Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum

A hotel, especially a grand one in the center of a major metropolis, can be its own world. Vicki Baum opens up one such world in Menschen im Hotel (lit. “People in a Hotel” but published under the better title of Grand Hotel), telling interlocking stories of people in Berlin’s finest hotel over the course of a few days in the late 1920s. She sets the scene with a humble porter, whose wife has been suddenly rushed to a hospital for the birth of their first child but who is nevertheless on duty in the hotel. She shifts focus to other staff members who keep the hotel running with aplomb and discretion before settling in on Dr Otternschlag, a disfigured veteran of the Great War, who spends several months each year in the hotel. Each time he enters the lobby, he asks at the front desk whether he has received any mail or whether anyone has asked after him; the answer is always no. Otternschlag settles in to watch the world pass through the lobby, and Baum gradually introduces the rest of her cast.

Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum

There’s Otto Kringelein, an assistant bookkeeper from the provinces who has traveled to Berlin for medical consultations. Having learned that his condition is incurable and will kill him in a matter of weeks, he decided to liquidate his savings and live the high life for the little time he has left, if only he knew how. There’s Grusinskaya, a renowned ballet dancer whose name can still fill seats, but whose fame is waning as time and changing tastes catch up with her. There’s Baron Felix von Gaigern, who also came through the war but whose wounds are not visible. In the decade or so of peace, he has squandered an inheritance and now lives as a confidence man and occasional thief. There’s Preysing, the general director of the factory where Kringelein has worked; he’s in Berlin for negotiations that he hopes will save the firm, and also redeem him in the eyes of his overbearing father-in-law, founder of the business.

It’s a cinematic book, with transitions from scene to scene and character to character that read as if a camera were gliding out of one conversation to another, or switching perspectives as characters cross paths in the great lobby, or maybe following one in through the revolving door and following another out. The novel was in fact adapted for both stage and screen, re-titled as “Grand Hotel.” The 1932 film won the Oscar for best picture and is the source of Greta Garbo’s famous line, as Grusinskaya, “I want to be alone.”

While several characters say or observe that people pass through hotels knowing nothing of the other guests, Baum’s characters lives entangle in fateful ways. Gaigern is in the hotel to spy on Grusinskaya and learn her routines so that he can steal her renowned pearls. He has a whole team in place to spirit him and the pearls out of the country as soon as the heist is accomplished, but on the fateful night Grusinskaya breaks her ironclad routines and returns to the hotel early. She encounters Gaigern while he is still burgling, but nothing goes quite as one would expect from the setup. Chance also brings Kringelein and Gaigern together. The former has money but doesn’t know how to enjoy it; the latter is a temporarily embarrassed millionaire, and definitely knows how to spend it. After outfitting Kringelein in fine clothes, they take Gaigern’s motor car down the Avus — a Berlin highway and, at the time, occasional raceway that’s audible from where I sit writing this — at the breathtaking speed of 110 kilometers per hour, not quite 70 miles per hour. Later that day, they go flying from Tempelhof airport to get a good look at the city, and just for Kringelein to experience the singular thrill of flight. Under Gaigern’s tutelage, Kringelein is getting the hang of living, discovering how much of a difference having money, preferably lots of it, can make.

Preysing’s first round of negotiations do not go well. He meets with a stock-market sharp who has ostensibly been representing his interests on the Berlin trading floor, but can’t shake the feeling that he might be playing both ends. Preysing is used to being a big fish in a small pond, but he is swimming in different waters in the capital. In his role in the provinces, he has been upright and punctilious, building on the success that his father-in-law began; he finds that he has to change to succeed among the sharks but he is temperamentally not suited to playing fast and loose, and things quickly start to go awry. He’s also thrown off by a couple of chance encounters with Kringelein. How can an assistant bookkeeper afford to stay in the same hotel as the general director? And when Kringelein stands up to him — not yielding his seat in a barber’s chair even though the general director is in a hurry — he cannot believe that a subordinate would consider himself equal. Preysing is also the gross entitled middle-aged guy in the way he treats the women he encounters in the hotel. I’m not sure that Gaigern is, at bottom, much better, but at least he is charming. Kringelein leaves his future widow in the lurch by cashing out his savings — it was not a happy marriage — but he is less of a cad with the women he meets in the course of the novel.

Grusinskaya is not just a star performer, she is the driving force of her entire dance company. She has brought in the money, arranged the details, and kept everyone on track, but now that she is reaching a certain age, she is getting tired of it, very tired. After her unexpected encounter with Gaigern, she imagines a different kind of dance, a modern one in tune with the times, suitable for her aging but still agile body. Baum conjures up this vision of a whole new path for Grusinskaya, an artistic advance as well as a nod to the inevitable passage of the years, only to have her dismiss it as something that audiences would never accept. At the novel’s end, though, it’s still a slightly open question. At the other end of the wealth spectrum is the second Fräulein Flamm, one of two sisters linked to Preysing’s firm. Known as Flämmchen (“little flame”), she says that she’s too attractive for office work, too tall for the stage, and not yet lucky enough to get a break for the movies. She found life at home unbearable but is barely eking out a living in the city. She knows what Kringelein only recently discovered about money, but she is having a hard time getting much, and harder still keeping any of it. She is outwardly matter-of-fact about having accepted money for being various businessmen’s traveling companion, but Baum shows her feelings by having her remain steadfastly formal when she accepts another such offer. By contrast, when circumstances force her and Kringelein into action together, she quickly switches to the informal form of address with him.

For a book set in Berlin late in the Weimar era, it’s almost completely unpolitical. Baum shows the dominance that industrialists still had over their workers’ lives. She shows the scars, physical and otherwise, that the war had left on peoples’ lives. She shows cracks in the rigidity of traditional morals — the hotel does not allow members of the opposite sex to visit one another’s rooms, but has no objection to booking adjoining suites with a connecting door — but also the continuing hold that class and status had in almost all settings. The hotel staff, for example, is utterly hierarchical in practice, even though some of the members are dispossessed nobility while commoners hold higher rank in the work setting. The war and recovery have overturned old roles but kept the same approach. But there are no political parties or meetings in or around the hotel, there are no paramilitary organizations battling in the neighborhoods that Gaigern and Kringelein motor through. Writers today who set their stories in Weimar-era Berlin would probably feel obliged to include politics and the looming shadow of Nazism; Baum, writing at the time, did not.

The few days of Menschen im Hotel turn out to be momentous for some of the book’s characters. Dr Otternschlag plays an active role for possibly the first time since he started spending his seasons there; he even receives a message. By the end, though, he is back at his seat, observing the comings and goings, the turnings of the revolving door. The porter’s wife, after a long and arduous labor, gives birth to a healthy baby, both are doing well. New guests arrive at the grand hotel.

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