Apr/May 2009

Self-Expressionist

Noah Isenberg


Nikolai Hoffner is a man with more than a few skeletons tucked away in his closet. The tough, hard-drinking chief inspector of the Kriminalpolizei, Weimar Berlin’s legendary Kripo, has a pronounced tendency to get police work entangled with his private life. By the time we’re introduced to him in Jonathan Rabb’s Shadow and Light, the second novel in a trilogy set in Germany between the wars, his wife, Martha, has long been murdered, killed as a result of his sleuthing, and his older son, Sascha, who’s become caught up in the rise of fascism, is completely estranged from him. But like any good gumshoe, Hoffner possesses an uncanny ability to repress the past: “To ask why—to waken the dead—would have required a self-damning too exhausting to bear.”

Never looking back for too long or allowing maudlin impulses to compromise his composure, Hoffner moves from investigating the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, his primary occupation in Rosa (2005), the debut novel of the trilogy, to a lurid crime scene at the famed Ufa film studios. The story that unfolds—or winds its way, with near-dizzying velocity, through Berlin’s streets and back alleys—hinges on the mysterious death of an Ufa executive, found floating in his bathtub, possibly a suicide, more likely a murder. Rabb spins his tale against a complex historical backdrop that includes the pitched battle between the German and American film industries to master sound technology, a subplot concerning a series of violent porn flicks kept under wraps, and a host of marvelously crafted fictional figures (gangsters and political thugs, aspiring starlets and page boys) alongside characters extracted from the public record—Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Peter Lorre, the Tiller Girls, Joseph Goebbels, and the right-wing media magnate Alfred Hugenberg, among others.

As in Rosa, Berlin plays a distinguished role. The city’s “saving grace,” we are told, is its “incessant movement forward.” This is, after all, the Weimar Republic, that giddy era known for ushering in “democracy and prosperity and nude dancing and cocaine”; at the same time, the metropolis was earning a reputation for haste. In Rabb’s vivid rendering, Berlin is edgy, slightly sinister, thoroughly seductive, and always described, like one of Hoffner’s beloved dames, with a feminine pronoun. “Berlin was simply aging too quickly,” the nameless narrator observes. “She was now grasping at a misspent youth she had never lived. Life was gay and reckless and fully abandoned, and the city looked foolish trying so desperately to please. Crime was merely one more wild escapade on a night that was stretching on for far too long.” Just as Jody Shields did for fin-de-siècle Vienna in The Fig Eater (2000), an exquisitely told crime novel set in the heart of the Habsburg capital as it inches toward decline, Rabb taps into the sensibility of ’20s Berlin, evoking both the gritty reality and the enduring cultural clichés.

Leading the way through dive bars and after-hours clubs, through the labyrinthine world of police headquarters at Alexanderplatz and the tawdry districts that come to life after dark, Hoffner takes in not only the garish sights but also the pungent smells—“disinfectant and rat poison,” “wet wool and lye,” “ammonia and stale cigarettes”—that together characterize the city. (Hoffner is known, in fact, to have cracked cases using his refined olfactory sense alone.) A classic noir antihero, he embodies the genre’s signature melancholy, a brooding demeanor that Rabb counterbalances with Hoffner’s equally appropriate penchant for throwing back booze at all hours, punctuating his sentences with his fists, and chasing down intriguing young women. (The American Leni Coyle, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer talent agent with uncommon ambition and matching self-assertiveness, serves this function remarkably well.)

Despite the unrepentantly hard-boiled figure he cuts, Hoffner shows signs of tenderness, especially when trying to fulfill his obligations as father and son, roles that do not come naturally to him. In his attempt to solve the crime at Ufa, he reconnects with his teenage son, Georg, a script researcher, gofer, and aspiring filmmaker whose prized possessions include a photo portrait of Lang bearing a pat inscription (“You have promise, young Hoffner. Learn to be inspired”), while doing what he can to keep Sascha from falling in further with the National Socialist ideologues the young man rather rebelliously admires. Hoffner’s vexed relationship to his mother, living in an old-age home for Russian Jews (yes, another skeleton), resembles Tony Soprano’s (one anxious visit prompts the fittingly tart response “It doesn’t make you a better man that you come”).

While its tenor remains generally somber, the novel is not without its share of lighter interludes. Rabb equips Hoffner with a gift for wit and sarcasm, evidenced in several snappy, muscular dialogues—a high-octane chat, often peppered with sexual innuendo and rhetorical bravado—true to the genre. One particularly droll exchange occurs between Hoffner and Alban Pimm, head of a major crime syndicate, moments after they’ve had a brawl. Pimm, worrying that he’s lost a tooth in the bout, announces his deep animosity toward the dental profession: “I hate that you lie there. Not so much for the teeth. It’s that your balls are exposed, lying back, that little tray over your chest. And you can’t even put your hands on them or they’ll think there’s something’s funny with you.”

Quite impressively, given the potential his story offers for caricature, Rabb presents well-chiseled characters in all their human vulnerability. The operative metaphor, that constant play of shadow and light fundamental to early cinema, flickers throughout, conjuring an atmosphere drenched in chiaroscuro —a world in which, as German cinema of the ’20s itself attests, anything can happen.

Noah Isenberg is the author, most recently, of Detour (British Film Institute, 2008) and the editor of Weimar Cinema (Columbia University Press, 2009).

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