Movies set during the Holocaust are always going to end badly, and they are more difficult to watch than disaster movies since the atrocities are committed by friends and neighbors. But as Aimee and Jaguar (1999) shows us, even against such a tragic backdrop, love can flourish.
Aimee & Jaguar is a German love story with English subtitles adapted from the 1995 book by Erica Fischer and based on a true story. Set in 1943 Berlin, the film introduces us through flashbacks and multiple narration to a handful of young women eking out a day-to-day existence under the Nazi regime. Working as a domestic for Mrs. Lilly Wust (Juliane Kohler), Ilse (Johanna Wokalek) is a young Jewish woman who is able to pass as Gentile and consequently maintains a tenuous freedom. After Ilse inadvertently introduces her gorgeous lover Felice (Maria Schrader) to her boss, however, life for Ilse and her group of friends becomes much more dangerous.
Felice is a clever and charming spy for the resistance, but she is also a reckless heartbreaker. She immediately falls for the philandering Mrs. Wust, who is married to a Nazi soldier, brazenly pursuing her in a high-stakes seduction that threatens Ilse’s security and causes her much distress. Felice is an emotionally ravaged risk taker already: she cozies up as a spy to people who despise her and her family, she witnesses a friend being shot like a dog in the street, she comforts her other friends that are slowly starving, and she walks away from her family as they are packed off to a concentration camp. Yet Felice remains unshakable in her belief that she has the right to be free either moving about the city or choosing a lover, and Lilly Wust falls deeply in love with her and her spirit, with tragic consequences.
Aimee & Jaguar is beautifully outfitted in period sets and costumes with the kind of attention to detail that reminded me of the film Frida; from the bronze bust of Hitler to the playing cards in the final scene, everything looked authentic. The whole look of the movie reinforces the tension of the times–the burning, hard-edged exteriors shots of the Berlin streets shot in harsh blue-gray winter are sharply contrasted with the warm if messy apartment and bar interiors that provide the characters with moments of rest. I especially loved the lushness of the birthday party scene, held in an elegant salon by the few remaining members of Berlin’s once-thriving queer community, who go all out for the fete. It is beautiful and sad to see this representation of what we now know was once a vibrant gay community culled down to a handful of people determined to enjoy themselves in spite of their multiple oppression.
The camera work and performances are a pleasure to watch even as horrible events unfold on the screen. I especially appreciated the juxtaposition of the tender and passionate first love scene between Felice and Lilly interspersed with the mind-boggling terror of Jewish people being pulled out of their homes and packed off to their deaths. The entire movie is full of scenes like this that keep the context and gravity of the time firmly grounded (without hitting the viewer over the head with it) while the story unfolds of these two women falling in love.
The only objectionable scene is the opening one, when one of the women who survived (and is now a senior citizen) is moving from her flat. She is on the street and she ogles a young woman bending over to get into a car. It comes across as vulgar and from what we learn about her during the course of the film, out of character. I think the director could have found a more subtle way to telegraph that this woman was not heterosexual.
If you haven’t seen this film yet, what the heck are you waiting for? If you caught it when it made the film festival rounds, see it again. It is so rich with subtle tensions and drama that it is well worth the second viewing.