The opening night of the 1999 International Berlin Film Festival, the German film “Aime & Jaguar” drew attention not only for its overt lesbian story, but also for its political context; it’s set in WWII, toward the end of the War.
“Aimee and Jaguar” is based on Erica Fischer’s best-selling book, which was published in 1994 and has been translated into numerous languages. The movie represents the impressive feature debut of Max Färberböck, better known until then as a stage director.
The book was based on the work of the American journalist, author, and Holocaust researcher, Charles Brady, who tracked down Lilly Wust as a Holocaust survivor and the two soon became friends. It took close to two years, however, before Wust was able to confide in Brady about the great lesbian love of her life. They remained in touch for two decades, until her death in 2006. The book contains photos of the authentic letters shared between the two women.
Though unfolding as a sensual-romantic melodrama, the film never loses sight of the broader political settings—Berlin circa 1943-1944, amidst ruins, with conflicting reports about the Nazis’ chances to win. Blessedly, the feature is not as literary as many adaptations of novels are, or as sentimental as it could have been.
When the film begins in 1997, an 83-year-old Lilly (played by Inge Keller) takes up residence in a dilapidated flat that once served as an underground hideout. Lilly’s German maid Ilse (played by Johanna Wokalek in the 1940s, by Kyra Mladeck in 1997), who was rounded up during 1945, is already a tenant there.
After the above brief prologue, in which the aged Lilly and Ilse remeet, they begin to reminisce about their pasts, and the story cuts back to 1943, as Allied bombers leave Berlin in ruins. Lilly Wust (Juliane Khler) earns a Cross of Motherhood for bringing up four children while husband Gunther (Detlev Buck) is away fighting on the eastern front.
She leads a bourgeois existence, with occasional love affairs with men on the side. She’s not too concerned with politics, though Hitler’s bust is a prominent decoration in their flat.
When Lilly receives a love letter signed ‘Jaguar,’ she assumes it was written by a male admirer. It turns out to be a product of the self-confident Felice Schragenheim (Maria Schrader), who initiates quite boldly the ensuing, forbidden romance.
A passionate love affair begins amidst the bombing raids and the threat of persecution. Madly in love, Lilly wants to divorce her husband, which causes a storm, not just because her lover is a woman, but because she is Jewish and fighting for the Resistance.
Nonetheless, nothing stops the love-blind Lilly. The two women make a pact of love and marriage and try to block out the reality of war and persecution. Among other merits, “Aimee and jaguar” contains one of the longest, most realistic seduction and sex scenes between two women I have seen on screen, depicted in minutae but non-sensationalistic mode, down to the smallest gestures. In this scene, Lilly conveys vividly the excitement, fear, trembling, desire and ultimately satisfaction.
However, first the husband discovers the two women in bed in one of his visits from the front, and then the Gestapo catch up with them.
Maria Schrader and Juliane Khler shared the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Fest, while the film received the Teddy Award, given to the fest’s best gay or lesbian feature.