1963. The Great Escape – The Mirisch Company Inc. Presents
INT. TRAIN COMPARTMENT – DAY. The door opens and a Gestapo agent enters. He glances at the identity cards offered by a pair of SS officers. Not of interest, not on his list. In total there are 76 escaped prisoners from Stalag Luft III and Hitler has ordered a nation-wide manhunt, ein Grossfahndung. The Gestapo agent moves forward and then stops when he comes face to face with the actors Richard Attenborough and Gordon Jackson, escaped POWs disguised as businessmen on the Berlin-Breslau train. There is something about them. He studies their papers closely and questions them in German and in French. He hands the props back, and moves through the doors into the coach ahead.
The train slows down as it swings into the turn of a steep gradient. At 2:14:34 run time, the Gestapo agent finds the actor David McCallum seated alone and flips through his passbook. McCallum is cast as Flight Lieutenant Ashley-Pitt, better known as Dispersal to his POW buddies. The ensuing brief exchange between the Gestapo agent and Ashley-Pitt does not match James Clavell’s draft screenplay of April 26, 1962; it was improvised or it followed the ‘final’ shooting script, of which there were more than seven in circulation on the set during the making of the movie.
Die Reise fur deine firma?
Ja. Fur mein Gescheft.
Are you traveling for your company? Yes, for my business. Thank you. The Gestapo man exits the coach and the door slides shut behind him and that’s the last an English audience sees of this actor alive. He’s had perhaps a minute on-screen in one of the most watched war movies of all time. Yet as a bit player he is uncredited for the role. In fact, soon after the film was made, he disappeared completely. Shortly after his star flickered, he died, aged 32, from a drug overdose in Hamburg. Watched by millions yet almost completely unknown. And there’s a further irony. He was a refugee from Nazi Germany, partly Jewish and the son of one of Germany’s most famous left-wing actors, playing a Gestapo agent, a role reprised on thousands of television repeats.
In fact, watching television is how I came to know of my uncle Michael. Alive but not living, stranded in the no man’s land of a motion picture. His character was staged and scripted, but I was spellbound – Michael was convincing. Fedora and trench coat. Elegant. Blond. His smooth transitions. His lively walk, his coat unbuttoned, his fashion the casual flair of some fresh-as-the-breeze fascist. This image, I now understand, years later, is counterfeit, a convenient archetype, manufactured by the American film director John Sturges and his sidekick Bert Hendrickson in Costume Design and Wardrobe. But it is him, close enough to the real thing. So what to call him? Historicized, a transatlantic blond, thespian? Father’s cousin. My uncle once removed? The family used Michi. As in, Michi broke Mama’s heart.
2010. Bavariafilmstadt, Munich
I stand at the box office, outside the museum opposite the active studios, under a grey but clearing sky.
“Morgen. I have a question.”
“Welcome.” A young man is working the window.
“Inside the museum . . .”
“Is there an installation from The Great Escape?”
“Nein. But Das Boot you can see.” His two female co-workers are momentarily intrigued by their first visitor of the morning, a foreigner and not a Facebook friend.
“Aber keinmal Great Escape?” I leverage the little German I know.
“Das Boot is more modern.” His co-workers join, reinforcements, to have a closer look.
“Yes, I know . . . But . . .” And then I divulge the keynotes of my visit to all three – why I have come so early on a weekday morning to disturb their social media quiet time. The Great Escape was a Hollywood blockbuster. A member of my family had a small role in it. Unfortunately, he died young, in Hamburg, a long time ago.
“We’re sorry,” the woman in a black pullover has an open, friendly face. Oval-shaped, and plump freckled cheeks. She gazes at her female counterpart who has cropped and dyed spiky hair. Then inquires, “What was his name?”
After exchanged and bewildered glances:
“We don’t know him.”
“He is buried in Waldfriedhof Cemetery.” I offer a local reference, this might make him real.
“That is near to this place.” The black pulli is onside, but her female colleague has moved away, gone into a small office. Looking for clues in the laptop or cell.
