Once upon a time I wrote this thing. This script, Janni Schenck. Then I re-wrote it and each time I learned something else I had to re-write it again. I’ve lost track of how many re-writes I’ve had to do.
For years I convinced myself I couldn’t write it. It’s about a German kid in a small rural village in 1945. I’m not German. I only went to Germany once and that was Hamburg, which nice though it is, isn’t any more like a rural village than Heathrow is like Keevil airfield. Exactly. Where I grew up. Where we used to ride mopeds. Where there was a huge WWII resettlement camp for Polish people. More irrelevancies; that was the point. There was always a reason not to write it, because I thought I couldn’t.
Then late last year I got pneumonia. It really wasn’t funny but one good thing came out of it: I wrote Janni Schenck in about ten days. That might explain why it needed so many re-writes, but on the plus side I only remember sitting down to write, with my laptop, on the sofa practically in the dark twice, for about ten minutes. It must have taken longer than that, but I honestly don’t remember.
So the update: when I wrote my first script it won the BBC Writers Room prize, which was going to pitch it to Cascade studios which I duly did and equally duly they didn’t option it, life being unfair. Later on, someone who works on scripts for a living told me ‘it’s not a script.’ She also told me that Cascade’s rejection of it on the basis that there was ‘a gap in the narrative arc,’ (unlike say, the millions of narrative gaps in Love Actually) was standard. As she said, ‘there always is.’
I sent it to Film Suffolk via an actor friend who liked it and sent it on to someone who might be in a position to produce it. He sent it back too, but for reasons I’d predicted. More than somewhat surprisingly he’d written a screenplay about a German kid of the same age, set at the end of WWII in a little German village near where my semi-invented German village was. Or wasn’t. I don’t know where the real Janni Schenck’s village was and I think he’s long dead given I met him nearly a quarter-century ago; I set it in the fictional village in Fall, which is a real place but these days is mostly under a reservoir. It caught my eye not for its name but for the story in the newspaper a while ago, about how the water was drying out. Fall was resurrecting.
I sent it to an American festival where screenplays they like are performed. They liked it but they didn’t perform it for a number of technical reasons, none of which were what I expected and all of which are fixable. There are three major things to do, one of which I’ve completed and the other two I’m wasting time not doing today, so by six o’clock or it won’t get done.
The reason Film Suffolk’s producer friend didn’t want to get involved was for the reason I’d predicted. Outside Germany it’s going to be hard to place. Germans in films are Bad. Everyone knows that. This is a world America saved, don’t forget. At the cinema, anyway. Band of Brothers had the 101st Airborne showing the Brits how to do it at Arnhem don’t forget, which is a pretty good trick given there were precisely no Americans at Arnhem at all. None. Zilch. Nada. It never happened. Except on TV.
So I need to find a German producer and one who’s worked in the genre, as we say, taking off our hand-crafted Persol shades and looking intent. And I might have found one, after only a very little research, if you can call Google and Wikipedia ‘research.’ But don’t start me on that.
Please step forward Herr Tom Tykwer. While I was teaching kids to shoot in America and driving my Chevrolet to Gene Fleck’s Meadow Inn with a cheerleader called Nancy-Jean (no, I actually, tragically actually did all this stuff), Herr Tykwer, who I am going to be incredibly polite to before I’ve met him, was setting up a film company. And he made a film dealing with a similar theme.
Four Days In May is curious. It’s about a boy in the Hitler Youth, about the same age as Janni in 1945, set in the very last week of the war. The end of Janni’s war came about a fortnight earlier. But other than that, very similar.
The course promises to transform it from good to world class. And so far, I know it’s good. When the only negative comment to date is “I’m not reading this again – it’s too upsetting. Sorry,” then although I hadn’t intended to upset my friend, it wasn’t the worst thing she could have said about it.
There were serious reasons she’d been upset by it, but it’s a serious subject. When you’re thirteen you only know what you’re told. For some people, that goes on for the rest of their lives. The tragedy is that for some of those, that’s quite a short time-scale.
By coincidence, because I don’t plan that well, the story of Janni Schenck ended and began almost exactly seventy-one years ago today. If he was fourteen then, he’s eighty-five now. Which is probably time to get something straightened out. It’s not his real name. I heard his story first-hand from him, but I never knew his name.
The key things in the Janni Schenck screenplay are true. There was a weapons bunker hidden outside a small village in Germany. People were bombed out of their homes by the USAAF and the RAF. Kids of thirteen had no choice when they were conscripted into the Hitler Youth.There was a key difference between being a member of the Hitler Youth and being a member of the Nazi Party.
There was an organisation called the Edelweiss Pirates. They loved Swing. They killed the mayor of Cologne before the Gestapo hunted them down. People loved Swing music. It was never illegal as such, but if you played too much of it then it was. There was German Swing, manufactured parodies of mainstream Swing, written and played by the Party and broadcast specifically so that UK and US troops would hear it. The lyrics were not encouraging. Except when they encouraged distrust and suspicion. They were quite good at that.
A soldier made a joke about Hitler and when his friend laughed they were both sentenced to death. As the sentence was about to be carried out, partisans attacked and they ran. When they stopped running one of them walked 700 km home to Bremen, lit by the fires of German cities. All of these things are true.
The more I talk to people who have talked to older people about these stories then the more I hear that the ending of Janni Schenck was the ending for many other people too.
In late April 1945 the SS came to the little village where Janni lived. They gathered up all the boys in the Hitler Youth and marched them to a small wood near the village. From the bunker they uncovered in the wood they issued the boys with brand new factory-fresh machine guns and rifles, grenades, bullet belts, helmets, knives, anything and everything that they could carry.
The SS told the boys that the Americans would be in the village within half an hour. They told the boys that the village had to be defended to the last bullet. For the Fatherland. For the Hitler Youth. For Germany. For the future. For civilisation.
They told the boys they had to go now. They left for Switzerland.
The boys carried their new weapons back down to the village. On the way they met their schoolmaster in the lane. He was the head of the Hitler Youth troop in the village.
He beat them up. He made them throw all their guns in the ditch and sent them home, crying.
The Americans arrived less than half an hour later. They were ready to shoot the entire village if anything had started. Thanks to an unknown man long ago, those boys lived for the future. For civilisation. For an unbelievably better Germany.
Not everybody followed orders, whatever the television tells you. Not everybody at all.
So happy anniversary, Janni, wherever you are. I wish I knew your name.
The story was originally called School Lane. A 5,000 word version was entered for some festivals and got nowhere, for several reasons. But it became the basis for something else, something better. It made someone cry at my kitchen table once. It made someone else silent for the rest of an afternoon. It was a true story.
The First Part
It was night time in a field a long time ago. Men in uniform are digging. It looks like it’s hard work. There’s a lot to dig. The hole looks like a grave but as the camera pulls back we can see it’s too big to be a normal grave, at the side of a hill.
Maybe it’s a mass grave. We always think that now, because slowly we can see the men are wearing German army uniforms. Nobody is smoking or chatting while they work, they’re just digging, a job to be done. Soldiers with guns stand guard, over the men digging, keeping watch. When the digging is done the men climbed out of the hole and quietly lit cigarettes. The soldiers pulled wooden shutters into place in the hole, then piled earth onto the wood to cover most of it, then re-plant whole bushes and branches back over the disturbed earth.
At a command the soldiers walk to one of the military trucks standing nearby. They take wooden crates from a military vehicle and place them in the hole they have dug. We can read military markings and serial numbers on the crates, the words 7.92mm AMMUNITION and EXPLOSIVES stencilled on the cases. An officer opens one of the cases and we can see brand new sub-machine guns, wrapped fresh from the factory, glinting in the moonlight. He makes a mark on his list then closes the case again before the case is placed in the hole. He does this with each case, each one full of bullets or grenades, or brand new weapons. Quite soon the hole is covered, the last bush is replanted in front of it, the officer marks a map and the soldiers and get back into their vehicle and drive quietly away in the dark.
I don’t know how to start this, so I’ll do it the only way there is, just start this and see what happens. The way Hitler did. The way someone didn’t. And this story is much more about that someone than it is about Hitler who to be honest, I didn’t know at all. He died before I was born. I don’t know if the someone did. And he was a real person. A very real person. A school teacher. I know he was real because someone told me about him. I was about to say he never did anything famous. But he did. Whether he did after this story as well, I don’t know. Maybe he did. But in this story, this very real, very true story I’m going to tell you, he did something worth being famous for, even though he shouldn’t have. There were other people as well. Millions of them, too many for this story and this story has enough people in it already. More of them come in, standing in the shadows until I write them down, each with their role to play. Each one of them real and in the same places at the same time, a long time ago. I said I didn’t know how to start this.
Some of it, this beginning anyway, started in a pub, as things sometimes do. But that begs the question which pub. Not that it matters to you, because these things don’t happen often and if they ever do happen to you, which pub it happened in won’t matter. But there were two different stories I heard, in two different pubs, about seventeen years apart, the difference, coincidentally, between my age and the age of the person telling me the second story, a woman who described herself as a member of the third generation of the war. If things are ever coincidental. Maybe they are.
