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La Habanera

La Habanera
1937 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 93 min. / Street Date March 30, 2004 / 29.95
Starring Zarah Leander, Ferdinand Marian, Karl Martell, Julia Serda, Boris Alekin, Paul Bildt, Edwin Juergenssen, Carl Kuhlmann, Michael Schulz-Dornburg, Rosita Alcaraz, Lisa Helwig
Cinematography Franz Weihmayr
Film Editor Axel von Werner
Original Music Lothar Brühne
Written by Gerhard Menzel
Directed by Douglas Sirk (Detlef Sierck)

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Kino's La Habanera is a glossy melodrama made in Nazi Germany and on location several years before WW2. It's an early film by Douglas Sirk, the famed stylist noted for his supposedly subversive take on 50s America in glossy Universal soaps like All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. Thanks to an incisive set of liner notes pointing out the relevant historical facts, La Habanera becomes a fascinating look at some very shrewd propagandizing by the Nazi-controlled German film industry.

This is an odd review because Savant only saw 2/3 of the picture, and it was still satisfying. My review copy seized up at the 58 minute mark, a problem that was consistent on several different players and on a DVD-Rom. I haven't heard of any widespread mention of this, and Kino hasn't returned my Email, so maybe I do have a wild flawed screener. The movie's so unique, I wanted to review it anyway rather than just complain about the receipt of one bum disc.


1927: Rather than return to Sweden, vivacious Astree Sternhjelm (Zarah Leander) follows the lead of a hot-blooded latin song and remains to marry the dashing Don Pedro de Avila (Ferdinand Marian). Ten years later, she's one unhappy expatriate - her passion for her husband and Puerto Rico have vanished - she now considers it a barbaric, filthy backwater. Don Pedro would gladly let her go, but won't let their son accompany her back to the clean, pure snows of her homeland. The annual plague of "Puerto Rico Fever" is about to hit, and Don Pedro has his hands full keeping two visiting doctors from discovering its presence and causing publicity that would hurt the local economy. One of them is Dr. Sven Nagel (Karl Martell), an old flame of Astree's. Knowing that Nagel is secretly studying the contagion, Don Pedro invites him to his house to perhaps buy him off. Then he discovers his wife's previous relationship with the researcher - and that she's purchased two steamship tickets back to Europe, presumably to sneak away with her son.

Puerto Rico is all Latin charm and music, with waves breaking on the promenade and lusty dancers for the tourists to admire. Sexy Zarah Leander is moved by a particular tune, La Habanera and swept off her feet by the tall, dark Don Pedro, the local honcho in a semi-feudal island paradise. She's sick of morose Swedes and their antiseptic asceticism. She's especially tired of her old biddy chaperone (Julia Serda) who considers Puerto Rico a swine-pen full of unwashed natives, obscene dancing and barbaric activities like bullfighting.

But that's just a prologue to what becomes a cleverly anti-American propaganda piece hiding within a romantic soap opera. Jon-Christopher Horak's liner notes spell the history out very clearly: by 1937 Josef Goebbels' ministry of propaganda had annexed the German film industry, much like the SS had taken over the Steel factories in the movie The Damned1

Overt Nazi propaganda pictures were flops, but careful pruning yielded popular movies with messages that promoted Nazi aims. La Habanera is about Swedes but the inference is that the Scandinavians are aryan blood-brothers to the Germans. The forlorn Astree sings lullabies to her young son about how beautiful it is back home, and how clean and magical snow is. This plays into the Nazi repatriation campaigns of the middle thirties, which encouraged Germans in other countries to come back to the fatherland. Astree and Don Pedro's son is a perfect-looking German tyke - wavy light blonde hair and as fair as Snow White, implying that Aryan blood is stronger than Don Pedro's corrupt tropical genes. 2

The political snipes at the U.S.A. are even more pronounced. "Puerto Rico fever" kills hundreds every year, yet nothing is done about it because the corrupt local officials don't want to upset the tourism applecart, or hurt fruit sales to America. As Puerto Rico is in Uncle Sam's backyard, the blame is laid at our doorstep. Everyone keeps mentioning a "Roosevelt medical investigation" nine years before that swept the fever-death issue under the carpet by issuing a worthless serum. The fact that anti-Hitler Roosevelt is attacked by name is proof of the German intentions, considering that nine years previous to 1937, F.D.R. was still three years from becoming President!

