Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Plenty of meat and butter, and coffee

Berlin Hotel Book Club edition, opening page

[Otto Kauders is up in Tilli's bedroom...]

"How long do you think this war is going to last?" Tilli asked, interrupting his fantasies.

"That's all you civilians ask! How long is it going to last?" he said, disturbed. "It'll last until we have beaten the others to a pulp, that's how long it will last. If you ask me, I hope it won't be over too soon. I like war," Otto said with innocent conviction. "I don't even want to think of the end of the war. War is good. It's a man's life; I like it. Peace is like stagnant water. It stinks, it's rotten. Peace---" he said, and suddenly his voice began to waver. "I can't see what a fellow like me will do after the war. Go back to school? That's a bad joke! Well, what? Become a taxicab driver? That's what flying in peacetime amounts to. No, thanks, not for me."

"That's true. You boys are getting the best of everything," Tilli said. She had been trying all the time to find an opening for what she wanted to ask him. "Nice uniforms, good food. Plenty of meat and butter, and coffee and everything. Is it true that they give you real coffee?"

"Yes, and we need it too. You have no idea what a cup of real coffee and a cigarette will do when you come down --- like I came down, for instance."  [Otto, badly burned, is now high on Pervitine to hold his nerves together.]

"Could you get some for me?"

"Get what? Coffee? You must be crazy. I'll give you fifty marks. How's that?"

"I need coffee," Tilli said, stubbornly steering her course. "Listen, Schnucki," she said and turned the sex tap full on, "I will tell you how it is. I need shoes and I can't get shoes, not for fifty marks and not for a thousand. I don't want money from you. I like you, I'm crazy about you, Schnucki; keep your money. I wouldn't take money from a sweet boy like you. But I think I could get shoes for half a pound of coffee...." (Berlin Hotel, pp. 63-64).


[I noticed that the lion logo (Book Production War Economy Standard), seen above, also shows up in Angela Carr's book Here in There (BookThug, 2014). Not sure if this is part of Jay MillAr's design or a regular house joke.]


I'm not really sure what I want to say about this book, another treasure picked up from a charity box in the Trowbridge Sainsburys, but it's too distinctive to pass over in silence. It's apocalyptic, but a sort of bedroom farce, and also somehow convincingly real too.

The reviewer in Variety wrote of the film version: "this is arresting melodrama and and an honest if, mayhaps, sometimes naive attempt to treat a world catastrophic situation in broad values." I think that's quite a good description of the book too.

It begins with the Nazi elite throwing a party for the benefit of trade delegations from neutral or loosely attached nations. The news, of German victory in Russia and a revolution in New York, is uniformly good and uniformly unbelievable. Society is breaking down, outside the Berliners are nearly  starving, only a shabby facade remains here, in this hotel that is just about functioning. Perhaps the only person who believes in the propaganda is the young starlet Lisa Dorn, who has never thought about politics --- until the student revolutionary Martin Richter, on the run from the Gestapo, shows up in her hotel room. Meanwhile her current lover, the ageing general Arnim von Dahnwitz learns that the generals' plot to overthrow the Fuehrer has been exposed: he is given 24 hours to commit honourable suicide. Among other characters we have the once-admired author Johannes Koenig, reduced to writing patriotic nonsense for the war effort; the interned English author Geoffrey Nichols, kept alive by drugs for his heart condition in exchange for daily broadcasts about the invincibility of Germany; the fighter ace Otto Kauders on a three-day razzle; the pitiful hostess Tilli, mourning her dead Jewish lover, a full-time entertainer of gentlemen and part-time Gestapo informer; the highly unpleasant Gestapo Commissar Helm; the suave business-as-usual bureaucrat von Stetten, the Dutch traitor businessman Vanderstraaten, the oafish Gauleiter Plottke who has been secretly building up Swiss bonds in preparation for a bolt....  The bombs fall from the start but as the novel proceeds they fall more incessantly and the final part takes place in the once-plush, now bursting, air-raid shelter underneath the hotel.

Berlin Hotel, a page from near the end, during a catclysmic air-raid


Vicki Baum wrote the novel in 1943 and it was published in 1944 as Hotel Berlin '43  (even though it seems to describe, prophetically, the nightly Mosquito raids of April 1945.  In late 1944 - early 1945 it was filmed as Hotel Berlin.  The location is the same as in Baum's earlier novel Menschen im Hotel; the one that had been made into M-G-M's 1932 blockbuster Grand Hotel, featuring Greta Garbo saying "I want to be alone ...... I just want to be alone ....."

Vicki Baum, it's said, invented the "grand hotel" genre of popular novel. The hotel (ocean liner, etc) brings together a motley crew of different characters, all with separate but criss-crossing lives; all the action taking place within the title location, which becomes in effect a stage set. Such books are made to be staged and filmed.  The genre still clings on, for example in the 2011 movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. For the genre to work well, all the characters must have a lot going on in their lives, a high level of emotion and worry. In happier times it might be just love in the air, but in Berlin Hotel the death-throes of a world war do just as well, or better.

Baum was, well, a lot of things. She was the only child of a reasonably well-off Viennese Jewish family,  but her mother died young and her father was a difficult sort of man. She was always going to be someone. She was a socialite in '20s Berlin. She was a good boxer. She was well on the way to being a concert harpist. Then she began writing what eventually became some fifty novels. The early ones were in German, but after her 1932 emigration to the USA in the wake of the Nazis' rapid rise to power, she started to write her novels in English. Anyway, by that time the Nazis were suppressing her books at home.

Understandably Baum loathes the Nazis, really puts the boot into the German national character, and is not overly tormented about the (imagined) reduction of Berlin under heavy Allied bombing. She couldn't have known the full ghastly truth about the SS's industrial genocide. But she knew plenty.

Martin Richter (Helmut Dantine) and Johannes Koenig (Peter Lorre)

Details of the film Hotel Berlin (1945):


The movie was a noirish affair with B-list actors, somewhat in the mode of Casablanca but darker.

Helmut Dantine was Martin Richter, Andrea King was Lisa Dorn, Raymond Massey was General Arnim von Dahnwitz, and Peter Lorre (who stole the show) was the compromised author Johannes Koenig.

The storyline is similar to the novel, but there are some important differences. In the novel Lisa is a sleepwalking Nazi cutie until Martin Richter reveals the horrors of the regime in unsparing detail. But in the movie Lisa's conversion is less heartfelt and she ends up switching back to her former allegiance, resulting in a surprisingly bleak ending.


The final days of the Nazi regime have continued to attract factional treatment, notably the well-received 2004 German movie Der Untergang (Downfall). Here's the start:

Bruno Ganz as Hitler:

Ganz's titanic rants have spawned a popular subgenre of more-or-less witty re-subtitled versions in the monoglot English world. The one below commemorates Man City pipping Man Utd to the premier league title in 2012.

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