Berlin was a cultural hot spot and the place to be for American and British expatriates in the 1930s. But, after the devastation of the war years and a half century as a pawn in the Cold War power struggle, Berlin is now viewed by much of the world as merely another midsized landlocked German city. This reductive characterization of the once grand capital is voiced by Dixon Greenwood, the American film director at the center of Ward Just's new novel, The Weather in Berlin. But, after spending three transforming months there under the auspices of a think tank, he will no longer believe it, and Just, who often writes about Americans abroad, clearly doesn't either.
Berlin, in fact, is as much a character in this many-layered book as any of its human players. It is a city that bears the scars of the failures of Imperialism, Nazism and Communism, but it also has an instinct for revitalization that rivals Los Angeles.
An acclaimed filmmaker who hasn't made a movie in years, Dixon's connections to Germany go back 30 years, to his very first film, Summer, 1921. That movie, which made his reputation, told the story of three young German men and their girls in the changing world after World War I. It still enjoys a cult following, not least of all because its enigmatic leading lady, a Garboesque young woman named Jana, disappeared at the end of filming and has long been presumed dead. While in Berlin, Dixon is persuaded to direct an episode of a wildly successful, nostalgic German television drama set at the turn of the 20th century. At the same time, Jana reappears in his life, and he is once more swept up by her elusive charms. He asks her to appear in his film and she agrees, but their collaboration further clouds the distinctions between fact and fiction, present and past.
The Weather in Berlin is a ghost story, but not in the gothic sense. The ghosts hovering around Dixon Greenwood are the memories of dead friends, of failed relationships, of unfulfilled potential, of younger, more creative times. As he confronts these ghosts, Dixon must come to terms with both the glories and wounds of his past. Once he has done this, he is ready, like the newly resurrected Berlin, to reassert his genius.