I’ve been working on the possible adaptation of Blue Skies over Berlin for a dramatic TV production.
Introducing Eva Schlessinger
Teenager daughter of a rich Aryan family in Berlin during the war, Eva insulates herself from the atrocities taking place around her by burying herself in her painting. Hans, her brutish older brother, is a guard in the SS, and their father is stationed with the Luftwaffe until his death.
Eva’s first youthful affair is with Johann Weber, a dashing young doctor who introduces her to the pleasures of sex; however, he swiftly rejects her when the relationship puts his marriage and career as a psychiatrist in jeopardy.
Broken-hearted, Eva decides to sever all links with the past by adopting Swiss nationality along with a change of identity. As Charlotte Brown she travels to London and takes a prestigious job as curator at the National Gallery. All around her, the streets of London still bear the scars of German bombs, but rebuilding is well under way and there are fortunes to be made for opportunists from all walks of society.
Property developer and ‘East End boy made good’ Bernard Morris has taken a fancy to Charlotte. He thinks she’s got class – which might rub off on him and his businesses. When he offers her a generous salary and the chance to display some of her own work, Charlotte takes over the running of his new art gallery in Cork Street.
Bernard, who has worked his way up from life in a Whitechapel tenement to the purchase of
a Georgian mansion in Mayfair, likes to believe he has an in with high society . . . but the Establishment has never taken kindly to outsiders – especially when they are Jews.
Before starting at the Morris Gallery, Charlotte is summoned to the family bank in Zurich where, as sole survivor if the Schlessingers, she learns that she has come into a substantial inheritance. The knowledge leaves her cold. She withdraws just enough funds to pay for a brief spa holiday at Johann’s sanatorium – a magnificent country house in the Swiss mountains; starved of affection, she has hopes of rekindling their affair.
True to form, however, Dr Weber ignores her. He has a pretty blonde nurse at his beck and call.
On her last day there, Charlotte is befriended by a disturbed Jewish woman named Margot Goldstein, a former cabaret artiste and permanent resident at the sanatorium: her family used to own the property and lands, but Johann has shamelessly cheated her. Margot confides the tragic tale of how she had to give up her new-born son when she fled Nazi Germany; the story affects Charlotte deeply and stays with her. Unaware of Margot’s suicide that same night, she returns to London to take up her new job.
Back in Cork Street, Charlotte has to run the gallery on her own, whilst trying to cope with the spite of his secretary, an older woman who is resentful that her boss has singled out Charlotte for special attention. Bernard, meanwhile, is busy with his other schemes.
London Establishment cronies
The people whom Bernard is so eager to impress have a ruthless side behind their veil of respectability. The most sinister is society banker Rupert Meredith – an overfed giant of a man from whom Bernard has unwisely borrowed large sums he cannot afford, and whose outward appearance of conviviality disguises a nasty streak that he will use against anyone who gets in his way.
Rupert has been instructed by Bertie Chesterfield, youthful heir to the largest private estates in London, to do whatever it takes to restore his family wealth. Large chunks of it have recently been sold off – mainly to property developers like Bernard Morris, to pay for death duties – and Bertie wants it back. Rupert is only too happy to oblige. He leans on James Robson, Bernard’s lawyer, to help him do this. James and Rupert go back a long way, and although they despise each other, neither allows this to get in the way of a lucrative working relationship.
James Robson’s connection with plundered art
Like Bernard, James is another outsider due to his humble Scottish background, However, his exceptional intelligence was put to good use by the Foreign Office during the war. Using the contacts he built up with a ring of prominent Nazis who had found refuge in South America, James arranges for huge sums of money to be laundered through the sale of artworks stolen from victims of the Holocaust. The moneys received end up as reputable deposits at the Meredith Bank.
James has pulled strings to get his glamorous wife, the predatory and bi-sexual Susana Muller, a position at Brocket’s, the famous auction house, so she can utilise her specialist knowledge of 19th -century European paintings to establish a route out of South America for some of the most sought-after lost masterpieces on the international art market.
James Robson has no qualms about taking a substantial rolling commission, which is paid into a private overseas account – private, apart from Rupert Meredith knowing about it. Robson is totally corrupt – and he also has a liking for very young girls. Setting him up to get caught for this vice is almost too easy. In order to avoid a scandal, dismissal from the Law Society, the end of his career, etc, the pressure is on for Robson to toe the banker’s line. Bernard will simply have to be sacrificed.
Charlotte receives an unexpected communication from Johann, informing her that he will be attending a medical conference in London. They spend the night together at his hotel.
Believing his story that he’s now divorced and wants to make a new life with her in Switzerland, Charlotte has no idea that there has been a big scandal at the sanatorium, partly due to Margot’s suicide, and that Johann is discredited and desperate. Charlotte, he feels sure, has been left a fortune, which would enable him to build a new clinic and re-establish himself. But when she finds written proof of another lover, the scales fall from her eyes: Johann never loved her. He has only ever made use of her.
Charlotte is attracted to Bernard, who has the good heart and solidity she craves in a man. Despite the fact that their relationship rests on a false premise – that she is Charlotte Brown and not Eva Schlessinger – they become lovers and she moves into the Mayfair house. Bernard’s mother Annie Moscovitch dies suddenly, and Charlotte meets the Morris family for the first time at the funeral. The sight of the small gathering of bearded men in black coats, feverishly praying, triggers a memory of similar individuals in Berlin, reviled and spat upon . . .and this is when she realises that Bernard is a Jew.
