Monday, 8 November 2010

Alone in Berlin

George Grösz,Pimps of Death 1919

Eventually I got round to Hans Fallada's book, though C had beaten me to it. I had other things to read and stuff to write. But in between all that I consumed it in three days or so.

It is a marvellous book - from most points of view. As a study of unlikely, unspectacular conscience and courage in action it is remarkable. The small and helpless are faced by a terrible political machine but they persist. As a study of character in its two central figure it is brilliant. Out of very little Fallada builds not only two complete human beings, but beings with extraordinary yet believable fortitude. It is also a visionary book as a study in complicity and evil. The society at the heart of it is examined with a pitiless gaze. One of the terms used about it in press reviews is 'redemptive'. Yes, it is, and, again, clearly, pitilessly so. There is almost nothing to provoke redemption and that, precisely, is the point.

The story is simple and well known. At the most triumphant moment of nazism, the fall of France, an elderly couple get an official letter to inform them that their son has died in action. The news all but destroys the relationship between the taciturn, apparently apolitical foreman carpenter and his anti-Nazi but undemonstrative wife. Then he gets an idea. He will do nothing more than write postcards of protest and plant them in various public places for people to find. This is a mortally dangerous thing to do but it brings the couple together in a warm human bond. A wily old police inspector, a tool of the nazi state, is put on the case The other people in the old people's flat include an old retired judge, a crook, the family of a young SS officer and an elderly Jewish woman whose husband has already been taken away. That's all you need to know. Events proceed from there.

I said I thought the book was visionary. In fact it is a fable about conscience and courage, albeit a fable set in very much a real place. It is not full psychological realism since only the central couple, and perhaps the police inspector, are drawn at depth. Others are more figures, emblems, screaming caricatures. None of the nazis can do anything but scream or yell, they are all stupid drunken sadists of endless malignity. I accept that nazism was endlessly malign, and that people did behave in intensely malign fashion. I rather miss knowing what made people nazis, especially the more intelligent, more sensitive among them. Because they must have existed - not at the ideological sharp end of course, not in the Gestapo or the SS perhaps, but in the party. People like Gunter Grass perhaps, or our present pope.

Evil in the book is a cloud that has descended on a nation, a cloud that drives everyone one way. It has no development section.

That is not a shortcoming in the book. The book has no interest in that. It was written in twenty-four days from within the cloud. There was no time to ask how the monstrous sadist became so monstrous, so unremittingly evil. You just had to deal with it and decide how to face it. The state was given. The state becomes the language.

So it is only my own curiosity. I very much want to know what might turn a gentle, well-disposed, intelligent human being into a moronic death machine. Let us say Siddique Khan, for example.

Wait, I can guess. Human emotions are not subject to the names we happen to have given them. They will not abide such clear definition. Gentleness and compassion are not entirely distinct from self-pity and fury. They are all in the cloud together. It is the cloud one must look into.

Fallada is looking at its effect, not its structure. What else was he to do?


Vincent said...

Thanks for this fascinating review, about which more later perhaps, but I just wanted to point out that your illustration by George Grosz comes out as a black rectangle on my screen under Firefox, but displays correctly in Internet explorer.

George S said...

How strange, Vincent. But I know that different browsers read code slightly differently. I generally use Google Chrome. I think it's OK on Safari too. I'll check Firefox.

Vincent said...

A wonderful review, not least because of the questions it leaves unanswered, which entice one to read the book and not have one’s curiosity fully satisfied by the review alone. For example “redemptive”—for the reader or the characters? And is it a true story? You hint that it is, a “well-known” one, indeed.

I share your sense of curiosity about the development of the evil, and your verdict that its absence doesn’t detract from the book; it’s legitimate for a novel to present the subjective world of its protagonists, leaving the background blurry. (In cinema it might be different.)

Your penultimate paragraph is particularly acute, about human emotions not fitting into clear-cut categories. I’ve been reflecting on similar lines, comparing good and evil as portrayed in the older Hollywood movies with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, in which various characters (not just the protagonist played by Eastwood himself) alternate between viciousness, regret, redemption, lust for revenge, violence and self-disgust, in a cycle that seems to have no end.

Eastwood has looked at Iwo Jima from both sides. Could he only be spared long enough to look at Nazi Berlin, he’d be the one to direct the movie, perhaps going beyond Fallada’s necessarily one-sided view. What do you think?

George S said...

