Author Interviews
4:10 am
Sat June 9, 2012

'Mission': Secrecy And Stardom On The Edge Of War

Originally published on Sat June 9, 2012 8:58 am

Fredric Stahl is "the sympathetic lawyer, the kind aristocrat, the saintly husband, the comforting doctor, or the good lover." At least onscreen.

He's an American movie star, born in Vienna, and says "my dear" with a kind of dreamy, trans-European cosmopolitan allure that makes him seem "a warm man in a cold world." He's also the hero of Alan Furst's new novel, Mission to Paris, set in Furst's favorite locale: Europe on the brink of war.

Warner Brothers makes a one-picture swap: Gary Cooper for Stahl, who is sent to Paris to make a film about the French Foreign Legion. He discovers a Paris that is sultry, lovely and inviting — especially to Nazi "agents of influence" who are multiplying in the city in 1938.

Stahl lands in hot water after telling an interviewer that he thinks war is futile — a sentiment closely associated with the French right wing, which, with Nazi support, is pressing to keep France out of the coming war. Now, both the Americans and the Germans are very interested in what he might say and do.

"He is, like any large-screen personality of the time, potentially a very important agent of influence," Furst tells NPR's Scott Simon. Sports stars weren't the cultural force then that they are now, but "everybody went to the movies," he says. "They went to the movies on every continent, and they went every night."

The Germans recruit Stahl at one point, although he resists, to judge a festival of "mountain films," a genre popular in Nazi Germany. "They loved the idea of being outdoors, but they also liked the spiritual side of it, that you climbed and climbed until you stood on the peak in the sunlight, and that was supposed to be morally instructive to the German society," Furst says.

Furst does intensive research to uncover things like the German love of "mountain films."

"When I read period material — and it ain't on Google — I am always alert for that one incredible detail," Furst says. "I'll read a whole book and get three words out of it, but they'll be three really good words."

For example, he says, at the farewell banquet for the "mountain film" festival, the tables are decorated with marzipan tanks and planes — a detail he got from a contemporary diary. "And when I saw marzipan tanks and planes, I thought, that's too good, I can't leave that out. That has to go somewhere in the book," he says.

The candy tanks are a lighthearted touch, but there are plenty of dark moments in Mission to Paris. Furst writes about Kristallnacht, the night of Nazi-backed attacks on Jewish homes and businesses, but at a certain distance — not close up.

Furst says he wanted to reproduce a moment in history in such a way that his readers could see themselves as part of it. "It wouldn't have been strange or unusual for someone to say, 'Oh, you know, we were in the Adlon [hotel] that night, when there was Kristallnacht.' Really, did you see anything? 'Well, no, not exactly, but we certainly smelled the burning,'" he says. "I prefer that to having somebody run out and punch a Gestapo person and get away with it. Forget it. That was not the way life was in Berlin at that time."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Fredric Stahl is the sympathetic lawyer, the kind aristocrat, the saintly husband, the comforting doctor, or the good lover. At least onscreen. He's an American movie star, born in Vienna, and says my dear with a kind of dreamy, trans-European cosmopolitan allure that makes him seem a warm man in a cold world.

Warner Brothers makes a one-picture swap: Gary Cooper for Fredric Stahl, who is sent to Paris to make a film about the French Foreign Legion. And he discovers a Paris that is sultry, lovely and inviting - especially to Nazi agents of influence who are multiplying in the city in 1938.

Fredric Stahl is the star of Alan Furst's latest novel "Mission to Paris." Alan Furst, acclaimed as the master of previous historical spy novels including "Night Soldiers," "Spies of the Balcans," and "Foreign Correspondent," joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALAN FURST: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let's begin this interview with recounting what Fredric Stahl says in an interview that kind of puts him in the center of events in Paris in 1938.

FURST: What he says in an interview, or what they make him say in an interview, is such things as war is futile. Now, you would normally think that that would be an acceptable political sentiment any time, any place, but not in Paris in 1938 when the French right wing, with the help of the Nazi department - the Foreign Ministry was pressing hard for France to take a very kind of conscientious objectors approach to war.

SIMON: So it looks like he's aligning himself with that side.

FURST: Yes, it certainly does.

SIMON: And both the Nazis and the U.S. Embassy have designs on Fredric Stahl, but how do they each see him as being useful potentially in different ways?

