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The Boston Phoenix Heart to Heart

Aimée & Jaguar goes beyond lesbian love

By Jeffrey Gantz

AUGUST 28, 2000:  The opening-night entry at last year's Berlin Film Festival and a box-office hit in Germany, Max Färberböck's based-in-fact movie about the World War II amour between hausfrau Lilly Wust and journalist/resistance fighter Felice Schragenheim would seem to have everything going for it. Heroic resistance to the Nazis, a feel-good romance between Aryan and Jew that's also a doomed romance, straight sex, lesbian sex -- you name it, it's here. Except the film doesn't have Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts as the title heroines. And it's in German. Maybe that's why it never found an American distributor. Maybe it'll become the lesbian Casablanca.

Not that this is a movie for gay audiences only. Told in flashback, it's framed by the meeting, in a retirement home in 1997, of the aged Lilly (Inge Keller, superb) and Felice's friend Ilse (Kyra Mladeck, ditto); and it's Ilse who takes us back to 1943 and Allied-devastated Berlin. The young Lilly (Juliane Köhler) doesn't hesitate to treat herself to male company while her husband, Günther (Detlev Buck), is off at the Eastern front, but that changes when she gets a love letter from Felice (Maria Schrader), who works for a Nazi newspaper under the name Felice Schrader. Gradually a passionate romance develops; they write to each other under the pen names Aimée (Lilly) and Jaguar (Felice). When Günther discovers the affair, Lilly divorces him and Felice moves in. Lilly's own eventual discovery that Felice is Jewish changes nothing, but then, inevitably, the Nazis track down Felice and ship her off to Theresienstadt. The real Lilly Wust, now 86, was a guest at the 1999 Berlin premiere; Felice's fate is unknown.

At times Aimée & Jaguar teeters on the brink of made-for-TV-moviedom. We see Lilly and Felice playing with Lilly's children, biking along the Havel, swimming and taking photos and making love, all of it backed by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's wistful but manipulative score. They could have been happy forever, the film seems to suggest, if it hadn't been for the damned war, and the damned Nazis, and for that matter damned men -- the film has scarcely a single guy any viewer would want to identify with, though you may feel for Nazi editor Keller (Peter Weck) when, weighing the common defense against domestic tranquillity, he tells Felice, "We shot down 41 Allied planes last night, but my toilet is gone."

What classes up Aimée & Jaguar are the performances of Köhler and Schrader, who shared (and deserved) the Berlin Film Fest's Best Actress award. Köhler gives Lilly a silly, fussy exterior ("Frau Wust behaved like a teenager" when getting ready for an extramarital "date," Ilse tells us) beneath which there's a tender heart but also a nasty temper (she shouts at her children as well as Felice). Sometimes this Lilly seems all surface -- her jittery, girlish fluttering when she's about to plunge into a cold lake, or trying to hide her legs from Felice's camera. And sometimes she's fathomless -- her obvious distress when she appears at her birthday party in an elaborate frock and Felice, in white tie and top hat, leads her out to dance. Schrader, who's a kind of dark-haired Hanna Schygulla, fully justifies Ilse's description: "Felice was lots of people -- no sooner did I get hold of one than I was betrayed by another." Nothing could be simpler, or more touching, than Felice's late-in-the-day declaration to Lilly, "Ich bin Jude." Yet she's radiant one moment, moody the next, as if happiness were a butterfly that keeps flitting out of reach.

In the end, too, Max Färberböck rises above TV-movie direction. He shrouds many key scenes in shadow, as if to suggest there are dark corners in every heart. Felice dumps Ilse (Johanna Wokalek) for Lilly ("That night, Lilly took Felice away from me," Ilse recalls); Ilse's subsequent frustration clouds their happiness. Felice's other Jewish lesbian friends, Klara (Heike Makatsch) and Lotte (Elisabeth Degen), also feel abandoned, and indeed it's Felice who hustles Ilse and Klara away when Lotte, trailing behind them, is stopped and shot. Later, we see Felice and Lilly teaching downstairs neighbors Herr Lause (Jochen Stern) and Frau Jäger (Margit Bendokat) to rumba; but when Felice is taken away, Frau Jäger denies her Jewish friend -- just as Simon Peter denied his.

