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Climate control
Ward Just samples the weather in Berlin

The Weather in Berlin
By Ward Just. Houghton Mifflin, 305 pages, $24.

The weather in Berlin, as I can attest from four February film festivals and one summer visit, is not so different from that in Boston: a little grayer in winter, but overall just as fickle and frustrating. Not that Ward Just’s 13th novel (the first, A Soldier of the Revolution, appeared in 1970) is really about sunny skies or the wind that whips in off the Baltic. It’s the emotional climate of Berlin, and by extension Germany, that’s attracted him — that and the way climate can be a weathervane of history.

Just’s 60ish hero, Dixon Greenwood, is a past-it Hollywood filmmaker whose big success, Summer, 1921, was shot in Germany in 1972. Now it’s 1999, and Dix has a three-month residency at the Mommsen Institute (a stand-in for the American Academy in Berlin, where Just spent the winter of 1999) providing the German film industry with an oral moviemaking history. He gets answering-machine messages from his actress wife, Claire, who’s stayed behind in LA to shoot a film; he flashes back to Summer, 1921, the story of three young German artists who had come of age on the Western Front and the summer they spend with three Sorbian runaway girls they meet in Franconia; he’s introduced to filmmaker Willa Baz, who’s in charge of the German TV series Wannsee 1899, and is invited to direct the season finale. And he meets up with a long-lost figure from Summer, 1921 who helps him retrieve the past and return to the present.

Dix (or Just) is a bit of a namedropper: his father hung out with F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Normandie; he drives a Karmann Ghia and drinks Polish vodka; he wants to shoot his TV episode in long takes the way John Huston shot The Dead. And he’s given to extended philosophical reflections that balance precariously between perceptive and patronizing. For all the acuteness of his observation, he makes some odd slips: Daniel Barenboim doesn’t regularly conduct at the Philharmonie, Kashubians (from around Gda<t-75>´<t$>nsk) aren’t the same as Sorbs or Wends (from around Bautzen and Cottbus), and Dix’s Mommsen friends could hardly have seen Shakespeare in Love in January, since it opened as part of the Berlin Film Festival in February. In fact, Dix remains blissfully unaware that there is a festival, even though the real thing is front-page news for two weeks. He made Summer, 1921 despite speaking no German (apparently Sorbian runaways all speak English) and got an Oscar for it. Now, still with no German, he’s directing a hit TV series. And when a hint of scandal arises regarding the making of Summer, 1921, the media back home in Hollywood go bonkers over Dix. Who is this guy?

One answer — and it’s what rains on The Weather in Berlin — is that he’s Ward Just. Dix is more like a hard-boiled detective hero than the protagonist of a novel; even his name makes him sound like Sam Spade. But though Just puts him up there with Ford and Hawks and posits him as a celebrity in Germany, we never discover what makes Summer, 1921 so special, or what else Dix has done to merit this acclaim. He wants the three Sorbian girls for his film because they’re exotic and have high Asian cheekbones and will be a first on screen, but he seems to know nothing about their culture, not even that they’re Slavs. (In this respect, Hans Scholz’s poignant 1955 novel Am grünen Strand der Spree makes Just look like a tourist.) Everything, from the weather to Prussian history to the Kladow ferry on Lake Wannsee, is grist for Dix’s cinematic imagination.

And yet . . . it’s an imagination that pours itself out on the page as Dix attempts to reconnect with the film audience that’s gone elsewhere since Summer, 1921. He may be pretentious and irritating, but the way he puts himself out there, desperate to make contact with the world even as he’s rewriting it, is hard to resist. This reviewer, who hardly ever reads contemporary novels, couldn’t put The Weather in Berlin down: when Dix poured two fingers of Polish vodka, I poured two fingers of Polish vodka (okay, maybe it wasn’t Polish). And in the end, both author and character find redemption in the acceptance of what’s different in other people: " Almost always, " Dix concludes, " when you were attracted to someone, you saw the person you were not. " That would be a good weather report for Just’s next novel.

Issue Date: June 6-13, 2002
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