Spurred on by a great-aunt's glamorous past, BEATRICE COLIN set out to chart the rise and fall of Germany's film industry in a new novel
THE HOTEL PENSION-FUNK IN Berlin's Charlottenburg was the coldest hotel we'd ever stayed in. Although it was atmospheric, charming and, most importantly, cheap, my sister Kate and I had dressed quickly, eaten breakfast in the chilly formal dining room, then both climbed back into our beds again to warm up.
Outside the sky was a deep, endless blue above the Kurfrstendamm and the jagged steeple of the bombed-out Memorial Church. The temperatures had plummeted overnight; the trees in the Tiergarten were glazed white and the duck ponds skimmed with ice. And still the radiator in our room was stone cold.
"Why did you book this hotel again?" asked Kate.
"This apartment used to belong to Asta Nielsen, the silent film star."
"Never heard of her," she replied.
I'd never heard of Asta Nielsen either before our Great Aunt Nina had mentioned her. All I knew of Berlin during the Weimar Republic had come from Christopher Isherwood's books and Bob Fosse's film Cabaret (based on an Isherwood story), which was made in the 1970s. But it was a period that had always fascinated me. I loved the idea of its decadence, its glamour and its hedonism.
Great-aunt Nina, a white Russian, had lived in Berlin briefly. She had arrived in Germany as a penniless refugee from St Petersburg in the early 1920s and had somehow talked her way into a job with Ufa, the national film company. From the typing pool, she'd moved up to the press office and was eventually transferred to Paris where she promoted films such as Metropolis to French audiences. Somewhere along the line, she'd married a German film producer and eventually ended up working for the Hungarian filmmaker Alexander Korda, travelling round Europe in her convertible Citroen, taking in film festivals and attending parties with film stars.
When I took her on holiday when she was in her nineties and too old and infirm to travel alone, it was her outright scorn at my complete ignorance of German film stars such as Asta Nielsen, Pola Negri and Emil Jannings that led me to buy a book and read up on them, purely so I could defend myself. What I discovered, however, was an epic history that spanned four decades and was characterised by high drama, booming creativity and a devastating climax. It was a story that not only illuminated the period leading up to the Second World War and the Holocaust, it was also a story in which I could discover something about my own fragmented family past.
And so we'd come to Berlin in November to take a look at the city where Nina had once lived and to research a novel I'd started working on, a novel set in Berlin which aimed to chart the rise and fall of the German film industry from its humble beginnings in travelling tents in the late 1890s through its incredible ascendancy and eventual demise when it was taken over and used as a tool of propaganda for the Nazis.
"Have you warmed up yet?" I asked my sister.
"Not really. Let's go."
We jumped out of bed, pulled on our coats and, clutching our guidebooks, headed out into the centre of the city. It was soon abundantly clear that the past is visible everywhere in Berlin; from the bulletholes in the walls to the scrawls of graffiti on the crumbling sections of the Berlin Wall. But Berlin of the 1920s remains stubbornly elusive. The city that was once full of cinemas and cabarets, of clubs such as Heaven and Hell and The Blue Stocking, has almost completely disappeared, the buildings destroyed by Allied bombing or the Russian invasion, the stars forgotten and dispersed – the lucky ones to America and Britain, the unlucky to concentration camps.
I soon realised that to write a novel I'd have to reimagine the period, to summon up Berlin at that particular time by looking at photographs, films and reading first-hand accounts. The world I eventually unearthed, however, was one in which Liza Minnelli's Sally Bowles was unlikely to have survived for long. The Expressionistic, nightmarish films that were made at the time echo a city that had lived through civil war, starvation and chronic inflation. No wonder at its height, the Weimar Republic burned with such a brilliant, unique radiance. Both before and afterwards, Berlin was bathed in deep shadow.
As my novel took shape, it was clear that the fate of my heroine, Lilly Nelly Aphrodite, would reflect the fate of Berlin. And so, like the city, she constantly reinvents herself as maid, tingle-tangle girl, war bride, script-typist and eventually a silent film star. A love affair with a Russian director, however, brings her own story in line with the story of German film. Both face the tyranny of National Socialism and both must make a hard choice.
My sister and I let ourselves into the Coldest Hotel in the World after a night spent drinking schwarzbier on Savignyplatz, and tiptoed along the corridor. Images of Asta Nielsen were framed on almost every wall. "I think I saw her in that last bar," my sister said. "She was the one with the dog."
Later I learned that Nielsen had left Berlin in 1936 to go back to her native Denmark in protest at the anti-semitic laws passed by the Nazis. She never worked again. But did she, like many of the inhabitants of Berlin in the winter of 1922, have to burn her furniture to keep warm? Or did she climb back into her bed, pull up the covers and listen, as we did, to the rumble of night trains heading towards the station at Zoo?
• The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite is published by John Murray. Beatrice Colin will be reading and signing copies at Waterstones, Glasgow, on 7 August at 6:30pm.