Surviving the winter in two senses

Charles Lewinsky:

What do you do if you find yourself in Berlin at the end of 1944 where military collapse is imminent and the only thing you want is to save your own skin? The Swiss writer Charles Lewinsky has created an outstanding tragic, comedic novel out of this apocalyptic mood. A team from the film company UFA is commissioned to make a propaganda film in the Bavarian Alps to boost resolve. A motley film crew sets off, and it is – more or less tacitly – clear to everyone that the primary objective is not the film but escape from the witch’s cauldron of Berlin.

The real challenges begin in Kastelau. This is the name given to the remote and fictitious small town where they have to survive the winter in two senses. At least they must pretend to. Nobody in the village must suspect that work is not being carried out in earnest on a film to help ensure ultimate German victory. There is also a split amongst the film crew – half are true to the regime, half are deserters. As the Americans approach, the few unenthusiastically filmed scenes must quickly be recut and supplemented so that the Nazi film entitled “Song of Freedom” becomes an heroic documentary about the opposition to the regime. They do not want to fall into the hands of the advancing Allies as a group of Nazi propagandists.

The presence of the film crew turns Kastelau, a conservative village, into a bizarre stage for all the characters found in a dictatorship: ardent Nazis, followers, opponents of the regime, those who cheat their way through and turncoats. Indeed one such turncoat plays a major part in events. Walter Arnold initially enjoyed a career as an actor in Nazi Germany and then as Arnie Walton in Hollywood. The American Samuel A. Saunders picks up the trail of this story, carries out research, discovers papers and conducts interviews. At the start of the book, Charles Lewinsky produces a rather chaotic collage of these – entirely fictitious – documents but they rapidly turn into an increasingly fast-paced novel. What is more, fundamental questions concerning human behaviour in extreme situations are dealt with sublimely and in an entertaining and exciting way despite all the tragedy and drama. Lewinsky, who has already written masterful historical novels such as “Melnitz” and “Gerron”, proves himself to be one of the most imaginative authors in the German language in this double-edged work of fiction, “Kastelau”, also in terms of narrative technique and plot construction.

JÜRG MÜLLER

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