As the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is absorbed into the Man Booker International Prize, it seems an opportune time to take a look at a past IFFP winner, Gert Hofmann’s The Film Explainer, translated by his son Michael. Coincidentally, this German novel was the last to win the prize in 1995 before it became dormant for five years; this year’s second German winner sees it disappear (in name anyway) again. Both novels deal with Germany’s problematic twentieth century (cynics would say that an IFFP jury loves anything connected to the Second World War), though Hofmann’s take on it is more traditional. Dispiritingly, the novel, like most of Hofmann’s work, is now out of print: yesterday’s prize-winners, it seems, are tomorrow’s fish and chip papers.
The novel tells the story of the author’s grandfather, Karl Hofmann; we can assume the autobiographical element from the novel’s dedication and introductory sentence:
“My grandfather Karl Hofmann (1873 – 1944) worked for many years in the Apollo cinema on the Helenenstrasse in Limbach / Saxony.”
Hofmann goes on to describe the role of the film explainer, an occupation of which I had been entirely ignorant:
“My grandfather was the film explainer and piano player in Limbach. They still had those back then… In the cinema they wore red or blue tail coats with gold or silver buttons, a white bow tie, white trousers, sometimes top-boots…
“Watch out, don’t nod off, here comes a wonderful sequence, maybe the most wonderful in the whole, film, cried Grandfather, reaching for his pointer.”
(You can hear more about film explainers in general here). It would be fair to say that Grandfather regards his role as a vocation rather than a job. On the long walks he often goes with his grandson he carries a notebook in case inspiration strikes; when at home he is often found leafing through newspapers and a school encyclopaedia in search of vocabulary:
“The words he wanted to use in the evening in the Apollo he would jot down on pieces of paper in the morning.”
On any visit to another town, inspection of the cinema is mandatory. His job, however, is threatened both by diminishing audiences and the arrival of sound. The cinema’s owner believes the talkies can save his business; at the same time they will make Grandfather’s role redundant.
The novel generally has a light, comic tone. Grandfather is, in many ways, a ridiculous character, pompous when it comes to his ‘art’ and otherwise of little use. That his ridiculousness is filtered through the eyes of his admiring grandson softens this, though the narrative is frequently interspersed with barbed comments for the Grandmother to compensate:
“In January, he had got a new hat. This hat…had, if anything, an even broader brim than its predecessor. ‘You could use it to sweep the streets with’ (Grandmother)”
However, this is 1930s Germany and the novel inevitably has its darker side. Though the role of film explainer and Grandfather’s attachment to it may seem foolishly Luddite to the contemporary reader, the novel reveals the way in which technology advances regardless of the human cost – an issue society continues to grapple with. When Grandfather loses his job, he also loses his sense of self:
“I used to think, he said, that as an artist I was something special. But it isn’t true. I’m on the street, same as millions of other, and all of us treading on each other. Soon I’ll be reduced to begging, artist or not!”
It is during this time that attends his first political meeting:
“If people weren’t so desperate there wouldn’t be so many meetings in the world! Every meeting is a kind of last straw that they try to clutch.”
Hofmann shows us, in miniature, the way in which individuals can be attracted to extremism: when everything else is taken away from them. Luckily his love of film ultimately saves Grandfather: when on a rally, he abandons the flag to visit the nearest cinema.
The Film Explainer uses its provincial, unimportant characters to reveal a little of the process by which a country can lose itself. Perhaps its greatest achievement, though, is its wonderful three-layered narrative voice in which the Grandfather, the Grandmother and the grandson unite to tell their story.