War’s Unwomanly Face: Serge Lutens La Fille de Berlin

Even though I was born to the generation born to the generation that went through the War, we grew up knowing about that war, remembering it and not leaving it behind us. Not only around holidays and special dates, but all year round we were watching movies about that war, reading books, listening to songs. We had our own mythology that became a common knowledge, the uniting force. Fascism wasn’t an abstract term: we knew a lot about it and hated it. Even people who opposed the Soviet regime held that war sacred. It was our war.

Of course, we knew about World War II, allies, joint effort to defeat Nazi Germany but in the country we always thought and talked about it as of the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945.The USSR lost twenty million people to this war. There were probably no families not affected by that war. It was our War. It was our Victory.

One important part of that patriotic mythology was an image of the Russian Soldier – the Defender, the Protector, the Liberator.

Soviet War Memorial in Berlin

So when I first read the explanation behind Serge LutensLa Fille de Berlin perfume in Kafka’s review, I was appalled: how could he?! How dared he?!! They had started it! They were enemies who invaded our country, who methodically exterminated civil population, destroyed cultural heritage and stole everything they could steal – and they did it not even on an individual level but as an organized and controlled plan.

I understand that any war has multiple faces and that regular people who might have not contributed to their country’s decision to start a war might suffer from it as a result. I understand that horrible actions of one side do not justify those same actions from the other. But while Nazi Germany for years tortured and killed millions of civilians – just for belonging to the “wrong” nation or ethnic groups – as well as employed forced laborers, killed POWs and bombed hospitals, Germany got to endure the hardship of the regular army occupation for a couple of months (I’m talking just about the after war chaos since later both the Soviet and the U.S. authorities put an end to an uncontrolled violence) – and we should pay a tribute to their women’s resilience and hardship they went through?! I sympathize but … cry me a river. You don’t want to pay homage to women of the country that brought communism affliction to Europe? Fine. How about Polish women who suffered greatly from Nazis? Or Jewish? Not sexy enough, Mr. Lutens?

Serge Lutens La Fille de Berlin

Yesterday, on May 9th, the Victory Day, I wore La Fille de Berlin. I did it as an act of a symbolic protest against current Russia’s actions against Ukraine and its attitude towards the rest of the World. I like this perfume. I like the disturbing color of the juice. I like the opening rose burst and the metallic undertone of the scent. I wish I hadn’t read Kafka’s or Victoria’s (EauMG) reviews: I usually do not care for an ad copy or perfumer’s commentary so if it weren’t for those reviews, I would have skipped them (and I promise to myself never to listen to those pseudo-philosophical mumblings again). But what I read about La Fille de Berlin is imprinted in my mind now and I just cannot bring myself to wearing it.

During the Great Patriotic War my mother’s mom was brought to Germany against her will to be a Fremdarbeiter. She died young after the war and her sister, who during the war served as a nurse in front-line duty unit, raised her. I knew her as my grandmother. My father’s mother, a medical school student at the time, helped in the hospital in Evacuation. So I’d rather stick to my Portrait of the Lady rose – it suits me better.

Al Farrow The Spine and Tooth of Santo Guerro 2012

War’s Unwomanly Face is a name of one of my favorite books written by Svetlana Alexievich. You can download it in PDF from here (author’s site):

A woman is the giver of life; she safeguards life, so “Woman” and “life” are synonyms.
But during the most terrible war of the 20th century a woman had to become a soldier. She not only rescued and bandaged the wounded; she also fired a sniper’s rifle, dropped bombs, blew up bridges, went reconnoitering, and captured identification prisoners. A woman killed. She killed the enemy who, with unprecedented cruelty, was attacking her land, her home, and her children.

 

Images: The Soviet War Memorial from here; the rest – my own.

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38 thoughts on “War’s Unwomanly Face: Serge Lutens La Fille de Berlin

      • Hmmm no, I didn’t think you were campaigning for a boycott of the perfume, but I’m glad you were honest about your feelings. I hadn’t read up on the back story initially because well, I thought the perfume itself was a bit of a bore and not worth it at all. I just find it distasteful that they chose to focus on this instead of, as you said, many other far more appropriate inspirational heroes.

