Daniel Kehlmann’s “Lichtspiel” portrays the director Georg Wilhelm Pabst. The novel aims to be a parable about being an artist during the Nazi era.
Actress Brigitte Helm and director Pabst in 1932 Photo: ullstein bild/picture alliance
The novel begins with the story of a decline. Georg Wilhelm Pabst, born in 1895 in what was then Bohemia, director of legendary silent films such as “The Joyless Lane” or “Pandora’s Box”, the creator of socially critical sound films, also Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” has been in an artistic and personal crisis since the mid-1930s. He had hoped to succeed in Hollywood, but then he made “A Modern Hero,” a film that failed both with audiences and critics.
In his literary biopic “Lichtspiel”, Daniel Kehlmann describes in detail how Pope tried to get renowned actresses for his next project after the flop: he torments himself on the party stage and suffers from small talk under palm trees. To him, the master of black and white canvas art, it seems “as if he had stumbled into a colored photo”. Someone is constantly calling him the “greatest director in Europe” and then talking about his masterpieces like “Metropolis,” none of which he filmed.
A running gag in Kehlmann’s novel, which is supposed to show that there were far more influential directors of this generation with Fritz Lang, Friedrich Murnau and Ernst Lubitsch, that after his successes in the silent film era, Pabst had difficulties directing dialogue and hardly any world-class works created. In fact, he struggles in Hollywood with bad scripts, mediocre employees and overreaching producers.
The propaganda ministry in Berlin also knows about the director’s predicament and sends a representative overseas to persuade Pabst to return: “Germany needs you. Our government is more pragmatic than is often assumed. You are a great artist. And you are not Jewish. And you have already… Forgive me, Maestro, but I’ll just say it now. You haven’t shown yourself to be completely uncompromising in your previous work either.”
Daniel Kehlmann: “Light play”. Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg 2023, 480 pages, 26 euros
Pabst would probably have stayed in the United States despite his dislike of Hollywood if his seriously ill mother hadn’t asked for help back home. So the filmmaker travels back to Austria with his family, where he has to deal with a dedicated local group leader and the now no longer so submissive Goebbels emissary.
Crisis as a basic mode
The Second World War begins, the Nazis attack one country after another and a return to American exile no longer seems possible. What to do? The man who was once called the “Red Pope” does not want to give up his artistic mission of “capturing magic on celluloid,” even under the most adverse conditions. So he will come to terms with Goebbels. The crisis is the basic mode of his profession anyway: “When you make a film, you are always in an emergency. This is the normal situation.”
These turning points are not really surprising. The biography of the stumbling hero is largely known. Pabst will deliver expensive works in the Nazi Reich, but rather mediocre works given his abilities. “Comedians” and “Paracelsus” are films with glorified main characters from German history who fit into the propaganda context. Pabst increasingly ignores the political situation and enjoys the dubious fame in the German Empire.
His expertise is even requested for other prestigious projects: He should Save Leni Riefenstahl’s feature film “Tiefland”, but she is neither willing to accept advice as a leading actress nor as a director. The same scenes are filmed countless times, but Riefenstahl proves to be not only arrogant, but also incapable of varying her game in front of the camera. Pabst can hardly believe – at least in Kehlmann’s biographical fiction – what he experiences with her: “And she spoke everything exactly as before, not a syllable was different, not a breath, not a movement, from the beginning of the scene to the end.”
Leni Riefenstahl was often described by her many admirers in the post-war period as an “artistic genius” and a “political idiot”. In “Lichtspiel” Kehlmann creates a different picture by not only describing Riefenstahl’s lack of skills on set, but also mentioning the suffering of her extras from concentration camps.
Riefenstahl always denied knowingly forcibly recruiting the doomed Roma and Sinti for the “lowlands” after the war, but in Kehlmann’s novel the involvement of Hitler’s girlfriend is quite obvious. Here Riefenstahl is a malicious joker, and this fairly clear characterization gives the otherwise very smooth text a pleasantly stubborn attitude. Especially since Kehlmann suggests that Pabst was also prepared to go to great lengths. In any case, he doesn’t care about the fate of his own extras.
Nameless people in front of the camera
With “The Molander Case” the director is filming the story of a young violinist who sells his Stradivarius due to financial difficulties. Pabst begins filming in Prague in August 1944. He needs a lot of extras for the scenes in the concert hall. A young employee thinks he recognizes his former, now emaciated pediatrician in the anonymous rows. It is not clear whether the nameless people were brought in from camps in front of the camera. One thing is certain: Pabst has long been a person without morals. Neither the fate of his son, who has now mutated into a Hitler Youth, nor his marriage to Gertrude are important to him: “Trude stood up. They kissed each other. How good, he thought, that even the next person couldn’t see what was going on inside you.”
Of course Trude suspects something. She stays with her husband because she has no other choice. After 1945, however, she will take revenge on her ignorant husband and boss him around with self-confident callousness. But during the Nazi era she not only denied her own ambitions, but above all her political stance. In a crazy reading group of bored ladies from the highest Nazi circles, she is supposed to talk about kitsch fascist literature. She would love to throw Alfred Karrasch’s books in the bin, but that would be life-threatening, not least for her husband: “Trude cleared her throat to gain time. Yes, what should you say? The book was so uninteresting that it wasn’t even bad. (…) the language had no power, the characters had no life, no one ever said anything interesting.”
The description of the depressing reading session, which delights in repulsive prose, is certainly one of the highlights of the novel, which, however, develops into a number revue. There is a lack of both a substantive and an aesthetic idea that could connect the individual scenes and lead to insight beyond platitudes.
There is a lot of research in the novel, and unfortunately it shows in quite a few places. Some quotes attributed to Pabst can be read verbatim in the online lexicon. The attempt to use cinematic editing techniques in the prose is also not exactly original in a portrait of a film director. However, the abrupt axial jumps that Pabst raves about seem unproductive in the novel. Kehlmann constantly changes perspective, but no complexity can arise. Sometimes the narrative voice is entirely Pabst’s, sometimes it’s that of a supposed supporting character; mostly the narration is personal, occasionally also authorial.
The characters are given no psychological depth; the prose in the individual scenes often remains ponderous and redundant. Again and again, Pabst is allowed to recite his saying about the emergency as a normal condition, which becomes a justification for everything and nothing. But repetition does not create a compelling leitmotif.
The novel wants to be far too much: not just a lesson about the lack of freedom of art in a dictatorship, but also a historical-critical essay about the aesthetics and economics of the early years of cinema. “Lichtspiel” is in some passages a family novel, and in others it is a social parody. The reconstruction of the film material, the certainly honest appreciation of the many stars of the time, from Greta Garbo to Louise Brooks, the explanations of filming technology and acting can be classified more as archival work and less as literary art. The abundance of detail does not create a successful dramaturgy. Successful individual scenes do not make for a convincing novel.