Dinner alone at the Ordenspalais and then the premiere at the Gloria-Palast. I arrive 10 minutes late and with my hat pulled low, lest one in that crowd of more than a thousand recognizes me. I take the spot that has been reserved, off to one side of the balcony. On the screen the American actor Powell is making a clown of himself as he sings, for all the capitalists of the radio network, his beer hall ballad—
Oh, he floats through the air with the
greatest of ease—
I have, of course, seen this production before, just as I have viewed every film before approving it for our masses. I already know the plot: how Powell in spite of all gets the job singing for the “Soap King,” his tycoon sponsor; and how his agent, O’Brien, stops the romance between this new national sensation and Fräulein Rogers, so that each of the women in his broadcast audience, those 20 million sweethearts, will believe that she and she alone is the one he loves. Our own audience of good Germans is no better. I hear them all around me, laughing and clapping and cheering for this yodeling buffoon. I can’t wait until, like well-trained Zircus Seehunde, they will pull out their handkerchiefs as this Dick turns to this Ginger with the words:
All my life I’ve waited for an angel
But no angel ever came along—
Our sobbing, weeping, sentimental folk, just like these Americans sighing over their Philcos, their Crosleys, and their ugly wooden Zeniths. I shall make certain that soon there will be no such empty-headed radio listeners in the Reich. Rather, they will all be listening to what I want them to hear. Twenty million sweethearts! I intend to guarantee that 80 million Germans fall no less deeply in love. What do the latest Volksempfänger cost? Less that 40 Reichsmarks. I am determined that every home in the nation shall possess one—no, not one. Two. Three. A receiver in every room. And each will be tuned to a single station: the Deutschlandsender. And on this station there will be a sole voice, repeating, over and over, in one guise or another, the same message: Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer.
Now, in the Gloria-Palast, the time has come to act. With both hands I raise my hat from my head, as if the pressure from such pondering had made my skull swell inside it. Still too tight? I raise it again, to make sure the Dummköpfe have seen it. Then I stand and move toward the nearest exit. I pause, not looking at the screen but waiting to hear the words that I know will come from the loudspeakers behind it. Dick Powell, at the microphone, utters them aloud:
And now, ladies and gentlemen, I have a real
surprise for you. Yes, sir, I’m afraid you
guessed it. It’s the Mills Brothers!
At once the four Schwarzenneggers burst into song:
Baby what are you out for?
Baby what am I in for?
Is my baby out for no good?
Alles Afrikaner rause! shouts a voice from somewhere down in the orchestra. “Away with these Neger!”
Another voice, closer by, in the balcony, cries, “They are insulting the Aryan race!”
Some in the audience make shushing noises. A voice declares, “We want to hear the music!”
“Music? A German calls this music?” That is the fellow in the balcony. “Just listen. It is the sound of the zoo.”
As if following those instructions, everyone does seem to listen. Impossible to translate into German how the Black men in their dark jackets and cream-colored pants, turn the lyrics of the song into chaos:
“Ha! Ha! Ha!” A second man joins the first in the balcony. “Monkeys have learned to talk!”
“It is the love song of the apes!”
“Nein! The parliament of Africa!”
Now, at the front of the orchestra, a small formation of SA marches before the first row of seats. Together they point up toward the far-off projectionist’s window.
“The filth must stop!”
“Turn off the machine!”
For a moment nothing occurs. The primitive rhythms continue while our Berliners watch and listen from their plush Gloria-Palast seats.
At last one of our men in the balcony rushes forward and throws something that, trailing a stream of smoke, flies into the midst of the sitting crowd. A second man races ahead and hurls a similar missile. In seconds the smell of sulfur, accompanied by alarming sparks, spreads through the theater. Now people begin to stand. They push by the ones who remain stubbornly seated. Suddenly, a loud crash at the back of the room and the yellow beam in which have danced so many Warner Bros. dollars goes out. Simultaneously the houselights lights come on to reveal, at the front of the theater, a group of men wearing something resembling lab coats. Each carries a wire cage, whose front latch he kneels down to open. The SA men are happy to offer an explanation:
“Here you are, ladies. Your favorite entertainers.”
“The Four-Hundred Maus Brothers.”
Immediately, scores—perhaps there really are 400 in all—of white mice begin to run into the crowded auditorium. At the same time the houselights once more go out. In the pitch-dark all is pandemonium. Women scream. Men curse. Fistfights break out as people climb over each other to reach the aisles. Suddenly, unmistakably, a single shot rings out. It seems to cause everyone to take in his breath. Then all the doors, with a brownshirt to either side, are flung open. The crowd streams out, some into the lobby, some directly into the street. In less than three minutes the great hall stands empty.
Thus will we remove all such filth from the minds of the German Volk. Of course one film by these Judenschwein Warner brothers must remain. We in the Reichskanzlei have been forced to see it 100 times. The plot: At the last minute a chorus member replaces the star. The girls in their little frilled skirts. The identical smiles. The synchronization of movement. This is the perfection of an ideal. Women as the cogs and spokes and gears of an intricate machine. All limbs interchangeable. Replaceable parts. Never a word from their mouths. They spread their legs. The camera moves through them. The Führer is in heaven. Six inch heels.
Adapted from ‘Hill of Beans: A Novel of War and Celluloid,’ reprinted with permission of University of New Mexico Press.
Leslie Epstein teaches creative writing at Boston University. All three of his Leib Goldkorn books will appear as a Trilorgy (no typo) in Spring, 2022.