Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Shadow and Light

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Shadow and Light

A Novel

by Jonathan Rabb

Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2009, 384 pages
    Mar 2010, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Joanne Collings

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Beyond the Book

Print Review

Shadow and Light Stands Alone
Don't worry if you haven't read Rosa, Rabb's first book in this planned trilogy. Though Shadow and Light alludes to events chronicled in the first book, it holds up well as a stand-alone novel, and won't spoil the first if you choose to read them out of order.

The Shadow Side of Film in Weimar Berlin
Nikolai Hoffner is, he admits, not a big fan of the cinema, so meeting studio executives and the well-known director Fritz Lang does not much impress him. Lang's immediate friendliness, however, does have an effect on the jaded police detective. [Lang] "looked at Hoffner as if the two had had this conversation a thousand times: the intimacy was oddly engaging." If Hoffner hasn't spent much time watching movies, Lang had spent considerable time watching the police. "'There has to be authenticity to film, an honesty of purpose....You have to be inspired by truth and then find the reality beyond it.' Hoffner had never considered a reality beyond truth, but in this little [editing] room it might have made sense."

MetropolisHoffner is thrown into a world quite unlike anything in his experience. The German film industry is battling the American studios at every turn; much of this is described in Shadow and Light. Lang himself is re-cutting Metropolis; after giving him much freedom in the making of it, the studio is desperate to make some money back. The race to be the first to bring sound to the movies is fully engaged; the ins and outs of that struggle are a major part of the plot. Hoffner meets the German who developed a device significantly better than that used in The Jazz Singer (often considered the first "talkie"), which is about to be released, and learns that directors are not alone in how seriously they consider their work. "'Without sound... all you have is shadow and light. Flat, souless, barren. Sound is the third dimension. Sound is what gives it texture. Sound is what makes it real.'" But a new discovery takes it further than that. "'Sound has movement, Inspector. One place one moment, another the next. ... [F]ind a way to capture sound in motion - then you have the fourth dimension. The passage of time through sound. There's no greater reality than that.'"

Yet another kind of reality is on the march: the Nazis, who use the film industry against their enemies even as they use it to promote themselves to the German people. The young Jewish actor Hoffner meets through Lang must change his name - Lazlo Loewenstein to Peter Lorre - because the real one won't look good on a movie poster in Germany. Lorre will eventually get a starring role in Lang's film M in 1931, written by Lang's second wife, Thea von Harbou (also a character in Shadow and Light), a Nazi party member who stayed in Germany when Lang left after his next film was banned by the Nazis. Lang seems to have been one of those who thrive under most conditions. Lorre's life, which ended when he was just 60, however, was scarred by failed marriages and drug and alcohol problems. One wonders how much he was haunted by the fact that his role in M -- a pedophile and serial child-killer -- was used as propaganda by the Nazis against the Jews and to point to the depravity they saw taking over their country, especially Berlin.

As the fictional Alby Pimm, speaking of Berlin, says to Hoffner, "[t]hings would get a little wild, a new craze, and she'd find a way to rein herself back in. She doesn't seems to know how to do that anymore.'"

Article by Joanne Collings

This article was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the March 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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