FURST: He is like any large screen personality of the time - potentially a very important agent of influence. This is a time when sports stars weren't quite so universally important. Entertainers certainly were, especially the bands and some of the singers. But everybody went to the movies. They went to the movies on every continent and they went every night and around the world the studios made money.

SIMON: Your novel features a mid-level U.S. Embassy official who knows that war is coming and believes that the U.S. has a role to play in defeating Nazi Germany. And I liked that character very much but I wondered is that really borne out by history? Was that really U.S. policy in 1938?

FURST: It was Roosevelt's policy. It wasn't U.S. policy a bit. And Roosevelt enlisted his friends like Vincent Astor and some others to visit Europe, see airplane factories, do whatever they could do to get whatever information they could because he needed it in order to try to whisper it in senators' and representatives' ears and try to change the point of view with the Congress. Which he didn't do.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

FURST: He didn't really get it done until the Japanese did it for him at Pearl Harbor.

SIMON: Yeah. At one point Fredric Stahl is recruited by the Germans - he resists at first - to be a judge for one day at a German film festival of mountain films.

FURST: Yes.

SIMON: Is this an actual genre?

FURST: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: So you've seen a few, it sounds like.

FURST: No. I've read about a few. That's not quite the same as actually having to sit through them. No, they were passionate for mountain films in Nazi Germany. They loved the idea of being outdoors, but they also liked the spiritual side of it, that you climbed and climbed until you stood on the peak in the sunlight. And that was really supposed to be morally instructive to the German society.

SIMON: I'm going to be very disappointed if the answer to this is I just Google it - how do you establish the sometimes luxuriant detail of the period?

FURST: When I read period material, and it ain't on Google, I am always alert for that one incredible detail. I'll read a whole book and get three words out of it but they'll be three really good words. And I'll give you an instance.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

FURST: When the mountain film festival nears its end and they have the farewell banquet, you see marzipan tanks and fighter planes.

SIMON: Yeah.

FURST: As the centerpiece of the table.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

FURST: That's true. And I got that from a person who kept a diary during the period. And when I saw marzipan tanks and planes I thought that's too good. I can't leave that out. That has to go somewhere in the book.

SIMON: You have Kristallnacht, for many people a marker in the history of Nazi Germany, an indication that there was no going back, the night that synagogues were destroyed and the windows of Jewish businesses were smashed. It's seen at a distance in this novel, not close up. What are you trying to achieve there?

FURST: I was trying to authenticate the moment of history by trying to put it as more of my readers could see themselves taking part in it in some way. In other words, it wouldn't have been strange or unusual for someone to say, oh, you know, we were in the Adlon that night when there was Kristallnacht. Really? Did you see anything? Well, no, not exactly but we certainly smelled the burning and we did think we saw a man running away down the street.

And the doorman told us we should stay in the hotel that night. I preferred that to having somebody run out and punch a Gestapo person and get away with it. Forget it. That was not the way life was in Berlin at that time. So I tried to be as authentic as possible.

SIMON: In other words, people being aware of it and it not registering much of a shudder with them morally or any other way?

FURST: Well, they had no idea what was going on. They only found out later that they were witnessing a really brutal, savage attack. But you can't see that from the streets and you can't know that from having a cigarette in front of a hotel. Later on you find out what it was you actually saw.

SIMON: Let me ask this question carefully for a Saturday morning family audience. How do you treat sex during this time period in that kind of society?

FURST: Well, in Europe in any event, sex was more acceptable in a general way than it was in the American Middle West, that's for sure. It was a fairly sophisticated place and I think what happened was people slowly began to understand that everything around them was going to be destroyed and that it might include them.

And it sounds like a cliche but it isn't to say if we don't do this now, there's a good chance we'll never do it. And I think that was true for men and I think it was true for women and I think a lot of people were making love in the '30s who might not have done so but for the threat of war.

SIMON: How much time at a given day do you spend in 1938 or whatever year in that period you're writing about?

FURST: Ooh. A lot. When I'm writing I'm kind of in a kind of teleportated(ph) haze. Can you say that? It's a teleportated state. Somehow, I live in the '30s for part of the time and I don't quite understand why you would or why I do, but it's just extremely interesting to me and it's interesting to me in the same way that people will have, say, a passionate hobby for something. Or they're a passionate golf player. I spend a lot of time in the '30s in just that way.

SIMON: Alan Furst. His new novel, "Mission to Paris" comes out on Tuesday. He joined us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much.

FURST: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You can read an excerpt from Alan Furst's "Mission to Paris" on our website npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.