A once-great filmmaker framed in the past

Papa hasn't been well served. There are probably more lines of Hemingway parody in the world than actual Hemingway. In fact, changing tastes, feminist criticism, and – it has to be admitted – some really bad writing by the Nobel Prize winner himself have conspired to overshadow his work with memorable winners from various "Bad Hemingway" contests.

That is not fair. It is not fair at all, but that is the way it is, and there is nothing one can do about it. Nada.

But if you choose carefully (avoid the love scenes at all cost), you'll rediscover stories of profound depth in prose that's hauntingly modulated. It's a pity, really, that there isn't a good Hemingway contest, because Ward Just would win it for his latest novel, "The Weather in Berlin."

The sun also rises in Berlin, but mostly it's cold and rainy during Dixon Greenhouse's three-month fellowship. He accepted the trip on a whim, with a promise that nothing would be required of him but an interview about his moviemaking career.

It's both flattering and depressing to realize that one's life is of interest to historians. Thirty years have passed since he directed his greatest film, his only great film, a cult classic called "Summer, 1921" about a group of German artists between the wars. Since then, "scripts continued to arrive but he did not understand them, complaining that they seemed written in a foreign syntax." His patient wife encourages him, even as she begins a new movie of her own in Hollywood. But convinced that his "audience has vanished, gone away, emigrated somewhere," he bids a farewell to her arms and joins a listless band of intellectuals in Germany.

As promised, except for a few hours of interviews, there is nothing for him to do. He chats with Germans caught in the quicksand of their peculiar history. With his marriage interrupted by 6,000 miles and 10 time zones, Dixon and his wife communicate only by long phone messages, monologues that seem to keep them up-to-date but really only emphasize their lost synchronization. Meanwhile, his companions' viscous nostalgia leads him deep into his own past, memories of his charming father who interrogated Nazis and especially the surreal atmosphere surrounding the creation of "Summer, 1921."

It was the late 1960s when Dixon and his wife traveled through Europe looking for settings and actors that would give form to the script he had worked on for 10 years. Everything about the project had seemed serendipitous: the miraculous funding, the magical lake, the three young girls he found at a restaurant. They had never even seen a movie before, but Dixon immediately recognized in them the sort of captivating mystery that eventually won his film an Oscar.

But perhaps it was the freak accident on the last day of filming that gave "Summer, 1921" its mysterious aura. It was tempting to regard the loss of one of the cast as a tragic reflection of the film's theme, a reckless hiatus between two conflagrations. But over the years, Dixon has found the accident frustratingly resistant to interpretation or burial.

In the dark Berlin winter, he fades from one memory to the next, struggling to discover some coherence. Just is a master at navigating the crosscurrents of real dialogue, the jagged non sequiturs that mark conversation. The narrative seems to move in place, full of evocative implica- tions that draw us on without our knowing entirely where we're going. The most masterly quality of this plot is its persistent lack of apparent construction, the way it follows the ordinary and the bizarre with equal fidelity: the monotony of a long car ride, a confrontation with a wounded boar, his father graciously interviewing a war criminal.

Toward the end of this disorienting semester abroad, Dixon is asked to direct an episode of Germany's most popular TV drama. "Wannsee 1899" is a weighty historical soap opera, a period drama that encourages viewers to return to an untroubled past. "The turn of the century was not such a bad time in Germany," one of the crew tells him. "The nation was prosperous and stable." Dixon has his own reasons for finding such nostalgia irresistible, but the project unearths old complications that enliven him rather than allowing him to fall into repose.

Unfortunately, the country remains too shadowy in the novel to support its provocative discussion of the "new Germany," with "Berlin as the capital of the 21st century." Just is a master at creating the interior of a clean, well-lighted pub or moving across the river and into the trees of Germany, but he gives almost no impression whatsoever of the dynamic city. That omission renders the novel's political content strangely hollow.

Like Hemingway, Just honed his skill as a war correspondent. You can hear the crisp descriptions in both as an imprint of their first career. And Just relies on the same almost pretentious dialogue, packed with amorphous irony. (Pop quiz: Which one wrote this? "Oh honey," she said, "things have gone to pieces.")

The disaffected American, adrift in a country scarred by war, rendered impotent by circumstance, burdened by the responsibility to live a meaningful life, Dixon makes a curious reincarnation of Jake Barnes.

That genealogy doesn't take anything from "The Weather in Berlin," of course. Just has his own inimitable things to say about reawakening a creative life. And he says them here in an atmospheric novel that's mysteriously alluring.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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