“The prison camp scenes were filmed here in 1962.” I decide to push the film angle, after all.
“Yes, we know.” The young man takes over. His tone is poised between passive and aggressive.
“The tunnel scenes were filmed inside.” I point to the studio buildings and sound stages behind the metal fence surrounding the film city. For a moment, I consider telling them about Wally Floody, a Canadian like me and former mining engineer and prisoner of Stalag Luft III. Floody was a wartime Spitfire pilot. He was hired as a technical advisor on the film set. Charles Bronson’s character Tunnel King is partly based on Wally Floody. But never mind.
“It’s too bad,” the young man reflects. “But no one knows the history of ‘this’ place.” He shakes his head.
I have travelled a long way to be told exactly what I expected to be told. I’d done my homework in Canada. I had learned about Das Boot from Das Google. But that didn’t stop me from coming here, accepting an unwilling audience, holding out for a surprise. I have three at the window again, crowded inside the box office, which reminds me that the Mirisch Brothers released The Great Escape in an era when the POW film genre had already become trapped by its own success. Prisoner escape stories conveniently supplied a reliable narrative and dramatic vector, but during the postwar decade there had been a glut of POW films, most of them based on bestselling memoirs like Paul Brickhill’s. But instead of lecturing them on a topic about which I’m far from an expert, I tell my gatekeepers a little more about Michael and his part in the movie. I point in the vague direction of the Waldfriedhof Cemetery and acknowledge his grave is that way. Are they at all interested? Over there, he is buried under the tall trees in a mossy cemetery, I might say, since I know this from a letter Michael’s father Karl Paryla penned on April 21, 1967. I could spout verbatim from the private correspondences – the poignant documents written in the days after Michael’s death – I’m a very curious customer as it is.
“Why don’t you visit his grave?” The man suggests. “It’s too bad, but there is nothing inside about the movie and there is no archivist here, no film historian.”
As for the past, they are it. Not one born before 1990.
“I found a web page,” I say, “made by an American. It pinpoints a football field near the studio lot, bordering the forest, where the model prison camp might have been.”
“Yes, we know about this, a man was here from America last year. He asked many questions like you and made this web page, probably. But he really didn’t know what he was talking about. He was ‘just like you,’” the young man informs me, which means the American was guessing.
“Are you sure there is not a film historian on site?”
“Too bad, but no. We are sorry.”
I sigh good-naturedly but at the same time show my disappointment. How can they not be better organized, they’re Germans. Nonetheless, they have apologized for a situation out of their control.
“Over there by the train tracks,” spiky hair points, “is a film institute but it is only educational and for teachers and students.” She slides her hands into her pant pockets. “They won’t know your film there, either.”
“We are it for knowledge,” says the young man. “Your film was years ago. There is no consciousness of the film here, which is too bad, and not good.”
He holds up his palms, and backs away from the window. More denial than asked for. Still, I won’t shoot.
“Thank you for your help.”
I walk along the road bordering the studio lots and the forest. He said ‘your film’. But he meant mine. Michael was given a minute on the train, to play Gestapo opposite Richard Attenborough and Gordon Jackson and David McCallum and James Garner et al. My film? His or mine, the film is old hat. Das Boot is what the people are served today. WWII U-boats. The Battle of the Atlantic. Visitors demand entry to the claustrophobic world of a submarine crew, never mind the shenanigans and the soiled underground of a group of allied prisoners of war. There is a guided tour in English at 1 PM. The cost is 11 Euros. I have no interest in the professionalism of these submariners, thirty-thousand of which perished undersea. I won’t go in.
I’m here to find out more about the other movie, and to follow as closely as I can in Michael’s footsteps. But I’m finding that it’s not an easy task. Like the type of prisoner who was brought to Stalag Luft III, Michael was a serial escapist. Beginning in 1935, when he escaped from the womb, in Vienna, disguised as happiness itself, in the eyes of his mother Eva, and his father, Karl.
