Monday, February 18, 2013

Guest post by David Gillham: Watch, Listen, Eat

How can historical novelists make their chosen eras feel tangible and vibrant?  David Gillham, author of the acclaimed debut novel City of Women, is stopping by the blog with an essay about how he re-created the atmosphere of 1943 Berlinthe city of his heroine, Sigrid Schröder—by spicing his narrative with descriptions of period films, music, and food.

One way I tried to build the atmosphere of Sigrid’s Berlin was by introducing wartime movies, music, and food into the narrative. Of course, when Sigrid attends the cinema, it not really to watch a movie. She’s looking for a small space of privacy, which is why she favors war movies. These didn’t do very well at the box office in Berlin; the audiences for them were usually sparse. The average Berliner was less interested in seeing propaganda films such as Soldiers of Tomorrow than Heinz Rühmann in escapist fare such as The Gas Man, or Gustaf Gründgens in a lavish eighteenth-century costume drama. For more recent movies that capture either the essence of Berlin or the stunning contradictions of the war years, I’d recommend Cabaret and Europa, Europa.

You can still find a lot of popular music from the time period. In the book, Sigrid’s mother-in-law is listening to Lale Andersen singing on the radio. Andersen’s number-one wartime success was the ubiquitous “Lili Marleen”—a song that created such a stir that even British forces fighting in North Africa adopted it as one of their favorite tunes.

Naturally, classical music was still at the top of German radio playlists during the war: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach—though the music of all Jewish composers was banned from the airwaves. If you’re interested in the antic, often slightly loopy music of pre-Nazi Berlin, which Sigrid would have listened to while growing up, there are still recordings available of entertainers such as Margo Lion, the famously hilarious cabaret singer, or the popular ensemble known as the Comedian Harmonists. Marlene Dietrich was “falling in love again” in the golden twenties and early thirties, and later recorded a number of her songs from the era in English. The internationally acclaimed chanteuse Ute Lemper has released renditions of cabaret songs that were all the rage in Berlin between the wars, in both English and the original German (“Ich Bin ein Vamp!” for example). Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester are phenomenal at re-creating the music of that time (from “Fräulein, Pardon” to “Mein Gorilla.”)

For those interested in what the average Berliner Hausfrau was serving at the table during the war, I recommend Gisela McBride’s Memoirs of a 1000-Year-Old Woman. Her autobiography stretches from the late twenties to the war’s end, and is chock-full of details illuminating everyday life, including recipes. (I cannot vouch for the healthfulness of any of these dishes, or the taste, but if you need recipes for cabbage dumplings, cabbage fish rolls, cabbage pie, or cabbage strudel, you’ll find them there.)


City of Women by David Gillham is published by Fig Tree in the UK (pb, £12.99, 400pp) and Amy Einhorn/Putnam in the US (hb, $25.95).


  1. Great essay. I have this book and can't wait to read it. Music is such a mood setter and I found much the same to be true - I have a WW2 playlist for American, English and German songs that I listened to while working on a WW2 project to get in the mood. I will definitely check out the McBride book, thanks for mentioning it.

  2. Anonymous9:55 AM

    This is such an awesome book and the author really captured (as far as I can tell!) the claustrophobic atmosphere and the "fake-ness" of just about everything in 1943 Berlin. By then, the war's ending was obvious but it still had two years to run.

    Sarah Other Librarian

  3. The trick is to insert the music without making it too obvious. It has to blend seamlessly into the narrative.