The benevolent Swedish doctors have to sneak in like spies and work on the sly in their hotel room to investigate, as the local medicos are under orders to hide any evidence of the killing disease. They perfect a serum overnight in their hotel room, without lab animals or testing, just a microscope.

The unsubtle message is that thanks to American greed, once-romantic Puerto Rico is now a hell-hole ruled by petty aristocrats in an outmoded system. Servants are ordered around cruelly (there's an interesting Rebecca parallel with the house keys that might go somewhere...) and official lies go contrary to the general welfare. Don Pedro is granted a partial defense, that when business dropped from the first scare many more of his miserable peons died from starvation. Astree comes from a sophisticated Nordic culture and is practically being held prisoner ... and Dr. Sven is the logical Sir Galahad to rescue her.

Star Zarah Leander is said to have been the mainstay of German romantic cinema in the absence of Hitler's favorite Marlene Dietrich. She's devastatingly beautiful and shows a wide range, reminding of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Kay Francis. She's romantic and playful in the opening and a motherly martyr in the middle passages when it looks like her past is going to catch up with her in an unpleasant way.

Ferdinand Marian is excellent as Don Pedro, making the imperious Hispanic seem cold but not totally unsympathetic. Various other Latins are all played by German actors with varying believability - Sven's partner, a Brazilian doctor Gomez is played convincingly by an actor named Boris Alekin!

One logical aspect of this picture is that all the dialogue, even the 'Latin' lyrics of the songs written by Sirk for Lothar Brühne's music, are in German. It's pretty funny hearing sloppy Deutsch dubbed into the mouths of the flamenco dancers, until we reflect on Hollywood's habit of anglicizing every other culture on Earth with English. The only sure Latin in the cast by name is Rosita Alcaraz, the dancer in the stylish opening.

Douglas Sirk's direction is the equal of his fifties pictures. The camera moves gracefully and underscores the appropriate moods of the soapy scenes with expressive images. The (presumably German-shot) interiors are as impressive as Hollywood product, and the sun-drenched Caribbean exteriors have a tropical feel.

Kino's DVD of La Habanera is a good transfer of a sharp-looking print. The audio has some rough sections but is basically intact and easy to follow. As I said above, the review copy prevented me from seeing the last 30 minutes of the show. Unseen chapter headings include La Habanera and Arrests, so there's a musical number (with Leander singing the title song) and political intrigue yet to come before the expected defeat of Don Pedro and the return of the lovers to the relative "civilization" of Europe.

I'd be interested to hear from viewers with good copies, so I can follow up on this review and not leave a final impression of an unplayable title. The movie's too interesting to be abandoned.

Kino's extras show their commitment to quality. Besides Jan-Christopher Horak's essay, there's a Sirk filmography, a photo gallery and excerpts of original German reviews. The attractive packaging has a disclaimer about grain and shakiness in the film element - I only noticed that in one very short scene, in the part of the film that I saw. I don't know if there's more damage at the end.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, La Habanera rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Original German reviews, photo gallery, Sirk filmography.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 27, 2004


1. Something to muse over: Horak reports that American companies so wanted to keep doing business in Germany that they complied with the Reich's labor laws. Paramount, MGM and 20th Fox fired all their Jewish employees in Germany and purged film credits of American Jewish names. I hadn't heard that before - so much for film industry 'opposition' to Hitler.

2. Actually, heredity being what it is, a little mix of blood in a Latin family tree can often produce a blonde child among dark brothers and sisters. But dark eyes and hair are certainly more common - the light qualities are usually recessive.

3. Note: In Jon Halliday's interview book Sirk on Sirk (Viking 1972), Sirk says the locations were actually shot in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. This would account for the very Spanish hats worn by the Puerto Rican policemen. He also says that Zarah Leander was then the biggest female star in Germany. Halliday compares the (unseen by this reviewer) ending of La Habanera to the end of Sirk's later Imitation of Life.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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