Between 1940 and 1945, 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, the concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. Hitler and most of his top men killed themselves before the Nuremberg trials could convict them of "crimes against humanity." Less well-known are the Frankfurt trials, held between 1963 and 1965, where 22 mid- and lower-level camp workers were indicted on charges of murder — beatings, shootings, injections and gas — under German criminal law.
Given our abiding fascination with the cold efficiency of Nazi mass murders, Annette Hess was brave to make those second trials the topic of her first novel, "The German House." The contrast between modern, democratic Germany, in the midst of an "economic miracle," and this eruption of its horrific past is a surefire subject of interest — one that she has buried in a flat-footed, undisciplined meander of a novel.
Hess is a TV screenwriter, and unfortunately, her talent in that field does not translate well to fiction. What are meant to be searching conversations between her characters sound like the stagy dialogues of actors who haven't internalized their roles. (Not the translator's fault; I checked.) And the protagonist, the 24-year-old woman who serves as translator for the Polish witnesses, is so naive and colorless that her dawning horror at what she learns feels more like dutiful reaction than real pain. And why did she learn Polish?
Eva Bruhns lives with her parents, older sister and younger brother above the family restaurant, cleverly named German House. Their daily life, routinely plodding along, takes up an awful lot of space. There is Eva's fiancé, Jurgen; marriage to him would be a step up in class, but also a step down into servitude, because Jurgen is the stereotypical stiff and rigid German who expects his wife to obey his orders. The two have no chemistry. Enter a potential rival for Eva's affections in the form of David Mitchell, part of the American prosecutorial team. He disdains her, then he doesn't. And then poof; he goes missing, but why? It seems like the fickle author got tired of him.
There are inexplicable side plots. We accompany sister Annegret on her nursing rounds in the neonatal unit where she carries on her demented mission of Munchausen by proxy. Eva's father becomes a hero by saving immigrant neighbors from a house fire. And there's the unpleasant affair Annegret has with her boss.
All of this stuff keeps interrupting the trial. What should be powerful testimony by camp survivors gets buried in narrative sludge. The defendants are villainous cartoons: Defendant Four is always a "beast," Defendant One has a face like a ferret and wears well-tailored suits. They are all stone-faced and not guilty. And why is one of the prosecutors named merely "the blond man"?
I see that Hess is trying to draw a contrast between German "Gemütlichkeit" (now hygge or coziness) and brutal public policy, but there's too much trivial plot clutter. Without complex characters or a probing style, what we're left with is an unengaging if honorable effort. Maybe next time.
Brigitte Frase is a critic in Minneapolis and a former winner of the National Book Critics Circle's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.