Like all the best stories, it was night time and the wind was blowing hard against the walls of an old pub. But before that it started in another pub. Not the bierkeller in Munich, the one in the old joke, where it vas so crowded everybody was putsching und tschoving. Not that one at all, but the one where I first met Janni Schenck. He was probably really called Johannes. But in my head he’s always Janni. And as he’s undoubtedly never going to read this I’ll use his real name, the name that keeps coming to me every time I try to tell this story.
It was a summer afternoon and I didn’t have much to do that day. I’d only just moved to this place on the outskirts of an ugly town all but swallowed up by London. My house was about half a mile inside the M25 and back then I could walk up the hill, along the footpath where if my big cat came with me, as sometimes he did, I’d leave him in a tree because he was afraid of the pigs that lived in the field I’d cross and turn left, over the footbridge over the motorway, down past the abandoned model farm built some time in the 1920s when this was Betjeman’s MetroLand, down to the railway station and along the footpath to the canal then up the leafy wide suburband road with its tall old trees to the pub at the top. There was another pub at the bottom of this road too, on the old main road through the village. Back then Humphrey Littleton still played there now and again and stupidly I never went to hear him. I didn’t know how important Swing music was going to be to this story. I think nobody ever knows the things that are going to be important until afterwards, often when it’s too late.
But this other pub, the one I was going to now at the top of the hill, near the school was nearly empty when I went in. The two of us doubled the crowd in there. The only other customers were an old man with white hair and what used to be called a patrician nose. As we were so close to the school and as I wanted my partner to think I was amusing I said to her, “Look. It’s Rudolf Steiner.”
But of course, it wasn’t. It was someone who made a much bigger impression on me. The man who wasn’t Rudolf Steiner was somewhat improbably talking to a much, much younger and much fatter English skinhead. The conversation was getting quite heated and the old man’s voice was raised. It was still a shock to hear the words ‘Hitler Youth’ in a pub, whatever the argument. It isn’t a phrase used very often.
My partner turned her head towards the speaker too. We both thought the skinhead was threatening the old man. We were wrong. The old man’s voice was raised and he kept talking even as the skinhead seemed to shrink in his chair.
The skinhead said ‘You could have done something.’
The old man said that he couldn’t, that he was conscripted into the Hitler Youth the same as every other boy in Germany on his thirteenth birthday. I didn’t know this was how it worked.
The skinhead said ‘So you were a Nazi.’
The old man really kicked off now. He said how the Hitler Youth was brilliant fun. How they went to camps in the summer, out in the open. They had flags to carry and fires to light and cook on, and songs to sing and the great glory of the outdoors and pine forests and the future. Tomorrow really did belong to them, or at least it did back then, back when the old man was a boy. They had real knives in their belts and real pistols to shoot and real grenades to throw and they were thirteen. Nothing could have been better. But he was not a Nazi. The old man insisted on it. The old man who was Janni Schenck.
And much later in another pub sometimes, very occasionally, an electric bell rang to tell the servers that a meal was ready, to come to take it out to the customers, but all the customers had gone home hours ago, along with all the staff and there was nobody in the empty kitchen to press the bell.
You see, the woman said. I told you that happens.
She was blond with a high Saxon forehead and a lisp and her dog was named after her grandfather. A series of circumstances had brought her to this pub in the middle of nowhere at all, so far from home but she liked talking to me, she said. She wanted to ask me something important, something she wanted to know and she couldn’t do it while there were customers and other people around.
We drank wine and talked about anything other than the thing she wanted to ask me, even though I didn’t know what it was. Her blue dog and his white eyes. Her beautiful Springer spaniel that stank all the time. German food. Presenting recipes for a pub in rural Suffolk. The price of asparagus and strawberries, because although it was stormy that night it was just about summer, dark outside but light in about four hours. It was past midnight and the radio on, playing music I hadn’t heard in the dark pub, with just the light of our table in the room when she asked me the thing she wanted to know. She frowned and looked at me, her head down a little but determined, as if she was hunched waiting for the answer.
“What do you think about Hitler?”
It wasn’t something anyone had ever asked me before. She quizzed me for half an hour. I don’t know what I said. It isn’t a one-word answer. I didn’t know if she was asking me about Hitler or Germany or the war, the 1939-1945 war, the one people of my age still call The War. The one people of her age, from Germany, still call the war. I hadn’t know that before. I don’t know how I answered, or in what detail or how much I hedged around. I told her about my grandfather, a man who thought when he died that he’d been cheated out of going to the war, with his eight children and nothing to do with the fact that by then he was nearly forty, with no special skill the war effort might require. When he died almost his last words were ludicrously like a Dad’s Army sketch, this Air Raid Patrol man whose contribution was to shout ‘Put that light out!’ but those were not almost his last words.
‘They wouldn’t let me fight in their bloody war’ were, instead.
She stood up and told me to wait there. She came back into the room with an old suitcase, the thick cardboard or pressed paper bound with what looked like leather.
They were going to throw this out when he died, she said. They did throw it out. I went and got it. I said you can’t throw this away. My mum couldn’t decide. I will always keep it. It was my grandfather’s.
She’d already told me he was in the Army. Just not our Army. The other army or at least, one of the other armies. Not the British Second, the one an ex’s father was in, a man who might be in this story later on. Not the United States Army Air Force, that the pilot who will be in this story was part of. The German army. The Wermacht.
She thought the other grandfather, the one who was never named in public, whose history she and her mother hissed about in the kitchen at Christmas, was in the other German army. The SS. He kept horses after the war. What would you expect? she said.
‘Do you want to see inside? I want to show you some things.’
I didn’t know how to open the suitcase. I didn’t want to break it. To be honest, I didn’t really want to open it. I’d said I did, but now it was here in front of me I didn’t know what I was going to find when I opened the lid. I’d just been questioned thoroughly about how I felt about Hitler. Now I was supposed to open a suitcase that used to belong to a Wermacht officer, a surgeon. I had no idea what I was going to see.
Actually that’s not true. I had a lot of ideas about what I was going to see. A grey cap with a black peak and oak leaves twined in cord on the front of it. Perhaps – and because of all the legal problems it would start I really hoped not – a Luger or a Walther pistol, dull and un-oiled for nearly seventy years. A tattoo, still on the excised skin sliced from the person who used to wear it.
The SS used to wear a tattoo giving their blood group under their left arm, according to Frederick Forsyth’s book, The Odessa File. It was the standard introduction to the war when I was growing up, along with Sven Hassel’s pulp fiction, passed under the desk in Third Year History, falling open on the bit about the journalist’s girlfriend Sigi being a stripper in Hamburg, waking him with a blow-job years before anyone in the class would ever have anything like that happen to them, particularly not waking up.
But that was Germans, we thought. That’s what they’re like. She’d be how old? Twenty-five? And the book was set in about 1960 or thereabouts. She’d have been ten when the war ended. Perfectly old enough to know what was going on. Old enough to know her house was smashed flat. Old enough to have been raped by the Russians if she was the strapping girl the book described and they were drunk enough, except we didn’t know about that, then.
We lived in a town full of refugees from that war, Poles and Italians we had no real idea were Polish or Italian. They were just kids called names likes Chris or Liz or Buzz or Gino. They spoke the same English with a Wiltshire twang as we did. Their parents shopped in Gateway the same as ours did, or when they went to the Polish deli, the little black-painted corrugated iron hut in a street of terraced houses near the school, they never mentioned it. But this man, the man whose suitcase this was, he was there, in a uniform. The wrong sort of uniform for anyone in the town I grew up in. He was part of it. A surgeon. Like Herr Doktor Mengele. So what was I going to find in this case? A Jew’s hand, mummified and shrunk, clenched in a fist? An Iron Cross?
She slid the suitcase across the table towards her and turned it round, opening the lid. She turned it back towards me.
‘Do you want to see this?’
I wasn’t sure that I did, but it was far too late to say so now. Too late at night, and the wine and driving and I had the distinct impression back then, that night, that I wasn’t going back to my own house that night anyway, and too late to say look, sorry, I’m really not sure that I do, not least because probably if I wanted the first thing to happen and I certainly did then saying the second thing didn’t seem like the way to trigger that chain of events.
I slid the suitcase towards me and opened the lid as she watched me closely. I looked for the gun, or the grenade, or the dagger or the medals or the photo of the mass grave or any and all of the things you’re told to expect. The ink writing on the back of the picture in my head, the reverse side of the grey image of the tank and the burning buildings and the young men with guns I’ve only seen in museums and Airfix kits, their hair tousled with effort. ‘Ach, hot work with Willi and Kurt. Great days!’ scrawled in faded ink over the grainy bleached out black and white photo of young men smiling next to a mass grave.