  1. I don’t know how much I agree with the idea that the word ‘Berlin’ in a perfume automatically makes it offensive ( I love that city in its current incarnation) but I do absolutely admire your fearlessness in saying exactly what you say, even if it might touch nerves or be completely un PC. This level of strict honesty is rare.

    • Neither the word itself, nor the complete name has anything offensive about it! If it weren’t for the underlying message (explained by the creator!) I wouldn’t have had any problems with that name. But it bothered me for a long time, I kept thinking about it – so I decided to put it in words.

  2. Your post reminds me a bit of my reaction to the 1998 Roberto Benigni film “Life is Beautiful,” which so many people loved, but I found to be highly distasteful. I mean, really people: a feel-good Holocaust movie? What??????????????????????????????????

    I did not really think much about the alleged inspiration behind this Serge Lutens perfume–and I even own a bottle! I do not generally delve much into the “backstory” and tend to evaluate perfumes only for their olfactory properties… So much of perfume house text is such sheer and utter unmitigated nonsense that I tend to ignore it.

    • I detested that film as well (or rather I couldn’t even get through it). But then again I even found Schindler’s List, brilliant though it was in some ways, to be intensely problematic. The aestheticizing of the Holocaust (and that heinously sentimental John Williams soundtrack) made me shudder even when I was crying.

      • To explain the way I was brought up in respect to wars, it took me probably ten years of living in the U.S. to stop feeling that M.A.S.H. TV series was a sacrilege.

        • I guess I am just a lot more naturally irreverent. I despise war, but I despise nationalism even more: I find history absurd and very easy to reduce to its essentials, and feel deep scorn for many aspects of the human animal.

          Probably why I spend so much time
          indulging in ‘poetic’ nonsense and posting pretty little pictures of flowers. As the great Lady Gaga once said, “it’s just that I LOATHE reality”.

          And reality is deep banality, hunger for power, money, ‘racial superiority’, ‘patriotism’ ( I HATE it ), ‘land’..’gender’… stupid roles that people are boxed into, and people
          killing each other over nothing.

    • I’m usually the same way! I don’t need any accompanying story to appreciate the perfume. In this case the story jumped at me despite my intentions. And some things you just cannot unsee.

      As to that movie, I remember being horrified when I saw it classified at IMDB as “comedy” (!!!)

    • I think it’s a good book: it consists of accounts by real “small people” – not starred heroes or well-known figures but just regular women who had to live through the war. I think that any war is much scarier when you look at it through the eyes of individual participants.

      There was a war time poetess – Yuliya Drunina. In 1943 she wrote (loosely translated):

      I’ve seen just once a hand-to-hand fighting
      Once in the real life and ofttimes in my dreams
      The one who says the war isn’t frightening
      He knows nothing about the war.

  3. Very thought-provoking post, dear Undina! When I tried La Fille de Berlin I didn’t like it, so I didn’t care about the ad copy behind the scent. Now that you brought it up I have to say that I completely agree with you. I might now know about the pain of war, being born in a free country, but there are certain family memories that make that period important to me as well.

  4. i did not notice the copy on this one either but I agree with you that I find disturbing all this process of de-sensitization of the human race to all the pain that human history was produced through. It is almost inhuman to describe history as a process removed from the every-day life of people who were affected by it in the most profound way. My grandmother came from a village hidden in the mountains. I first visited that place in the 80′s and at that time access was still extremely difficult. Still the entire village was burned to the ground during WW2 occupation which led most its inhabitant, including my grandmother, to move to Athens. What I also found shocking in Berlin was the systematic eradication of everything that would remind people of their pain caused by the Wall and everything that came after WW2. It seems that pain is not an asset. No wonder Europe (and most possibly the entire modern world) are probably doomed to relive the pain of bigotry, hate and pain that comes with them as recent development in Ukraine are indicating.

    • It’s a fine balance between keeping memories and letting go. When people keep grudges, it creates hatred. On the other hand, if people forget the old war, the new war begins.

