- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002

THE WEATHER IN BERLIN
By Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin, $24,305 pages
REVIEWED BY SARAH MEANS LOHMANN

Daydreams interrupt daydreams in Ward Just's endless novel about a once famous film director who has lost his audience. Well before the end of the novel, Mr. Just has lost his as well. "The Weather in Berlin" is the story of an American obsessed with himself and his own dying imagination.
The reader begins as an uninvited stranger in an interview between the director, Dixon Greenwood who has come to Berlin at the invitation of a friend from his youth for a residency at a think tank in the winter of 1999 and a professor. Dixon's film, "Summer, 1921," had been a hit in the United States and in Europe when it had been released around 30 years earlier. His audience viewed the film as a commentary on America's role in postwar Europe. Dixon only admitted to capturing the stories of three male artists, the three Sorb girls they meet, and a summer adventure by a lake that allowed them to deal with memories of the war, and attempts at love and leisure.
The true story, Mr. Just tries to remind the reader in every other sentence, is about only Dixon Greenwood: his obsession with his father, women, his failure and the German people whom he sees only through the lens of their war past. Dixon spends the book dreaming about his life as a director in the distant and near past, which slurs and bumps abruptly against his framing of the present, in a chaotic, intermingled fashion.
Most of the book is dialogue and monologue, sans quotation marks, blurring pronouns to make one character bleed into another. The present is never really present, but a grand screenplay in Dixon's mind, every real action and character just another part of his ever-developing-but-never-produced script.
Yet the attempt to create an aura of existentialism falls flat, despite Mr. Just's resurrection of F. Scott Fitzgerald to play a part in Dixon's meandering memories making the author an old acquaintance of his father's, and the beginning of Greenwood storytelling. In short, Ward Just tries too hard.
Dixon Greenwood's obsession with women as objects, as beautiful puppets whose angles and mannerisms were to be adored and slept with, then not quite forgotten, becomes repetitive and obtuse. It is, after all, part of the business, Dixon would explain to himself, except when it was his wife involved with her own director and she was on an island in the Pacific. Then Mr. Just reminds the reader again in the voice of Dixon or one of his actresses that Dixon is from L.A., and having sex with your actresses is part of the job description for directors in L.A.
"You lost yourself in the role and before you knew it, you were cheating. You wore so many faces it was hard to remember which was the home face and which the away face, which the smile, and which the smirk," Dixon says by way of explanation.
When Jana, who disappeared from the set about 30 years ago on the last day of filming "Summer, 1921," shows up in Berlin just in time for Dixon's shooting a German soap opera, she too is still his prop. She tells him why she left the set: She was only 15 then, she says, and was tired of being someone else, of having to sleep with the cameraman and another actor. Tired of undressing before the camera. So while her fame was being celebrated, she slipped into anonymity.
Yet Dixon still doesn't get it. After inviting Jana to play the lead in the final episode of a Prussian 19th-century period soap opera, he insists on drawn-out dressing and undressing scenes. In the end, she escapes from him as mysteriously as she did the first time. Dixon is left to his own thoughts, and convinces himself that he's finally found his audience while in Berlin and in the process of filming the Prussian soap opera. Sadly, Dixon cannot go beyond his American prejudices.
"Germany's been a captive nation," he says at the beginning of the novel. "The First War, Weimar, the Third Reich, the Cold War. But the Wall's down. Kohl's gone. Question is, What about the corpse in the corner?"
He tries relentlessly to find it in everything around him in Berlin in the German that he doesn't understand which he likens to an "artillery rumble." He attempts to find the secret war story of a banker he once met as a youth, but who is now dead and does not have the chance to defend himself against Dixon's imaginings. Mr. Just doesn't tire of introducing the Russians, the Reds, and every cook's, uncle's and waiter's reflections on the war into the book's dialogues. By the end, the theme has been beaten to death.
"It's the curse of the twentieth century that outsiders come and tell us not only what to believe now but what we believed then. They are trying to tell us how to think!" Werner the cook tells Dixon. In the end, Dixon silences all other voices which would claim that Germany's history is more than memories of war times. He takes over the directing of a German soap opera, and has the last word.
Perhaps that is a touch of Mr. Just's irony. This may be, after all, his story. Mr. Just has experienced his own fame a former celebrated Vietnam War correspondent, talented writer for The Washington Post writer and author of 13 novels. He too, went to Berlin for a fellowship in the winter of 1999, though in his author's note he states that the resemblance to real characters ends there.
The reader remains an uninvited guest throughout the book's meanderings jostled from one image to the next, never finding rest. It is as if he or she has been forced into a screenplay of Mr. Just's own making, with no end in sight. It is painful to observe a craftsman who seems no longer master his craft. And to read analysis of the death process over 305 pages is excruciating indeed.

Sarah Means Lohmann is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.



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