Date: Monday, May 12, 2003
I’m cold, confused, and wide-awake, and I can’t fucking believe what happened.
Don’t even bother reading this email whenever you get it—stop reading and call me. You still haven’t called me. The nurse refused to wake you even though it’s a reasonable hour where you are. She said your fever is unchanged. Jesus Christ. Shouldn’t you be better?
Since I can’t talk to you, typing to you is the next best thing, and explaining things might help me figure them out, anyway. And there’s nothing much I can do until the sun comes up.
This day’s been awful from the start. First thing this morning, I went downstairs to find something to wear, and the smug receptionist tells me, “Fräulein, it is Sunday, and according to the law, stores are closed today all over Germany.” As if I am stupid. So I’m still wearing my skirt, and it’s even colder today.
Back up in the room, there’s a message on my phone. I’m hoping it’s you but instead I get “Mina, this is your father. Call me as soon as possible. It’s urgent.” And then he gives his damn phone number like he does every time. A minute later, he called again, so I picked up, feeling sheepish because I hadn’t talked to him since the disaster at the reception. Dad knew something was up, and when I told him I was in Berlin he suspected it had to do with grandfather right away. He might be a class A prick, but my father’s not an idiot. He kept dropping pregnant pauses, so I told him the whole story. Stupid and I knew it, but I am a terrible liar.
He immediately started yelling about lawyers and copyright and protecting the family’s interests. “Don’t let anybody near the film, don’t let anybody see it, don’t let anybody handle it, and definitely don’t screen it!” For a second he sounded like he was getting on the Concorde, but then he must’ve remembered some important business meeting, and he was like “you come home this very minute.”
I haven’t taken orders from my father in years, but he tries. I told him I’d stick to the plan and come home on Monday. I had to hang up because he wouldn’t stop shouting. He called back but I didn’t answer.
Dr. Hanno sent the projectionist to pick me up, an ugly man named Frank who didn’t offer to help with the cans. His little eyes darted every which way, and all he said was “Guten Morgen.” The streets were wide, with tall old buildings and the occasional bombed-out church. Construction everywhere you look, and graffiti like before Giuliani. Dr. Hanno was waiting for me at Potsdamer Platz—picture downtown Hartford, all glitzy boring skyscrapers and a ridiculous glassed-in courtyard. He had three guys in suits with him.
“Frau Koblitz,” he said, sheepish, “the gentlemen from the museum board respectfully ask to see the movie.”
They had short white hair, square European executive glasses, leather suitcases. Given the right circumstances, they probably projected power and wealth; to me they looked like pathetic corporate functionaries. I can’t remember their faces. “You’ve got to understand, young lady,” they said, “we simply couldn’t miss the opportunity.”
I had just hung up on my father and I definitely wasn’t going to get bullied by a bunch of old Germans. I told them no. “Out of the question.”
“We are sorry?” they said. One of them was playing uncomfortably with his tie, another had a cell phone call on hold.
I said, “I need to protect the interests of my family.”
Dr. Hanno appeared flustered. “These gentlemen are members of the board,” he repeated, like that was going to make a difference to me. I told them I could just pack up and go back home, no problem. Dad would have been proud of me. They were angry, clearly, but they decided to play nice. They smiled and mumbled something about understanding perfectly and shuffled off.
But Dr. Hanno was worried. “It’s always better to accommodate the gentlemen from the board,” he said.
I’m sure that kind of thinking is how he got to be director of the Kinemathek at his age.
“How did they know about Tulpendiebe?” I asked.
“I had to file a special request for using the facilities on a Sunday.”
“So you’d say word got out?”
Dr. Hanno looked ashamed, and he didn’t speak while we rode a glass elevator up to the screening room. We sat in the back row, leaving one empty seat between us. Dr. Hanno gave a signal to the projectionist, who peeked out of the booth with his beady eyes, the lights went down, and the movie started. The only sound was the hum of the Doppelnocken projector and Dr. Hanno’s breath—there was no score and no piano player. It was just us and the images.
