Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Nostalgia: Lili Marlene, the Lady of the Lamplight

What makes a song immortal? Is it the lyrics? Or the tune? Or the way it is rendered? Perhaps it is a combination of all these and more.

Take the rather baffling case of the song Lili Marlene (English version: Lilly Marlene). It has been hailed as the most popular war song of all time. But is Lili Marlene really a war song? It is a love song, a romantic, sentimental piece that was, rather strangely, set to a marching tune. Lili Marlene was written during a war and attained the pinnacle of popularity during another war.

A German soldier, Hans Liep penned the lyrics on which Lili Marlene is based, in 1915 during World War I. After gathering dust for twenty two years it was discovered in 1937, when Nobert Schultze set it to music. The original recording of Lili Marlene by Lale Andersen in 1939 did not create any waves. Joseph Gobbles, Propaganda Secretary of Nazi Socialist Party, is said to have hated the song.

But Field Marshal Erwin Rommel intuitively identified the potential of Lili Marlene and it was broadcast daily over Radio Belgrade for his Afrika Korps. The effect was stunning.

From underneath the lantern Lili of the lamplight reached out to the soldiers on the desert. The song had pathos, romance, and intensity of feeling. It talked of love and longing and loneliness. It captured the hearts and the souls of the fighting men. Imagine the effect the following words (by Tommie Connor in the English version of Lili Marlene) would have on lonesome soldiers far away from home:

Resting in our billets, just behind the lines
Even tho' we're parted, your lips are close to mine
You wait where that lantern softly gleams,
Your sweet face seems to haunt my dreams
My Lilly of the Lamplight, my own Lilly Marlene

In what could possibly be termed a faux pas, Rommel apparently had not considered that sentiments transcend national boundaries. Soon the Allied soldiers too picked up the song. According to one story, when a senior officer berated a British soldier for singing Lili Marlene in German, the victim answered with a counter question, “Sir, do we have an English version?” A translation was made quickly and BBC started airing it. Thus came about a strange situation where the same song Lili Marlene, became the favorite with both sides in the war.

The Marlene Dietrich rendering of Lili Marlene was perhaps the pick among the many recordings of the song. Even after World War II, Lili Marlene continued to be popular with versions by Vera Lynn and others. It has been translated to nearly fifty languages. When asked about the reason for the popularity of the song, Lale Andersen, the German singer who first recorded it, is reported to have stated, "Can the wind explain why it became a storm?"

The storm might have abated but even 60 years after the World War II, the passion for Lili Marlene lives on. On several web sites you can listen to the song and download it.

Lili Marlene waits eternally “Underneath the lantern, By the barrack gate”.


Note: Photos from Wikipedia Top - Rommel, Bottom - Marlene Dietrich. A similar post was published in Articles By Abraham Tharakan on April 7, 2007.

Also see:


Some memories of WW II, Cochin and the 1940s.

Amazing Grace.


Maddy said...

marlene dietrich - i remember her in 'witness for the prosecution'.. though i hv not heard lili marlene..hv to check that out..

Abraham Tharakan said...

Maddy you can download Deitrich's rendering of Lili Marlene at: