In 1943, Felice Schragenheim, a young Jewish woman circulating undercover in wartime Berlin, flirted with and then fell for Lilly Wust, mother of four sons and wife of a Wehrmacht officer. Some 50 years later, she told the story of their unlikely passion to journalist Erica Fischer, and the book, Aimée and Jaguar, became a bestseller in Germany.
Max Färberböck’s adaptation relies on the hefty talents of its two leading ladies. Juliane Köhler portrays Lilly as a limited, silly woman, in over her head and transformed by love and suffering. Maria Schrader’s Felice is the more fascinating character, at once exuberant and withholding. Elegantly turned out, she picks her way through the city’s rubble to rendezvous with secretly Jewish girlfriends at the Hotel Adlon; like the real-life Felice, she seems to find the danger piquant, to consider joie de vivre and personal style as acts of defiance. Of her work in the Resistance, we learn little—a smuggled list here, a forged passport there. In the film, her political engagement is subsumed by the love which begins as a game and soon consumes her.
Aimée and Jaguar is one of a slew of recent German and East European features devoted to Jewish themes (István Szabó’s Sunshine is the latest), all variously absorbing and disturbing. Here, the story seems subtly skewed to Lilly’s perspective: There’s a heavy emphasis on German wartime suffering, and beyond Gestapo officers, hardly anyone appears to be a Nazi sympathizer. Perhaps Lilly’s parents really did come to embrace their Jewish lesbian daughter-in-law (though it seems highly improbable that, as the film hints, the editor of the Nazi newspaper where Felice worked under an assumed name may have suspected her secret and protected her). It’s possible, too, that in life Felice might have agreed to trade a few moments of perfect love for death’s eternity. But the dead can’t tell us about their own mixed feelings.