About a kilometre from the box office I find the football pitch. No sign of Stalag Luft III here though. The field is unremarkable: white goalposts and bald spots in the grass where play is heaviest. Office workers in short sleeves and dress pants, from a neighbouring low-rise are out kicking a ball during an early lunch hour. I stand by the touchline and take photographs in the direction of the forest, then a couple more from the opposite side, facing the studio lot and high fence along its boundary.
If not exactly here, then somewhere close, the director John Sturges began filming in summer 1962. In order to build a complete replica of Stalag Luft III, the film crew sought and received permission from the German Minister of the Interior to fell a considerable number of trees in the Grunewald, bordering the studio’s back lot, on the agreement they replant the trees two to one when the shooting was done. In all, it took six weeks to build a replica of the original camp, and then another four months to shoot the movie, which wouldn’t have been filmed in Germany if Sturges had not run into a labour dispute with the Screen Extras Guild back in California. The film would use a large number of extras, almost 600. Even with a four-million-dollar budget and his mind already set on a site in the San Gabriel Mountains – a two-hour drive from Hollywood – Sturges took the entire shoot abroad. In nearby Munich, the American crew found German actors for important secondary roles. They picked up a pile of extras, as well. Enter Michael, stage right.
Standing by the side of the football pitch, I remember reading about the deforestation efforts of the film crew and thinking about how this mimicked the labour of the actual Russian POWs who, in 1942, were sent out on a work detail to cut down trees beyond the Vorlager, the forecamp bordering the North Compound of Luft III. The trees in question would have been gaunt Silesian pines native to forests in the northeast, altogether different from the ones in the Grunewald. Early in the movie, there is a goofy set-piece in which a number of escape-happy Hollywood POWs hide in wagons laden with cut branches, but are found out at the perimeter fence by pitchfork-yielding Goons.
Correction. It was not out here that filming began in 1962, but inside the sound stages. That spring and early summer in Bavaria the weather was foul. Rainstorms would not let up. Sturges had wanted to shoot his movie chronologically, starting with the opening scene: the POWs’ arrival at camp by a convoy of covered trucks. He even brought in flamethrower trucks to bake the mud and dry out the studio lot. But one day, early in June, Sturges called for a meeting of cast and crew. No more time to waste. He had given up filming exteriors. The crew would begin filming in the middle of the picture. Indoors, to the sound stages they went, and began with the tunnels. Next, the scenes inside the barracks. Actors James Garner and Donald Pleasance were given their calls.
Less than fifteen minutes later, I’m headed back to my friends in the box office, shouldering my laptop, smoking a cigarette for effect. Michael was a smoker. Prisoners often are. The computer hard drive is crammed with research notes, and multiple drafts of my book so far. The Last Escape was the original working title of The Great Escape. Maybe that’s the title I’ll use.
“What about the train station?” I throw this out, offhandedly. They must know the routine from the American who came before me.
“Yes,” black pulli admits. “The other guy, he too talked about a train station.”
“Is it near here?” I’m thinking of the scene where Michael arrives by motorcade to Neustadt Station and then proceeds to board the Hollywood gravy train. From what I have read, it was filmed in the vicinity.
“It might be Pullach,” the man ventures.
“Not Geiselgasteig?” Geiselgasteig is referenced all the time – in books and documentaries about the film – but the Germans wouldn’t know the place if they were standing on it. Maybe it’s my pronunciation.
The two women turn and enter the small back office. Cue the water bottles. Cut to black pulli mouthing my mangling of ‘Geiselgasteig’. The spiky blonde is sucking a pencil.
“Pullach. You must take the S-Bahn two stops in the direction of Munich and then cross by foot over the Isar on Grossehesseler Brucke and then you will walk several kilometres, yes, through the forest. Once in Pullach ask for directions to the train station. They have a very old one, it could what you are looking for.”
I go. But before leaving I ask my friends at the box office if I may take a photograph of all three, together?
“Why of us?” Humbled and suspicious, modestly or falsely incredulous.
