“Ash and Soot” — Clay Patterson ’20

The ashes seemed to float on the wind of this cold February afternoon, creating a grey cloud that loomed ominously over Berlin’s residents.  Fritz could not discern the difference between the snow and the ash; it all looked the same to him.  Fritz Lubitsch stared at the ruins of the Reichstag pensively from the only window inside his cramped apartment. Arson had leveled the intricately carved stone which now crumbled and cracked like Fritz’s faith in his country.  He had no illusions as to what had caused the fire.  He, unlike many Germans, saw through the mirage of the Nazi party.  In the four weeks since Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor, Fritz resolved that he would leave Germany.  He had always seen the Nazis an incorruptible force of destruction, ready and willing to burn whatever they could.  Fritz proved this to himself when he read Hitler’s biography Mein Kampf; the Fuhrer wrote, or rambled rather, with no order or cohesion.  But this could be forgiven.  But Fritz could not forgive Hitler’s ignorance; the idea that Jews were somehow inferior to the “Aryan” was preposterous and Fritz would give it no heed. Though he was not himself Jewish, having never opened the Torah or stepped foot inside a temple, Fritz’s mother, whom he loved dearly, was. She was a sweet, kind woman with no superior or equal.          

Fritz stepped away from the small window, hoping to put these thoughts out of his head, as he packed his measly collection of clothes and notebooks into a ratty old briefcase.  His newest film had just premiered in France and Vienna, and he preferred to focus on his successes rather than Germany’s deterioration as he prepared to leave a country that fell to pieces all around him. Though Fritz always considered making more serious films he had always enjoyed comedies; ever since he was a little boy he always enjoyed taking a trip to the cinema especially if it was for a Charlie Chaplin picture.  Fritz was a man who preferred to laugh rather than think seriously about a problem.  

The smoky smell of ash wafted through the open window as Fritz emptied the contents of his joyless living space and hurriedly crammed his things into his bag.  As he leafed through a notebook full of diagrams for shots and script ideas for his next picture he felt a surge of unease, greater than what he had already felt for the past four weeks, roll over him and hold him tightly.  Then there was a knock on his door.  Fritz jumped to his feet and stepped cautiously toward the noise.  Again, a knock echoed throughout the thin wallpapered confines of the room.  Fritz reached cautiously towards the handle and grasped it in his palm, he could feel the vibrations moving through the wood, to the handle, and into his hand, rattling his bones.  

Fritz opened the door to find a tall blonde boy, no more than 17 or 18 years old, standing in his doorway.  Though he was young, his piercing blue eyes were cold and hardened by hatred. 

“Come with me,” the boy said.  So Fritz followed, not confident in his ability to evade the young Nazi in front of him.  Each click of the boy’s bootheel against the cobblestone pounded more terror into Fritz’s heart as he followed the young nazi to a black Wanderer waiting outside his apartment.  When the boy opened the car door for Fritz, Fritz saw what almost appeared to be a smile inch across the boy’s face.  For a moment the swirling ash didn’t seem as dense as it had and Fritz attempted to return the gesture. He met the boy’s gaze, but Fritz was only greeted with the boy’s unflinching blue eyes.  Fritz crammed himself in the back of the Wanderer and allowed his mind to drift in directions that he seldom permitted.  He began to imagine for the first time what these thugs might want with him.  He predicted that it had something to do with his newest film, which was hardly friendly to the Nazi sensibility.  It was a fictionalization of the Hitlerputsch, a satirical take on the whole affair, that pointed to Fritz’s opinion that Germany’s new Fuhrer was nothing more than a sociopath, more concerned with power than his nation’s well being.  Fritz had never been above poking the bear, so to speak, but never had he poked such a terrifying one.  A uniformed Nazi officer had approached Fritz’s door no more than two weeks prior and told him that his new film would likely be banned.  To which Fritz responded, “If you think you can ban a Fritz Lubitsch picture in Germany, go ahead and try.”  He felt pretty good about that up until now.

