Bright Lights Film Journal

Norbert, We Hardly Knew Ye: Rethinking the Late German Composer

He composed “Lili Marleen” — and, oh yeah, hundreds of other songs and scores

When Norbert Schultze, one of the most famous film composers of the twentieth century, died in 2002, the overwhelming majority of obituaries in the Western press focused on the old chanson, “Lili Marleen,” the song that marked his career and relatively short period of work in Nazi Germany. Most obituaries omitted the fact that Schultze worked on almost three hundred film and television projects and remains one of the most prolific composers in the history of screen.

Karl Heinz Wahren informs us that Schultze completed his film studies in Cologne, at the time of the Weimar Republic. He studied harmony and instrumentation with Philipp Jarnack, a former student of German-Italian composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, conducting with Hermann Abendroth and musicology and theatre at the university. He became a piano player and composer in a quartet named The Four Messengers. Invited to perform in Berlin Renaissance Theatre, they encountered the stars of the time, Werner Kraus, Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill, Bertold Brecht, and, after forty performances, continued to tour Germany with astounding success.1

Schultze worked as director of music in Darmstadt, Munich and Leipzig, and returned to Berlin in 1934. He signed contract with the AEG-Telefunken record company as the manager of their light music productions, worked for advertisements and in 1935 premiered his first opera, Schwartzer Peter, a folk tale (some would argue “flavour of the day” in 1930s Germany), at the Hamburg State Opera. Wahren notes that a string of successes continued with the opera Kaspar, the ballet Max and Moritz, and the cantata Sunshine and Rain, a counterpart to Joseph Haydn’s Four Seasons.2 The diversity of styles and influences reflect his attempts to balance between “serious” and popular music. Schultze’s musical success opened the doors of the film industry and his first composition for the Tobis Film Company’s Renate im Quartett (Renate in quartet), directed by Paul Verhoeven. This is also the time of his first radio hit, “I Want to Be Like You Want Me.”

Schultze’s emergence as a composer for the big screen occurred simultaneously with the first racial purges in Nazi Germany. Meyerbeer’s and Mendelsohn’s works were banned; Otto Klemperer, the great conductor of Mahler’s music, was forced into exile, as were the majority of composers and musicians of Jewish origin. Schultze was in his early twenties, and joined the musicians who, unlike the writers who voiced their protest by leaving, decided to remain in Germany. Wilhelm Furtwangler held his post at the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin State Opera, and Richard Strauss headed the Reich Music Chamber. Strauss even appeared at the Olympics, with chorus and orchestra performing the German anthem and the song commemorating the death of the Nazi activist, Horst Wessel (“Horst Wessel Lied”), only to resign after he openly expressed solidarity for his friend Stefan Zweig.3

Schultze became a member of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers Party) in 1940. His war engagement is marked by two compositions, “Lili Marleen” and the march “Bombs on England.” Using the collection of poems by Hans Leip, Schultze composed ten songs, amongst them “Lili Marleen,” yet they were initially regarded as too subtle and delicate. “Lili Marleen” was for the first time performed on the radio in 1938, by actress Lale Andersen (Liselotte Wilke). However, the record failed to attract much interest. Its broadcasting on German Radio in occupied Belgrade, four years later, heralded the unprecedented wave of popularity.

Recruited for military service, Schultze was mainly involved in composing music for Wochenschau journals during the war. He also worked for a number of films. Karl Heinz Wahren points out that for Feuertaufe, a documentary commissioned by the Ministry of Aviation, Schultze wrote the lyrics for “Bombs on England.”4 Some of the films of this period that he scored also include Gold für Frisco (Gold in New Frisco, Paul Verhoeven, 1939), Sommer, Sonne, Erika (Summer, Sun, Erica, Rolf Hansen, 1939), Aus erster Ehe (From the First Marriage, Paul Verhoeven, 1940) and Symphonie eines lebens (Hans Bertram, 1942) with orchestral music adapted from Brahms.

The most renowned films on which Schultze collaborated were period and political pieces: Bismarck (Wolfgang Liebeneiner, 1940, with Paul Hartmann in the main role); Affäre Rödern (Rödern Affair, Erich Waschneck, 1944); and the war movie Kampfgeschwader Lützow (Lützow Fighter Squadron, Hans Bertram, 1941).

Schultze composed music for the most ambitious project of Nazi cinematography, Kolberg, directed by Veidt Harlan (director of the notoriously anti-Semitic Jew Suisse) and shot in Agfacolour. Kolberg was commissioned by Goebbels to commemorate the 1806/1807 German defence against Napoleon’s army. Filming started in 1943, and Goebbels (rumoured as one of the scriptwriters along with Thea von Harbou) convinced Wehrmacht to provide tens of thousands of soldiers as extras. The completion of the film coincided with the closing stages of the war, and the most spectacular cinema project conceived during this period gradually sunk into oblivion.

