Although she isn't a household name today, actress and singer Zarah Leander was a major European star in the 1930s. She came to Germany from her native Sweden and became an important figure at the world-famous UFA studio during the Nazi period. She kept working ferociously - and vainly - to keep her celebrity after World War II and her own prime had passed. This half-forgotten entertainer is now the subject of an offbeat documentary called ``My Life for Zarah Leander,'' filmed by Christian Blackwood and having its American theatrical premi`ere through June 18 at the Public Theater here. Interested not only in Leander but in German popular culture as a whole, Blackwood focuses on her through the eyes of a devoted fan who once had an active friendship with the star.
``My Life for Zarah Leander'' is most valuable for its reflection of the actress's Nazi-era activities. Although the film doesn't dwell on this aspect of her life, it indicates that Leander had strong similarities to the protagonist of the Klaus Mann novel ``Mephisto'' and the popular Klaus Maria Brandauer movie it inspired.
Like the hero of that story, himself based on a real-life German actor, Leander managed to curry the favor of powerful Nazis without embracing their cause completely. Thus she reaped the benefits of Nazi approval while remaining somehow separate from them in her own mind. She was able to believe, after the war, that she had never really played a part in Nazism - despite her prominent position in the Nazi film establishment.
``My Life for Zarah Leander'' would be more incisive if it probed further into the actress's relationship with the power structure in which she operated. Instead it splits its attention between Leander's life and the monologues of one Paul Seiler, the fan whose devotion gives the movie its title. His willingness to reveal his thoughts and feelings is touching, but the film's fascination with him eventually seems as obsessive as his fascination with Leander and her career.
More interesting, in my view, are two other films the Public Theater is exhibiting along with Blackwood's documentary. Both were directed in 1937 by Claus Detlef Sierck, the gifted German filmmaker who fled the Nazis shortly afterward (unlike Leander) and achieved great success in Hollywood under the name Douglas Sirk.
His specialty was directing soap operas, but he was no hack of the tear-jerker genre. Rather, he used the tragic plot twists of the ``woman's movie'' format to express his own sardonic view of human experience - using a keenly sophisticated visual style to imbue ordinary storylines with smart and sometimes profound layers of insight and irony.
Nor is Sirk's reputation half-buried (like Leander's) in shadows of the past. His career spanned decades, and his work has exerted a strong and acknowledged influence on directors as different as Tim Hunter, director of the current ``River's Edge,'' and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the late West German prodigy.
The two Sirk films now in revival, ``La Habanera'' and ``To New Shores,'' are Leander vehicles. One deals with a woman stuck in a bad marriage in a foreign land, the other with a woman who suffers imprisonment to save her undeserving boyfriend. Both can be derided for lapses in ``realism'' as they whip up portraits of distant lands (Puerto Rico, England, Australia) and exotic characters (British, Swedish, Brazilian) without losing a shred of their studio-made appearance or rich German accent. Yet both also show Sirk's virtuosic style beginning to find itself - in camera subtleties, nuances of performance, and even reflective mirror-shots of the type that would become a Hollywood trademark of his.
Great cinema? No, but more fun and more stimulating than most of the stuff that's around today. Sirk's movies still have lots of lessons to teach.