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...
(The entire section is 826 words.)