Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 989
Part 1—1945. In 1945, at the end of World War II, asylum inmates are released in the city of Spitzen-on-the-Dein in Germany. The Allied victors left only a few overseers. One of these, Leevey, an American Jew, patrols one-third of the country on his motorcycle and is about to travel through the city. Zizendorf, the editor of the town’s newspaper, The Crooked Zeitung, is planning to kill Leevey, liberate Germany, and found a neo-Nazi state.
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Zizendorf is the lover of Jutta, the wife of the previous editor, a Nazi soldier, who was lost in Siberia during the war. Jutta and her two children live in a room on the fifth floor of Madam Stella Snow’s boardinghouse. Madam Snow is Jutta’s older sister. Herr Stintz, the schoolteacher, lives on the fourth floor, the Census-Taker on the third. The roomer who lives on the second floor, the Duke, is out, following Jutta’s son through the rubble of the city. Madam Snow lives on the first floor, consulting her tarot cards every day. Balamir, a former inmate of the asylum, is put to work by Madam Snow, unearthing furniture in the basement.
Madam Snow’s son, who returns from the war physically disabled, lives with his wife in the moving-picture house, where, each day, he shows the same film to an empty theater. The Mayor, his memory obliterated, is too blind to tend the chronicles of history. He is haunted by dreams of Pastor Miller, an innocent man who was executed because of the Mayor’s betrayal. In the newspaper office, drinking with the Census-Taker, Zizendorf thinks about the Mayor’s situation while he waits to kill Leevey. He places a log across the road where Leevey will be passing through town. Jutta’s son flees for his life from the duke, who is following him, as Jutta’s daughter, Selvaggia, watches from her window.
Part 2—1914. Stella and Ernst are inspired by their parents with romantic dreams of conquest and heroism. Singing for the soldiers in the Sportswelt Brauhaus, Stella, “the sorceress, sent them boiling and held them up for joy.” Herman Snow, proprietor of the Sportswelt, urges Ernst, his son, to win Stella, to become the conquering hero. When Cromwell takes Stella home from the Sportswelt, Ernst runs after them down the “avenue of heroes.” He appears at the side of the carriage, tells Stella he will come back, and flees to the university, where he duels with the Baron. Wounded in the groin, he goes to Stella’s, and she welcomes him. World War I begins the next day. Stella witnesses her mother’s death when an English airplane falls from the sky, sending a “splinter” into her body.
After her father, the old Prussian General, also dies, Stella marries Ernst. They go to the mountains on their honeymoon, where Ernst becomes obsessed with Christ. He begins to collect wooden crucifixes and longs for death. Cromwell comes to their hotel with news of the war. He tells Ernst “everything he did not want to know.” When Stella and Ernst return to Spitzen-on-the-Dein, they find Germany on the verge of defeat. Herman Snow was a “bare shell of the man.” Finding Ernst dying, unable to admit to this death, Herman roars: “He’s not sick!” Just before he dies, Ernst expresses hatred for his father and “was reprieved from saintliness.”
After her parents die during the early part of World War I, Jutta is placed in a nunnery. She fears the nuns, especially the Mother Superior, who crosses off from the human list each night the names of those who submitted to “the slovenly captivity of forgiveness.” When the Mother Superior comes to Jutta’s cell, Jutta tells her she has nothing to confess. Wasting away with disease, Jutta begins to recover when the Oberleutnant, director of the nunnery, becomes her lover. After using him to fulfill her needs, Jutta abandons the Oberleutnant to marry a man who becomes a Nazi soldier in World War II.
Part 3—1945. Zizendorf and two henchmen wait by the side of the road. The Duke follows Jutta’s son into the theater. Zizendorf remembers the day the Allies set up their headquarters in Madam Snow’s apartment and the Mayor betrayed Pastor Miller. Leevey fastens the red cloth about Miller’s eyes. The Colonel gives Zizendorf the only rifle containing a live cartridge. The Duke faces the boy in the theater. Herr Stintz watches a light circle along the autobahn. Leevey speeds up to go past the town. When the Duke reaches out his hand, the boy does not move.
Leevey is killed immediately when his motorcycle hits the log. With his henchmen, Zizendorf takes Leevey’s body to the swamp. They are watched by Herr Stintz and Salvaggia. Zizendorf knows someone sees them with Leevey. The Duke takes Jutta’s son toward the asylum. When Zizendorf goes back to Jutta’s room, Selvaggia tells him that she saw Leevey get killed. Zizendorf goes to Stintz’s room and murders him. Then he sets up the press in Madam Snow’s chicken coop and prints his “Indictment of the Allied Antagonists, and Proclamation of the German Liberation.”
The Duke kills Jutta’s son with his sword and dismembers him. He ties the organs and mutilated pieces in the boy’s jacket. Zizendorf decides to make Madam Snow’s house the National Headquarters. He thinks the Duke will make a good chancellor, and the Census-Taker can be secretary of state. Zizendorf and the Census-Taker go to kill the Mayor. The Duke comes to Madam Snow’s apartment. When she reads Zizendorf’s pamphlet, thrust under her door, tears of joy run down her cheeks. She goes to dine with the Duke. Zizendorf returns to Jutta’s room and gets in bed with her. When her daughter opens the door, Zizendorf says “draw those blinds and go back to sleep.” She does as she is told.