Between Dad’s call and the old men from the board, my mood was shot. Before, it had almost been a fun quest, you know, finding a special projector back in the old country, talking to important professors, the mystery of it all. But Dad really upset me, and those men in suits pissed me off. It was cold in the screening room, and I could feel a headache coming on. Young lady, that’s what they had called me, and I already wished that I’d been more rude.
Anyway, the movie.
I don’t know what I expected, honestly. Something ponderous and silent, German expressionism or whatever. It started with the logo I’d already sort of seen in our apartment, holding the film up to the kitchen lights. Then, a pair of huge eyes: a close-up of a little girl, staring straight into the camera. Her father, who we don’t see, Peanuts-style, is reading her a bedtime story. The cover of the book he’s reading from supplies the title credit: Tulpendiebe.
Right away, Dr. Hanno started to whisper to me like a real-life DVD commentary track. How back in the twenties, framing devices were all the rage, Dr. Caligari being the most obvious example. He translated all the intertitles, even the one that said “Holland, Anno 1636.”
The main part of the movie is set in a picturesque Dutch seaside town, canals and fields and windmills and so on, but it’s all done in the studio with painted backdrops, making it look stylized, like a kid’s book, with extras in clogs and bonnets and pantaloons. Fake, but sort of charming. Would have been better in color.
The story is about an acrobatic young sailor, a strapping fellow from out of town who is arrested because he mistakes a precious tulip bulb for an onion and eats it for lunch, along with his herring. You see, there’s this tulip craze in Holland and people are speculating on them for ridiculous amounts of money. The sailor is brought before the Duke, who is losing his grip because he is worried about his sick daughter. A villainous merchant known as the tulip notary is really in charge and advises the Duke to send the sailor to prison.
There’s a big trial scene with a lot of speechifying that was especially annoying because there was a triple delay: first, the actors mime talking on screen, then the words are displayed in German, then Dr. Hanno translates for me, and that’s when I can finally put it all together. They say stuff like, “He is the one who stole the tulip!” I repeated that one out loud because it was so absurd: “He is the one who stole the tulip!”
Get this: Dr. Hanno shushed me.
Somewhere around here I’m starting to wonder. Guy gets arrested for eating a flower? This is what I came to Germany for? The best thing about the movie was the Duke’s beautiful daughter, Lilly: wispy blonde hair, porcelain skin, giant saucer eyes, kissable lips. She’s suffering from a mysterious wasting disease. Naturally, the sailor falls in love with her on first sight, and I kind of did, too. I feel like I’ve seen the actress before. She looks out of place, almost like nobility, like Cate Blanchett or Katherine Hepburn maybe.
In jail, the sailor meets an Englishman who is also locked up for stealing a tulip—he dissected it out of scientific curiosity. They escape and go to the tulip exchange together, which is this place where people are speculating in flowers like it’s the stock market. Among the crowd on the trading floor, they meet the Widow Gustafson, an old woman who is trying to convince people not to trade everything they own for a tulip bulb. She shouts, “Your prosperity is based on an illusion!” but nobody listens. As it turns out, she is the widow of the explorer who first imported the flowers from Constantinople, and hidden away back at her house, she has actual tulips in bloom. There was an elaborate montage of close-ups showing the flowers from every possible angle. I have to admit, they looked pretty good, even in black and white. So, the widow, the sailor, and the Englishman conspire to end the tulip craze. The sailor’s in love with the Duke’s daughter, Lilly, and somehow he figures out that he can heal her with the tulips. He rips them up and eats the petals and it makes her laugh.
It’s possible that I napped for a little while at this point. I remember a lot of sneaking around and subterfuge and intrigue, and somehow the sailor, the widow, and the Englishman cause a run on the tulip exchange. Everybody is trying to sell their worthless tulips. The tulip notary deploys soldiers to keep order, there’s rioting, and he flees with all this gold to a windmill. Of course there had to be a windmill, right?
