Title/year: Aimée & Jaguar (1999)
Director: Max Färberböck
Found: surfing the web for heart-wrenching films as a teenager
Run Time: 125 minutes
This is a true story.
In late 1944 Lilly Wurst – spouse of a recently deceased Nazi soldier – ‘visited’ her lover in a concentration camp run by a regime operating on borrowed time. Her actions may have lead to the vindictive demise of her sweetheart, though the circumstances of the death are largely unknown. But being Jewish, female, and an active member of the underground in Berlin, Felice Schragenheim was unlikely to have made it out alive.
Lilly lived another sixty years. She never re-partnered. Initially her story, told by journalist Charles Brady, was thought to be that of a friend of the resistance. Wurst hid several Jewish women in her Berlin apartment during the war. After Brady told this story, and neo-nazis smeared her front door with excrament, Wurst fought back with the truth she felt she owed to the love of her life. Wurst revealed that the women weren’t just Jewish, they were also queer. And so was she. And so was her lover, Felice. Or Jaguar – as she called herself in her love-letters to Wurst, who she called Aimée. The pair were only 21 and 26 when they met. Felice probably died just before her 23rd birthday. Their love letters and Lily’s interviews were gathered together in a book of the same title by Erica Fischer and published in 1997.
She told me she was a Jew and immediately I took her in my arms, and I loved her even more.
The film itself takes quite a few liberties with the narrative. How the pair met for instance. But the poignancy of true story flickers through in special moments. When Felice gives Lilly an apple, for instance, is a gesture which the real Wurst later fondly remembered. For a debut feature-length film, Max Färberböck’s work is stunning. The warmth and compassion of the tight-knit community of the Jewish resistance, and the queer network in particular, is tangible. The beautiful cinematography keeps the viewer at the eye level of the protagonists – briskly walking away with Felice down a major Berlin street, quietly fleeing the scene of the death of one of her closest friends – smoke drifting slowly across the lens of the camera, positioned between two card players in Lilly’s parlour, Felice grinning on the far side of the table – standing by Papa Wurst’s shoulder as he grabs Felice into a hug (‘Eine Lesbe! Ich wusste nicht, dass das möglich war!**) The shots are intimate and raw. Every smudge of Felice’s make up as she hold her feelings at bay. Every tremble of Lilly’s body as she slowly falls for her ‘kitten’.
I don’t need to tell you how harrowing this love story is. You can guess yourself the poignancy of the first meeting, the beautiful but terrifying WWII Berlin streetscapes, the burned out cars, dead bodies, small oblivious German children (Lilly had four) and their toys scattering at the drop of a bomb, the sumptuous Dietrich-esque parties full of fabulous queers. The leads, in turn, are sublime actors: Maria Schrader as Schragenheim and Juliane Köhler as Wurst. I don’t need to tell you how epic a love story and how tragic a film this is. So here is my original thought for this review:Aimée & Jaguar was one of the first period films in which queer love was truly explored on a big screen – with a huge budget and with phenomenal, Golden-Globe nomination worthy acting and cinematography. The Berlin street-scape laid to ruins, an entire platoon of military uniforms manufactured, huge ballrooms set and dressed, a whole orchestra and theatre (A REAL ORCHESTRA AND THEATRE), four small child actors seen on film – all for the love story of two queer women. Not a military escapade or a political drama: for two queer women. I don’t think there has been another film like this, at least for lesbian love, on the same scale again before Carol (2015) nearly twenty years later.
Similarly, this is war story about women, from the then realms of women, through the lens of young attractive heroines who usually only get one-liners and a sex scene in similarly sized productions. The absence of men (and for the most part, heteros) in an historical setting is truly unique.If you like lesbians this is your film. If you like war movies, this is your film. If you like good soundtracks, real musicians on screen, angst, unhappy endings, spectacular sets, wonderful costumes, seriously good cinema – this is your film.
I have no criticisms. Sorry. Too good. If I gave stars for reviews I’d give them all and be star-less for any subsequent review. Just – watch it.
Viewing suggestion: Tissues. Friends on standby with hugs. English (or your preferred, non-German) subtitles.