Chilly

Penelope Fitzgerald

At the age of 48, after thirty years of lecturing on German literature and writing radio plays, Gert Hofmann began to produce disconcerting novels. Michael Hofmann, his son, the poet, confronted him head-on in his collection, Acrimony, and in 1987 wrote in the LRB (25 June) about the second of the novels to be translated into English, Our Conquest. This covers the first two days of peace in a small town in Germany, and follows an ambiguous group of children, free at last to get out of the cellars and poke round the secrets of their own streets. ‘The point is not character revealing itself in action, it is not even ... the abrupt revelation of one particular horror, it is the process – as elsewhere in my father’s work – of the curious, obsessive and mechanical mind digging round in a soft and disordered world.’ The Film Explainer, which takes place in the same hometown of Limbach, in Saxony, seems at first sight to be a more innocent and comic story and a gentler one, but after reading it you feel the same chill.

Gert Hofmann is writing about his own grandfather, Karl, born in Limbach, the son of a hosiery worker. Gert remembers living as a small boy in a three-room flat with Grandmother, Grandfather and Mother. Father has long ago deserted them. Mother sews piecework from the factories all day. Grandmother, who has never been reconciled to leaving Vienna, keeps house and dauntlessly asks the shopkeepers for credit. Gert observes his elders with a child’s ice-clear, entirely self-centred accuracy. His grandfather, only just over sixty, can’t imagine dying; Gert can imagine his dying quite easily. He wears an artist’s hat – a black trilby, we’re in the mid-Twenties – and a broad gold wedding-ring which from time to time would go into pawn in Chemnitz, but always comes back safely. ‘Because he smoked such a lot, he had brown fingertips and bad eyesight. “He only sees what he wants to see” (Grandmother).’ When he rearranges his hair ‘ “it makes him ten years younger, unfortunately only from the back” (Grandmother).’ These are two only of a stream of worldly, exasperated, sometimes indulgent put-downs which become part of Gert’s limpid memories. You can’t quite tell how he takes them, for he is evidently not sure himself.

To escape his womenfolk, Grandfather takes the little boy on long walks – always the same ones, since there isn’t much choice in Limbach. Frequently they end up near the sewage works at the little house of his long-suffering mistress, Fräulein Fritsche. On her sewing table is his photograph, walking-stick in hand. ‘Someone had put their arm through his. But that someone, Grandmother of course, Fräulein Fritsche had simply cut off with her seamstress’s scissors.’

Grandfather is beginning to feel too stiff for the Fräulein’s brass bedstead. But he can take refuge in his work. He has been employed, at various times, as a fencing master, a tanner (which ruined his hands), a cobbler, a ringmaster’s assistant (which ruined his voice), a plumber, a sergeant-major. But now, without being able to read a note of music, he is piano-player at the Apollo, Limbach’s 15-seat cinema – ready, every time the projector breaks down, to start on Cavalleria Rusticana. More than that, although the films have perfectly good subtitles, he has the proud role of Film Explainer. For his work, Grandfather wears a tail suit bought during the Inflation when it was reduced to 39 billion marks. Waving his pointer in the half-darkness he interprets, let’s say. The Hands of Orlac.‘The brilliant virtuoso pianist (Conrad Veidt) loses both his hands. But a surgeon hurries along and replaces them with the hands of a freshly-executed murderer.’ It’s strange, Grandfather feels, how cold it is when the lights go on again, and tear you away from the film.

‘Do you know what that coldness is?’

‘No.’

‘It’s reality,’ said Grandfather, ‘which we have reason to fear.’

Although the old man has only had six years of primary schooling, those who don’t know him are quite ready to accept him as the embodiment of the scholar-philosopher so much respected in Saxony. Grandfather, dissatisfied with the world as it is, dreams of another one, the product of the imagination which the silent film sets free. ‘Yes, I am fortunate in my profession,’ he says. ‘Not everyone is as fortunate as I am.’ It’s true that he is paid very little, but he sees himself as an impresario. ‘He’s not just an artist without any bread,’ says Grandmother, ‘but an artist without any art.’

The Apollo, is, unfortunately, very badly attended. Six customers one night, seven the next. Herr Theilhaber, the proprietor, begins to talk of closure. But that cannot be – there will be no place then for the Film Explainer! However, in the spring of 1927, Theilhaber is seen wheeling two loudspeakers from the station in his handcart. He is going to show The Jazz Singer. The sound era has arrived, and in one night the living words of the Explainer are ousted by the machine. The story continues as it started in the comedy-melo mode of the silent days. At a matinee of one of Emil Janning’s first talkies, young Gert, as the curtains part, sees two men fighting, while the film is projected on top of them. Theilhaber in his long black coal, Grandfather in his tails, wheezing: ‘You’re trying to starve me.’ But as they set about one another the rail gives way, swathing them in curtains up to their bellies. ‘Grandfather wept on the way home.’

