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Movies, Murder, Madness
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Jonathan Rabb
Shadow and Light (NY: Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009. 249p.)

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A dead accountant, then a dead German movie executive and a missing actress.  The beginnings of a murder mystery.  But it's more.  The story takes place in 1927, in the roiling roller-coaster economics of the capitalist Weimar Republic running the German states after the fall of the Kaiser in World War I.

At first I had trouble following the story, which begins to gain some coherence only as the case unfolds.  Details are disconnected by the terse interaction of characters in conflict.  Terms and situations were somewhat confusing, and I found the dialogue stilted at first – characters seemed to talk across one another, dialogue seemed to lurch.

Competing with Hollywood
As I got into the pace of the story, I picked up a few clues.  Unconnected references to Ufa and Neubabelsberg and "the studios" only added to the confusion, then on a thought, I looked up the key term Ufa. Then I discovered the story takes place in the backdrop of the German film industry.

Ufa was UFA, Universum Film AG*, the largest German film producer, in competition with the Hollywood machine, and the key to the events was the development of sound films.  Neubabelsberg was the new movie studio center Ufa had built near old Babelsberg in the Potsdam area, as it expanded.  And then I discovered a short Author's Note that gave some historical details around the story.*

Sound, Sex and Sabotage
The story is told inductively from the point of view of Chief Inspector Nikolai Hoffner of the Berlin police, who tries to uncover then unravel this multi-layered mosaic.  Joining Hoffner in the investigation is an American woman representing business interests of the Hollywood industry.  We are treated to a complex, realistic story of industrial sabotage, internal intrigue, seamy film production and early Nazi politics and terrorism.

Instpector Nikolai also uncovers in this movie morass the beginnings of the pornography industry, associated with the development of the talking film.  Its origins are discoverd in the core of the Hollywood commercial monopoly.  The plot twists in several direction, with a surprise for the Insector on every page.

Nazi street terrorism is being supported by some big money somewhere.  Nikolai discovers that the big backer is Alfred Hugenberg, leader of the huge publishing syndicate that controls all of Germany's publishing.  The circle of intrigue grows tighter as it is revealed that Hugenberg is behind the development of the sound technology as well as the new sex film production.  Historically, only shortly after our story, Hugenberg actually did buy out Ufa. Hugenberg was later forced to sell the company to the government, after which Ufa became the propaganda arm of the Hitler regime.

Cocaine and Corruption
Organized crime rounds out the unsavoury underside of the precarious Weimar Republic, as encounters with the crime boss Alby Pimm.  The corruption of the Wiemar structure shows up as Pimm openly conducts his business of cocaine, prostitutes and black market coal in broad daylight, protected by his payoffs to the police.  In contast, Inspector Hoffner conscientiously probes to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Well-crafted, with serious characters, this story picked up momentum and elicited my interest as it developed.  This is a murder mystery, a tangled love story, business intrigue with political strains and tight historical fiction.
Notes on Universum Film AG
"Ufa was created in November 1917 in Berlin as a government-owned producer of World War I propaganda and public service films. ... In 1921 UFA was privatized" [Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universum_Film_AG].  UFA was producing sound films by 1925. In 1930, Ufa produced Blue Angel, which launched Marlene Dietrich's career.  Ufa produced about 600 films a year.  It was the biggest and best film production company outside Hollywood, and produced considerable competition for Hollywood.  The firm got into financial trouble in the 20s, due to overextension on the production of a film called Metropolis, which ultimately became an international hit.  The firm was taken over by a big Nazi-financier Hugenberg.  After 1933, Ufa was controlled by the propaganda department of the Nazi government.  Revived in later years by the West German DEFA, the company is still headquartered in Bablesberg.
See UFA Summary History and movie list on Amazon

For more on UFA:
Blue Angel
UFA Summary History and movie list on Amazon

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Reviewed on Amazon and Barnes and Noble 7 March 2009
Expanded version posted on Thoughts and Resources 7 March 2009
More notes added 17 August 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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