I didn’t see any of that. The things I found in the suitcase were much more disturbing. Everything in the case was completely ordinary, all but one thing. There were the kind of pieces of paper that anyone gathers in a totally ordinary life; books, some brochures, a postcard, two photos in black and white (no tanks, no ruined buildings, no mass grave). A little green cloth case, faded with age. I could feel small metal tools inside. Everything was written in German. I don’t read German but I didn’t need to.
The thing that couldn’t be avoided was printed on every piece of paper, the eagle and the swastika, on the flysheet, on the brochure, on the postcard, on every piece of paper in the suitcase. The big book reminded me of the Guinness Book of Records my parents used to buy most years when I was a child, about 35cm tall and 20cm wide, full of photos and the minutiae of a sporting event, the Olympics, but of course it wasn’t any sporting event, or any old Olympics. It was the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I’d read somewhere about how Hitler was furious that black Americans had won some of the races, but if he was he didn’t let that stop the meticulous recording of each track event. Mit photographs. There they were, these black men in black and white, standing on the podium wearing their medals. If the master race was hacked off that Jesse Owens was winning they still took the pictures to record the result. Or maybe all that stuff was just a story. There are lots of stories. This is one.
The Olympics Book
The Olympics book was as compelling as these things always are, probably more so if you like sport. I never really did. I picked up the brochure. Again the first thing, the inescapable thing, inside the coloured cover, the green and red of the simple printing showing a cruise liner and people on their holidays was the swastika, clutched in the eagle’s talons, centre of the page at the bottom. I wished I read German. I’d heard of Strength Through Joy. I didn’t know how attractive it was. It’s the 1930s. There is a global Depression. In America, millions of people are literally begging for food, the same way they were in Germany just after the First World War, before Hitler came to power.
And now, or at least then, when this brochure was published, here’s the new deal, different to Roosevelt’s one. You don’t have to beg for food. In fact, perhaps you’d like to go on holiday, the first generation in your family to ever have had one. How about a cruise? Obviously, or maybe not entirely obviously, the cruise will be going to places that possibly might be invaded later on, places like Norway, or Denmark, for example, but that’s all in the future. Right now, here’s the first foreign holiday you’ve ever had. Bring your pretty wife. Oh, and it’s 90% off. You’d like to join the Nazi Party? What a very good idea sir. And your wife, of course? Just sign here. You get quite a lot of extra benefits, as you can see. And over it all, under it on the page, the swastika.
There were two photos in black and white, two different young men, shades of grey in grey uniforms. I don’t know who they were. There was another brother, also in the Wermacht, the German army, killed on the Eastern front, the woman said, this woman who described herself as the third generation of the war. Little things. When I asked her about the town she grew up in she told me simply it was like any other town in north Germany, mostly new houses, flattened in the war. She said it without rancour or guilt or blame. The little medieval town with its tradesmans’ guild houses and churches nearly got through.
It wasn’t a strategic place, the little crossroads didn’t really interrupt any major road that couldn’t be bypassed on the way to Hanover. It didn’t feature in any major set-piece battle or stand in the way of Patton’s tanks. But it was there, and by late March 1945 that was all the reason the Royal Airforce and the American Eighth Army Airforce and Eisenhower and Bomber Harris needed. Less than six weeks before the final surrender the bombers came one night and when they left, half the town was gone. The Guildhall, most of the churches, almost everything that had been beautiful was rubble. It was the same story all over northern Germany, done by the allies principally because they could. There was nothing important there to bomb, but maybe that was the point. Surrender, or there will be nothing left. There was no other brother left. They didn’t even know where he was killed, his grave the Russian Front, along with another two million Germans in uniform. And still ten million German men in uniform at the surrender.
Numbers as big as that lose their meaning. Even if you were lucky enough to have a house worth £2 million, even if you were exceptionally lucky and earned £2 million, there would never be a circumstance where you went to the bank and withdrew all that cash in pound coins to count each one. If it took three seconds to do that, moving one coin from a pile, counting it off out loud and putting it in another pile it would take you fifty thousand minutes, eight hundred and thirty three hours, more than thirty four days, over a month to count them all. It took five years to kill the two million. Nobody counted at the end, or if they did the records are gone, burned by the Germans themselves.
Not all of them though. Germany conscripted every boy from the age of thirteen. By 1945 eighteen million people had served in the army. The starting point for tracing the record of any of them starts with the WASt, the Deutsche Dienststelle für die Benachrichtigung der nächsten Angehörigen von Gefallenen der ehemaligen deutschen Wehrmacht, which holds unburned personnel documents and listings of military losses and a register containing over 18 million soldiers from World War II.
It isn’t open to just anybody. Whether to deter neo-Nazis or the idly curious or to protect against identity theft you have to state your relationship to the person whose records you’d like to see, as part of your application, especially if your family name is different. The records cost eight Euros per page, usually just basic biographical information such as the soldier’s father’s name, his date and place of birth, drafting date, dog tag number, training units and units he was posted to in the course of war, his ranks, notes on injuries and captivity. But better than nothing. Better than not knowing at all. They weren’t 18 million soldiers. They were 18 million people.
The woman told me he was posted to Norway, then to Czechoslovakia. His dog tags were there in the suitcase too, the large aluminium oval, perforated along the middle, the identical stamped abbreviations and numbers the same on each half so that if the man died his comrades or someone at least could snap the tag in two and take the record of the military life of the dead man to be recorded, while the other half remained with the body for burial. Assuming he ever had a grave. Assuming there was time to snap dog tags. Assuming anyone was left to care.
I didn’t know all of this that night. I still don’t know if one of the photos was of this man, the brother, or who the other young man was, der Jungen, the boy. He looked about fourteen. No more than seventeen at most. His picture reminded me of another one I saw from the same time, someone else’s father’s picture, a man who landed in Normandy on the third day after D-Day and walked to Germany. He killed a man face to face. He said he didn’t want to but the other man was going to kill him otherwise, so he did.
He stepped out of a doorway with a gun in his hand. The other man stepped out of a doorway with a gun in his hand. He lay in a ditch while a man with a gun walked towards him. Or he walked towards a man lying in a ditch holding a gun. One of them saw the other one first. Or one of them froze or one of them remembered what he had to do, what he’d been trained to do, on the range in the drill again and again until you can do it without thinking, because sometimes it’s important you do it without thinking and chambered the bullet and pulled the trigger and felt the jolt through his arm as the gun kicked back, saw the other man stagger and fall.
It doesn’t matter. It happened all the time. It was the only reason they were both there. And he befriended a boy, a young boy in the Hitler youth, the HJ, der Hitler Jungend, a boy who the British Army had captured and moving so fast had no time to send him back down the line to a prison camp, but kept him with them, tagging along doing small chores for food. It was better than being dead. Same time. Same place. It could have been the same boy, although the story was nowhere near as unique as you might think. Janni Shenck. Which boy in this story was he? And The Soldier. He landed in Normandy on D+3, the 6th June 1944, and rode in a radio truck to Germany. He got there in late April 1945, like everybody else in this story.
The woman stared at me across the table. She told me the man whose suitcase we were looking at had been a surgeon and these were the things he used and she passed me the little cloth pouch, opening it to show the essential tools of his trade, that had lived in his pocket the five years of his war. There was a small grey sharpening stone, as someone who had to be self-reliant would need. Two scalpels, one curved. Two pairs of small forceps, nothing above ten centimeters long, including the stitching needles, straight, curved, differently curved and above all, thick, much thicker than I thought they could be or should be. There was still some stitching thread in the little cloth pouch, un-used since 1945, nearly seventy years before. I’d never been this close to the war before.
There was one other thing in the case I hadn’t seen, a little postcard with writing on the back, obviously in German. I passed it to the woman. She said it was just about how to get to somewhere, having a nice time, wish you were here, nothing exceptional at all. By now neither of us thought of the black eagle and the swastika it held as anything exceptional at all, stamped in the middle of the back of the postcard, stamped on every piece of paper in the suitcase. This must have been how it worked. It was just everywhere and because it’s everywhere you don’t even really notice it. She passed the card back to me. The exceptional thing was on the front of the card, a coloured picture, delicately coloured so that I wondered if it was hand-tinted. A small child held a posy of flowers up for a kneeling man, the child half-uncertain, the man smiling in his double-breasted suit and tie, not caring about the dirt on his trousers, on the knee he kneeled on, the sun shining on them both, this unknown, fragile child and Adolf Hitler. Today I met a man whose grandmother told him a story about the time she was chosen to give a bouquet of flowers to Adolph Hitler. I have to wonder.
It was everywhere. It must have been everything.
