David Edgerley Gates
Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis was released in 1927. Paranoid and hallucinatory, it's the first feature-length dystopian SF picture, but of course its spooky Teutonic future is at right angles to the spooky present of a doomed Weimar.
Philip Kerr's last Bernie Gunther novel, Metropolis, came out this year. It's set in 1928, and sure enough, Fritz Lang's chilly breath hovers over the story. (His wife, the screenwriter Thea von Harbou, steps into the book to pick Bernie's brain for cop shop detail - she's turning over some ideas in her head for a serial killer story.) Bernie remarks early on that for all its grime and despair, his home ground of Berlin mirrors both the human condition and the German national character, and you can say the same about a book or a movie, so is it true of this book or that movie?
Lang had a problematic relationship with the Nazis. He'd been raised Catholic, but his mother was originally Jewish. It was an obvious pressure point. And while we're on the subject, Thea, the wife, was a Nazi sympathizer from early days. Hitler and Goebbels were huge fans of Metropolis, as it happens. But after Lang made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in late 1932, and Hitler came to power in January, 1933, the Nazis banned Mabuse, which was pretty clearly aimed at Hitler. Goebbels, on the other hand, offered Lang a job as head of UFA, the biggest German movie studio. It was bait-and-switch. Lang was being invited inside the tent, but the price of admission was spelled out: he was selling his soul. Lang said he'd think about it, and beat feet for France. Thea stayed behind and divorced him. UFA went to Leni Riefenstahl.
The question is often raised in the Bernie books - in fact, it's the central spine of the stories - What would you do as the world disintegrated around you, as it lost all moral force, what choices would or could you make? Metropolis goes back to the beginning, chronologically. It takes place before March Violets, the first of the novels. But it looks forward. The foreshadowing is all there, On the other hand, Bernie doesn't comment on what he sees and does from a future perspective. This dramatic irony, which is used in a number of the books, isn't present here. Bernie is blessed with ignorance of the future, even though the choices keep lining up. The answer to the questions is, You compromise just a little every day, and it gets easier.
How can we know, how could we possibly predict whether we'd rise to the occasion, show grace under pressure, or simply cave? It seems, generally speaking, as if even the major life-changing decisions we make are essentially taking the path of least resistance. If you've followed Bernie's history, as I have, over the thirteen books leading up to Metropolis, you respect him not just for his survival skills, but for his generosity, and his self-respect, even if he sometimes loses confidence. Seeing him here, right as his life is about to take a walk off a cliff, is enormously affecting, because you know what's coming, and he doesn't. The future of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, as frightening as it is, can't begin to conjure up the waiting chaos, and the terror.
Metropolis, the novel, is a swan song. Phil Kerr died last year. This is one terrific run of books.