  5. I can quite understand your indignation at the choosing of that specific post-war scenario as the inspiration for Fille de Berlin, and how it would seem insignificant beside the atrocities committed against Russia in the wider canvas of 20th C history.. Like Neil, I am very drawn to Berlin as a city and have blogged about it extensively indeed. I have also worked in Germany on and off for nearly 25 years and developed a general affinity for the country. But it all comes down to one’s personal experience and that of one’s family, so I do see your point of view completely.

    In a different setting, I have a similar kind of annoyance. I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 60s and 70s at the height of The Troubles, and some of the people we were brought up to fear and perceive as ‘bad guys’ – and they existed on both sides, I must stress – are running the country now. Though Gerry Adams has had a run in with the authorities recently…I left in the early 80s, but I find it very hard to get my head around these scary individuals sitting round a table together – I think there must be a catch…

    On a lighter note, although this perfume didn’t wow me, the window display photo you used evokes happy memories for me, because I was with you when you took it! And took one just like it myself. ;)

    • While I was thinking about the topic, remembering thing and writing the post, I realized with an astonishment that while hating fascism we didn’t have any bad feelings towards Germany – not even West Germany. It was logical: we fought fascism, we won – and after the war Germany was free from it as well. So I don’t feel hostile towards the civilian population of Germany and I realize that it was for many people and, as it usually happens, women probably got it the worst. But I also know that at the same time, after the war (again, I’m not talking about the aftermath war chaos, but a long term), many people in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and other republics of the USSR had it even worse: the population in Germany were getting a better food rationing than many places in the USSR. There was a major famine in 1946-47 with hundreds of thousands of deaths. It was, at least partially, the fault of the Regime but the same regime kept feeding the occupied Germany – not to provoke riots. So I don’t think it’s fair to touch that period of time for the purposes of paeans to anybody involved.

  6. I like the bloody rose Fille de Berlin and I also like this thought provoking article which gave me another perspective: “But while Nazi Germany for years tortured and killed millions of civilians” …….”Germany got to endure the hardship of the regular army occupation for a couple of months (I’m talking just about the after war chaos since later both the Soviet and the U.S. authorities put an end to an uncontrolled violence)”
    Here in Sweden I think the german perspective about the end of the war is predominant as many germans fled to Sweden especially from the occupied eastern parts after the war. I know people who have relatives who took part in the battle of Berlin as boysoliders or inhabitants, others were captured on the eastern front and sent to Soviet prison camps for more than a decade. Their view of the Red Army is quite different to say the least. Therefore it is good to look at this also from the russian perspective. I think that most people here doesn’t even think of that actually most of the european part of the Sovietunion was very violently occupied (compared with our neighbours Denmark and Norway even if there of course was violence too, especially in Norway) for several years.

    • I’m aware now of all the horrors of 30s-50s in the Soviet Union and I have no warm feelings towards the Regime. But they killed much more of their own people than any foreigners. But whatever were crimes of the Soviet regime, Germany started the war, Germany killed millions and occupied multiple countries – so what did they expect in case of failure? Maybe the next time those women (and men) won’t elect Hitler. Just a thought.

  7. Very thought-provoking, Undina. Personally, as it relates to perfume, I ignore the back-story as they are pretty much just noise to me. On the subject of war, I’ll just say that the atrocities witnessed by my maternal grandfather left an indelible mark on him and influenced the rules he lived by.

    • I won’t read any more official stories! I don’t even like reading those stories! But I still think that there are topics, names and dedications that shouldn’t be a part of commercially produced goods.

  8. I take your point, for sure. When i first read about this fragrance I thought of Louise Brooks in Lulu, and so the image i had was of a woman child-hedonistic, seductive, and self destructive. Lots of dramatic makeup and smoky nightclubs. I did not realize what the back story was.

    Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking read-now i am off to read the rest of your blog!! i found this blog via Suzanne’s blog-she is an amazing person, generous and kind. Loved hearing about your adventures in wine tasting country. The picture if the beach on Suzanne’s blog-do places like that really exist? it’s so beautiful.