That was the surgeon’s suitcase. I don’t have a name for him yet. I’m going to call him Otto. The woman told me a little about him. He was posted to Norway. He might have disembarked on the same ship that he’d cruised the fjords on holiday. Towards the end, when Germany was being squeezed in the middle but long before it split into two parts he was sent to the Balkans and at some point there he changed his mind about being in the Wermacht. He did a curious thing. He walked home. I don’t know yet which part of the Balkans he was posted to, but it’s a long way to Bremen. He walked home to surrender to the British, or at least specifically anyone who wasn’t Russian. Or probably anyone who wasn’t French, and the 1st Free French army was carving up through southwest Germany at that time which was the same for everyone in this story. April 1945.
As I write this I’m trying to work out how long it would take to travel 1,000 km. At first you think well, maybe he got lucky and got a lift, but then you learn that however many Airfix kits you made as a boy, however much you scoured the catalogue and mispronounced Panzerkampfwagen, and sneered at the war films that used American tanks with a black cross painted on the side of them, even despite the evidence of the Blitzkrieg, the German army didn’t have that many vehicles, considering there were eighteen million people to get around. What they did have they put up front.
Everyone else made do with horses, even in this mobile, mechanized war. They prioritized. Shock and awe and mobile fast moving troops meant vehicles, so they went to the front line. And by April 1945 any road in Germany was ‘the front line’ according to the pilot. Anything that moved was shot at from the air. Look on YouTube. The sandy coloured roads through the green fields and the red-roofed villages are empty, except for one black dot you have to assume is a car or a truck but sometimes turns out to be just a horse and cart, blurred by the juddering of the aircraft as the guns fire and 50 miles an hour is scrubbed off its air speed by the recoil of the eight machine guns, spraying bullets half an inch across, hidden by the white flashes of tracer ripping up the green, obscured by the cloud of dust that was the road and the poor horse and the antique cart disintegrating under the impact of the bullets. Getting a lift had its drawbacks, even if a lift was there to be had.
Years before I met this woman I was talking to a man born in London. His mother was Polish. She was being taken to a camp somewhere by the Germans. She didn’t know where, except she didn’t think it was going to be a good place. She wasn’t Jewish, or political and I think now, you didn’t really have to be. All you had to do was piss off someone in the Party. I think that’s how it worked in the end. Maybe in the beginning too. Maybe that’s why people liked being in the Party. It might even things up, in life. She never got to the camp, wherever it was. He said the train was shot up by an aircraft.
The pilot told me it was brilliant fun shooting railway engines, steam engines back then, because when you hit the boiler they’d blow a huge cloud of white steam 200 feet or more into the air. You could see what you were doing. He never worked out why they tried to run, piling on the coal and getting up to 80 mph or more, unable to move left or right unless the tracks went that way, trying to outrun a Mustang fighter pulling 400 mph. Once, he said, he and a buddy hit a train together and as he flashed through the cloud of white steam just a hundred feet or so above the train he saw something like a manhole cover fly up in the air in front of him, stall out over his wing and then fall to earth again, this huge metal part of a boiler, missing the aircraft’s wing by inches. If it had hit the wing I’d never have heard the story. Nor would you. The man whose Polish mother’s train was wrecked got out and ran. She lived on raw potatoes from the fields, sleeping in what she stood in, for over a week. He told me he never even thought that it was the RAF or the American airforce that did this. It was though. He pretended he didn’t know, that maybe it was the German airforce, the Luftwaffe. It suits people’s ideas better. Like the unknown men who bombed another girl’s father’s house in Italy, it wasn’t they were almost certainly not German but British bombs if it was night-time, American if it was the day, on the whole. They saved his mother’s life, but they didn’t intend to. They were just shooting up a train, because it was there. It gets complicated very quickly.
So the surgeon probably walked, I think, for most of the journey, and probably at night if he had any sense, and if he survived this journey, which he did, he must have done for one good reason. If he bumped into the Gestapo or the SS or probably the Wermacht itself and didn’t give the right answers to how come the rest of his unit was a hundred, two hundred, three hundred kilometers away, they’d simply have shot him at the side of the road as a deserter. He must have known this perfectly well. You don’t get to be a surgeon by being stupid.
He was a survivor, the woman said. We are, we Germans. I would have done the same.
We’ll have to give him a name. We’ll have to give all of them names, but I don’t know what their names were, right now. I don’t really know how to write their story, because every time I sit down to do this, to get this story down on paper or at least a screen, the story spins away into other stories.
A man in a pub told a story about the Hitler Youth. Another man walked a long way and didn’t get shot. Another man rode in a truck a long way in the opposite direction and met a boy in the Hitler Youth and another man in another army on the other side. Another man flew over all of them and had to walk home one night, but not as far as the other men had to walk. Another man saved lots of boys’ lives. And another boy liked Swing music and beating up Hitler Youth boys. Where does he come into these stories, the boy in the Eidelweiss Pirates? Was he the boy in the photo in yet another suitcase? They were all real.
I know the Eidelweiss Piraten were real, der Swing Kinder, because I met someone who had dinner with one of them, the few left and there were only a few to start with. Like White Rose, we don’t know much about the Eidelweiss Pirates, not here, not outside Germany. But they do there. The Gestapo hated them. So did the Hitler Youth who got beaten up by them. It spoils the story we all learned, groups like White Rose, groups like the Eidelweiss Pirates, the Swing Kids.
They were all in it together. They could have done something about it but they chose not to. Janni could have done something to avoid being drafted. They all knew about it. They all knew what Hitler was like. I even heard that today from somebody at lunch. But they didn’t. All they heard was how good it was. And the Eidelweiss Pirates heard Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Gene Kruppa. Django Reinhardt and his German friend, protector and saviour, the Wermacht officer who ignored some key facts about the gypsy guitarist. You see how these stories spin away from your grasp. As soon as you think you know what they’re all about they become something else.
Django Reinhardt played a guitar. Mostly an acoustic guitar, but an electric one towards the end of his life, which was after the war but maybe the war had something to do with it. When he was fifty-two he had a cerebral aneurism. In fact he didn’t. He was forty-three and he died in 1953. This is what happens. You probably wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t told you. According to Nazi rules, when France collapsed before them in 1940 and the sympathetic Vichy French government took over in the parts of France that the Nazis didn’t run themselves, two things were wrong about Django Reinhardt. First, he was a gypsy. Second, he was a jazz musician. The Nazi Party detested both.
I don’t know why they hated gypsies, except lots of people always have and lots of people still do. They did in the Wiltshire village I grew up in. Where they went, the one or two caravans that were there some of the time, the grass track they were allowed was called Gypsy Lane. It’s not OK to say you don’t like Jews anymore, but there’s no problem putting sneering mock documentaries on TV and calling them My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. No problem at all. And as for jazz while it’s generally OK to like that now the Nazis didn’t at all. They even had specific rules for music, to stop jazz creeping into it.
Maybe. A man called Skvorecky was living in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis annexed it. He liked to play tenor sax back in this time when it wasn’t even called a tenor but a low-tone, a man conveniently dead now, conveniently because anything he said cannot be checked with him now but not before he wrote a novel call The Bass Saxophone. In the introduction he wrote from memory the ten Nazi Jazz Rules that he claimed came to him from the Reich Gauleiter of Bavaria and Bohemia. Except there’s something wrong with these rules apart from the fact that there’s something wrong with the idea of prohibitive rules for music, as if music was so dangerous in and of itself that it had to be banned.
The Nazi Jazz Rules
Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
As to tempo, preference is to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones, so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylised military marches);
The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden.
Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.
Skvorecky had this published in The Atlantic magazine. They didn’t spot the thing that puts the entire list into question either. Or maybe they did and thought it was rude to mention it. Skvorecky was there, after all. He played the blues in the Reich, in the part of the Greater Reich that didn’t just have its own Reich’s Gauleiter but had another Reinhard, Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich for its own, the head of the SD, the Nazi intelligence service, the head of the Gestapo. The man who said ‘we will Germanise the Czech vermin,’ some time before the Czechs shot him in the street, aged 42. Ninety-nine people were executed in the first few days after Herr Heydrich came to Prague. To make the point that he was annoyed, their names were printed on posters and plastered up all over the country. Then he shut the concert halls. Then he arrested around 5,000 people and the ones that weren’t killed at once were sent to the concentration camp at Munthausen-Gussen. About four per cent of the Czechs there survived.
You can see why Skvorecky’s text assumes an almost sacred sanctity. But it shouldn’t. There’s something wrong with it It’s about Czechoslovakian, it’s about German and it’s about French, a language that doesn’t have any sensible, logical place in this list. Rule eight. If the strings are plucked, let alone slapped, they must not be allowed to patter on the sordine. It could damage the instrument.
Except of course, it couldn’t. Sordine is the plural of sordino, an Italian word for a mute, to deaden the sound of the strings. There were metal ones that fit on just one string, and there are rubber ones that fit, like a comb, over all four strings. The strings couldn’t possibly patter on the sordine, because if we’re talking about a plural that must have been the metal sordino, which each fitted around each of the four strings on a double bass. The strings couldn’t patter on them, because the strings fit inside them and in any case, it’s hard to see how a string could damage a piece of metal. If any damage was going to happen it would be more likely to be the other way around.