The black Wanderer approached the Ministry of Propaganda, a towering tan structure that preferred hard corners and rigid edges over soft rounded architecture.  Fritz let himself out of the car.  He trekked ahead towards two tall imposing gates that hid a man whom Fritz truly did not wish to see.  He was ushered into the building by two more Nazi soldiers,  who were taller and more intimidating than the last.  Fritz’s snow soaked shoes squealed on the immaculate marble floor as he quickly shambled down the hall.  His mind had stopped ambling and had begun to sprint, terrified by thoughts of what results this meeting may yield.  The two Nazis stopped Fritz outside a pair of doors that seemed bigger than all the rest, and told him to wait there patiently.  Twenty minutes later Fritz heard a voice call from within the chamber. 

“Come in!!!” the voice said.

Fritz opened the door gingerly, revealing a small man hidden behind a desk much too large for him.  Fritz found it supremely amusing that the “master race” consisted of such miniature individuals.  This dark haired man could be no taller than five foot four, in Fritz’s estimation.  As he walked closer, the face of Joseph Goebbels became clear and petrified him. Fritz now recognized that Goebbels, though threatening, was a silly looking man.  He was dark haired with a large forehead and eyebrows that rested too far down on his face.  His mouth seemed to fall in a perpetual frown and his nose was thin, long, and in Fritz’s eyes looked more like a phallus than a nose.  

“Please, Mr. Lubitsch, have a seat.  We have very urgent matters to discuss and not much time to discuss them,” Goebells said to Fritz.

Fritz took a seat and replied,  “Very pleased to finally meet you Minister.”

“Please, do away with the niceties Mr. Lubitsch. I see no point in upholding any formality as I expect we will be seeing each other quite often for quite some time.”

This puzzled Fritz; he had not expected Goebbels to be such a seemingly friendly man.  “May I ask why you’ve called upon me today…”, Fritz did not know how the Minister wanted to be addressed.

“Joseph,” Goebels interjected.  

“Joseph?” Fritz said, finishing his question.

“Well, as I’m sure you know, we here at the ministry of propaganda have banned your newest film, Party in the Beer Hall.  Though I’m sure you understand why we were forced to make such a decision, I thought it may be best to explain myself.”

Fritz’s mind raced frenetically, sure there could be some greater purpose to this meeting beyond his being reprimanded.  Fritz’s eyes darted around the room; every flag, banner and armband made certain Fritz knew that he was unwelcome here.  Fritz looked to Goebbels, hoping to grasp any clue as to how Goebels felt or what he wanted.  But Goebbels had the eyes of a gambler; they were black and did not betray an ounce of his emotions or intentions.

“Your film, Mr. Lubitsch, was undeniably quite funny, but it was simultaneously quite inflammatory.  It is our sincere desire that the people remain un-inflamed, and so we have made it our duty to see this desire through.”

Fritz began to fidget with his hands as his knee began to jerk up and down beneath the desk.  His heart rate doubled, pounding against his chest like a battering ram against a castle’s walls.  “It is a noble desire, keeping the people under control.  I’m not sure it is realistic, but I understand that is the duty of the powerful.”

“Do not insult me!” Goebbels snapped, nearly jumping out of his chair.  His eyes shifted and he breathed deeply. Once he had settled into a calmer tone, he spoke again.  “Mr. Lubitsch, we are aware of your sentiments.  We know you are a communist and have a staunch distrust of us and our politics.  But that is no matter.  Your film will remain banned, Mr. Lubitsch.”

Fritz interjected, unwilling to roll over so easily.  “Joseph, please pardon my forwardness but I think you may have misread the film.  It is certainly a vague film, and I apologize for any confusion.  I wanted to present the Nazi’s as a new, lighthearted, government, that will bring happiness and joy back to the German people.”

Goebbels’s brow furrowed and his eyes darkened.  “Mr. Lubistch, your film made a mockery of the Nazi party and Hitler will not stand for such blatant disrespect.”  Fritz resolved to stop speaking until Goebbels was finished.  He had clearly upset the Minister very deeply and did not wish to put himself in any more danger than he was already in.  “As disrespectful as it was, and it was disrespectful; your film was undeniably well made”.  Fritz sensed a shift in Goebbel’s tone and he did not like it.  “I have a proposition Mr. Lubitsch”.  Here it was; this was why Goebbels had wanted to see Fritz.  “Your film never existed; every copy of film that it has been printed on will be burned and you will never speak of it for as long as you live.  In exchange for your cooperation in our redaction efforts, I am prepared to offer you the opportunity to make a new film.  A German film.  A film that will demonstrate the might and majesty of the German Reich.”  Fritz’s unease was intensified ten-fold by the words Goebbels said next. “Now there is one slight issue with my proposition.  Your mother, she is a Jew, is she not?”

