This haunting, seductive novel is an evocative meditation on love, friendship, and identity as seen through the lens of early German cinema. In this era of uncertainty, despair, and revolt, the world is plunged into war and sent hurtling toward catastrophe and confusion. The 20th century is irrevocably transformed, but a new form of visual expression—the motion picture—comes into its own and revolutionizes the way we see ourselves.
Born at the very moment the 20th century begins, Lilly Nelly Aphrodite is soon sent to a Catholic orphanage after the scandalous murder-suicide of her mother, a cabaret performer. There she forms a friendship with Hanne Schmidt and is led through the devastation of the Great War to the dark and tumultuous period leading up the Second World War. This violent historical backdrop shapes their lives and loves and leads them on an unexpected journey of self-discovery.
Beautifully crafted and startlingly well-researched, this gripping literary novel is every bit as cinematic as the world of film depicted in its pages.
ABOUT BEATRICE COLIN
Beatrice Colin was born in London and raised in Scotland. She has worked as a freelance journalist, writing for publications including The Guardian, and as a playwright, writing radio plays for the BBC. She lives in Glasgow.
- What is the significance of the novel’s opening set in the last seconds of the 19th century? What does this portend for the rest of the story?
- Hanne and Lilly begin their friendship in an orphanage. How do separation, loss, and emotional isolation influence their decisions throughout the novel and affect their relationship with one another at various intersections throughout the book?
- The author begins each chapter with short unconnected stories about the German film industry. How does this structure work to develop the narrative and establish the setting and mood?
- Berlin emerges as major character in the novel. How does Lilly’s understanding of the city of Berlin evolve throughout the novel?
- Discuss the way physical hunger, need, want and desire play themselves out as key themes in the story.
- The author reveals how cinema irreversibly altered our perceptions of identity. Discuss how Hanne’s and Lilly’s identities are shaped by cinema. How does the language of cinema change the way they relate to each other, their surroundings, and the romantic relationships they cultivate?
- Germany in the 1920s was riddled with economic uncertainty, inflation, energy shortages, and political upheaval. Discuss the parallels between Germany in the 1920s and the global economic downturn that began in 2008.
- Former Catholic nun Nurse von Kismet comes to this conclusion in the throes of the Great War: “There is no right and wrong anymore…no good and evil. War, prostitution, love, sex, and all the morality of the Church seemed meaningless, all the so called values turned upside down.” Discuss your thoughts regarding her philosophical purview and the factors that might have influenced it.
- The left-wing Marxist revolutionary movement, the Spartacists, was named after Spartacus, leader of the largest slave rebellion of the Roman Republic. How did the revolutionary spirit drive the actions of various disenfranchised factions in Germany? How does it continue to shape contemporary socio-political movements around the world?
- Karl Marx wrote, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Do you agree or disagree?
- Cinema became a popular form of escapism in Berlin even as it was teetering on the edge of destruction. Discuss how the Weimar Republic’s decadent disconnect might have contributed to the Nazi regime’s ascendancy.
- Explore Mr. Leyer’s argument that cinema “became the visible hieroglyphs of the unseen dynamics of human relations” and through it “we would never experience grief, love, jealousy, or despair in quite the same way again.”
Watch one of the films mentioned in the book and examine how some of these cinematic themes are explored in the book.
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) is a French silent film of 1928. It features a riveting performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti, a performance that Pauline Kael said “may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.”
- Metropolis (1927) is a silent film directed by the great Austrian director Fritz Lang. It is set in a futuristic urban dystopia and explores the social clash between workers and oppressive capitalist owners.