Stardust Memory

Andrew Steinmetz
The Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla
(Biblioasis, 2013)

Ever since I first saw Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953) and became addicted to re-runs of Hogan’s Heroes (1965 – 71) during my early youth in Los Angeles, I’ve been intrigued by prisoner-of-war stories, comic and heroic alike. A paperback copy of James Clavell’s 1962 gripping war novel King Rat, set in a Japanese P.O.W. camp in Singapore, that I snatched from my parents’ bookshelf around the same time continued to feed my budding fascination.

As it turns out, my obsession nowhere near matches what Canadian writer Andrew Steinmetz experienced when he learned, at some point in his adolescence, that his second cousin Michael Paryla had played a bit part in one of the most famous, big-budget P.O.W. films Hollywood ever produced, The Great Escape (1963). Directed by John Sturges, whose finely crafted Western The Magnificent Seven had earned ample praise three years earlier, and co-scripted by King Rat author Clavell, the film chronicles the fabled mass escape attempts among Allied prisoners held at Stalag Luft III. It boasts such star talent as Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronsen, and James Coburn, the last three of whom had been in Sturges’s acclaimed Westerns.

Steinmetz’s cousin Michael was not among the stars. In fact, he appears on screen for a grand total of 57 seconds, dressed as a Gestapo official—trench coat, Fedora, several tufts of blond hair peeking out from underneath—barking a couple of improvised lines: Ihre Päße, bitte! (“Your passports, please!”). That fleeting appearance, followed by his disappearance a few years later, was enough to leave Michael firmly lodged in the consciousness of his admiring younger cousin. “For as long as I can remember, I knew two things about him,” notes Steinmetz a little less than a third of the way into This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla, his strange, elegiac, and intoxicating attempt to piece a life back together. “Michael had acted in a famous war movie and he died young. It was all that I knew, this was the sum of my knowledge about him, but it was enough for the mind to play with for years.”

Born in Vienna in 1935, after his parents had crossed the border from Nazi Germany, Paryla spent the war in Zurich. Together with his mother Eva, a former stage actress trained by Max Ophüls, who once performed in a touring production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and whose life Steinmetz fictionalized in his earlier novel Eva’s Threepenny Theatre, he returned to Germany in 1946. There they settled—if you can call it that—in the Soviet sector of Berlin, though they were soon airlifted to West Berlin and moved onward to a refugee camp in Lahr, near the Black Forest. When the family finally gained entry to Canada in the fall of 1949, Paryla’s passport—the same item he would later demand to see on screen—bore the fateful stamp: “Displaced Person of Undetermined Nationality.”

Paryla didn’t last long in Canada, where he went to high school rechristened as “Mike,” acted in a Chekhov play in Montreal, and broke off his chemistry studies at McGill to return to Europe in 1956. He performed in a variety of stage productions in Bremen and Hamburg, from Shakespeare to Brecht, racked up a few minor screen appearances in German television and cinema, and in 1967, at the age of 32, was found dead, a bottle of whiskey and sleeping pills next to him, in his Hamburg apartment. Like a relentless private investigator, Steinmetz seeks to retrace all of his cousin’s moves: he travels in Munich, to the Bavaria Film Studios, where a good chunk of The Great Escape was filmed, and onward to Hamburg, where Michael last lived; he pores over the diary Michael kept while at the D.P. camp in Lahr; examines a series of family letters trying to make sense of the unexpected death of “Michi”; interviews former classmates and extended family members; and spends hours playing, freeze-framing, and rewinding Michael’s 57 seconds of fame.

Throughout his idiosyncratic mix of travelogue, family memoir, and elliptical musings, Steinmetz entertains the thought that there might be some kind of hidden, causal connection between his cousin’s ironic, possibly ill-advised choice to play a Gestapo agent in The Great Escape and his premature death. “Michael Paryla as a Nazi, on the map,” he writes, “not 30 years after his parents fled by train through the same neck of the woods: who catches this on film?” (In truth, it wasn’t totally uncommon for actors once persecuted by Hitler to play Nazis on screen—think of Conrad Veidt in Casablanca or Otto Preminger in Stalag 17.) Oddly enough, the film becomes the final resting place for his cousin: “57 seconds all counting—before we lose sight of him for good, on-screen and off, stardust to rust, so it goes and so it must.” Or, as Steinmetz remarks of his cousin elsewhere, almost suggesting the docu-fantasia mode of fellow Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s work: “Alive but not living, stranded in the no-man’s-land of a motion picture.”

As a poet and novelist, Steinmetz is at his best when waxing sentimental and lyrical about his cousin, a figure with whom he shares more than just a family kinship—his “paranormal twin,” as he calls him. In one of his many aphoristic sections, writing under the banner “You Put a Spell on Me,” he offers a rather pithy distillation: “All along there has been identity repression and assimilation, acting and becoming, diaspora, exile and escape, stateless persons of undetermined nationality, immigration and assimilation anew, sublimation and self-actualization, and the hopeful, hard suffering of the birth of the new.” Forever a refugee, Michael Paryla’s final escape, his final freedom, is death, or Freitod, as the term for suicide is hauntingly called in German. The loving tribute that Steinmetz offers him is that he now lives on, not merely in his fleeting scene in a Hollywood movie, but in his cousin’s nimble, evocative prose.

Contributor

Noah Isenberg

NOAH ISENBERG is the author, most recently, of the critical biography Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins (California), and is currently at work on a new book, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s: How ‘Casablanca’ Taught Us to Love Movies” for W.W. Norton.

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