Thank you, Vincent. Redemptive for the reader, and, through the reader - or so this reader feels -for the human race, though only by the skin of its teeth. Redemptive for the two main characters too, though not in any sentimental way. I can't say much more without ruining the story. Read it.

Eastwood might very well be a good director for the rise of nazism, though Downfall wasn't a bad shot as regards Hitler at the end of his life. The balance between the depiction of what we sometimes (rightly, I suspect)feel are the perfectly objective yet metaphysical-seeming qualities of good and evil and what we understand of human complexity is very difficult to achieve. Characters can be shown to be decent but corruptable, yet there is always a moment when they completely vanish off the end of the scale. That's the problematic point.

Human emotions: Agnes Nemes Nagy regarded the poet as the scientist of emotions. In effect, each lyric poem is the proper name of a complex emotion. Some scientists are better at this than others, of course.

Yes, Firefox does give a black rectangle. How odd!

Poet in Residence said...

I think the promise of a golden future is a very strong lure. A starving people, a people who feel betrayed, will sign up to almost anything that gives them some hope. Then of course, there's always the need for a scapegoat.

panther said...

Are you saying, George, that Gunter Grass and the present Pope are (or were) actually Nazis, or simply that people a bit like them (?) were drawn to Nazism ? I can fully accept the latter but not necessarily the former.

The present Pope was a member of the Hitler Youth, yes, but that goes for quite a lot of other Germans too. He is authoritarian, yes, he has views about women and gays that are antediluvian, he has not come to terms with the complicity of many Christians with the Holocaust. . .but these things (I abhor them all) don't necessarily make him a Nazi.

As for Gunther Grass, I don't know much about this but I know he was implicated more than he let on until recently. But he doesn't strike me as being particularly like the Pope.

Thank you for writing about the Fallada novel. I'd espied it in bookshops and had toyed with the idea of buying. You've won me over.

George S said...

No, panther, I am certainly not saying that either the pope or Gunther Grass was a Nazi. I am simply curious to know how clearly intelligent, sometimes perfectly nice people, nice in almost every way, might be drawn into the network, as they were. Once in the network the process of seduction into the ideology might begin. But there would still be a line to be crossed before the brutality described in Fallada's book, could take over. So yes, people like them. Not them particularly, I am sorry if I gave that impression.

Poet in Residence said...

Watched an ORF TV docu yesterday, strangely it's also 9/11 (but the other way - European not US), to remember the aniversary of the progrom. It showed some of The Führer's early and I must say almost hypnotic speeches in which he set himself up as "being called by God" and "obeying the will of God" and "all subjects must follow the new saviour (i.e. himself)" and so on. The christian crosses were removed from the churches, the swaztika was flown from the spire of Vienna's cathedral, nuns were replaced by the so-called brown sisters, teachers were replaced by educators, children were instructed to spy on their parents, etc., etc.. In the first year of the Anschluss 300,000 Austrians left the church. It was, when you look back at it, a kind of Huxley-Orwell scenario. Under the sloga 'one Empire-One Language-One Leader' the idea of uniting Promise-and-Terror had evolved into the new state religion.
At the end of the war there were, for example, 850 priests found in Dachau. Another 250 priests had perished there.

George S said...

It does seem extraordinary, doesn't it, Gwilym, that such a mixture of confidence trick and terror should have succeeded on such a scale. Training children up to spy on parents has been every absolutist state's first thought, though the first institutional act is the transference of a trusted organ like the church into the hands of ideological zealots and functionaries - that is after the press and the media.

Interesting that Hitler's speeches still sound hypnotic. Can you say in what way? I don't speak German but every time I see and hear him on film I think of Charlie Chaplin.

Poet in Residence said...

George, it's a kind of propoganda poetry, they had appreciated before anyone else the power of the cinema, so it's a combination of effects that makes for the hypnotic quality - the stark black and white shadow of the podium and backdrop AND THE METRONOME ON THE PODIUM, sometimes close up and sometimes far away, the repetition and repatition and repetition of slogans, the repetition and repetition of gesture, almost like a man drumming or a baby banging its spoon to be fed, the perfectly timed changes in camera angles, particularly from below (as also with Mussolini's speeches) the roar of the crowd, the PERCEIVED smell of the fiery chariots war in their nostrils. It was what they imagined the Roman Empire to have been. And it was a vision of what the German Empire could be. It was a great Wagnerian opera. Siegfried was here! And how they loved it.

Re Chaplin's image of the Great Dictator - I saw that film and I was left sadly unmoved. It needed a Stanley Kubrik and a Peter Sellers for that's the level the Reich was already at.