But did the Nazis hate swing or jazz anyway? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. There was a poster, a famous poster all over the internet, a black monkey playing a saxophone on a bright red background, the red presumably supposed to represent the Soviet threat, or communism, but certainly not to be confused with the red field behind the white circle and the black swastika on the Nazi flag. An entirely different red. Obviously.
And there are other odd things about the money too, little signs and signifiers to tell us, not so very subtly, that this is a naughty monkey, a bad monkey, not one we want anywhere in our lives. Unusually for a monkey, apart from playing a saxophone, he’s wearing clothes. I say he out of habit, but in truth there’s something feminine about the monkey’s face. He’s wearing a big hoop earing in his right ear, but the face itself is soft underneath the curly hair. He’s wearing a top hat with a crimson hat band, white leather dress gloves that can’t make it easier to play a saxophone, the cuff turned back and red cuff links on a dress shirt, a red bowtie on a cutaway collar, and a dinner suit. The lapels of the black jacket are crimson red again, standing out in bright contrast to the white of his shirt front and white on the right lapel the monkey wears a large badge, in the middle of it a Star of David. The text on the poster reads: Entartete Musik. Eine Arbrechnung von Staatsrat. Degenerated music: A reckoning of the State. The name Dr H.S. Ziegler sits at the bottom right hand corner of the poster, below this Jewish, black, effeminate, saxophone-playing Negroid ape. Dr Zeigler, it’s safe to assume, was not a big jazz fan. If he existed at all.
But the Swings? Das Swingheinis? Where do they fit into this? The thuggish Eidelweiss Pirates? The eternally doomed White Rose? Born in England, I’d never heard of any of them until a few years ago. Janni Schenck. Where did he fit into this? This boy in my head. Not the pilot. Not the surgeon. Not the schoolmaster. I haven’t told you about him yet. The old man in the bar? Was he Janni Schenck? He could have been. Das Swings though. Das Swingheinis. Maybe you need to know about them first of all. You know about the monkey already.
For every action there is a reaction, equal and opposite. It’s a basic law of physics. As the exploding gas fires a bullet from a gun barrel, so there is an equal push back on the gun itself, recoil. The flame searing down the barrel behind the bullet is hotter than the surface of the sun, with a ton or two of pressure per square inch propelling the bullet out into space, the nine millimetre bullets the German army used in Walther and Luger pistols some hundred and twenty-five grains, barrelling out at around fourteen hundred feet per second, the big sledging .45ACP rounds the American army used in their Colts around two hundred grains, chugging along at about eight hundred and thirty feet per second. Rifle bullets were much more deadly, smaller in diameter but longer, and more lethally, much, much faster, up at around three thousand feet per second, a speed where liquid can’t compress and blood is blasted forwards, out of the way of the bullet in a solid mass, a teacup-sized blood hole through someone’s body, English, Polish, Russian, German, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Russian, Finnish, American, Norwegian.
It doesn’t matter to the bullets, nor where they were made. A couple of pennies worth of copper and brass and lead and nitro-cellulose, a couple of machine pressings all it takes to negate birth and school and laughter and tears and love forever. And with this reaction, the other reaction, the gun being pushed back into the hand or the shoulder. The monkey attracting people to its music as much as Herr Doktor Zeigler was repulsed by it. If he existed at all.
Once upon a time long, long ago, but not so long that I can’t remember, I heard a thing that had happened a really long time ago. It stuck with me, ever since. I don’t think I have an awful lot of imagination. I listen to stories. I jumble them up and glue them together into another, bigger story, but everything I’ve ever written happened to someone real. Just not usually one person, or one person at one time. Something I saw or heard or someone else’s story. An old man’s story for example. Or as I think of it, Janni Schenck’s story.
It happened one summer’s afternoon in Kings Langley, just outside Watford, just north of London, where the M25 crosses the A41 and just one junction further north crosses the M1. It’s a comfortable commuter village, which means that there are some big houses and in the daytime, as this was, hardly anybody on the pavements of the High Street that used to be a main road just off the M25, until they put the bypass in, so cars could get away faster. I was working for myself and as happened this sunny afternoon I didn’t have much to do. We might have been between jobs. I don’t remember. We were pretty busy back then though, so I think we were more accurately part-way through a job, after I’d written the proposal, after we’d got the contract and this was my down time, before the results of the job came back, before I’d write the report and the presentation and to tell the client what it was we’d found out for them, hoping it was something they hadn’t forgotten to tell us they already knew. That happened sometimes. But sometimes it’s hard to know what people know, especially if they don’t want to tell you and sometimes, for a lot of different reasons, people don’t.
So this was where everything that could have been done had been done and now we had to wait until other people had done other things so more things could be done. We locked the doors and got our mobile phones and walked down through the fields, across the river, across the canal, over the footbridge over the M25 and up the hill to the pub at the top of Kings Langley, near the Rudolf Steiner school.
A fat English skinhead, or at least someone in his twenties with no hair was having an argument with a much older, white-haired, aquiline-looking man with an accent. Look, I said wittily, to the woman who’d come to the pub with me. That’s Rudolf Steiner.
I know. It just pours out of me, doesn’t it? It hardly ever stops. But I was wrong. It wasn’t Rudolf Steiner at all. I never knew this old man’s name. But I heard his story and that was much more interesting, because here he was, here and now, the way most of them aren’t now, because this was fifteen years ago and all flesh is grass.
The old man was furious. Specifically, he was furious at being called a Nazi, just because he’d been in the Hitler Youth. He was conscripted, he said and years later I found out this was true. Every boy in Germany was conscripted into the Hitler Youth on his thirteenth birthday. It wasn’t like chosing to join the Boy Scouts. It was much more clever than that. He had had no choice. Back then I’d never ever heard of the Edelweiss Pirates nor White Rose and nor had anyone else I knew. I’ve since met an Army Major who had dinner with one of the surviving Piraten, but I only heard about the boys who skipped out of the Hitler Jugend a few years ago. The old man I met thought the HJ was great. His eyes were shining as he remembered the songs and the campfires, the flags and bugles, the friendship and the pure fun of the big rallies in the woods. He wasn’t the boy who sang Tomorrow Belongs To Me for Sally Bowles at the end of Cabaret. He didn’t have to. Millions of people felt like that, before the guns began again. It was the new dawn. The thousand year Reich.
He went to school in a little German village in the hills and one day in April 1945 the SS arrived in a big car. They took all the boys from the school up the lane to a field where they’d dug a bunker, where they handed out oily new machine guns and helmets and grenades and told the boys to defend their village and the Fatherland. The American invaders would arrive to spoil and loot within the hour. Meanwhile the SS felt they had pressing business to attend to a long way away. The schoolmaster was as he usually was, the leader of this troop of Hitler Jugend. He marched them down to the playground and lined them up on parade to inspect them and their brand-new factory-fresh guns and grenades and steel helmets, bullet bandoliers and knives and anti-tank rocket Panzerfausts.
And if I tell you the rest of the story now then there won’t be anything much to read. Because I want to tell several different stories here. The story of the pilot who walked twenty miles through the night to fly to Czechoslovakia. The story of the army surgeon who walked seven hundred kilometers to get home to Bremen from there. The story of a man who walked from Normandy to Bremen. And the story of the man who saved Janni Schenck, who didn’t walk anywhere except from his house into a village square. All joined together
A friend’s father landed in Normandy in June 1944, 20 days after D-Day. He got to Germany from there. Let’s call him Marshall, this Scottish man from as far into the Highlands as you can get, this man who joined the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, who rode to Germany in a radio truck. He would never talk about the German he killed. He only talked sketchily about the German boy in uniform who tagged along with his regiment for food and company, after they’d checked his pockets thoroughly. He left two pictures, both of them young German boys in uniform, both way under 20. I don’t know which is which, or whether either of them are those two boys, nor what became of them. There were two pictures of two German boys in uniform in the suitcase, that night in the dark pub with the wind rattling the windows, too.
The German woman talked about recording the stories she knew. ‘You haven’t heard half of them. But what’s the point? How is it relevant to now?’
Because soon there will be no-one left to tell these stories. People will still tell them in other places, in future times. But the tellers won’t be people like us. We won’t understand. We’ll say oh, that’s what they do in these foreign places. They always have. It’s tribal, isn’t it? But we’ve done this too, not so long ago. That’s what School Lane is about. The story of four men and Janni Schenck. The school teacher. The pilot. The surgeon. The soldier. And Janni. Tomorrow belonged to him. Now all I have to do is write it, so that you can read it. And remember, before we forget. Because this is all going, one by one, breath by breath and even Janni, he’s not very young now. He nearly didn’t get here at all. But the story doesn’t start with Janni. I’m not sure where it starts at all. Let’s imagine it’s a film. We can do that. We’ve all seen films. We know how films go.
