I’ve spent most of the Jubilee weekend immersed in Brendan Nash’s evocation of Berlin in the 1920s. THE DIRECTOR is as much a page-turner as THE LANDLADY; the same characters re-appear, even more likeable; their movements through various spaces in the city – some still legendary; many subsequently destroyed in WWII –roots the fiction in a particular kind of historicising, where events read simultaneously as vividly alive and lost; and as the book proceed its status as historical fiction becomes clearer. It’s not just that Claire Waldorff is a substantial character in the novel; but director Billy Wilder becomes a main one, appearing right from the beginning accompanying the arrival of Paul Whiteman’s band in Berlin; with the inspiration behind his and Robert Siodmak’s PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (1930) occupying several short chapters; we also go into Babelsberg where Pieps becomes an extra in METROPOLIS; Leni Riefenstahl or someone very much based on her appears tangentially but recurringly; and Goebbels, who likes to be called ‘The Director’ appears at the very end. The book is set in Berlin in the Summer of 1926, and divided into three sections, one for each month. Politics are the background to the book’s main pre-occupation, the search for love by people who are different, in a wide array of ways, but nonetheless want to live as they imagine themselves to be. The street fights between the Nazis and the Communists are just shocking background on their way to an assignation or a day out. What I found particularly lovely about these books as historical fiction is that the focus is not on the great figures of the era, though they do appear, but on ordinary people trying to get by; some of them are taxi dancers; some of them get a scholarship to the Bauhaus; some are cleaners and gardeners, some of them end up singing with Paul Whiteman. But what makes THE DIRECTOR such a democratic iteration of historical fiction is that the stars are ordinary people, very understandable and perhaps extremely likeable for being so, who appreciate they’re living in an extraordinary place, many of them sought Berlin as a destination, a place that allows them to be. What the place was like– and more concretely what particular cafes, cinemas, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs in the Berlin of the period were like — and who these characters want to realise themselves as, is part of the fascination of these extremely likeable page-turners.
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