Translated from the German at the 2013 BCLT Summer School by Elizabeth Dickie, Rachel McNicholl and Susanne Schneider, with workshop leader Katy Derbyshire and author Daniela Dröscher.
As the Bremen approached Bremerhaven, Columbuskai lay hidden under a fine layer of snow. On deck, Pola was taken aback: not a single welcome banner was to be seen. “New York welcomes Pola Negri,” the banner had proclaimed in 1922 when she crossed the pond in the other direction. She frowned, then promptly shifted her attention to the performance at hand. The sun was glittering in the winter sky. Pola looked herself up and down, pleased with what she saw: the long purple gown with the copper-red train, the one Stiebel had sent to her cabin before she left New York.
As the ship was being made fast, Pola put on her most seductive look. She pulled her shoulders back and planted her hands elegantly on her hips, ready to strut down the glossy white gangway. Clearly, she would be first to disembark. For over an hour, she and Lena had been saving their place at the front of the queue, wearing their feet numb. Right behind Pola was the little girl from the train journey to Kansas. During the crossing, Pola had avoided the impudent creature as much as possible. She did not want any reminders of that interlude on the train. Now, to make matters worse, the girl’s nanny was wearing purple too. Purple cape, purple stockings, purple boots; even their luggage was purple. Whenever Pola came too close to this backdrop, she was in danger of disappearing altogether.
One of the crew cleared the gangway and Pola began her descent. Behind her, Lena did her best to put a suitable distance between them and the rest of the passengers, especially that purple horror. Step by step, Pola made her way down. Too late, she realised her shoes had snarled in her dress. With each step, the fabric tangled tighter and tighter around her. By the time she had reached the bottom of the gangway, the dress was twisted so tightly she could barely breathe.
“Easy, girl,” she said under her breath, forcing herself to take another step.
She heard her name.
“There you are!” a man called out, pushing his way through the crowd and waving his hat cheerily.
It had to be Willi Forst, the director. He seized her hand; Pola withdrew it instantly, only to extend it again gracefully for a kiss.
“Our wonderful Madame Dubarry! More beautiful and enchanting than ever,” gushed Forst. Pola sighed with instant relief. It was as if she were finally free of a metal brace that had been crushing her throughout the voyage. Her shoulders eased, her neck straightened, like the stem of a flower finally sensing water seep up into its parched petals. No one would be sending her back. Pola Negri was still a star.
Forst’s mischievous face bobbed up and down in front of her. With Lena’s help, Pola untangled herself from her train, taking in the scene all the while. Hermann Braun, whose presence she had counted on, was nowhere to be seen.
“Please,” said Forst, “allow me to introduce Gregory Rabinowitsch and Arnold Pressburger, representatives from UFA.”
“Ciné-Allianz,” corrected Rabinowitsch.
“The producers of our film,” Forst cut in.
The two men, whose moist hands she then shook, seemed rather bland. Rabinowitsch was tall and skinny, Pressburger stocky and short. Their identical suits made them look like improbable brothers. The one Forst had addressed as Pressburger had a red carnation in his lapel and stared slack-jawed at Pola. He clearly wanted nothing more than to kneel down and worship. Forst continued to dance excitedly around her, the better to admire her from every angle.
“The flowers. Where are the flowers?” he fretted, having ushered Pola into the idling limousine. Pressburger, who had lowered his stocky frame into the passenger seat, shame-facedly reached behind his back and produced a puny bunch of yellow roses. Pola looked around. No sign of flashing cameras, and apart from a few curious glances at the woman in the ball gown, passersby barely registered her presence. “We’ll take care of the press later,” said the one called Rabinowitsch, who viewed the star from America with a degree of scepticism. Or so it seemed to her.
Only now did Pola register his Russian accent.
“Kiev. Ukraine,” he said, as if reading her mind. “The formal reception will be in the Kaiserhof this evening. After you’ve had a chance to change.”
Pola re-appraised her attire. She was too shocked to reply. Up to now she hadn’t uttered a word, just smiled and applied herself to looking ravishing. Mazurka would be her first German talkie, and she had been expecting her accent to be a stumbling block here too. To her immense relief, she realised the Russian wasn’t the only one who rolled his Rs the way she did – even Forst spoke in a loud, over-articulated manner, like an actor trying to project to the back of the room.
The Russian cleared his throat.
“You know, women here tend to dress a little more simply,” he said, after a moment of hesitation.
Pola gave him a fierce look.
“No one tells Pola Negri how to dress,” she snapped, trying her best to temper her accent. But her Polish R was like a rock rolling relentlessly over every soft sound in the German. Horrified, she clapped her hand to her mouth. Forst smiled, calmly loosened her fingers and took her hand in his.
“My God. What a voice! Those deep murmuring tones. More beautiful and mysterious than a mountain stream in the High Tatras.”