was enjoyable at first to this girl from Sweden, ten years of it leaves her pining for the snow. So much so that she has influenced her son with such a desire to experience it that he’s riding down the stairs of their stately home on a homemade sled.

When Sirk keeps his focus on their relationship the movie is good. It’s when he attempts to bring in the elements of suspense and peril with the doctors and their search for a cure for the fever while battling with the island authorities that it loses its step. I could really have done without that whole element, and I think the film would have been better for it.

The cinematography is beautiful, especially for a film that was done in black and white. Sirk uses the lighting to accentuate people in certain situations and to create an air of peril. The light a character is portrayed in or how he reacts to an infusion of light is often key to the personality and Sirk does it so subtly that it’s barely noticeable.

La Habanera was filmed in German but has English subtitles. I actually watched it twice, once reading the subtitles and once just watching the film, having a pretty good idea of the plot in the various scenes without having to rely on the subtitles. The actors do a terrific job conveying the story when I didn’t pay attention to the subtitles. The expressions on the faces and body language accentuate what‘s being said at the time. I didn’t find the performances to be overdone. Their names aren’t known too well here in the United States (and Zahara Leander became too linked with the Nazi cinema to revive her career following the second world war) but the performances are still noteworthy.

La Habanera is a black and white film and I have to say the transfer seems pretty good. There are times when the movie seems to skip, so I am not sure if the print was faulty or if that’s from the original editing job.

Is La Habanera just more of the Nazi propaganda issued by their movie industry in the late 1930s? On the surface, the answer would seem to be yes. The story seems to take a slam at all things, not Aryan, favoring the Swedes over the Spanish in more ways than one. The native Puerto Ricans are shown to be deceitful and not valuing life over their economic well-being when it comes to the tourism industry, while the Swedish and Brazilian doctors are the ones coming to the rescue. The Americans are slammed repeatedly (“The Rockefeller Institute gave up after its failure eight years ago… Americans are so lax…”), so it’s very possible that this part of the script is already showing just how much the Nazis feared having to face the Americans in a potential war.

With the passage of time, however, the storyline has become a more familiar one. I know many people who went on tropical vacations and who fell in love. No one understands it has more to do with an unfamiliar setting than the actual person you are with. For those who were able to keep the relationship going after the vacation was over (the person they met was also a vacationer native to their part of the country) it seemed to be a matter of time before the bloom was off the rose and reality set in. Astree had no chance to learn about reality, such was her relationship with Don Pedro. So while it may have been initially intended as a propaganda tool, Sirk managed to make it much more either through his own visioning or the stories he had heard from those who had done extensive traveling and experienced the “vacation romance” phenomenon. Were it not for knowing the time period this was made in and the background behind it, I would never have given the story a second thought.

La Habanera is not for everyone. There are parts that are indicative of the filmmaking Sirk will be noted for once he left Nazi Germany for the States (his wife was Jewish). I think the whole subplot of the doctors battling the fevers and the local authorities could have been jettisoned and more focus placed just on the troubled relationship of Astree and Don Pedro. There are parts that may be troubling as evidence of Nazi propaganda, although it’s subtler than in many other films of the era. Still, La Habanera is worth a look.

Special Features:

” Stills Gallery
” Excerpts of Original German Reviews
” Douglas Sirk Filmography