“To help my memory,” I say (knowing real faces don’t stand a chance when it comes to writing them up). “Your faces will help me remember details from this day and this place.”
From there, I walk to the S-Bahn stop and then wait by the tracks breathing a mixture of tar and creosote fumes. It’s not yet noon. The day is warming up.
The train arrives and I step on. It is only a seven-minute ride to Grossehesseler. I ring the bell and get off and begin walking, crossing back over the tracks, following signs to the Brucke. The streets are quiet and the houses of Grossehesseler – half-timbered palaces, fenced and gated – are monstrosities. All of FC Bayern must be shacked up here in the south of Munich, and who knows perhaps a number War Criminals as well. But where the hell is the bridge?
The signposts and hand-painted directions have led me deep into a residential neighbourhood. I do realize that I must cross the Isar to reach Pullach, but I can’t find the bridge, nor any sliver of the river. I’m hot and lost on a fruitless search for a station that’s probably not the one I want anyway.
After twenty minutes of wandering and wondering and getting lost, I spot a gardener over the fence, raking leaves.
“Bitte, Helf. Eine Frage?” My throat is dry and my voice sounds hoarse, and very weak. I’ve not had the chance to talk much the last couple of days, discounting internal monologues and my brief chat with the box office crowd, and the timbre of my voice sounds pathetic. My speech has the ring of ‘Bite elf, I’m a fag?’ nowhere close to ‘Please, help me, I have a question’.
Michael lived in Munich from 1956 until his death ten years later. In the first months after arriving from Canada he stayed with his aunt, Irene, and worked odd jobs while he pursued a career in the theatre. Little by little, after a hard beginning, he found his way.
Finding work in the theatre often meant travelling and taking a temporary residence in Bremen or Berlin or Hamburg. But he loved Munich, above all. Bavaria’s cultural centre, the Bohemian atmosphere, Biergartens covered in gravel and shaded by chestnut trees. These things are pervasive even today. Eventually, he bought property, but no one in my family is able to tell me where it was. In one of his letters, Karl complains to Eva that Michael lived in a large house and like a bourgeois, and that this bothered him greatly – bothered Karl – because Karl was a communist. Michael is buried not far from here – four stops beyond the Bavariafilmstadt – in Waldfriedhof Cemetery. Karl describes Michael’s grave in some detail, but nowhere does he mention the irony that his son, a refugee from Nazism who plays a Gestapo on a train in The Great Escape, is buried in a cemetery not five kilometres from the film studio, where a substantial part of the movie was made in 1962. It makes perfect sense to me now that I am walking the streets that Michael’s house could have or would have been nearby, perhaps even in this very suburb. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Why else would Michael have been buried far to the south of Munich, unless he and his Frau Margaret had been living in the vicinity. This proximity to the studios would have eased him into an audition for the film. I keep walking and as I am connecting the dots and making my own dots, randomly I have begun taking photos of houses, of Michael’s houses. I am getting close. It would make sense that Michael resided within shouting distance of his grave and the film studio, or maybe, maybe I am looking at things backwards.
The groundskeeper comes to the gate, opens it, and steps onto the street.
I repeat, “Bite this elf, I’m a fag.”
This gets us nowhere. I try English, then my best French. In the day of the escape, RAF Officers were multilingual. The first escapees sent out the tunnel were selected because they spoke German fluently. But forget that – no use, the gardener is Romanian, and a foreigner like me. For passport, he shows me his hands, calloused palms and fingers, the international sign of the worker.
I unlatch my shoulder bag and pry out my notebook and a pen. I make a drawing and then begin block lettering B-R-U-C-K-E. But the gardener is distracted by the white slab of my laptop, which is peaking from my bag. MacBook, international sign of the knowledge worker aristocracy. Isn’t the answer in there? He seems to be saying, staring hard. Why not use that?
Momentarily, he points down the street, sends me off on my way. His trailing voice, Links, rechts, links, rechts, right, left, right, left.
