A sweet comedy of life and afterlife, Liliom is the one film that Fritz Lang made in France after fleeing Adolf Hitler’s Germany and before settling in the United States. It is based on the 1909 play by Hungary’s Ferenc Molnár. The year after she arrived in the United States in 1939 (on the same ship, incidentally, on which Molnár arrived), Ingrid Bergman starred in a New York stage production of Liliom, and five years hence the play formed the basis for the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical Carousel. Bergman and Lang, who never worked with one another, had something else in common. Both had been approached to contribute to the Nazi film industry, in the case of Lang, as the principal man in charge. This is what precipitated Lang’s flight from his homeland. Lang was half-Jewish, but Hitler, who probably knew this, especially wanted Lang’s gifts for the road ahead—a curious exception that, in fact, Hitler was prepared to allow on other occasions pertaining to other Jews whose gifts he wished to appropriate for his own ends.
Those familiar with the story of Carousel are familiar with the story of Liliom, which, in the film, is set in rural France. A carnival barker exits his job to pair with a girl who has also just lost her job. The boy, Liliom, treats the girl, Julie, roughly. Julie, however, remains devoted. She becomes pregnant. In order to provide for Julie and the baby, Liliom joins a friend in a street robbery that goes awry. The police chasing him, Liliom commits suicide, stabbing himself with his knife. (This is one of the plot elements that Carousel changes; there, Billy—the Liliom character—is killed when he accidentally falls on his knife.) From heaven, after he has spent time in Purgatory, Liliom is allowed to return to Earth for one day so that he may see his now 16-year-old daughter. Failing to take her feelings into consideration, Liliom tells his daughter, who is also named Julie, that her father was not the virtuous man that her mother has led her to believe, that he routinely beat her mother. When his daughter pulls away, Liliom strikes her, but, because he is spirit, she feels nothing. When mother and daughter compare notes on how it is possible to be struck and feel no pain for the love that one bears the assailant, Liliom, despite his most stubborn efforts to resist it, achieves, at last, redemption.
This is quite simply one of the most brilliant stories ever conceived, and both Molnár’s play and Lang’s film—at one point, Lang anointed it as his personal favorite—influenced other films to come, including Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven, 1946), and Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Orpheus (1949). The special effects, primitive and theatrical, are magical, and the details of the afterlife—for instance, someone there is reading the Daily Paradise—wittily suggest that heaven is conceived by humanity as an extension of the earthly experience with which humans are familiar. There is no grandeur here to afterlife.
The film centers (as the title suggests) on Liliom, a boy who, like so many other males, hides his feelings of inferiority and insufficiency behind an aggressive mask. In a stunning scene, the bureaucrat in charge of the section of afterlife at which, escorted by two spooks, Liliom, as a suicide, has arrived shows Liliom a film capturing one of the times that Liliom treated Julie arrogantly and (briefly) brutally. But this film isn’t a mere copy of reality, for—shades of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude!—superimposed on the action that we already observed in the earthly portion of the film are Liliom’s thoughts at the time, and these reveal that Liliom’s assault on Julie hid and overcompensated for his own private feelings of insufficiency and inadequacy. Confronted with this irrefutable evidence, Liliom nevertheless maintains his arrogant posture, denying that the film is truthful. For Lang, of course, film is truth. Thus we see that the crisis involved in human redemption stems from humanity’s inability to conceive of itself beyond the behavioral terms that marked it on earth. Indeed, this is metaphorical, since, in reality, the film throughout is about life, not afterlife. Liliom’s defensiveness is, alas, his one source for a sense of integrity, the one method he has for navigating through and negotiating life’s blows and disappointments. It is therefore left to others, in Liliom’s case, both Julies, to effect an arrogant man’s redemption. Those who love us, not God (who never appears in the film) or even ourselves, may offer the ultimate hope for our redemption here on earth. It matters that others love us even though we may make ourselves as unloveable as our warped and devious feelings demand.
The film (after a fleeting nod to the afterlife) opens at night in a phantasmagoric passage wherein Liliom reigns like a sexual god on his carousel, a symbol of fortune’s wheel to which, very Langlike, his existence is bound. Lang creates an image of almost surreally attractive, sturdy youth—Liliom is in his late twenties and played by Charles Boyer, no less—that seems efficient and powerful. But the tawdriness of the atmosphere moderates this image, as does the fact that Liliom’s female employer feels that she “owns” him, given that she pays his salary, and when she intervenes between Liliom and two patrons, Julie and a female friend, Liliom’s sense of autonomy, injured, requires his quitting his job. Liliom, then, is essentially adolescent in his mindset: irresponsible, driven by his (self-)sensitivities and by a need to feel free and strong. Something of the same dark atmosphere reappears during the attempted robbery that goes awry. The plan is ironic, because, for once, having learned of Julie’s pregnancy, Liliom is trying to be responsible; however, his pervasive mindset submits this responsible urge to the course of his pre-existent irresponsibility. No wonder that Cocteau was so drawn to this film, for it seems to locate a kind of determinism in the imperatives, the mechanism, if you will, of male adolescence.
A prelude to the attempted robbery constitutes one of the film’s most beautiful moments. Liliom and his cohort are hiding off the main road in preparation of their attack. When a suitable victim appears, Liliom will approach him, ask him for the time, and Liliom’s accomplice will beat him over the head, Liliom will stab him to death, and the two criminals will divest the dead man of his pocketbook. However, the first passer-by is himself poor: a traveling (yes!) blade sharpener. Liliom is about to reveal his knife to have it sharpened when his accomplice intercedes and prevents this. Two things: the passer-by is unmistakably Jewish; Liliom later learns, as do we, that this “man” was in fact his guardian angel offering him a final chance to avoid the upcoming attempted robbery and, therefore, his resultant death. One might say that the (presumably) Catholic, unemployed Liliom’s “better angel” is a hardworking Jewish individual whose (apparent) poverty echoes and cries out to Liliom’s own. All this reflects on Liliom’s insularity, his dire fate as a result of remaining locked inside his adolescent egotism. Liliom should have reached out to others—to Julie, of course, but also to others, however different and unfamiliar: others, in the same or a similar social circumstance. However dissimilar the two films appear on the surface, Liliom is Lang’s Kameradschaft.
It falls far short of Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s masterpiece, however, and, no matter Lang’s fondness for it, Liliom is not in the same league as such German Lang films as Destiny (1921), Die Nibelungen (1924) and M (1931). It’s a good film, though, and at times a superlative one. But in one respect it is a towering achievement: Boyer’s performance—which, along with his work in Max Ophüls’s Madame de . . . (1952) and Alain Resnais’s Stavisky (1973), reminds us that the man with the bedroom eyes and voice achieved his most profound results when acting at home in his native language. Boyer also came to Hollywood, for financial rather than political reasons, but he returned to France after the war and continued to work on both sides of the Atlantic, a highly successful and consummate professional. One element of his biography adds a haunting spark to Liliom. Boyer, like his character in the Lang film, ended up a suicide—in his case, following the loss, in old age, of his lifetime partner and wife. Without spending a jot of time in Purgatory, he shot straight up to Paradise and into the arms of unceasing love.
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