We hear almost nothing of the Nazi ‘reeducation’ films; only Hitlerjunge Quex seems to reach the Apollo. Although Limbach is said to be traditionally red, the citizens seem cautious, polite and apathetic. But Herr Theilhaber, who is Jewish, disappears, and Grandfather gives up the shabby old friend, Herr Cosimo, who used to talk sense to him, and takes up with Herr Götze and Herr Friedrich, who are out to recruit party members. And Grandfather, though quite unpolitically-minded, signs on, for it has come to him that he might propose ‘the reintroduction of silent films in the context of national renewal’. That is how he gets sent to Berlin, as a veteran flag-waver representing Limbach, for the Deutschlandtreffen of May 1939. He is driven up in a propaganda truck ‘like a beribboned ox to the gate’ (Grandmother). The outcome is unexpected. Once in Berlin, he can’t resist going to a really big cinema, the Gloria Palais. By the time he gets to the rally his flag has disappeared and he has lost his place, and can hardly make out Hitler’s speech. But he has seen Gone with the Wind, and now he no longer believes that the cinema should be silent. The Apollo is under new management, and by what is unquestionably a mean trick, Grandfather gets back there in the humble capacity of an usher. This, however, turns out to be a fatal decision. In 1944, Grandmother will be able to feel nothing but anger at the stupidity of his death.

The ex-Film Explainer seems the inverse of Böll’s clown, turning more and more obstinately away from disagreeable truths. Hofmann might intend a parable here. But if he does, it’s complicated by the familiar novelist’s device of making Grandfather almost unbearable (he lies, he boasts, he steals lettuces from the fields) and, at the same time, enlisting support for him. The old man believes he has a special mission in life, and although he is no more than a dishonest small-timer, he has his own nobility. After his losing battle with Herr Theilhaber he sits silently in the fiat, often with his back to the wall, and refuses to eat. His clothes have become too big for him, his artist’s hat will have to be stuffed with newspaper. Alone against the world, he is still a true believer.

On the other hand, there is the case of Gert himself. He seems to have no school friends, or for that matter, enemies, and his affections are damped down, as though reluctant to admit themselves. ‘At some time Grandmother must have died, but I forget the date.’ As a seven-year-old he understands Grandfather’s pride and his frequent humiliations, and plays along with them delicately. At the age of 12, however,

on the corner of the Apollo, without kissing him on the moustache – too often he smelled of onion – I said goodbye, and turned for home.

  ‘Wasn’t there something else?’ asked Grandfather.

  I said, ‘No.’

Gert has always watched the showings at the Apollo, sitting on a tea-chest until he was tall enough to see properly. Often he has been allowed to watch them through twice. If the cinema, as Grandfather insists, is ‘an education for the soul’, what has been the effect on Gert?

In The Road to San Giovanni Italo Calvino, who was only a little older and grew up in San Remo, describes his apprenticeship to the cinema as ‘slow and hard’, although it led to a passionate addiction. As a child he was always getting the actors mixed up, particularly if they had moustaches. As soon as he was able to go by himself after school, ‘the cinema became the world to me.’ When he came out he was surprised to find that the light had changed. ‘The cinema as evasion, it’s been said so many times ... it satisfied a need for disorientation, for the projection of my attention into a different space, a need which I believe corresponds to a primary function of our assuming our place in the world.’ This is a rational and at the same time poetic version of what Grandfather says, but nothing like it touches Gert for a moment. All that interests him, it seems, are the plot summaries.

The Film Explainer is an expertly-written book, ironic as to its own irony. The narrative voice says: this is how he appeared to me as a child, but this view is interpreted right from the beginning by Gert as a middle-aged man. He has the intelligence now, he tells us, to put everything he saw and heard into order, but he no longer has the energy. ‘Lack of enthusiasm, lack of ideas, depression of the summer months, the autumn months, the winter months.’ He can find only one compensation – that order and arrangement are not characteristic of real life and death, but of the film and the novel ‘and other forms of lies’. At least he has given a faithful portrait. But this, of course, would have been the last thing Grandfather would have wanted. Only people of imagination, in his view, ‘breathed the pure air we call the truth’. ‘But this man,’ cries Grandmother, ‘claims that his shadow-stories are actually better than reality. As if anything else could be better than reality!’