Willi Horscht. The School Teacher
We can see the whole little village from up here in the tower where the school bell is ringing. We can hear cockerels crowing around the village and a dog barking at a cat ignoring the dog, perched high on a fence. The sun shines on the snow at the top of the mountains down there in the south, the Harz Mountains in the background. You can just see them, looking over the rooftops, easier in the summer when the sky shines down deepest blue on all of Germany, not so easily in the white-grey glare of this cold April sky. And down here in the village we can see a horse-drawn milk cart stopping at each house and the women standing chatting, waiting to fill their jugs and bottles with milk as it draws up to them at their houses, at the gates where some women stand wrapped in coats this Spring morning, this everyday morning where everything in Germany is the same as it always was, except there are no young men anywhere, or none healthy. One who has only one leg and a grey army coat, his cloth brimless cap perched on his head against the cold, wool gloves on the crutches he uses to cross the street. Guten Morgen Inga. Guten Tag, Willi.
An elderly postman gets off his bicycle in the village square when he sees another man man, graying, in his fifties when fifty was much older than it is now, about to pull a newspaper from the Der Stürmer news-stand, leans the bicycle against a wall, rummages in his sack full of letters, walks over and gives it to the man. Above the wooden news-stand we can see the painted words: ‘This community has been free of Jews for a thousand years.’
Still early and children are leaving their houses to walk up the lane to the school. The boy all wear leather satchels like a backpack, with a smaller leather satchel around their necks in front, short trousers under their coats. A few wear braces too, to keep their shorts up. One or two of the older boys wear an armband but we can’t see what it is as they file into the school house and line-up obediently in class, the way children anywhere do on any other school day morning. Some of the kids are better dressed than others but all of them are lined up obediently, joined in prayer.
Hädchen falten, Köpfchen senken, und an Adolf Hitler denken.
Nobody says this, but really, they don’t need to. Hands folded, heads bowed, and thinking of Adolf Hitler. His picture hangs on the wall opposite the clock in the main room of the school house, looking down over all.
Now we can see the boys’ armbands clearly enough, the black swastika angled on its white square, diagonal against the red cloth. Herr Horscht at the lectern, the schoolmaster himself wearing a different armband, red, with the white circle, the Hakencruz, the black broken cross of the swastika on his right arm, glaring red against the green of his felted wool jacket, this loden coat warm against the Spring winds. Willi Horscht is wearing a Nazi Party band on his arm as we imagine the picture of Hitler behind Horscht in our film. Half the childen move over to one side of the classroom, the others to the other side. Boys and girls are mixed. All the children sit down and get their books out.
The girl called Anne, a little older than the others, asks: Lisle, please?
Lisle stands at her desk and her friend Lotte replies for her.
Once thirteen is thirteen. Two thirteens are twenty-six. Three thirteens are thirty-nine. Four thirteens are fifty-two as Herr Horscht walks along the rows of desks on his side of the classroom, handing out exercise books. Like any good teacher he can listen without listening, seeing four different things at once. Imagine him looking like an older Harrison Ford, if it helps. An ordinary man that extraordinary things might have happened to once and might again. We’ll have to see, won’t we. It won’t be long. He gives back some of the books carefully. Some he drops on their desks in front of the children.
‘Neckar, quite good. Sturmann, you need to concentrate more. Groptmann, see me. You can do much better if you just put your mind to it. Wiess, what is there I can possibly say?’
And the children laugh, even Albert Weiss, but something is happening out in the street. The schoolmaster sees a movement in the street, through the window. People are talking, pointing out there. A woman puts her hands to her face as a policeman walks up the garden path to a house and bangs on the door. As it opens he pushes the door open wider and walks in. Seconds later he comes out of the house again, carrying a small stack of thick, black 78 rpm gramophone records.
You ought to see Hannah Schenck. The policeman, oh pretty much everyone would like to see Hannah Schenck, preferably without her clothes but on this cold April morning Janni’s mother is wearing a coat. It’s not the cleanest or the newest coat but those days are long gone in this village. Long gone for most people for the past four years in Germany. If you have a coat now, you treasure it.
The schoolmaster can see Hannah Schenck and her blond hair and her high Saxon forehead running into the street after the policeman. She’s saying something but we can’t hear her through the glass. She looks angry. Everyone knows about the records. She knew she’d get into trouble about them. Everyone knows. The policeman, it’s obvious, doesn’t want to arrest her but she can’t play this music. Nobody can. Not the black music, anyway, the entartete musik. The schoolmaster knows exactly what’s happening, even though the window is closed.
The policeman walks to the steps of the war memorial in the village square with Hannah at his heels, looking like a dog that’s normally very good but this time might turn vicious. He picks one of the records out from under his arm and reads the label as Hannah lunges at him, trying to grab it back as the schoolmaster opens the window.
The policeman holds the record above his head.
‘Because you can’t play this. That’s why. You know this perfectly well, Frau Schenck.’
‘That record is my private property.’ Hannah looks as if she might just possibly jump up to snatch the record out of the policeman’s hand.
‘You are mistaken. This record is negro music. Debased music. It’s illegal. If I did what I ought to do I’d arrest you for having it in your house.’
‘Hannah. Frau Schenck. Just be quiet. You can’t play this music. I have to stop it. I don’t have any choice. And the policeman throws the record against the cobblestones and sees it smash into three pieces.
‘You can’t to that! Those are my things!’
The policeman didn’t look at Hannah directly.
‘Be quiet. Or I’m going to have to arrest you. These are not your things. Enemies of the Reich planted them in your house. Jews, probably.’
‘There are no Jews here. It says so on the sign! Not for a thousands years! Stop smashing my records. Who do you think you are?’
‘I saw it happen, Hannah.’ And as she coils like a spring the policeman loses his patience. How many chances do you have to give a pretty woman ? He drops the rest of the records onto the hard ground and blinks as they shatter.
‘Hannah, that’s enough. Shut up. Go home before you talk yourself into trouble. And take this litter with you.’
We have to leave them there for the moment. We’ll come back to them later. We’ve got time, just about. It was only seventy years ago. We know where to find them. They’re people like us, just without wifi and iphones. That’s important. Unless you were born before everybody had mobile phones you can’t imagine how important that is. That’s why it was so important to bomb French towns for the Normandy invasion. That’s why the Resistance went active. Not to kill Germans. To kill the telephone network. To blind the enemy. It saved one German’s life. The surgeon’s. You haven’t met him yet.
You see how every time you think you’re about to understand this story it gets more complicated. It does. History is like that. And this is real history, even the bits I’m making up. Like Hannah. I don’t know her. But I know her grand-daughter. They’re very alike. But likeable or not we have to leave them there for the moment. We’ll come back to them later. But right now we have to sort out when all this happened. We have to get the timelines in order if this is going to work at all. I’m still not sure that it is. I don’t know one of the timelines at all.
Janni’s timeline I know because it only really lasted this one short day. The pilot’s timeline is easy. So is the soldier’s. It’s all on record. But right now we’ve got to sort out when all this happened. We have to get our timelines in order if this is going to work at all. I’m not sure that it is. I don’t know one of the timelines at all. Janni’s I know because his short story only lasted for the rest of this day. The pilot’s timeline is easy. It’s all on record. You haven’t met the pilot yet. You will. In fact, maybe you should meet him now.
He’s in Czechoslovakia. The Czechs are going to go mental as soon as they can. They’re going to throw millions of German Czechs out of their homes and burn people alive in a few weeks. He doesn’t know that for sure, right now, because nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen in the future. But you get an idea of what’s going to happen, sometimes. Sometimes you can tell. So where do you go, apart from home? Except home is 700 kilometres away, and at the same time, nobody’s going to take you there so you can die here when the partisans get you, or die here when the Russians who killed your brother-in-law come for you. Or when the Americans come in shooting. Or when the Gestapo go mental if you sneeze when an SS man’s talking or some other pile of crap you get from being in the army, any army, in a war. This war that you think you’re losing, that everyone probably except Hitler himself thinks you’re losing.
When do you decide to go home? Because apart from the slight difficulty of getting there, 700 kilometres away and anything on the road is going to get shot into small pieces by the RAF or the Americans and don’t even bother to ask where Goering’s Luftwaffe are supposed to have got to, the Luftwaffe you haven’t even seen in a month and more, you also have to decide when enough is enough. How long will it take to get there? And if everything’s fine when you arrive, how are you going to explain being there? How long is it going to be before the Gestapo or even just the police turn up at your door? You need to eat. You haven’t got a civilian ration book. Just your army pay book. That won’t buy you anything in a shop. If there are any shops left. If there’s any town left.
Then today I found this, in someone’s war diary, online.
Passing unarmed German soldiers
The 195 Field Ambulance moved on 26 March. Travelling some 30 to 40 miles a day,en route we passed numerous unarmed Germans solders in groups of between some 20 to 30 strong. Unguarded, they were making their way towards the Rhine and captivity.
It seemed that the end of the war was at last close.
Bremen was captured 21st April, British 2nd Army after a week of fighting.
