LA CHUTE DES AIGLES aka LILLI, UNE CHANSON POUR BERLIN/FALL OF THE EAGLES/UNA CANCION PARA BERLIN (Spanish video title): Working titles: WAR SONG/WAR ZONE
It opens with documentary footage of Adolph Hitler emoting and reviewing marching Nazi troops, but if you are expecting a traditional, action oriented war film you are going to be disappointed by Jess Franco's FALL OF THE EAGLES (1989). You may also be surprised, this a Jess Franco film, after all, that it contains absolutely no erotic scenes, no gore and not a hint of sleaze. It was a set-up for a hack to step in and deliver a typical Eurocine genre film, cheaply and quickly. But Jess Franco delivered something more than that. Despite the inclusion of a generous amount of stock footage from previous Eurocine war films (including EAST OF BERLIN-1978, the closing credits read "Pre-recorded footage by LES [Lesoeur?] Company"*) this maintains a sober focus on a group of Germans who live through, and are profoundly changed by, the tragedy of World War II.
The scenario, by veteran Eurocine founder Marius Lesoeur, writer-director Georges Freedland and Franco, covers the crucial years of 1939-1945. The main story opens with the birthday party of Lillian Strauss (Alexandra Erlich), the daughter of wealthy banker Walter Strauss (Christopher Lee), who is making a fortune selling war bonds. Lilli is a talented singer and a young woman who also supports Germany's political/military aspirations. Her goal is to sing for wounded Wehrmacht soldiers in hospital. Lilli is in love with Peter Frohlich (Ramon Sheen), a young idealistic musician who does not share her enthusiasm for Hitler's political and military plans. She is pursued by Nazi supporter Peter Froelich (Mark Hamill), who already wears a German uniform. Lilli and Peter also join the Army. Peter is sent to the North African theater, where he becomes cynical and refuses to answer Lilli's letters. He is seriously wounded in battle and hospitalized while Lilli is sent to the Russian front where her train comes under attack. She survives, falls in love with a young Russian folk singer who is killed while trying to sabotage a Nazi meeting place. She makes friends with a secretly gay Nazi officer (Daniel Grimm), who is also killed. Lilli finally reaches the bedside of the mortally injured Peter and agrees to marry him and deliver a last kiss before he dies before her eyes. Finally reunited with first love Karl, But her downward spiral is completed when he is shot down by American forces as they try to escape the carnage. Hitler is dead and Germany is defeated. The last scene takes place in a crowded pub as Lilli now sings tawdry songs for the Allied victors as her now destitute father, ruined by the economic collapse of Nazi Germany, looks on disapprovingly.
There's a lot of plot here, most of it telegraphing the theme of the futility of war in the fashion of high melodrama. Given that the war scenes occur via either stock footage, reported by radio broadcasts or are talked about after the fact, it is left up to the actors to engage interest. With the exception of an pathetically unprepared Ramon Sheen, they do a pretty credible job, especially the aging but still towering Christopher Lee as the slowly deflating banker and Alexandra Erlich who performs her musical numbers and love scenes with equal verve. Her cabaret scenes are accompanied by frequent Franco composer Daniel J. White, who plays piano in front of a Nazi flag toward the beginning and in front of a large American flag in the final scene. The dialogue, adapted by Franco and veteran Eurocine scribe Georges Freedland, is sincere in a 1980s television miniseries mode, "People hate us, They should realize it's for their own good. We're bringing them a new order for a better world." The final shot of Lilli's emotionally ravaged, hardened, coarsened face telegraphs the theme more effectively.
There are little "Jess Franco" touches throughout, such as the elegant music box topped with waltzing ballerinas which is used as a transitional device and the "last kiss" between Erlich and Hamill. The most interesting character, the gay Nazi officer, delivers a line which is pure Jess Franco, "Nobody respects a nice guy," before expiring. This does not look or play like any other Jess Franco film, it's played straight and serious from beginning to end. It probably won't please fans looking for scenes of the director's trademark "horror y sexo" nor will it satisfy war movie enthusiasts. But given the material and conditions it's obviously that Franco took it seriously and did the best job he could. It's not as unwatchable as most Eurocine World War II exploitation (HELLTRAIN, ELSA FRAULEIN DEVIL SS), has a number of effective dramatic scenes and delivers its admittedly unoriginal message that "No one wins wars, everyone loses" in a fairly resonant manner. The use of music, a wedding march played like a dirge by a Nazi, the war songs given a sexy twirl by Lilli and some familiar Daniel J. White cues are sometimes the only indicator that this is a Jess Franco film. Also, the inclusion of "good Nazis" in the sweeping scenario may cause some to feel this is a morally ambiguous, agathokakological war film.
The end scroll includes a lyrics credit for "Clif Brown" and the final Ultra Stereo mix by Eric Lardy (who would co-produce Franco's next project, LA PUNTA DE LAS VIBORAS/DOWNTOWN HEAT--1990) has stability and resonance in the English language version screened for this review, which thankfully includes the real voices of Christopher Lee and the other actors, recorded in what appears to have been in direct sound. Other versions are reportedly more problematic. Franco had considerable difficulty with the system during post-production, prompting him to walk away, severing his longtime ties with Eurocine. For comparison sake, a viewing or reviewing of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's LILI MARLEEN (1981) or Bob Fosse's CABARET (1972) is recommended.
Thanks to Nzoog.
*There also appears to be some additional footage from Patrice Rhomm's 1977 ELSA FRAULIEN SS and Alain Payet's TRAIN SPECIAL POUR SS here and there. Footage from Alfredo Rizzo's Spaghetti War epic I GIARDINI DEL DIAVOLO (1971) was also acquired and is extensively used, as it was in Franco's previous Eurocine Nazi-related co-production LA TUMBA DE LOS MUERTOS VIVIENTE/OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES (1981), and as in that project the grading, formatting and style of that Italian war movie obviously clashes with the Franco shot footage. This Italian produced footage was also used in RETURN OF THE BLOODSUCKING NAZI ZOMBIES, a 2103 horror-war web series by Mathis Vogel and Robert Monell, available on Blu-ray and DVD from Spain's CAMEO MEDIA S.L., as a supplemental feature to Jess Franco's last completed film, AL PEREIRA VS. THE ALLIGATOR LADIES (2012).
(C) Robert Monell, 2013