Fredric Stahl is "the sympathetic lawyer, the kind aristocrat, the saintly husband, the comforting doctor, or the good lover." At least onscreen.
He's an American movie star, born in Vienna, and says "my dear" with a kind of dreamy, trans-European cosmopolitan allure that makes him seem "a warm man in a cold world." He's also the hero of Alan Furst's new novel, Mission to Paris, set in Furst's favorite locale: Europe on the brink of war.
Warner Brothers makes a one-picture swap: Gary Cooper for Stahl, who is sent to Paris to make a film about the French Foreign Legion. He discovers a Paris that is sultry, lovely and inviting — especially to Nazi "agents of influence" who are multiplying in the city in 1938.
Stahl lands in hot water after telling an interviewer that he thinks war is futile — a sentiment closely associated with the French right wing, which, with Nazi support, is pressing to keep France out of the coming war. Now, both the Americans and the Germans are very interested in what he might say and do.
"He is, like any large-screen personality of the time, potentially a very important agent of influence," Furst tells NPR's Scott Simon. Sports stars weren't the cultural force then that they are now, but "everybody went to the movies," he says. "They went to the movies on every continent, and they went every night."
The Germans recruit Stahl at one point, although he resists, to judge a festival of "mountain films," a genre popular in Nazi Germany. "They loved the idea of being outdoors, but they also liked the spiritual side of it, that you climbed and climbed until you stood on the peak in the sunlight, and that was supposed to be morally instructive to the German society," Furst says.
Furst does intensive research to uncover things like the German love of "mountain films."
"When I read period material — and it ain't on Google — I am always alert for that one incredible detail," Furst says. "I'll read a whole book and get three words out of it, but they'll be three really good words."
For example, he says, at the farewell banquet for the "mountain film" festival, the tables are decorated with marzipan tanks and planes — a detail he got from a contemporary diary. "And when I saw marzipan tanks and planes, I thought, that's too good, I can't leave that out. That has to go somewhere in the book," he says.
The candy tanks are a lighthearted touch, but there are plenty of dark moments in Mission to Paris. Furst writes about Kristallnacht, the night of Nazi-backed attacks on Jewish homes and businesses, but at a certain distance — not close up.
Furst says he wanted to reproduce a moment in history in such a way that his readers could see themselves as part of it. "It wouldn't have been strange or unusual for someone to say, 'Oh, you know, we were in the Adlon [hotel] that night, when there was Kristallnacht.' Really, did you see anything? 'Well, no, not exactly, but we certainly smelled the burning,'" he says. "I prefer that to having somebody run out and punch a Gestapo person and get away with it. Forget it. That was not the way life was in Berlin at that time."