Valley of Joy, The

Stefan Chwin
Valley of Joy, The
  • Tytuł
    Gdańsk 2006
    135×200
    544 pages
    hardcover
    ISBN: 83-89859-10-6
    Translation rights: Tytuł



"The Valley of Joy" is a fast-moving adventure that contains elements of fantasy literature but is simultaneously a dignified moral-philosophical discourse. The story spans a large part of the twentieth century (from the 1930s to the 1970s) and is set in cities in Germany (Munich and Berlin), Poland (Gdansk and Warsaw) and Russia (Stalingrad and Moscow). It tells the tale of Eryk Stamelmann, a ‘face sculptor’, a talented make-up artist and pioneer of plastic surgery. Eryk possesses the remarkable ability to transform the human exterior. He improves the appearance of Hitler and Stalin, among others, discovers and touches up Marlene Dietrich’s looks, bestows dignity on the corpses of German officers at Stalingrad, and ensures that Lenin’s mummy doesn’t lose its beauty. Both the hero’s adventures and his origins, of course, find themselves outside the conventions of the realistic novel. Eryk is - literally - an alien, a benign spirit who has descended to Earth in order to improve on the work of the Creator. He makes the ugly beautiful, the old young, turns women into men (and vice versa), and changes the inalterable (including membership of the human race). The astonishing adventures of this ingenious make-up artist are a pretext for Chwin to ponder a number of philosophical issues. The author considers such questions as human identity in the twentieth century, the temptation to escape from the self into a mask or sham, the pressure to be beautiful, and illusory dreams of immortality. Stefan Chwin describes, through metaphor, the situation of art and the artist in the last century.

- Dariusz Nowacki

Excerpt

She appeared in my dressing room on Thursday at 3 o’clock. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. She was stubborn, she knew her worth and would stick to her guns. I had to resort to cunning to win her over. She thought she was just inherently good. An error most actresses make. She became furious when I began plucking out her eyebrows with metal tweezers, and averted her face. “What the hell?” - “But Madame Dietrich” - I bowed respectfully - “I don’t mean you any harm. Please observe the shape of your eyelids. They are more beautiful than any other woman’s. Most women's eyelids are hidden by the skin underneath their eyebrows. But yours are clearly visible, and this needs accentuating. Raising your eyebrows into an arch will heighten the effect. They are just a little thick at present." "For Heaven's sake!" She was still angry. "I'm happy with my eyebrows as they are!" "But you see" - I said calmly, as if talking to a child - "you have very beautiful eyebrows, just a touch too thick. In close-ups, they’ll look like two black strips on your forehead. Just like any other woman’s. Look" - I raised her eyebrows slightly with my fingers - "Wouldn't it be better like this? Your eyebrows should look like the curve of a rainbow after a summer shower." She smiled. "What's your name?" "Me?" - I was surprised at the question, for who could be interested in the name of some make-up artist. "My name's Eryk Weissmann." "And I thought you must be Shakespeare. Do you write poems, by any chance?" "Perish the thought!" I pretended indignation, glad that things had taken a favourable turn. "It's your face that has put me in such a good mood." "So you think that it would look better like this?" - She raised her eyebrows with her fingers, observing herself in the mirror all the while. "Definitely," I concurred with deep conviction. - "But be careful,” - she tautened the skin over her temples with her fingers to examine the effect. - “It does rather hurt.”
I took the tweezers and began to pluck delicately, hair by hair, giving her eyebrows the form of a perfect arch. “Eyebrows like the curve of a rainbow,” she murmured ironically, following every movement of my hand through half-closed eyes. Every now and again I carefully blew away the hairs from her skin, as though I were rekindling the cold pallor of the feminine brow with my warm breath. It was real jeweller’s work. I didn’t know why, but as I plucked those narrow little eyebrows with the metal tweezers, my heart beat harder than it had ever done before.
This must have been how Botticelli felt when he painted his Primavera. I delicately daubed Madame Dietrich’s face with a wad of cotton wool soaked in Amiel fluid, after which I began applying Marseille cream as a foundation. She let me do whatever I wanted, as though none of it had anything to do with her but with a completely different woman, sitting down in her place in front of the mirror with the nine bulbs. “May I smoke?” she asked. “I’d prefer you not to.” I inclined my head. “Forgive me, but it would be rather distracting.” I dyed her hair platinum blonde, cast dark shadows on her cheeks, darkened her eyelashes with mascara and filled out her mouth with lipstick.
Good God! Commissioner Kluge, if only you had seen what she looked like before The Blue Angel! Who was she, after all? Some godforsaken daughter of a police lieutenant who - can you imagine? - used to earn a living by promoting new shoe styles. And by the way, she wasn’t called Dietrich at all but Maria Magdalena von Losch. Think of that - von Losch! She was born in Schöneberg on Sedanstrasse, and went to school on Gasteiner Strasse. Do you know where Gasteiner Strasse is? She was crazy about Henny Porten as a girl. She went to every one of her performances at the Mozartsaal and the Marmorsaal on Kurfürstendamm. She studied with Reinhardt, but what good did it do her? It’s true, she played a couple of Shakespeare roles, but what kind of roles were they?! Then she moved to Kaiserallee. I took her back there by taxi from the studio a couple of times. At No. 54. In 1924, when she married Sieber, she was renting a cheap apartment on the fourth floor. And who was her flatmate? Leni Riefenstahl. Oh yes, Commissioner Kluge, Leni Riefenstahl herself. She even acted alongside Greta Garbo in Pabst’s Joyless Street. They couldn’t stand each other later, but then they appeared together. Just once! And she sang in the cabaret, those pieces by Mischa Spoliansky, with quite some success as a matter of fact. And that pointless affair with Claire Waldoff? I’ve no idea why she did that. She signed the contract for The Blue Angel in October. Good Lord, how well I remember the grimace Günther Rittau made. “Madame Dietrich has a nose like a duck and nobody has any idea what to do about it.” And then he filmed her in The Blue Angel! Indeed he did, Commissioner Kluge, and no one else!
She had some odd predilections, you know. Igo Sym, the actor, taught her to play the singing saw. Have you ever heard of any great actress who could play the singing saw, Commissioner Kluge? But I once went to her dressing room and saw Madame Dietrich playing the singing saw. Can you imagine? Sitting in an armchair, with a cigarette affixed to her lips, dressed only in stockings and red garters and wearing a top hat, playing the singing saw, oblivious to her surroundings. If anyone so much as mentioned her name to Erich Pommer - who produced The Blue Angel - he’d shout so loud the window panes rattled: “Anyone but that slut!” He was lying with his leg in plaster at the time, if I remember correctly. Nobody wanted her. Neither Pommer nor Heinrich Mann, who wrote the screenplay. He wanted Trude Hesterberg from the Berlin cabaret ‘Wilde Bühne’ to play Lola Lola. And when they did screen tests with Mademoiselle Mannheim and Madame Dietrich, everyone’s verdict was the same: “Mannheim’s better.” That’s how it was, Commissioner Kluge.
The premiere of The Blue Angel was on the 1st of April, and on the 2nd she was already on her way to the States, she’d signed a contract with Paramount in less than no time. I said goodbye to her at Anhalter Bahnhof.
And now everyone says that it was Sternberg who discovered her!
Who wants to hear about some make-up artist?

Translated by Katya Andrusz