After crossing the bridge it is still five kilometres to Pullach through the forest. Links und rechts and around I go for over an hour and a half. The sun is blazing and the ground is afire with red and yellow leaves. Cyclists rush past, and old women chatting and marching briskly overtake me on the path. The forest is well-tended, the earth track swept, and I keep coming upon the same piece of river and railway tracks, as if I might be walking in a circle, but no, here is the edge of a town, which must be Pullach.
On a street corner, I hail a man passing on his bicycle. As he comes to a stop, a boy slides off the front handlebars.
“Can you help me?” I ask in English, skipping the elf routine.
His son stands aside and the man partially dismounts, holding steady the front and back wheel.
“Yes, I hope so,” says he. He speaks German, French and English, and everything else besides.
I explain what I am looking for: I describe Neustadt in the film and ask the way to Pullach Station.
“Pullach Station is that way,” he points straight down the road. “But you do not want Pullach. Let me see your film.” He gestures to my laptop. “Let me see the station in there.”
This man has time and opinions. No problem. It takes me several minutes to turn on my computer and cue the movie. Meanwhile, he asks where I am from. Canada. When I answer, the boy studies his father’s face to verify if Canada is a good place. I gather it is, as the boy cracks a smile even as his father is explaining “his situation,” that they have no car and he has six children. He is always on the tram, the man tells me, for transportation, and therefore he is familiar with almost every station south of Munich.
“Where are you from?” I ask, suspecting he is Roma.
“I have been to Budapest. I went in – ”
“Yes.” He interrupts. He knows all about my visit to Budapest in 1989 and then to Berlin, to see The Wall come down. It’s boring to have Westerners paint impressions of the Eastern Block. He doesn’t have interest in the fictions travelers take to heart. I’ve been chastened. “Germany looks nice on the surface,” he offers, “and everything works well here, but it’s not the case.” He’s seen most of the country. “Hier ist Schlecht. You understand? Here it is bad, unpalatable. Especially the schools,” he says. “I must fight the government to put my children in the right schools.”
“That’s bad,” I mutter to him and his boy. Meanwhile, we are getting seated just as naturally and comfortably as you can, on a patch of grass between the paved sidewalk and a residential fence to view a WWII action film.
Prim pedestrians move on. Nobody is curious about us, evidently. I start the movie and the gypsy and his son watch intently as Michael steps out of the Mercedes at Neustadt Station. Trench coat, fedora, handsome devil.
“There.” The father points. “See: two tracks and the station shelter with the tile roof. This is not Pullach. This is not even Munich.”
He does not remark on Michael. He hasn’t noticed him.
“You won’t find that station here in the south, even the landscape is wrong.”
I tell him that I have read many articles about the making of the movie and almost all of them mention Geiselgasteig, which apparently is nearby, as the area where the old train station is located.
“No.” He doesn’t think so. “It’s not the case.”
To make certain he is not mistaken, I play the movie segment once more. The boy takes an interest at least. How many action movies has he watched like this, I wonder. Laptop, sitting in the grass, the bicycle on its side: we might have invented the green drive-in theatre right here. Not many is my guess. Movie stars, potentially, are ordinary people to him. Like Michael is to me. The boy’s curiosity is physical. I watch him as he watches Michael arrive from Breslau à la mode in a Mercedes 540K cabriolet. I wish I could show him the scene on the train where Michael actually has some lines. It occurs at 2:14:07.
Instead, I narrate more about my family, how they originally came from Breslau, Silesia, and how in Michael’s case family history and film history shadow each other. And although I get the sense neither are listening carefully – not the boy, certainly not his father – I feel it’s important they learn a little more than what meets the eye. It’s important to me, anyway. I’m beginning to ease into our family’s exodus story set in 1935, when the boy’s father notices something, a placard on the station house at Neustadt.
I pause the film.
“Unnotige Reisen, verlangen der Krieg.” He shakes his head. “It’s nothing.”
At Pullach station, I wait with a handful of commuters for the train to Munich.
It’s propaganda. Unnecessary travel lengthens the war.