And in closing the frame story, Färberböck makes it clear that it's more than just the Nazis' persecution of Jews and lesbians that denied Lilly and Felice. "Did she sleep with you again?" a still-anguished Lilly asks Ilse. "One is a stupid number," Ilse replies. "It's never enough. That's the problem." Resignation, reconciliation, and a final flashback to a party where everybody's playing cards and an exuberant Felice, asked what she wants, says, "Everything. Not 'forever.' Just 'now.' " If she'd thought more about "forever," or even "tomorrow," Felice might have survived. But that heartbreaking, irresistible "now" would surely have meant the end for "Aimée" and "Jaguar."

Juliane & Maria

Maria Schrader knew her way around a movie set, but Juliane Köhler was a screen ingenue when they were paired as wartime lovers in Aimée & Jaguar. Schrader had starred in a dozen films, including Doris Dörrie's Nobody Loves Me, which played American arthouses in 1994. She'd even had a hand in several screenplays, which she wrote with former boyfriend Dani Levy, an actor and director himself. But Köhler's experience was on stage and TV when she got the career-changing call: the chance to play Lilly Wust, a Nazi army officer's wife and mother of four children who risked it all for the love of Felice Schragenheim, a Jew in hiding.

Köhler believes that director Max Färberböck made shrewd use of her relative awkwardness. "Because I was inexperienced in film, the director understood that a little bit. Lilly Wust is always moving fast, with her back to the camera. I'm not really playing to the camera."

Even by transatlantic telephone wire, the actress's English is excellent, thanks in part to two years studying with Uta Hagen at the famed HB Studio in New York. The no-nonsense Hagen taught her not to sweat the details: "Just prepare, then do it," the teacher would say. The advice came in handy during the film's big love scene, which both actresses describe as having been no big deal to play.

More nerve-racking was the day Lilly Wust herself visited the set, a sumptuous evocation of 1940s Berlin. By then in her mid 80s, she gave the actress a thumbs-up on her costumes and styling. But Köhler chose not to ask about her life or her feelings for Felice. "I wanted to create the role without her."

Schrader had no such choice, though she could draw on Felice's passionate writings and the photos that Lilly still held close. "Felice was already a very experienced survivor when our film starts," the actress says. "She was so hungry for life, she took every responsibility so seriously." Capturing that energy was the appeal -- and the challenge. "There's a certain amount of adrenaline a body can produce," Schrader says. "Otherwise, we drop dead, probably."

If Köhler is suitably tentative and torn in Aimée & Jaguar, Schrader is audacious and tensely sexy. The pair shared the Best Actress Silver Bear at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival, and the rich roles -- "the greatest gift for an actress," Schrader says -- have boosted their careers. Köhler will soon begin shooting a big-budget German drama about a Jewish couple who fled Nazi Germany for Africa. Schrader met with an American agent during a recent promotional visit to New York. (The Harvard Film Archive will show Am I Beautiful?, one of her recent films, on October 15.)

Meanwhile, audiences continue to respond fervently to Aimée & Jaguar. Köhler says that after the movie was released in Germany, she got 10 letters a day from closeted young lesbians looking for a piece of the strength that Lilly showed in professing her sexuality to her husband. Some even waited at the stage door when Köhler returned to do theater.

In a small way, the actress knows the feeling. She was in the Los Angeles auditorium last year when the movie was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Foreign Film. It lost, but Köhler had the chance to meet Meryl Streep, her acting idol, and sing her praises. Streep laughed appreciatively. "And after one minute," Köhler says, "she was gone." -- Scott Heller

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