Fritz froze.  His heart stopped beating.  He was humiliated.  Goebbells knew his deepest most dangerous secret. Fritz had suffered countless indignities because of that secret and expected he would suffer many more now that Goebbels knew.  Fritz remembered when in grade school a group of boys had tormented him because he was smaller and weaker than they were. On a particularly chilly December afternoon, the boys caught Fritz on his walk home from school and pulled down his trousers.  He remembered how he shriveled in the cold, and the boys laughed until they noticed that he had been circumcised.  The strongest of the three boys slammed a meaty fist into Fritz’s cheek, faster than he was able to cover himself.  He laid in the cold, half naked, spitting out a single tooth followed by what seemed like a gallon of blood.  “Stay where you are, Juden,” the boy snarled at him.

This felt worse than that.  Fritz stared back at Goebbels unable to answer him.  “True or not, I suppose it is no matter” Goebbels said, saving Fritz from admitting the truth. “We decide who is Jewish” Goebbels added, laughing cheerily.  Fritz laughed along with him, not because he found any amusement in the comment, but because it seemed like the polite reaction.  Fritz had never been one to abide by politeness but he enjoyed laughing.  Goebbel’s laugh was a warm and inviting thing, and Fritz attached himself to it because laughter was the only familiar thing he could find as he sat in this pristine, high-ceilinged office.  It was as grand as a cathedral and as intimidating as a castle.  “So Mr. Lubitsch, have we  come to an arrangement?” Goebbels asked, the laughter ending instantly.  

“This is quite a bit to take in, Joseph,” Fritz stuttered.

“Take your time.  It is certainly a tricky thing I ask.  But before you answer, consider for a moment, how much,” he paused menacingly for a moment, his eyes narrowing and his face hardening into a grimace “discomfort this arrangement will spare both our parties.”

Goebbels had not said it outright, but Fritz had seen enough films to know that this was a threat.  Fritz was not a man who was accustomed to threats, so he did not endure the weight of them particularly well.  Goebbels on the other hand, Fritz could tell, was very adept at threatening his enemies, and by the depraved look of him fully willing to deliver on his promises.  “I think this would indeed be advantageous to us both,” Fritz said. “I accept your proposition”.  

“WUNDERBAR!!!” said Goebbels letting out a shriek offensive to Fritz’s ears.  “I shall let the Fuhrer know at once, and we shall begin filming your next picture whenever you are ready.  Of course you must allow me to see the script before shooting, but these are details for another time and place.  For right now, allow me to congratulate you and recognize your wise decision.  How do you like your whiskey, Mr. Lubitsch?” Goebbels said pulling out a lavish crystal container and swirling the golden brown liquid within.

“Neat” Fritz muttered, barely audible.  He needed a drink to numb his brain, and he was sure Goebbels’ whiskey was the best available in Germany.  Goebbels fixed the drink, toasted Fritz’s newest achievement, and drank.  Goebbels’ whiskey was gone within seconds as Fritz gingerly sipped his.  The drink was vile; Fritz would rather have drank piss he told himself, yet he drank the whiskey anyways.  Fritz left the Ministers office after shaking hands and telling him that he looked forward to the relationship going forward.  Fritz stepped outside the intimidating gates of the Ministry and back onto the streets of Berlin, but something had changed since he had arrived.  The ash was denser and darker.  Thick black soot interfused with the air blocked his throat and choked his lungs.  Fritz couldn’t breathe properly again until the party was destroyed and some semblance of calm returned to his life.  Grief still plagued him, but the soot and ash dissipated from Berlin’s streets.  He escaped any serious legal repercussions, but he had breathed in more ash and soot than he cared to admit to anyone, including himself.                                                   

Works Consulted:

Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The True Story of the Reichstag Fire and the Nazi Rise to Power.Smithsonian, 21 Feb. 2017. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

McGilligan, Patrick. “Fritz Lang the Nature of the Beast.” Washington Post, 1997. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

The Rise of Hitler: Hitler’s Book Mein Kampf.The History Place. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

Werner, Gösta. “Fritz Lang and Goebbels: Myth and Facts.” Film Quarterly. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.