Bernard’s empire begins to crumble
Bernard becomes increasingly aloof due to the terrible pressures he’s under and Charlotte wrongly interprets this as him having lost interest in her. She has already decided to leave him when he suffers a severe heart attack. Remorse stabs her for not being more receptive to his needs when she learns from his brother Joe that Bernard had intended asking her to marry him before he was struck down: Joe hands over the large diamond engagement ring.
Bernard dies, leaving Charlotte to run the gallery for the Receiver who has been appointed to wind up his affairs. A mere month later, there is a new owner – Susana Muller – who has been colluding with Richard Meredith to secure the premises as a front for her family’s money-laundering activities. With unlimited funds, the gallery is immediately transformed, exhibiting priceless works of art obtained from mysterious foreign sources.
Charlotte meets David Goldstein
One afternoon, at an auction of 19th-century French painters, Charlotte sits next to a harassed young man who turns to turns out to be David Goldstein, the son of Margot, the unfortunate woman she encountered at the sanatorium. David produces photographs alleging that the paintings on show were stolen from his family during the war. Whilst sympathetic to his predicament and promising that she will help him, Charlotte finds his claim somewhat far-fetched and puts it out of her mind.
Susana has (conveniently) gone missing in an air crash from Buenos Aries to London just as evidence comes to light implicating the Muller family’s involvement in the sale of plundered works of art.
Unwittingly finding herself in the midst of a conspiracy, Charlotte turns to her solicitor, James Robson, for help and advice. Having stage-managed Susana’s disappearance in the first place, he pleads ignorance of the whole affair, saying there’s nothing he can do. From him, Charlotte learns for the first time that the banks had purposely gone all out to ruin Bernard and were largely responsible for his death.
Charlotte is out of a job. Worse, she becomes the subject of a criminal investigation and suffers a nervous breakdown. Lonely and short of money, she is tempted to draw on her inheritance, but something stops her: she knows that money is tainted. Instead, she makes ends meet by pawning Bernard’s diamond, acquired honestly from a man who, she realises too late, she valued far too little.
Re-building a life: Charlotte meets Lillian Saunders
Charlotte makes a new life teaching art; as ever, she uses the drug of painting to escape all memories of the past. On a cruise, she meets Lillian Saunders, a wealthy Jewish widow from North London who becomes her closest friend and provides her with the nearest thing to a family of her own. Lillian’s problematic adolescent daughter, Elizabeth, becomes for a while the child that Charlotte never had.
Elizabeth herself puts her difficult relationship with her mother down to some papers she found in an old leather suitcase, appertaining to Lillian’s past when, as a small child in Austria, she was sent away from home. Was it some form of punishment? the girl wonders. And why won’t her mother talk about it? Some mystery is attached to the papers, but the subject is taboo. Charlotte too wonders: is Lillian, like herself, covering up a past she hasn’t been able to confront?
Charlotte is teaching an evening course in painting, attended by Lillian. The subject is: ‘My earliest memory’. As Lillian’s sombre painting emerges over the weeks, the background, Charlotte sees, is a Vienna railway station of sixty years ago; here, as a Jewish child, Lillian was forced to abandon her parents and join the Kindertransport en route for safety in England. Looking at the painting, Charlotte becomes convinced that the blond German guard depicted in it, a bully who manhandled the child on to the train, was her brother, Hans, who had been stationed in Vienna.
Charlotte’s sense of guilt is acute. It is time for the truth to be told. She decides to confess all to Lillian in a letter – about her true identity, about her brother – and then to flee to live in Switzerland. At the last minute, she has a change of heart. The truth is acknowledged, and the friendship with Lillian acquires even greater depth.
Crime and punishment
A court action has been brought against banker Rupert Meredith, since the City offices of Meredith’s Bank were found to be lined with stolen works of art. James Robson has waited forty years to wreak his revenge on the man who had tried to ruin him. All it took in the end was a simple phone call to the press to tip them off about where the paintings from the former Muller Gallery had ended up. As far as Robson is concerned, justice has been done. Bertie, now the Earl of Chesterfield, has finally got Meredith off his back without his reputation being compromised. The victims have received partial justice for the losses they had suffered and Robson himself has been reasonably well ‘looked after’ – with a seven-figure sum for his efforts.
When Charlotte comes across a newspaper article on the case and sees it concerns reparations paid to Jewish families who had their art collections stolen by the Nazis, she suddenly remembers David Goldstein and her so far unfulfilled offer to help him. Now she decides to take action.
On her first visit back to Germany in half a century, Charlotte learns that David is still working tirelessly on restitution of property to victims of the Holocaust. Prepared to donate the vast, untouched Schlessinger family fortune to his organisation, she feels a sense of peace and completion: at last she has found the proper use for the money, allowing her to make amends before it’s too late.
Two years later, Charlotte receives a large package from David Goldstein. It contains a priceless painting by Monet – one of his water-lilies series – sent in gratitude, for David has managed to recover some of his family’s collection. This, Charlotte/Eva knows, is her reward for no longer being prepared to close her eyes.