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HABANERA, LA (director: Douglas Sirk; screenwriter: Gerhard Menzel; cinematographer: Franz Weihmayr; editor: Axel von Werner; music: Lothar Brühne; cast: Zarah Leander (Astree Sternhjelm), Ferdinand Marian (Don Pedro de Avila), Karl Martell (Dr. Sven Nagel), Julia Serda (Ana Sternhjelm, Aunt), Boris Alekin (Dr. Luis Gomez), Paul Bildt (Dr. Pardway); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: ; Kino Video; 1937-Germany-in German with English subtitles)
“A soft-sell Nazi-era propaganda film that was used as a vehicle for its Swedish born redheaded star Zarah Leander.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This German overbaked B-film melodrama was shot in the Canary Islands, which subbed for its Puerto Rico setting. Douglas Sirk (“Written on the Wind”/”Interlude”/”Take Me To Town”) helms this luminous kitschy b/w musical drama with a strained effort to keep it surging as a love serenade of romantic illusion matching in intensity the ocean’s waves hitting the beach (shown at both the film’s opening and closing) while hiding as best as he could its anti-American slings. It’s a soft-sell Nazi-era propaganda film that was used as a vehicle for its Swedish born redheaded star Zarah Leander–billed as “the new Garbo.” It was shot before Detlef Sierck changed his name and fled to America to get out of the Nazi clutches.

It has in 1927 the vivacious Swede named Astree Sternhjelm (Zarah Leander) chaperoned by her overbearing Aunt (Zarah Leander) on vacation to Puerto Rico. The Nordic tourist crabs about Stockholm’s cold climate and cold citizens, and romanticizes that the primitive Puerto Rico is paradise. At a bullfight she falls for smarmy land baron Don Pedro de Avila (Ferdinand Marian) and jumps ship when she hears the natives on the dock passionately singing La Habanera. She marries her Don Pedro and has a son named Juan, but is unhappy when she discovers hubby is a cold-hearted jealous tyrant and the island is more a hell than a paradise. Unable to contain her unhappiness after ten years of a loveless marriage, she soothes her nerves by singing in her raspy voice to the 9-year-old Juan of the pure driven white snow and buys him a sled (just what every kid living in Puerto Rico needs). On the secret, she books passage on a steamship for herself and Juan to Sweden when she learns hubby plans to take Juan away from her and raise him with a nanny to be a proud Puerto Rican.

Warning: spoiler to follow.

There’s a mysterious “Puerto Rico Fever” that is plaguing the island but Don Pedro doesn’t want publicity as that will ruin the local economy (which I gather is the tourist trade), so the duplicitous honcho stifles any foreign researchers from saying it’s so (The Rockefeller Institute testing for the fever gave up after its failure eight years ago, which gives the Nazi propaganda machine a chance to slam the Americans as a people who are so easy to push aside). A scientific foundation sponsored by Astree’s aunt sends two researchers to the island on a mercy mission, Astree’s old flame from college and fellow countryman Dr. Sven Nagel (Karl Martell) and his Brazilian partner Dr. Luis Gomez (Boris Alekin). They accidentally discover an anti-toxin when a policeman dies at their feet from the fever and they do secret experiments in their hotel room. Don Pedro gets wind of this and invites them as dinner guests to his hacienda, where his associates break into their room and destroy their discoveries and police are sent to arrest them at the party for conducting secret experiments that will ruin Puerto Rico’s economy (which proves that the Puerto Rico leaders are merely greedy and don’t care about their citizens, while the Nordics never give up and want to help the citizens of the world). But, would you believe, Don Pedro gets the fever and dies right on the spot because there’s no anti-toxin. The happy ending has mother and son on the steamer heading for good ole Sweden and away from these savages.

Even Sirk’s wonderful visuals and attempt to keep it focused on being both an anti-colonial melodrama and bad vacation romance, can’t pull this one out of its murky Caribbean waters.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”