Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 826
It is a chilly March, and through the endlessly revolving front doors of one of Berlin’s ritziest hotels, guests arrive and depart. Sitting alone in the lobby, Dr. Otternschlag sips cognac and watches the lobby’s furious activity with cool detachment. His face is scarred and he has a glass eye—he took a shell in the face during World War I. The dashing Baron Felix von Gaigern, a guest at the hotel, creates a buzz as he crosses the lobby, puffing an expensive cigar and peeling off heavy tips for the hotel employees. By trade, Gaigern is a gambler, by vocation he is a thief.
Gaigern is drawn to Elisaveta Grusinskaya, a Russian ballet dancer staying at the hotel who, despite her perfect figure and luminous presence, is long past her prime and now performs in half-empty theaters before indifferent audiences. What attracts Gaigern, however, is a strand of pearls the dancer reputedly keeps in her hotel room. He breaks into her room while he knows she is at the theater, but she surprises him. She had left the performance at intermission, overwhelmed by the realization of her career spiral. Far from being alarmed by the intruder, however, Grusinskaya falls under his charismatic charm; they make love. The next morning, Gaigern professes his love for the dancer and even tells her (although she is half asleep) that he is a thief. Before slipping out, he gallantly returns the strand of pearls.
Meanwhile, Otto Kringelein has checked into the hotel. A junior bookkeeper at a minor cotton-processing facility outside Berlin, he is living now way beyond his means. After he found out that he has terminal stomach cancer, he cashed in his retirement funds, determined at last to live his life, after an unremarkable life of providing for his family. He meets the baron in the hotel bar, and they strike up a friendship—Kringelein drawn to the baron’s energy, and the baron drawn, in part, by the prospects of a mark carrying a wad of money.
Over the next two days, the baron introduces the bookkeeper to excitement. They attend the ballet, they gamble in a casino, go flying, and attend a hotly contested prize fight, with Kringelein fighting off waves of pain. In a remarkable run of luck, Kringelein wins a tidy amount of money at the gaming tables.
A letter from Kringelein’s wife tells him that the cotton-processing company has refused a claim to repair the stove in their home (an apartment they rent from the company). Kringelein, incensed over the company’s treatment of him and his wife after he had served the company for twenty years, confronts Preysing, the director of the factory. Preysing is in Berlin and staying at the same hotel; he is on business to finalize a major deal. The confrontation between Kringelein and Preysing is heated, but in the end Kringelein backs down. The excitement causes him great physical duress, and he ends up in his hotel bed sedated with morphine administered by Dr. Otternschlag.
What Kringelein does not know, however, is that the deal has fallen through and that Preysing is facing economic ruin. Preysing had brought with him an office stenographer, Flämmchen, to help with the paperwork, but he has become entranced by her sultry sexiness. She is an aspiring actor who has done risqué modeling. Preysing, getting a haircut in the hotel, sees one of her ads in a magazine. He entices her to agree to go away with him on a “business trip” to England, and she coolly negotiates for remuneration and a new wardrobe in return for becoming his mistress.
Preysing and Flämmchen finalize their arrangements in Preysing’s hotel room, surprising the baron hiding in his room. The baron is hoping to rob Preysing, thinking he is a wealthy executive, to secure enough money to join Grusinskaya in Prague. In the ensuing confrontation, Preysing kills the baron accidentally when he...
(The entire section contains 1952 words.)
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