Daniel Kehlmann: Lichtspiell [Cinema]
Translating the title is both easy and difficult. It literally means play of light but is a a somewhat archaic German word for film or cinema, perhaps akin to the English moving picture. But perhaps not.
The book is about the famous Austrian film director G. W. Pabst, known for his sound and silent films and also known for discovering/developing several famous actresses, including Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks and Leni Riefenstahl.
The book opens in an old people’s home with one of the residents being picked up in a chauffeured car, to the surprise of the other residents, as there is normally a strict routine which everyone follows. We might assume this is an elderly Pabst, as he is taken to a TV studio, where he is treated as the doddery man he probably is but he nevertheless resents this treatment. He is interviewed on TV by a man who claims to have known him for many years but who he claims (to us) that he has never seen. We eventually learn that he is (the fictitious) Franz Wilzek who worked as an assistant to Pabst. They start asking him about Pabst. How would you describe Pabst? He answers a little too fat. He tells anecdotes but can only half-remember them. Excerpts are shown from famous Pabst films. The host, the very real Heinz Conrads then asks him about the last film they made – The Molander Case.
(Almost completely irrelevant comment: If you look at the screen shot to the left:
you will see the producer is given as Adolf Hitler. He was not the producer. I have corrected the Wikipedia page to the correct producer – Alfred Hannemann. It has since been changed back and I have rechanged it back))
Wilzek furiously denies the film was ever made (though it was planned)m despite insistence from Conrads and despite Wilzek himself having memory flashes about the making of it. After the end of the interview Conrads launches into a tirade of obscenities at Wilzek. The assistant who escorts Wilzek out tells him that his father was an extra on the film so he knows it was made.
We now move back in time to the US, specifically Hollywood in 1933. Pabst is with a producer, known only as Bob, and Pabst is struggling with his English. However he knows if he says great! in response to whatever an American says and compliments them on his shoes, he will be all right. As with Wilzek, Kehlmann enjoys mocking Pabst’s struggles.
Bob and his colleague Jake, who turns up later, want Pabst to film what will become A Modern Hero. Pabst comments A Modern Hero is a fundamentally bad script. Nothing makes sense! The hero is stupid, the girl is stupid, the story is complicated, but stupid anyway! All pointless! Y. Bob disagrees: it will really be a great, exceptionally amazing film. The film, as the link shows, was made. As we later learn, it was a flop and Pabst feels, with some justification that it will be held against him. Why does Pabst let himself down doing such a film?”
“Because Pabst is a refugee. Homeless and helpless.
We follow his early life (not chronologically) and learn that his father wanted him to be a lawyer but he ran off to be a stage actor but gradually switched to direction and then to the cinema (it paid better). We see his early films and how he discovered another actress – Leni Riefenstahl, who, of course, went on to be a famous director under Hitler. We learn of the trials and tribulations he had in making his various films. Directing was, all in all, a strange profession. You were an artist, but you didn’t create anything, but you conducted those who created something, you arranged the work of others who could do more than you could in lighting. That’s why you needed so much before you could even go to work.
We follow the German/Austrian community in Hollywood, all worried about the impending war and what it will mean for both their families and themselves. Trude, Pabst’s wife says of him He carries all the ballast of the Old World with him. Getting a permanent visa is difficult. The first time he wanted to stay – in World War I – he went to Europe on a visit and was caught in France when war broke out and was interned but at least he avoided the combat.
Moving to the Second World War, Pabst is summoned back to Austria by his mother and off he goes in the summer of 1939 with his wife and son Jakob. (Interestingly, Kehlmann has made a change here. In real life, Pabst had two sons – Peter and Michael). We find that his mother lives in a remote castle called Three Towers (it has no towers) which he was able to buy for her. It is cold and damp and the caretakers, who previously seemed OK are not. The husband is a Nazi and behaves accordingly, while the daughters are clearly psychopaths/Nazis in the making. Indeed, the Pabsts decide to leave at once but World War II has started and borders are closed and there are no trains.
Pabst is now trapped in Germany (Austria is now part of Germany) and is summoned to the minister, who is clearly Goebbels. He will make Nazi-approved films or go to a concentration camp. We follow in detail his film career, including being reunited with Leni Riefenstahl, now a director, embroiled in making Tiefland (which was not finished till 1954.
We meet Rupert Wooster, an English writer who is clearly P. G. Wodehouse who hobnobs with the Nazis while making it clear he is not pro-Nazi. The section involving him is told in the first person, giving his views on the various people he meets, including Pabst and Alfred Karrasch, a very pro-Nazi writer (Hitler was a fan) whose book is the basis for Pabst’s next film. Wooster and Karrasch clash.
Franz Wilzek makes his first appearance. The main focus is on the making of Der Fall Molander [The Molander Case]. The war is coming to an end so there are problems. Pabst is told to film a book by Karrasch, which he thinks is an awful book but he manages to change it. It is filmed in Prague but there are problems of money and resources (equipment and extras, for example) as well as power cuts and air raids. There is also the fate of the finished film. The English Wikipedia article on the film says there is a copy in the Národní Filmový Archiv in Prague. The German Wikipedia says the only copy has disappeared and the Národní Filmový Archiv claims not to have a copy. This book has an interesting theory on what happened. Karrasch, incidentally, describes the film as Third-rate dirt! Lousy Bolshevik, Jewish, common, pornographic crap.
We end as we started – with Franz Wilzek at the old people’s home. The TV had broken down and nobody saw his appearance. Did it take place? Who knows?
This is an excellent novel. Kehlmann does not tell a simple chronological account of Pabst’s story. Pabst himself is a diffident man, seemingly unsure of himself except when making a film when he knows just what he wants and, as we see more than once, with the ability to improvise when things go wrong as they often do in film-making. Kehlmann gives us what might best be described as episodes from his life but also glimpses of others, such as his (fictitious) son Jakob and the (also fictitious) Franz Wilzek and the actress Louise Brooks . Whether you know of Pabst and his work or not this is a fascinating novel.
First published in 2023 byRowohlt
No English translation