It’s notes. Just notes of something that happened a long, long time ago. The girl who cried was German. She said she was the third generation of the war. It stuck in my mind. It won’t go. It won’t go.
It had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, back in 2007. In a familiar scenario, 856 other films were entered, as some 230-odd were at the bit of Cannes I entered this year. It was one of 16 winners, unlike the similar number at Cannes of which mine isn’t one. I think I can see where the differences are though.
It got screened at loads of regional festivals in the US and popped up as one of the top five American films presented at the Directors Fortnight bit at Cannes in 2007. It was based on a true story. Unlike Janni Schenck, Zoo was a film about a man who died after getting a horse to get down with him and shake what Barry White might have called it’s lurve thang. But presumably not with the intent of ramming it through his intestines, which anyone who’s actually seen a horse might think an entirely predictable outcome of what turned out to be a totally spoiled evening.
Keep On Doin’ It
As you might know, there’s this screenplay called Janni Schenck what I wrote. Cannes don’t want it, which is entirely what I predicted would happen, so I’m not that downhearted about it. Not least because everyone, absolutely everyone who’s read it thinks it’s really good. Even someone who refuses point blank to read it again because it’s upsetting thinks it’s good. That’s why she won’t read it again. That and the fact that kids like Janni killed some of her family once, a long time ago, but not so long ago that it’s not still upsetting when they’re brought to life as what they are. Which is just kids. Kids who’d been told everything they did was fun and good and pure and noble, kids who were told they were the saviours of their country. Kids who weren’t given the choice, by 1939, of saying that they didn’t want to join the Hitler Youth.
So, tough, Cannes. You missed it. You want to feel edgy and street watching films about horses shagging American inadequates then you go ahead with what you have. I hope it doesn’t put you off your butterscotch popcorn.
But after the meeting with Film Suffolk today I have work to do getting this made. They like it too. So if you’ll excuse me I’ll go and find a producer somewhere else. As well as around £10 million. All without scaring the horses.
I thought it was Spring. The clocks went forward (Spring forward, Fall back, although being English we don’t have – and you have to make an inverted commas sign with your fingers here and do a little moue at the same time -“Fall”. It’s called Autumn). I went out without a coat for the first time this year. I went to have a look at my lovely boat, looking a little less lovely after being covered in fallen leaves all over the cockpit, but the cabin roof scrubbed up nicely in less than a half hour. The fact that all the mould I cleaned off was sluiced off the roof by that night’s rain should have been a lesson. It’s only just April.
I’ve been travelling for most of March, all over Scotland and Ireland, then a week at home, then London and the Cotswolds. Five days at home and now London and the Cotswolds again, shepherding American tourists while I wait to hear from the Maison des Scenaristes about Janni Schenck and the Cannes Film Festival. It’s entered for it. Did I mention that?
No? Really? Well, my screenplay, Janni Schenck, is entered for the Cannes Film Festival.
Thank-you. I’m rather pleased.
But right now I have to phone some restaurants and get to a hotel near Heathrow to sleep on my own on a Saturday night. At least they do a very, very good vegetarian pizza. Probably the best I’ve ever eaten. Ain’t life grand?
I spent fifteen years telling myself I couldn’t do something. Which was stupid, because that always turns out to be true. To be accurate I spent thirteen years doing that and another two years thinking I had to do it but I didn’t know how. Then a year seriously thinking about how I was going to do it.
It was a story. The problem was it was true. The bigger problem was it happened in a Germany that has thankfully disappeared, which I knew next to nothing about. Not least as I didn’t speak German.
I didn’t want to be the sad bloke with shelves full of books with swastikas on the spine. Even after I learned they’re called hakencruzen. I read everything I could, buying books from boot-sales, second-hand shops, anywhere. What I didn’t want was military history. I needed to know how a village worked. What people had for breakfast in 1945. What the newspaper was called.
I had the story: I’d heard it first-hand. I needed the framework it happened in. And the reality of that wasn’t anything you’ve ever seen on TV. You think you know about it from the graphic violence of Saving Private Ryan or the extended buddy movie treatment of Band of Brothers. You don’t. Even Der Untergangdoesn’t touch on what happened to ordinary people, the millions of people who just happened to be born at a place, at a time. Who could have been anybody. Who could have been you.
I hadn’t the first clue before I started this what had happened to ordinary people. I got my first clue talking to a German woman about her town. I’d asked her what’s it like?
Oh, quite new houses, like any other town in the north of Germany, she’d said. And the old town? Well, the RAF took care of the old town one night in late March 1945. Chiefly because they could. It shocked me. It still does. And before anyone jumps up and down screaming about the Blitz, yes. Awful. About 40,000 British people died from German bombing in the war. About 40,000 people died in three nights of bombing by the RAF in Hamburg. Something else they forgot to mention at my school, along with the whole idea of German resistance to Nazism which by its nature, was quite secretive and predictably and inevitably short-lived. It must have been exactly the same as in places like Syria now. “Why didn’t you fight it?” always comes up against “How?”
It must have been exactly the same as in places like Syria now. “Why didn’t you fight it?” always comes up against “How?” When the police take away everyone in the house next door, what are you going to do? Call the police? Maybe write to your MP? Fight them, the same way refugees are told they should, with sticks against rifles? And there’s always plenty more room on the truck. But some people stood up.
I turned it into a screenplay, Janni Schenk. One person refused to read it twice because it upset her so much the first time. It’s not graphic violence. The body count is very low and almost all of it happens out of shot. It’s a very simple story. Almost all of it is true.
An orphaned boy is betrayed by his country, his youth-group and his school-teacher before he saves his village from total destruction.
Except his youth-group was the Hitler Jugend. And the people about to destroy his village were the US Army. And for that reason alone I don’t think any film-maker outside Germany is going to touch it with gloves on. Certainly not an American film-maker. But let’s see. Maybe I’ll be wrong.
It was a summer afternoon about 16 years ago and I had nothing much to do that wouldn’t wait. I walked across the fields, down the hill and over the canal and the little river, then up the hill the other side of the valley, to a pub nearly at the top, near the Rudolf Steiner school. An old man was in there, having a loud argument with a fat Enlighs skinhead.
I’d seen the old man before. The first time I noticed his white flowing hair and aquiline nose and said to my partner ‘Look, that’s Rudolf Steiner,” but she unsportingly didn’t laugh. He was getting louder this time. Then I heard the words “Hitler Youth,” which are not words you often hear in Home Counties pubs, even if there are fat skinheads there. I’d assumed it was the large, bald bloke. And I was wrong.
It was the old man who’d spoken about the Hitler Youth. They were great, he said. And he should know, because he was one. Or had been then. What had made him incandescent with anger was being called a Nazi. You had to join the Nazi Party, he shouted at the other man, who was probably not a skinhead really, just fat and bald with a London-diaspora voice. And sixteen million people had. But you didn’t get the choice about joining the Hitler Youth. You go a card on your thirteenth birthday, telling you that you were a member. Your choice what happened next.
I’ve always thought of him as Janni Schenck. I wrote his story.
Once upon a time when the world was young and even I was younger too, people used to like to stay in on a Saturday night. Not because they’d get mugged or stabbed, or they were worried about drink-driving or they didn’t have any money. They didn’t; only one person ever was in my town and that was when he opened his front door; they weren’t, very; and nobody did, in that order. The past is a different country. They did things differently there. It was great.
The thing I liked them doing differently was having things on TV that were clever, my own definition of cleverness defined as making words dance. I wanted to get down to the Rose & Crown or the Red Lion as much as the next person who wanted to squeeze past Wendy Sedgewick. And no, nowhere else. Except the Lamb on a Monday night because there was what would now be open-mic, and although I didn’t, someone mistook me for someone who ran another club. That matters at 19 in a small Wiltshire town. In those days teens went to pubs.
Yes, I know it was illegal and all that blah. Everyone knew where everyone was and nobody ever got hurt, ever, so tell me the big deal about it. And I wanted to go. But I usually only went after I’d watched The Two Ronnies. Or Morecambe & Wise, both for the same reasons.
They, but in particular Ronnie Barker, made the words dance. Yes, a load of it was about suburban middle-aged dinner parties. Yes, a lot of the women were dressed in long, clingy evening gowns I’d never, ever seen anyone in Trowbridge slipping into, let alone out of. But the words. The words were the thing. And not like that moronic song that asked what are words worth. GEDDIT!!!!????
But hark, I might get to the point of this. I just wrote a screenplay. My first one won a BBC Writers Room competition (actually, as one says). I pitched it to Cascade and astonishingly the first time I pitched a script which was the first one I’d ever written, they didn’t go with it. Life is so unfair, as I didn’t bother to say as I went down Berwick Street and had an espresso at the Italian deli around the corner, same as I’d been meaning to for twenty-odd years. Anyway, after thinking about it for 15 years and fretting at it for two and boring a friend absolutely witless about it for a solid year, six weeks back with pneumonia I decided that I either got it written for another BBC script window deadline or I forgot about it for ever. Promise.
