A German Requiem
The third and (initially) final book in Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir series of novels involving German PI Bernie Gunther, A German Requiem is a harsh, stark and intricate detective novel set around the decaying ruins of post-WW2 Europe.
Taking a leap from the pre-War era of the previous two novels (set in 1936 and 1938 respectively), A German Requiem picks Gunther’s story up in post-War 1947 Germany. Gunther hasn’t had an easy ride since the last novel – he was conscripted into the SS, sent to the Eastern front and ended up in a Soviet POW camp which he managed a narrow escape from with the help of a moving train.
In contrast with the thriving machine that the pre-War Germany of the preceding books, the Germany he lives in now is a ruined and divided country, still haunted by the shadows of war and Nazism linger (as in one chapter where Gunther overhears the comments from older Germans talking about how, in the end, the War was a good thing for the Jews as it ended up with them being given their own country…) It’s a tough, mean and desolate world, divided and controlled by the Allied forces. The Russians are the new enemy, and Kerr doesn’t hold back on portraying them as ruthless, corrupt, aggressive monsters. In contrast, the Americans (‘Amis’) and British prefer to just be corrupt. Nonetheless, it is certainly a world without any heroes left. Cigarettes have replaced cash as a key unit of currency, and the black market in assorted goods is thriving.
On the plus side, Gunther has since found himself a wife – a fellow German called Kirsten. In addition, the post-War chaos creates plenty of work for a private detective. The plot begins as Gunther is hired by a German scientist to find out whether his wife has been captured by Soviet forces in an attempt to lure him out and taken back to work for Soviet research facilities. The case is swiftly resolved, but not before Gunther is forced to kill a Soviet train guard for refusing to bribe him. The book then explores the relationship between Gunther and his wife – a part-time waiter in an American GI bar, prostituting herself out for food and packets of cigarettes, much to Gunther’s shame, but with the gritty realisation that in post-War Germany, everything and everyone is for sale.
From there, Gunther is contacted by a Soviet solider named Poroshin to help clear the name for a mutual friend who has been imprisoned and facing execution for the alleged murder of an American solider in Vienna. The plot follows Gunther’s travels to the City and his work to uncover the truth behind the frame-up involving his friend. With the help of another American solider, as well as a young, well-connected prostitute called Veronika, Gunther uncovers an underground organisation devoted to destroying Russian involvement in Europe, as well as a conspiracy involving former Nazi officials, ones who faked their deaths to evade capture once the end of the War was nigh.
As one might expect, the book is very bleak and doesn’t deal with the lightest of topics, but it has a unique, dark intensity all of its own. The struggle of individual Germans following the war is examined in intense detail, and Gunther himself is no exception, with one scene involving him inadvertently watching in the shadows as his wife has oral sex with an American GI, knowing she is selling the only thing she has to offer – herself. The brutal nature of the book continues throughout, with some particularly brutal torture scenes taking place by the end. Gunther didn’t get an easy ride in either of the earlier novels, and A German Requiem is no exception. He’s slapped around, interrogated and humiliated several times by the end of the story. Yet, none of this is in place for purely shock factor – it matches the dark nature of the setting, as well as the stark portrayal of brutality and violence established in the preceding novels.
Homages to the classic film noir The Third Man – another crime mystery set in 1947 Austria – are scattered across the book, and the plot does seem to owe much to that earlier work, especially plot points involving the black market and the smuggling of penicillin, to the extent that the ending of the book involves Gunther overseeing the pre-production of the film itself (though in reality the film itself wasn’t in fact released until 1949). But the book is far from a copy of that movie, as some have alleged. The wider story and investigation is suitably intricate and well-developed, and the plot points concerning fleeing Nazis is especially intriguing, whilst also trying to explore the situations and conflicts from which the subsequent Cold War developed. It’s perhaps a little black-and-white in portraying the Russians as being ‘the bad guys’ whereas the British and Americans are, whilst unwanted, still tolerable, but considering the setting of the novel as well as the time the book was written – at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union – it’s not really unexpected.
Following A German Requiem, Kerr took a long hiatus from the Bernie Gunther series, before re-emerging in 2006 with The One from the Other and (as of 2016) seven subsequent novels (with a twelfth entry, Prussian Blue, due for publication in early 2017). Had the re-emergence not occurred, A German Requiem would have marked an excellent ending to the series. As it stands, the book instead stands up as a gripping and at times harrowing piece of historical crime fiction.