'The Lady From Zagreb': Searching WWII-era Croatia for another kind of monster
April 26, 2015 12:00 AM
"The Lady from Zagreb" by Philip Kerr.
Phil Wilkinson, The Scotsman
By Robert Croan / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In “The Lady from Zagreb,” Bernie Gunther, the central character in Philip Kerr’s popular detective series set in World War II Germany, is one of the most reluctant Nazis to be encountered in fiction or, for that matter, in real life.
German-born and one-quarter Jewish — a fact he does not advertise in 1942 Berlin — he fought in World War I and was subsequently accepted into the SD, the intelligence arm of the German security service in the time of the Third Reich, where he has thrived and achieved the rank of Captain.
"THE LADY FROM ZAGREB"
By Philip Kerr Putnam ($26.95).
Gunther’s specialty is missing persons, and there are a lot of those to keep him occupied in wartime Berlin, mostly Jews, disappearing in droves, but also others who realize the horrors taking place around them and wish to either escape or exploit the system for their own purposes. “Being a Berlin cop in 1942 was a little like putting down mousetraps in a cage full of tigers,” is the way Gunther explains it. “I don’t think I ever knew what mortal sin really meant until I lived in Nazi Germany.”
But there are the willing Nazis as well. In this novel we meet the famous — notably Joseph Goebbels, who is depicted as surprisingly approachable in the story’s context — the infamous and the ignominious. The author gives many of these characters moments to explain why or how they managed to rationalize their actions beyond the “I was just following orders” excuse or “if I don’t do it someone else will.”
Gunther manages for the most part to follow his conscience and accomplish his aims while working within the system. He is also verbally entertaining: literate and smart-assed in his first person narrative, no less so in his dialogues with other characters in the novel.
“The Lady from Zagreb” begins in 1956, by which time Gunther has survived the war and is living comfortably on the French Riviera. The “lady” of the title is Dalia Dresner, a former star of German cinema, with whom Gunther once had a brief dalliance and fell madly in love. She was born in Croatia. Her real name was Sofia Brankovic, but that was too ethnic for the establishment, who marketed her as the German Garbo.
Gunther claims she had been considered by Cecil B. DeMille for his 1949 “Samson and Delilah,” but lost out to the more politically acceptable Hedy Lamarr.
“Hedy played the part like a 35-year-old schoolgirl,” Gunther claims. “Dalia would have played it like the real thing.” Gunther’s recollection, which is the material of the present novel, begins when he goes to see one of Dresner’s old movies in a theater near Marseilles. Flashback to the summer of 1942.
It’s a slow-moving narrative, in which Gunther is coerced into giving a speech at a war crimes conference, describing his techniques for finding missing persons. The follow up involves the murder of a prominent lawyer, which is quickly covered up. A year later, however, he is called into the office of Goebbels himself, whose title, ironically is minister of truth and propaganda. No less incongruous is the fact that the Third Reich had instituted a War Crimes Department.”
Goebbels, it turns out, has pretensions and aspirations of being a filmmaker, and he is currently attempting to convince Dalia Dresner to star in his newest film. Dresner, currently living in Switzerland, refuses at first, but stipulates that she will perform in the film if Goebbels will find her long-lost father, last known to have taken refuge as a monk somewhere in Croatia. And that’s where Gunther comes into the larger picture. Goebbles assigns Gunther to find Dalia’s father.
When Gunther embarks on what becomes a grim and bloody odyssey, he finds Croatia in chaos, more horrific than what he has seen in Germany, because the horrors and barbarity are being perpetrated without rhyme or reason, essentially for fun, without even a sheen of ideological justification.
Being the excellent detective he is, Gunther tracks down Dalia’s wayward father, only to discover that her father is a monster of colossal proportions, so appalling and inhuman that neither Gunther nor Goebbels can bear to tell Dalia the truth. Instead, they plan to say that her father is dead, a lie that leads to dire consequences down the road.
No one emerges from the mire unscathed or forgivable. The supposedly neutral Swiss are shown to be not quite so neutral as history has given them credit for. Many are in collusion with the Nazis, smuggling gold and supplying the Germans with arms.
There are also telling insights into the ways the United States was seen by the Axis. “The Americans like to shoot people they perceive as a threat,” one officer warns the hero. “But only after they beat … them first. They think Europe is like the Wild West.”
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