The fourth in Downing’s World War II “station” series (Stettin Station, 2010, etc.) finds journalist-spy John Russell making a Faustian pact with the Russians poised to invade Berlin, where his girlfriend Effi and son Paul struggle to survive the Reich’s final days.
From roving SS squads intent on preventing desertion to bombardment and imminent invasion by Russian soldiers bent on rape and revenge, Berlin is fraught with danger for average citizens—far worse for underground operatives like Effi who help smuggle Jews to safety or for German soldiers like Paul, at the front under heavy fire. All Russell knows is his family is trapped in Berlin and that Eisenhower has promised Berlin to the Russians, so if he’s going to get there, it’s going to be in a Russian tank. He flies to Berlin where his requests to be attached as a journalist to the Red Army unit are rebuffed, but he manages to get the authorities’ attention all the same. Eventually, the Russians agree to place him on a team searching Berlin for German atomic secrets. He’s parachuted into the surrounding environs with no idea how he’ll find his girlfriend and son, even less how he’ll avoid liquidation at the hands of the Russians once their mission ends and he represents a liability. He can’t know that Effi, harboring a Jewish orphan, has run afoul of the authorities, or even whether she and Paul are alive. Downing’s characters are a bit thin and given to disingenuous reflection on the history they’re witnessing. Certain turns of events are a little convenient, and his true mission, to save his loved ones, without clear direction and floundering in the chaos, lacks tension. The main attraction is the tragic mis-en-scène of a once-beautiful city undergoing the ravages of modern warfare, a wide-angle synthesis of scenes and snapshots from the history books.
A wide canvas painted with broad strokes. What suspense there is lies in the protagonist’s endgame, with atomic secrets up his sleeve and his loved ones’ lives in peril.