In this astute novel of Americans abroad, Ward Just turns his keen eye toward the dark underpinnings of nationalism, fame, and artistic integrity. When a famous Hollywood director travels to post-Wall Germany to rekindle his genius, he is unexpectedly reunited with an actress who mysteriously disappeared from the set of his movie thirty years before. Masterly and atmospheric, The Weather in Berlin explores the subtleties of artistic inspiration, the nature of memory, and the pull of the past.
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Ward Just is the author of fourteen previous novels, including the National book Award finalist Echo House and An Unfinished Season, winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Award. In a career that began as a war correspondent for Newsweek and the Washington Post, Just has lived and written in half a dozen countries, including Britain, France, and Vietnam. His characters often lead public lives as politicians, civil servants, soldiers, artists, and writers. It is the tension between public duty and private conscience that animates much of his fiction, including Forgetfulness. Just and his wife, Sarah Catchpole, divide their time between Martha’s Vineyard and Paris.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Oral History Wannsee, March 1999
Are you quite comfortable, Herr Greenwood? You seem to be in pain.
Comes and goes, Greenwood said. The cushion helps. Let’s begin.
You may speak freely, Herr Greenwood. The tape goes into the archive, under seal until the year 2010. If, later on, you want to extend the release date, that’s your privilege. Your lawyer has the agreement. Obviously I have made this arrangement in order to encourage complete candor.
So that students of film and other interested parties can study the creative process, the way you worked, the choices you made, and the choices that were made for you. What you were thinking day by day.
Yes, Greenwood said.
I have told you of my admiration for Summer, 1921, a superb American film, remarkable for the time it was made. I’m interested in how it was made, where the idea came from, and how the idea was translated into film. There’s been so much written about it and yet, if you will forgive me, your interviews on the subject have not been illuminating. I suspect there’s a mystery you want to preserve — A dirty secret?
Is there one?
No, Greenwood said.
Begin with the title, if you would.
I wanted to call it German Summer, 1921 but the studio refused. Any film with the word “German” in the title was poison. They had surveys to prove it. They were very insistent. Loved the film, hated the title. Of course they didn’t love the film. They thought it was an interesting curiosity that might do well in Berkeley and Cambridge, and with luck some legs that might carry it to New York and Chicago. But “German” was poison. So they promised to increase the promotional budget and we went with Summer, 1921. They weren’t thrilled with that title, either, but their surveys had nothing against either “summer” or “1921,” so they agreed.
So the film began with a compromise, Herr Greenwood.
It certainly did, Herr Blum.
Inauspicious, wouldn’t you say?
Not at all, Greenwood said.
Why not? The title — It was a miracle the film got made at all. This is Hollywood, Herr Blum. And the title isn’t the beginning, it’s the end. The movie is the movie, no matter what you call it. The audience is there for it or it isn’t. The title doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a title, convenient shorthand. If they’d called Casablanca Ishtar, it’s the same movie, a classic movie either way. But if they’d called Ishtar Casablanca — or Gone With the Wind or The Godfather — it would have been the same bad movie. No clever title could rescue it.
Well, then. Begin at the beginning.
It has to do with my father, Greenwood said.
Harry Greenwood. Not Harrison or Harold, Harry was his given name, like Lady Di’s little prince. We were that kind of family, North Shore bourgeoisie, Anglophile to a fault. Harry’s father, my grandfather, was a banker. Church deacon, civic leader, married a Gibson Girl from Rye, a union of opposites but apparently happy. She died young and the old man never recovered. When he died, he left his son a handsome trust fund so he’d never have to work, and he never did.
And you were close?
Only at the end. He and my mother were divorced when I was in school and before that he was often away on his travels. He called them research. Later on, he retired to Los Angeles and I saw a little more of him then. We’d shoot a round of golf and have lunch. He’d tell stories, wonderful stories of the old days, when he was footloose — his word, “footloose.” First memory?
He had a vague recollection of his father in Vienna, a long letter written on Hotel Sacher stationery. It was the year before the war, his father in Europe on unspecified business. His mother read him the letter, an account of a night at the opera, a colorful parade, lunch in a castle in the woods near the city, skiing by moonlight. When she finished, she handed him the letter without comment, and then she left the room. He took the letter to his room and put it in the bureau with the others. The old man was a beautiful skier. Beautiful skier, beautiful horseman, beautiful raconteur, every day a fiesta. Harry Greenwood was a man who knew everyone. That’s what your father does, his mother said. He meets people. And they become his friends, so he’s never lonely wherever he goes in the wide, wide world.
You want to make movies, Dixon?
I know Gary Cooper. I’ll call Coop.
