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Paul EvansMasterful and complex, Ward Just's thirteenth novel is fiction for thinking adults. It's a novel of ideas about filmmaking and narrative, about the collision of two worlds—Hollywood and fantasy, Germany and the weight of history. At its center is Dixon Greenwood, director of a tour de force called Summer, 1921, an antiwar cult classic filmed in Germany. But that was thirty years in Dix's past; now he's lost his audience to blockbusters and action flicks and he broods, a lion in winter, in sunny Los Angeles.
Capturing the sensual subtleties of place and the sensibilities of highly distinctive milieus is something Just has been successfully doing for years. With The Weather in Berlin, the author explores contemporary Germany, a place rife with aftershocks from the fall of the Berlin Wall, not to mention shame, still simmering, over World War II. The rector of a think tank invites Dix to Berlin, where he's offered a chance to direct a German TV series, a kind of crinolines-and-bayonets soap opera that dramatizes the Fatherland before the führer. Embracing the project, he not only reclaims his glorious past—Janna, a star who had mysteriously disappeared from the set of Summer, 1921, returns to act again with him—but begins to reengage his highly imaginative mind.
Dix's mind, quick, probing if a bit detached, is that of a storyteller. It's a way of thinking Dix inherited from his father, who once told his son to "listen carefully always to the stories that people told....When you listened hard enough, the stories became yours." It's in entering the mind of this film director that Just gives us, also, a Hollywood novel, in places just as acute as F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, as acerbic as Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust.
A jaundiced veteran, Dix hates the current tinseltown product, the glitz and the Oscar night hoopla: "This year he hadn't even mailed his ballot because he had walked out of two Best Picture nominees and had not seen two others." But his director's instincts, his camera-lens vision, have compromised him, too, in the past. And that past is exhumed while he's filming his new television show. A muckraking reporter discovers that Janna, Dix's star of Summer, 1921, and the greatest muse of his career, had been only fifteen when she'd made the film, a minor who'd engaged in a steamy tryst with Dix's cameraman. The scandal is three decades old, but scandal nonetheless. Caught in the glare of paparazzi flashbulbs, Janna crumbles.
And one night, as Dix is driving with her through the streets of Berlin, his car is trashed by Marxist demonstrators, leaving Janna seriously injured and Dix consumed with guilt. More concerned with aesthetics than ethics, he'd drawn Janna, as a young girl, into the perilous, artificial world of moviemaking; now in the autumn of his years, he's again exposed her to danger. And yet the remnant Hollywood in him knows that the scandal will help skyrocket the ratings for his TV program. "Life was present," he muses, "to give context to the films you made. You involved life as you invented a film, and lies were part of it. Lies were fundamental."
A meditation on Germany—the place, Dix says, "where the modern world begins"—and on movies, mythmaking and the artist's vision and obligation, The Weather in Berlin is serious and provocative storytelling. And it's one more triumph for Ward Just, perspicacious explorer of outer and inner worlds.