Following World War II, Norbert Schultze was banned from working for three years. He was branded “a fellow traveller” but resumed work in 1948. He continued working for theatre and as a film and television composer. Wahren notes that Schultze resumed his career in theatre, musicals, and films, including Kapt’n Bay Bay, the operetta Rain in Paris, fairytales like Snow White, Brave Little Tailor and others as well as musical comedies. In the overflow of trivial films that marked the post-war era, he collaborated on a few exceptional ones: Rolf Thiele’s The Girl Rosemarie (1958) and Paul May’s Headquarters State Secret (1960) a film repeating “Lili Marleen” in a different context. For a number of years Schultze worked on the board of the German Composers’ Association and received a number of awards for his work in film and theatre.5

Schultze in Context

The work of Norbert Schultze cannot be observed in isolation from the social and historical moment in which he came to prominence, in the early 1930s, and Hitler’s rise to power. Nevertheless, to observe his oeuvre solely through the prism of his Nazi-era work would be a gross simplification. A student during the time of the Weimar republic, Schultze began his career in the 1930s, but spent almost half a century working in theatre, film, and television, in the period that spans from the early years of Adenauer’s rule, to the fall of Communism, unification, and the end of the millennium. As Wahren notes, his work is firmly rooted in the Late Romantic tradition of the nineteenth century, yet it is also inextricably bound to the work of his contemporaries.6

Dinko Tucakovic asserts that Schultze’s work should be placed in context alongside the more renowned German composers, Erich Korngold, and Max Steiner, who moved to Hollywood. A child prodigy and prolific opera composer, Korngold composed music for sixteen films, mostly for Warner Bros, and received Academy awards for Anthony Adverse and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Steiner composed music for almost two hundred films, mostly for RKO and Warners, including The Informer, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Gone With the Wind. Both composers, notes Tucakovic, used the German musical traditions of the nineteenth (Wagner) and twentieth centuries (Schoenberg and Mahler) in their work for the screen.7

Schultze’s interest in diverse musical forms, from light, popular music to ballet and opera, could be viewed in the context of the musical and aesthetic concerns of his contemporaries. After his exile to America, Kurt Weill, for example, continued to use jazz and popular music in helping develop an American folk opera. In contrast, those aligned with the regime such as Herbert Windt, who composed music for Riefenstahl’s documentaries, insisted on continuing the (pseudo)Wagnerian tradition,8 favoured by the ruling ideologues.

One can recognise a plethora of styles and influences amongst composers who continued their film careers in Hollywood. Schoenberg’s student, Hans Eisler, worked throughout Europe (with Joris Ivens) and Hollywood (with Lang, Renoir, and Borzage) as one of the avant garde of modernism. A Marxist sympathiser, called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he returned to Eastern Europe, continuing to compose workers’ revolutionary music. He is the author of the East German anthem played with an ironical subtext in Dusan Makavejev’s 1967 Love Affair. Friedrich Hollander, who composed music for two hundred and thirty films, started with Sternberg’s Der Blaue Engel, and Siodmak’s masterworks Looking for His Murderer and Storms of Passion, and continued his prolific career working with Cukor, Wilder, Ray, Siegel, and later in his career, Cavani. Mischa Spoliansky, who authored music for over sixty films, worked in the early 1930s with Litvak and moved to Hollywood, where he composed music for films by Korda and Hitchcock. Schultze does not share the same career path with the composers who were forced to leave Germany by the Nazi regime, but he shared their cultural and musical influences.

Last but not least, Schultze’s work can only be properly assessed if placed within the context of the film industry in Hitler’s Germany. UFA facilities at Neu Babelsberg produced 1,300 films in the period between 1933 and 1945. The vast majority were period pieces, costume melodramas, comedies, and films of a nonpolitical nature. Film historians pointedly reveal similarities with Hollywood, in the way both industries pertained to the cultural experiences of their respective audiences. A number of filmmakers, actors, and composers continued to work for UFA during this period. The choices, dilemmas, and disappointments of Leni Riefenstahl, Emil Jannings, Pola Negri, Sybille Schmitz, Lil Dagover, and Jozef von Baky have continued to puzzle historians, scholars, and filmmakers.9 Placing the work of Norbert Schultze in relevant contexts might assist film scholars in understanding the complexity and totality of his oeuvre, rather than interpret it through one or two of his songs that embody instantly recognisable symbols of a tragic era.

  1. Karl Heinz Wahren, ‘On the Death of Norbert Schultze,’ in GEMA News 166. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. David Clay Large, Berlin. London: Penguin, 2001, 283-289. []
  4. Wahren, “On the Death.” []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Dinko Tucakovic, “Ko je koga i gde poljubio?” in Hepiend 1, Beograd, February 1996, 184. []
  8. David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1990, 366. []
  9. Fassbinder‘s Veronica Voss, loosely based on the life of film star Sybille Schmitz, was the first attempt to deal with the film history of Nazi Germany. Other, documentary attempts to examine the work of key personalities of the German film industry (1933-1945) include the films of Lutz Dammbeck about Norbert Schultze and Achim Podak on the career of Sybille Schmitz. []