Watch out for the West Coast, though.
Have a lawyer with you at all times.
Harry Greenwood’s letters came from all over the world, Rome, Rio, Singapore, Cape Town, Bombay, Cairo. They were written on boats, in hotels, on café tables, from country houses and the librariees of men’s clubs. They always contained advice along with an instructive anecdote, riding an elephant with the maharajah, shooting pheasant with the ambassador, dining al fffffresco with a ballerina or a polo player or the governor of New York — or crossing the Atlantic on the Normandie and meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald in the saloon bar. Gray- faced Zelda remained in her stateroom, emerging only for meals. Harry told the story many times, playing liar’s dice with “Scott,” who was then at the height of his fame. The great writer was handsomely turned out in white ducks, a blue blazer with silver buttons, and a yachting cap. This was the summer of 1927 or 1928, Harry a year out of college, unmarried and taking the summer off. He was searching for a good-time girl on the Normandie but abandoned the search when he discovered Fitzgerald alone in the bar, morose because his wife was bad company owing to seasickness. She’s got her head under the pillow, wouldn’ even say good morning to me, told me to clear out and leave her alone . . .Harry was always good at cheering people up and before long he and his new friend were inventing parlor games, guessing the occupations of the men and discussing which of the women were available.
Much later, Harry told his son to listen carefully always to the stories that people told. Listen to the words and the music, too, the cadence. That was the way you came to know people, by the stories they told and the manner of their telling. Really, a good story was a .lm scenario — not the action but the contours of the action, and something left to the imagination. When you listened hard enough, the stories became yours. A story belonged to whoever could tell it best. Harry said that a great director had told him that a scenario had the same relation to a screenplay as the shadow to the shadow puppet. The angle of the light was salient, the source of the light more salient still. The figures the puppets made were reflections of the skill and compassion of the puppet master, and if they were artfully made — unforgettable.
Dixon knew from the fifth grade that one day he would make films, and that in each film there would be a meeting of strangers, and stories exchanged.
Harry Greenwood was a great mimic and one night at a party many years later he was telling the Normandie story, imitating Fitzgerald’s Princeton-via-Minneapolis accent, and a woman walked up to him and asked if he would please stop. She had tears in her eyes. She said that when she heard his voice she thought poor Scott had come back from the grave. He was such a lovely man. He wasn’t anything like they said he was, you know. People told lies about Scotty. He made it easy for them, too. And he was entirely different from what you’ve heard or even seen yourself. I knew him well when he was in college. He and my brother were friends. We dated for a while but he was waiting for his Zelda so it never went anywhere. It was only that he had no tolerance for alcohol in any form. He told me stories, wonderful stories, and once he used my name for one of his heroines, except she wasn’t much of a heroine. She was a tramp-with-a- heart-of-gold, and when I wrote him about her and asked if that was what he thought of me, he answered right away, apologizing that he had hurt my feelings and explaining that he was only taking a name, not my soul. Writers did that all the time. He said he had always loved my name, April. And if I didn’t mind he’d use it again, next time for a woman with a wholesome character.
So please don’t mimic him anymore because I can’t stand it.
And Harry complied at once. By then, he was complying generally. When Dixon was a boy, his father read him F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories and novels. He assigned special voices to all the characters. Bedtime was a performance, and it was only a condition of their life together that the next morning he would be gone to another continent; but he always remembered the story he had been reading, and the place in the story, so that when he returned he knew where he had left off. Dixon was so young, he thought the characters in the stories were his father’s good friends, Anson Hunter, Charlie Wales, and the others, come to life in Harry’s ventriloquism. Daddy, is there really a diamond as big as the Ritz? What’s the Ritz? Later on, Harry confided that Fitzgerald was his personal beau ideal, a gallant gentleman who was roughly treated by critics and contemporaries. That bastard Hemingway. They appreciated Fitzgerald once he was dead, but isn’t that often the case? They wait until you can’t do them any harm, because they’re still in the race and you’re out of it. A man of exceptional charm, Harry said, though not when drinking. Drinking, he turned himself inside out. It’s all in the genes, you know. He got handed the drunk gene, along with the talent and the gallantry.
Later still, Harry Greenwood moved to Los Angeles. Dixon was just getting started in the movie business. Harry decided that his traveling days were ended. His friends were dying. F. Scott Fitzgerald was long gone. Coop was dead. Cancer and heart attacks were carrying away his classmates, and twice in the past year he had gone to services for the sons of friends. He had been everywhere and done everything, so what was the point? He let his passport lapse. He withdrew from the world, concerning himself mostly with his golf game and the garden. Harry reminded Dixon of one of those slender film stars from the 1930s, still well turned out, his cheeks pink from professional barbering, but faded like a photograph left in the sunlight, or one of Fitzgerald’s prematurely aged characters from whom all emotion had been drained. He and Dixon saw each other once a month but the visits were a trial because Harry wanted to talk about his ex-wife, Dixon’s mother. She had remained in the house in the horse country out near Libertyville, married to a property developer.
