"The Weather in Berlin," by Ward Just

A washed-up American filmmaker returns to Berlin, where he made his one masterpiece and a mystery from his past awaits.

Published August 1, 2002 9:04PM (EDT)

When "The Weather in Berlin" begins, a German academic is interviewing American filmmaker Dixon Greenwood about "Summer, 1921," a film set in Germany and Greenwood's most famous work. Greenwood, fleeing Hollywood and a failing career, has somewhat happily accepted this invitation to Wannsee, the location of the American Academy and also the place where, over 50 years ago, the Nazis planned the final solution. In this, Ward Just's 13th novel, daily life carries on in places where tragedy once occurred. In a later scene, a mix of friends and strangers go walking through a field, over land where a World War II battle was once fought, the party traipsing over rusted bayonets and broken bones, while lapsing in and out of conversation. The weight of history threatens the fagade of normal life.

For some time, Dix, a 60-ish husband and father of two, tells his interviewer about his own father, a wealthy socialite who once befriended F. Scott Fitzgerald at a bar during one of Zelda's mood swings. "Harry told his son to listen carefully always to the stories that people told," Just writes. "Listen to the words and the music, too, the cadence ... When you listened hard enough, the stories became yours." His father's advice obviously affected Dix's career, but that advice also rules the way Just constructs his novel; for the most part, "The Weather in Berlin" follows a series of dinner conversations. West Germans and East Germans tell their stories, expressing long-nursed grievances against capitalism, America, the war and each other. Greenwood, usually with drink in hand, seems to speak only to prod the stories along; mostly, he listens. It's really during these intriguing discussions that Just brings the full impact of Germany's history to light. Dix realizes, "He thought that these Germans did not live in the past, the past lived in them."

Berlin is a melancholy place to escape to, but for Dix, Hollywood has lost whatever meaning it once had. A former lover has passed away; he believes he's lost his audience. He hopes that maybe he'll rediscover something in the country where he produced his greatest work and where a mystery still haunts him.

On the set of "Summer, 1921," one of the young, beautiful actresses, Jana, a member of the oppressed and ignored Sorb minority, had grown tired of the set. As a Sorb she'd always felt neglected and used, as an actress she felt the same. Jana dove into the lake one day, never to resurface, and many assumed she'd died. When she suddenly returns to Berlin, now many years older, Dix is forced to confront his own propensity for taking liberties with the lives of both characters and actors -- a practice that means so much for him in filmmaking but wreaks havoc in real life. At one point, someone says to Dix, "You can direct actors in a film ... You cannot direct their lives. Their lives are their own." Dix replies thoughtfully, "No ... Not entirely."

What Dix regains in Germany -- oddly, by way of a Prussian soap opera, the most popular television show because it recalls a happier, untainted time in Germany's history -- is his ability to balance the lives, concerns and stories of his actors with the narrative of film. In the history of the German people, he finds stories worth telling and an audience that desperately needs them told.

And for all the morbidity and sadness that Dix encounters on his trip, there is hope, an optimism expressed through one young actor that Dix meets. "He believes in a German renaissance, Berlin once again as it was after the Great War, the center of the avant-garde ... The nations of central Europe were the ones who invented totalitarianism, the ones who saw the contradictions. But it is time Germans created their own future." It is this theme of recovery, both in individuals and nations, that Just explores so carefully and successfully.

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