The sailor and the tulip notary fight, somehow the windmill catches fire, and there’s a big conflagration. At one point, the sailor is hanging from the burning, spinning blades. The people who have lost everything in the tulip crash come marching up, the windmill collapses, and the sailor jumps to safety while the tulip notary gets crushed under the flaming ruins. The townspeople just stand and watch as he dies, screaming. It’s a really graphic moment, the guy pinned under the burning piece of wood, twisting and turning in agony as he dies.
The sailor, the Englishman and the widow distribute the tulip notary’s gold to the townsfolk and order all the tulip bulbs to be planted. In the end, the windmill is rebuilt in a big field of blooming tulips, and everybody lives happily ever after. Then you see that the man reading the book to the little girl in the framing story is the sailor—he’s married to Lilly, they’ve got a daughter, and they live in the windmill. The end. That’s it.
When the lights came up, Dr. Hanno was euphoric, his face and neck covered in red splotches. He was gushing: “Incredible, just incredible. The visual storytelling anticipates Cocteau and Welles. For 1927, for a man of his age, your grandfather’s grasp of the possibilities of cinema was astounding. History books will have to be rewritten. If we can show that DeMille and Abel Gance saw this movie, we will have to reevaluate their innovations.” And so forth.
Had we watched the same movie? I told him that I didn’t like how Lilly didn’t get to do anything whatsoever. First she was sick and then she had a baby. Not much of a feminist role model. I’d seen grandfather’s pirate movie, so I suppose I had no right to be disappointed. I could see that Dr. Hanno wanted to talk more, defend the film and make me understand its brilliance and so forth, but I felt pissy and deflated. This is what I left you for? I grabbed my canisters from the projectionist and told him I’d be in touch.
He turned all serious and official, standing between me and the door: “Frau Koblitz, I have a serious request to make. In the name of the institute, and in the interest of film history, I would like to ask you to leave the reels with me. Tulpendiebe casts the entire pre-war history of German film in a new light. It anticipates some of the most daring motion pictures ever made. Careers will be built and dissertations written on what is in those cans. If anything happened to this print, the loss would be inconceivable.”
I told him it couldn’t be so bad since he thought the film had been lost all along. Somebody had sent it to me, and I wasn’t about to leave it with anybody else for any reason. Besides, my father would definitely kill me. I took my cans, pushed past him, and said “Auf Wiedersehen” to Dr. Hanno Broddenbuck.
Back in my room, I tried to sleep but no luck. I’d made such a mistake coming to Berlin. Tulpendiebe won’t make us rich, and instead I’ve blown a bunch of money on airfare. Who had sent it to me, and what was I supposed to do with it? I closed the curtains and lay in the darkened room and thought about the fate of the tulip notary, trapped under the burning log. What a horrible way to die. It had looked so real, completely out of place with the rest of the movie. Hours later, it still gave me the chills.
I shouldn’t have left you alone in that hospital bed.
Eventually, I fell asleep with the TV on CNN Europe. In the middle of the night, I was suddenly wide awake again. I called the hospital, but the nurse said you were getting more tests. She said you were worse.
I went to the mini bar for another drink when I noticed the sliver of light by the door: it wasn’t properly closed. I distinctly remembered locking it. Right away I knew. I had left the canisters on the table where Dr. Hanno had eaten his Döner Kebab the night before, and now they were gone. They are gone. The cans are gone. The movie, it’s gone. Somebody came into my room and stole it.
So I figured I might as well write down everything while it’s still fresh in my memory. It’s 6 am now, and I should probably call the Polizei. I dread it. I don’t speak the language and everybody in this country looks at me like I’m a freak. Please please please call me as soon as possible. I’ll send this epic email now. It felt good writing it. Once I hit send, I’ll be alone again.
The motherfucking cans are gone, and I miss you like hell.
I will make this up to you.
All my love,