    • Welcome to my blog, Carol! One more thing for me to be thankful to Suzanne.

      I should say that I like your imaginary take on this perfume much more :) As to beaches and views, stick around – I plan to post more of our views: Northern California is beautiful.

  9. Written in your bravely candid and thoughtful way, your post had me nodding on many points, Undina. At Victoria’s site, one of the commenters suggested that this perfume might have been inspired by the film “A Woman in Berlin,” which I did see and which is very powerful … and at one point in the film (if I’m recalling correctly) the woman who is the main character is reminded by a Russian soldier that she is getting but a small taste of all the atrocities that her countrymen carried out in the Soviet Union (not to mention other countries). Although it’s impossible to say what was going on in Serge Lutens’ mind (can anyone ever tell what he’s talking about?) when he created the backstory, I have to wonder if he is perhaps stressing “the woman,” and what part of the war is parceled out to her – with the use of the words “in Berlin” being simply the reference to that war, maybe? In other words, she is ultimately the one who pays for the atrocities inflicted by her countrymen.

    Not explaining myself very well, and not trying to argue with anything you said. I quite agree with much of your post on this subject.

    • Thank you, Suzanne. I think I understand you. And I agree that there might be additional or different angles, everything’s not black-and-white.

      I have to admit: as much as I like many of SL’s perfumes and admire many more, I gave up the attempts to decipher his thoughts. Since I do not speak French and I cannot trust English translations of what he says, there might be lost nuances or whoever translates might be just not smart enough to get the complex meaning of his thoughts – so I’m giving him a benefit of a doubt. Were it in my native tongue I would have been much less tolerant ;-)

  10. Undina, I am so grateful for the insight you give me into another perspective. It’s a perspective I have never come across before and I feel educated and enlightened by it (no doubt I could have educated myself but there you go).

    i appreciate your heartfelt viewpoint and hope that expressing it here has helped. Artisits are so prone to romanticising awful events and I often wonder what difference does it make how long ago it was? You are quite right about the difference between holding a grudge and remembering the lessons learnt so the same terrible mistakes aren’t repeated.

    I think Portrait of a Lady suits you better too.

    • Thank you, Tara. I feel better after putting my thoughts into words and letting others read and comment.
      Portrait of a Lady is great, I really enjoy wearing it!

  11. I really appreciate your perspective. As others have said, it isn’t everyone who can communicate a passionate point of view so clearly and with so much care for being fair.

    I also want to add another thought that hasn’t been brought up yet (as far as I can see in the comments), which is that I don’t see anywhere that Serge Lutens is, by honoring the women of Berlin after the war (as he claims – obviously, I have my own struggles with whether this perfume really honors them), precluding us honoring the Soviet troops. To me, the two ideas are not incompatible: the Soviet troops who fought honorably deserve honor; those who raped German women after the war deserve to be condemned for raping those women, in my opinion. Regardless of other factors, I don’t consider rape an acceptable “reaction.”

    My opinion about this is definitely affected by the fact that I am currently reading a history of the Berlin Wall. It’s a very credible work, and the author cites a staggering number of rapes, while acknowledging that the numbers are debated. However, one conservative estimate based on official Soviet military records (per Wikipedia) indicates that there were 72 rapes in one month in 1945. Regardless of the rights and wrongs and ins and outs of Hitler coming to power, the war, German action against the Soviets, etc., I think it is valid to say that the women who were raped by Soviet soldiers suffered tremendously — and I also think that all of the soldiers and civilians who fought the Nazis in battle and on the home front deserve our respect.

    As for this perfume, and the marketing story behind it, I still don’t know what to think. :)

    • (not arguing, just some thoughts)

      I have no doubts that there were soldiers in the Soviet Army who behaved atrociously in the “liberated” Berlin (and Germany in general). And I wouldn’t even think about excusing their behavior: intended harm to civilian population is never an appropriate response. But 1) it wasn’t a sanctioned behavior, official authorities tried to put an end to these things happening; 2) one should realize that by that time most people who were drafted came from some rural areas – not well educated, not too civilized, angry and with a lot of primitive hatred. Those types exist in any country, under any regime, in all times and 3) the similar problems were happening in the other part of Berlin, occupied by the U.S. troops. Yes, on a smaller scale, but still. And the U.S. wasn’t that deeply involved in the war and those soldiers’ wives, mothers and sisters weren’t violated in their houses. So yes, bad things happened, I just don’t think they were worse than could be expected as a result of any such war.

