Swedish icons 9: Zarah Leander

Zarah Leander was a legendary Swedish singer and actor born in 1907 in the town of Karlstad. She was enormously famous in her day, a huge star and a scandalous provocateur. With her robust, characteristic deep voice, Zarah Leander was one of highest selling international recording artists prior to 1945.

Although a famous and popular film and cabaret artist in Sweden, she made her fortune in wartime Germany. Between 1936 and 1943, she was contracted by the German Universum Film corporation and starred in ten highly successful films. For the Germans of that time, she was a mega star – a box office sensation. She has been strongly criticized for participating in Nazi propaganda, although she vehemently denied that she supported the party.

It seems like she walked a hazardous line between entertainment and politics; she didn’t socialize with German officers, nor take part in Nazi party functions. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called her an ‘enemy of the state’, and once upon meeting her said ‘Zarah? Isn’t that a Jewish name?’ Her iconic response was ‘What about Joseph?!’

In 1943, she retreated to Sweden and died in 1981 of a stroke. Throughout her time in Sweden, she was considered highly controversial, partly because of her association with Nazi Germany and partly because of accusations against her for being a Soviet Agent operating under the name ‘Stina-Rose’. Naturally, she went to her grave denying all allegations.

After her return to Sweden, she eventually made a come back. She released hit songs, and performed in successful films and cabarets and, once again, reclaimed her mantle of prima donna supreme.

Zarah Leander was a fascinating woman, a legendary artist and a true diva. She is buried just outside the town of Norrköping, opposite the Zarah Leander Museum.

The signature song she is most associated with in Sweden is called ‘Vill ni se en stjärna, se på mig’ – ’If you want to see a star, look at me’. Many impersonators and drag queens have mimicked her melodramatic performance in this song. You can listen to it below.

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