Never thought she’d choose a developer. Jesus, how boring.
Probably she had had enough excitement.
And a developer would be developing, wouldn’t he?
I was gone a lot, Dixon. Probably it wasn’t fair.
To her, or to you, either.
But I had a wanderlust. Every so often I’d need to travel, someplace I’d never been or some other place I wanted to go back to. I’d get a call from a friend in the morning and be gone by the afternoon. Your mother got tired of it. I can’t blame her and you shouldn’t. She wanted to settle down before I did. Your mother, she’s a different breed of cat.
Still. What do you talk about with a developer?
Dixon went to Chicago for a shoot and learned there that his father had died of a stroke. He had been dead three days when they found him in the bedroom of his bungalow near the Bel-Air Country Club. The house was in disarray, as if its occupant could no longer be bothered; and Harry was always fastidious. Dixon found four whiskey cartons filled with correspondence, including two postcards from F. Scott Fitzgerald and a friendly letter from Gary Cooper. There were more whiskey cartons full of shipboard menus, old dance cards, and photographs, and an attaché case crowded with wristwatches, expired passports, and billfolds. On his dresser he had a little metal model of the Normandie, a child’s toy that went with him wherever he traveled. Dixon had taken it from the dresser and given it to a friend who collected ship models; and then he told the friend the story, Harry and F. Scott Fitzgerald playing dice games in the bar, gray-faced Zelda belowdecks owing to seasickness. Dixon tried to tell the story the way his father told it, but he did not have the gift of mimicry and somehow lost the thread, and his friend only smiled mechanically, though he was happy enough to have the model of the Normandie, and know its provenance.
He appears to have been an impossible man, Herr Blum said.
Not impossible, Greenwood said. Charming.
To you, perhaps.
Everyone liked Harry. Harry walked into a room and people began to smile. Before the evening was over, they’d entrusted their life stories to him. Probably responsibility was not his long suit. His own father was responsible to a fault, and Harry was reacting to that. His father died having spent his whole life accumulating a fortune, and Harry spent the fortune.
You do not resent him, then?
I resent not having the gift of mimicry. Apparently it’s not a gene you can pass on, like gallantry or dipsomania.
Perhaps you could be more precise about Summer, 1921 and your father’s connection to it. When I asked you to begin at the beginning, you began with him.
To explain that would take more time than you’ve got.
I have time. I have as much time as we’ll need.
He was an accidental man. His life, his fate, was an accident. He meets a writer in the saloon bar of a ship. They make a crossing together, and the encounter stays with him his entire life. What did it mean to the writer? One encounter among many, memorable enough so that a few months later he sends a postcard from Antibes. Having wonderful time, wish you were here. Harry saves the postcard, and over the years his shipboard encounter becomes the centerpiece of his repertoire. He’s a storyteller after all; it’s what he does for a living. He brings people to life! But his table is crowded. Cooper is at it and Paulette Goddard and one of FDR’s sons, Eddie Arcaro, Henri Matisse, Byron Nelson, Piggy Warburg, the Duke of Argyle, too many others to list — and, late in his life, April. April who believes she has heard the true voice of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a narrative from the grave, and she can’t bear it. Please stop.
These people are his audience, here one day and gone the next. Random encounters, they live inside his brain, in the hall of mirrors called memory. This is the way he lives from year to year, fashioning twice-told tales, and he likes it. He’s very good at it. It’s footloose. It’s crowded, and he’s never lonely because there’s always another trip to take and a party at the end of the day where there are more stories. It’s fun-filled until the night in Winnetka when he meets April. Listens to her rebuke, concludes that he’s run dry. On that one occasion his narrative has failed to enchant. On that one occasion his mimicry has been too successful.
Please don’t mimic him anymore. I can’t stand it. Poor Scotty.
This is cause for reflection. Storytelling is an illusion, and now he begins to doubt the illusion, or his ability to master the illusion. That which he saw as true is false. Like Don Quixote, he slips into melancholy, a fugue state in which the counterpoint spans but a single octave. He’s exhausted his repertoire and decides that it’s time to ease into retirement. He takes up golf, attracted by its repetitive motion. He takes a father’s pride in his son’s work, and confesses to having seen Summer, 1921 a dozen times, finding something fresh each time; the finish, he says, is...
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