There were two things that struck me as astounding about Max Färberböck’s Aimée and Jaguar. The first is the story, which relates an unlikely and fiery love affair between Lilly Wust, a young German housewife, and Felice Schragenheim, a Jewish lesbian, set against the backdrop of a frequently air-raided Berlin during World War II. Even more striking is that the story is based on real people and real events. The movie, Färberböck’s first, is taken from Erica Fischer’s 1994 book, which relates Wust’s experiences, as she told them to Fischer. Revising the structure of this roundabout retelling, the film is framed as a present-day narration by Ilse (Johanna Wokalek), who was Lilly’s maid and Felice’s friend and ex-lover during the 1940s. Aimée and Jaguar brings to life a group of women in a whirlwind of dance parties, nude photo shoots, and a dangerously visible lifestyle, highlighting their wit and strength of character, with their lesbianism but one facet of their complex personas.
First, meet Lilly: she’s delicate, beautiful, and searching for affection through affairs with local Nazi soldiers while her philandering, military officer husband Günther (Detlev Buck), is away at the front line. Lilly repeatedly sends her four children out with her maid Ilse, so she can entertain her lovers. She’s like a little girl as she waits for a lover to arrive, giggling at her reflection in the mirror and draping her body dramatically across the couch like a movie star, all within the confines of her vast, empty apartment. Intimacy with her lovers and Günther is equally unsatisfying, all encounters leaving Lilly visibly unfulfilled.
At this point, we meet Felice, passing as Aryan and working at a Nazi propaganda newspaper. Felice is a free spirit; she organizes parties and attends concerts, all the while flirting with her lesbian friends and culling information for her underground network. Playful, clever, and charismatic, Felice thrives on these risky activities, but also lives in fear of being killed or losing loved ones. While she remains romantically unattached by choice, she also feels a need to be loved: her parents are dead and her life is in constant danger. While Felice and Lilly couldn’t be more different from one another, they couldn’t be more perfectly matched. They both seek what the other can give: Lilly offers quiet stability and security, and Felice brings a wild spirit. It isn’t surprising to see Felice’s cautious attitude soon begin to fade when she meets Lilly.
Although the first time Felice kisses Lilly, she gets a smack across the face, the two soon fall in love, feverishly writing letters to each other every day—Lilly curled up on a couch in the comforts of her home, Felice scribbling poetry intermittently while transcribing her boss’s propaganda about the Nazi regime’s progress. From their love letters come their secret nicknames, “Aimée” (Lilly) and “Jaguar” (Felice). Despite, or because of, their growing passion, Felice is slow to reveal her secret to her lover, who keeps a bust of Hitler on her mantle. Eventually, Felice tells Lilly the truth, and they decide to make the best of a dangerous situation by having fun: they ride bikes along the banks of the Havel river, take photographs of each other, play cards, and, as all of Felice’s friends seem to do when they get together, smoke a lot of cigarettes.
But, as Aimée and Jaguar reminds us again and again, there is much to be miserable about in Nazi Berlin. Against images of wealth and splendor, the film juxtaposes city streets dim with smoke and filth. Walking through these streets, Lilly holds a cloth over her mouth and climbs over bodies and rubble, as she makes her way into a glittery ballroom filled with laughter and music. As Ilse narrates, commenting on this stark contrast, “Outside people were dying and inside people were playing the proper tune. This was the real Berlin.” What seems even more “real” is the film’s complex depiction of the Jewish lesbian underground. It asks us to understand their personality differences as well as their steadfast devotion to work together for common cause. Their double lives even result in a humorous near-confrontation, when Günther comes home from the war to surprise Lilly on New Year’s Eve, to find his house full of dancing, drinking Jewish lesbians. Of course, he doesn’t realize this, as he turns to his wife and says, “Jesus, Lilly, this is what I call New Year’s!”
Schrader and Köhler won Silver Bears at the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival, and I’m not surprised. Their strength as actors lies in never reducing Lilly and Felice to one-dimensional Lesbians. The Zeitgeist Films press kit reports that Shrader says she “avoided taking something like ‘how to be a lesbian’ lessons. It was simply a truly sexual and human encounter, without calculation.” Köhler says she thought that “for Lilly and Felice, it was a love affair irrespective of gender.” Aimée and Jaguar shows honest emotion between two women who are focused on survival, desperate for happiness in a time of grave repression, and genuinely in love.
Lilly Wust is still alive today: She’s 86 years old and lives in Berlin. According to the press kit, when asked how she felt about Aimée and Jaguar, she said, “I have never stopped loving Felice. I gave my consent for the book and the film because I wanted to create a memorial to Felice.” The film indeed pays tribute to Felice, but also to an important lesbian subculture that is often overlooked. What we have here is not just a story of love, loss, and discovery; it is a piece of history.