      Bombing of Hamburg in 1943 by the U.S. and British air forces is considered controversial and it killed hundreds of thousand civilians. But I’m not sure how would everybody have felt today had SL released a perfume honoring, let’s say, innocent victims of that bombing.

      • I think you are right that focusing this perfume on the atrocities in the Soviet sector wasn’t really fair given the behavior in the other three sectors as well. I would hope that if SL honored the victims of those bombings, people would recognize the intent to spotlight a problem in a particular group, but of course you are right: one’s individual connection with a situation is always going to have an impact. Just to add one point so it doesn’t seem like I totally don’t get where you were coming from: I sympathize with why people protested the Vietnam War in America, and even probably would have agreed with them at that time. However, I also saw firsthand how even the “peaceful” protests and very fair-minded protests impacted the soldiers who fought in that war, whether by choice or not, and that made me question whether it is possible to protest a war without taking away some of the honor from the soldiers. It’s a really difficult situation. I want to believe we can honor both sides, such as honoring both the victims in Berlin and the soldiers who fought to end Hitler’s regime, but as you have admirably pointed out in this post, it isn’t easy to do it and it may not be possible in practice.

  12. I have to throw in my two scents here as well!

    First, I completely understand that you, as your family was directly inflicted by the war,
    are not interested in joining a tribute to the enemy women, by wearing this perfume. I wouldn’t be either.

    My own interpretation of La Fille de Berlin is a different one, stemming from my own experiences. As I’m sure you’re aware of, fascism is strongly on the rise, again, in Europe. In Sweden, for the last few years we’ve had a party named “The Swedish Democrats” (believe me, they are no democrats as the name might suggest, but racist nationalists) in parliament.

    I can relate to the coldness in LFdB as the same chill I felt in my stomach when they got elected! The anxiety caused by the fact that some of my shit-for-brains countrymen could be so stupid to vote someone like that in, and now I’m annoyed and ashamed to live in a country where a nationalist party has a serious say.

    I’m sure a lot of women (and men) in Germany felt the same way when the nazis were elected.

    So, what can we do now? I try at every possible moment to mouth my opinions, to meet the Swedish democrats arguments and resist their stupidity in any way I can. Still, as things are going, there is a possibility that these type of ideas will spread. In the future, this might lead to me being forced into doing things I utterly abhor if I want to live, like fight in a war.

    The way I interpret LFdB is as a woman who is trying to keep her bearings under seriously fucked up circumstances. The name implies Germany and it’s historical settings, but to me it does not even have to be about a war, just someone who’s trying to keep an ounce of sanity in an insane world.

    • Sigrun, I completely understand your point and sympathize a lot. I have just one thing to tell you as an encouragement: no matter what happens, I don’t think Sweden will ever have an ambition to conquer the World. So at least you’re safe from that side (I’m not trying to dismiss the problem, it’s laughing through tears).

      I think what is happening in Russia (out of all the countries!) resembles fascism and Stalinism of yore combined in many aspects. There are people in Russia who understands that but they are a minority and cannot do much.

      What is happening in Ukraine today, at least partially, is a fault of their nationalistic forces: not only by their stupidity they created and maintained the tension between nations living in the country but they gave Russia an excuse to interfere with the sovereign country’s affairs.

      Having said all that, I wish perfumer stayed away from politics and other controversial topics when it comes to the perfumes: I want to be able to enjoy my hobby without having to take a stand on the issues.

      • Cheers to keeping perfume out of politics :) And also wine and food and everything else enjoyable. It saddens me to think about the situation in Ukraine. Apart from being completely inexcusable, the Russian actions strikes me as so completely inappropriate for this time in history. With all the economic benefits of Globalization, I’d thought we’d outgrown this kind of behavior!

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