So I wrote it. A friend of a friend sent it to Film Suffolk, who seem quite taken with it. In fact, rather more than that. It needs some revision. A German resistance historian loves it. But what I don’t love is people saying “have you read Save The Cat?”
The answer is ‘not yet.’ Not because I think it’s bad – I haven’t read it so I don’t know. Because of this review, one of many.
This book is awesome and totally relevant to writing fiction! This book saved my plot! I had reached a stage in my MS where I had lost sight of what was actually happening. I was writing scenes but I couldn’t see where they would fit in the grand scheme of the story. By reading this book, I could easily see the bigger picture. I was able to put all my chapters into an order and look at the plot as a whole. So I would definitely advise reading it to help save your plot from the death spiral!
You don’t have to do the silly high voice when you say ‘Ahsome!!” but it will probably help. Like toadly. May I?
Don’t make a scene
I was writing scenes but I couldn’t see where they would fit.
Yep. OK. Let me stop you there. I know the reason for this. That’s because you don’t have what writers call “a story.”
I’m sorry to spring all these technical phrases on you like this, but bear with me. I know, because if you had a story you’d know the beginning, the middle and the end of it. Because you couldn’t think of a story that didn’t.
But you don’t really want a story, with that mindset. Instead you want a Paint-By-Numbers Hollywood millionaire kit. And you’ll find that right next to the unicorn horns, Aisle Three.
Right. I’m glad we’ve got that sorted. I’ll have a look at it, ok? I promise. But first, I want to think about the only thing that matters in a story. And that’s whether it’s there or not.
Would you sit and listen to it? Read it? Sit in a cinema and watch it? Because if not then you haven’t got a story and all you’re trying to do is get rich quick. So if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.
Once upon a time when the world was young and I had more patience and couldn’t tell a story, then I’d have thought deconstruction was a toolkit that could help you build something too. Except as someone whose student grant went to a motorcycle shop one term, I knew something important.
I knew that understanding how a Norton 500 engine comes apart and what all the bits are called – even understanding completely what they do, or what they’re supposed to do – doesn’t mean you can get it back together again. A Norton 500 engine, in case you’re wondering, is something made of metal. A lot more tangible and solid than words.
About 17 years ago, 18 maybe, I walked into an almost empty pub where an old man and a fat skinhead were arguing, one summer’s afternoon. The words Hitler Youth were used, which even if it was Hertfordshire, isn’t the norm. That’s when it really kicked off. The old man was incandescent with rage.
Yes, he said, he’d been in the Hitler Youth. He was proud of it. What he was outraged about was being called a Nazi.
Like most people, I believed what I’d been told, pretty much without thinking. There were Nazis and there were Germans but they probably all knew about everything and We were Good and They were Bad and they were all in it together and if they didn’t like Hitler they’d have done something about it… All the usual sloppy, stupid, simplistic thinking that I have no excuse for, as I have none for the childish bullshit I’ve been told.
We are Good. They are Bad. Forever and ever, Amen. It never matters who they are, not least because Their leader is invariably mad. Hussein. Bonaparte. The Kaiser. The Junta. Obviously goes without saying, Hitler. Mad, all of them. The fact that Churchill was drinking more than a bottle of brandy every day has and had no bearing on anything, ever. Because We Are Good.
I listened to the old man explain that you didn’t get a choice about joining the Hitler Youth. You were conscripted on your thirteenth birthday. You got a uniform, a knife, you went to camp and slept in tents, you did singing and marching and bonfires and at thirteen, very little boy got to shoot real pistols and throw real grenades. I remember being thirteen. I can remember how complete I would have felt, as a boy, doing those things.
And I listened to the old man explain how on the last day of his war, in April 1945, with the Americans due to arrive within the hour, the SS arrived instead. They took all of the children up into a field and rummaged around in the dirt until they found what they were looking for, a hatch to a bunker full of brand new guns. They kitted the kids out with steel helmets and grenades and bullets and machine guns and told them to defend the Fatherland and oh look, is that time, love to help but must dash, maybe next time. Do your best boys. And drove off toward the future, leaving the boys to deal with the past.
They met their schoolmaster coming up the lane as they were taking their weapons back to the village. In the old man’s words, he beat the shit out of them, made them throw all the guns in the ditch and sent them home. He saved all of their lives. The Americans arrived on time, within the hour, riding jeeps with machine guns mounted on top. He said they looked as if they were wetting themselves. They would have shot everybody.
I never knew the old man’s name. He might be dead by now. If he isn’t perhaps one day he will see the thing I’ve been working on, the story of that day. It has other people’s stories in it as well, other real lives. A story of a man who made one silly joke and was going to be shot for it when the partisans attacked and he found himself walking 700 kilometres home to Bremen. A story about the Swing Kids, the Heinies, the Eidelweiss Pirates, Hans Falada, Sophie Scholl, all the other people our inane propaganda wants to airbrush out of our reality, because they don’t fit our children’s story: we are good. They are bad.
Life doesn’t work like that. When we lose the truth we cheat ourselves. So this is for Janni Schenck. I don’t know the old man’s name. I never did. But whenever I think about this story, that’s the name that comes to me, through 70 years of lies.
I’ve been working on a story. It’s been in my head for two years, but that’s not true. It’s been in my head since I don’t know. 1997 or ’98 maybe, when I went into a pub one summer afternoon and found an old man arguing with a skinhead. The pub was close to a Rudolf Steiner school.
“Look!” I said wittily to the woman I was with, nodding at the white-haired, distinguished-looking old man. “It’s Rudolf Steiner.” She was kind enough to smile a little, but the afternoon got much stranger faster then. I heard the words “Hitler Youth” and thought I was witnessing a hate-crime. I thought the skinhead was saying how great the Hitler Youth were.
Then I noticed he wasn’t a skinhead, really. Just one of the people who don’t seem to have any hair these days. I think it’s the food they eat. Whatever it was, he didn’t have any hair. But he didn’t have any bluebird of freedom tattoos either. And it wasn’t him saying how great the Hitler Youth were, but the aristocratic old man with white hair next to him. The skinhead who wasn’t called the old man a Nazi and that’s when it kicked off. The old man said at some volume that he wasn’t a Nazi, he was in the Hitler Youth. And, he said, it was great.
You got flags to wave, songs to sing, camp to go to, something to be a part of. And more than this, at thirteen you got to shoot a real pistol and throw real grenades. When I was a boy half his age at thirteen, or maybe a little older, a Dutch woman who lived at the end of our road told me about firing the Colt automatic. She said “It kicked like a mule.” She was loud and a bit fat and they’d built an extension on their house and seemed to own the local shop. I didn’t know she’d once been hungry. I didn’t know around 30,000 people in Holland starved to death.
She had an odd accent I thought, but it was just a Dutch accent told to a small boy in Wiltshire who hadn’t been anywhere apart from Somerset. I didn’t know so many things then. I didn’t know, for example, that if she’d been caught by the German occupying forces anywhere near what was obviously a pistol for the Resistance dropped into Holland then she would have been shot, but probably not before she’d been made to tell the names of everyone she knew who knew about the gun as well. The alternative scenario – Allied soldiers took her shooting with a pistol because that’s how you’d entertain a girl around twenty whose country you just liberated. Sure it is.
I didn’t know too that as the old man told anyone who would listen, every German boy was conscripted into the Hitler Youth at the age of thirteen. Exactly the same way that at eighteen, boys were conscripted into the army. And apart, presumably, from the freezing cold nights manning anti-aircraft guns waiting for the mile-long streams of RAF bombers, it was mostly fun. Apart from the last day of the war, when the Americans came to the village.
The SS turned up first, in a jeep of some kind. They told the boys they had to defend the Fatherland and kitted them out with brand-new guns and steel helmets and grenades from a bunker in a field, that nobody knew was there. Years later I heard that the best way to hide something is simply to dig a hole and put the thing into it, with a sign saying ‘MoD – Keep Out’. Or ‘Water Company.’ It works in countries where order is an important thing. The boys made their way down towards their village again and the SS realised they had an important appointment somewhere else more urgently, coincidentally on the way to Switzerland, and left. The schoolmaster in the little village met the boys on their way to fight the Americans. He was the head of the Hitler Youth.
He beat the boys up, made them throw all the guns in the ditch and sent them home. The Americans arrived about an hour later. The old man said they would have shot everyone in the village if there was any resistance.
It’s stuck in my head. It asks so many questions. And now I’ve written it. It’s called Janni Schenck. It’s very nearly a true story. I can’t speak without gabbling. I’ve been ill and I’ve just slept for a couple of hours accidentally, fully dressed, instead of going out as I was going to do. But I’ve done it. I’ve got to buy some paper tomorrow and proof read it, because I can’t proof on-screen, but tomorrow is another day. I’ve done it. And I didn’t think I could.