Serge Lutens’ latest fragrance, a perfume of blood-red roses and peppers, glows in its classic bottle like a liquid jewel from a medieval apothecary’s cabinet. “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies”. Its inspiration is the wreck, ruin and resurrection of post-war Berlin in the warm spring of 1945; and the work of the Trummerfrauen the civilian women who brought order to chaos clearing the rubble with buckets and their bare hands. Toiling in the dust, wives, mothers and daughters trampled underfoot the mad dreams of Hitler and Speer. Passing bricks and stones from hand to hand in an endless human chain, the women of Berlin laid the foundations of the economic miracle and the ghost of the Thousand Year Reich that had immolated itself after little more than a decade. Nightmares of the past slowly faded in the face of practicality and sanity.
And the flowers bloomed on the shattered masonry. La Fille de Berlin is a meditation on hope and the toughness of the human spirit; the perennial triumph of good over evil, light over darkness. But it is still ambiguous in its references: it offers romance in many forms, not only the marriage lines of the war brides but also the few hours of any meeting between an enamoured civilian and lonely soldier. It breathes the same air as Billy Wilder’s sour contemporary comedy “A Foreign Affair”, also set in Berlin, which implies that Americans and Nazis are brothers under the skin; that chicanery and corruption are what makes the world go round. As the old Argentine tango says ” The 20th century is unsurpassed for insolent evil…”
Wilder is equally ambiguous in his film images. He stages Marlene Dietrich (who was inevitably, though erroneously, suspected of spying by both sides) singing three masterpieces of cynicism and kitsch: Illusions, Black Market and (with silken roses at her bosom) Ruins of Berlin. Dietrich wears copies of the dresses which she wore in her war-time concert tours; her on-screen accompanist is Frederick Hollander who played for her in The Blue Angel and had known her in Weimar Berlin in the Roaring Twenties. Her female co-star is the frosty blonde Jean Arthur, representing neurotic repression (Nazi puritanism / the pursed lips of the American Mid-West) against Dietrich’s florid pre-war sexuality. The past and present, truth and fiction, are inextricably conflated.
Just so with La Fille de Berlin. At first sight and smell you are ravished by a lush Easter bouquet, a glorious spray of scarlet roses so perfectly reproduced that you can feel the petals against your cheek and the dew on your skin. But if you choose, should you let your nose have full rein and allow the fragrance its full expansion, there is something troubling beyond and beneath: a hint of a German cultural perversity – a Grimm fairy tale; Veronika Voss’s suicide as the Paschal bells peal over Munich. In his study of Berlin at war, Roger Moorhouse writes that one of the most pervasive smells of the doomed city was that of halitosis. Pace “Secretions Magnifiques“, perfumery is not quite ready for this most shattering of notes. But Lutens nonetheless alludes to something awry; a rustling beneath the flowers, like Cleopatra’s asp among the figs. Not decay, exactly, but a pourri’d ripeness, perfection that can only spoil. A rosy fruity bloom on the verge of corruption – “O rose thou art sick..”. The unmistakable dark richness of Alpha Damascone; Goethe’s morning rose unfolding only to be broken by the wild boy on the heath.
Or the Rose of Novgorod, the crimson rose that perished in the Russian snows in the corny but irresistible ballad sung by Zarah Leander – the Swedish-born “Queen of the Reich Cinema” and maybe KGB agent too. Leander’s own signature was the feral and complex Bandit – a scent which is too good to rush here and to which we shall return on another occasion.