Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Romancing the Enemy

Two lovers on opposite sides of a war, or of any human conflict, has been a universal theme throughout the long history of art and literature. We need only recall Shakespeare’s feuding Montagues and Capulets to exemplify the tale of ill-fated love. Modern fiction and film carry on this heartrending tradition.

When I first envisioned my World War II romance novel, In the Arms of the Enemy (contracted with The Wild Rose Press), I chose the brutal setting of a war as the perfect foil to offset a tender love story. As a literary device, what obstacle could more dramatically keep ‘boy from girl’ than forcing them to face each other in battle, at least metaphorically?

As an added challenge to my prospective readers, I costumed my hero in a German uniform, casting him as an officer in the dreaded Army of the Third Reich. For the average American romance reader, a character in this role evokes little sympathy. And how could a courageous heroine, fighting for her country’s freedom against the invading Nazis, possibly fall in love with such a brute?

I’d like to take full credit for this ingenious plot invention but this is not new ground. Since the end of World War II, books and movies have been released with plots hinging on, or at least hinting at this theme. The poignancy of ‘star-crossed lovers’, thrown together by the vagaries of war, doomed by circumstance to tragedy, fascinates and enthralls the romantically inclined among viewers and readers.

Françoise, a young Frenchwoman in the 1958 film The Young Lions, at first despises the attentions of Lieutenant Christian Diestl, viewing him as just another German swine occupying her country. Finally able to see beyond the Wehrmacht uniform to Christian’s humanity, she overcomes her distaste and ends up willingly in his arms.

While Françoise merely feels antipathy towards the Germans, Jewish heroine Rachel Stein in Black Book (2006) actively fights them. After witnessing the massacre of her family by the Nazis she joins the Dutch Resistance, assuming the identity of Ellis de Vries, a beautiful Gentile woman who beds German officer Ludwig Müntze. Rachel/Ellis manages to infiltrate German headquarters to gain information for the Resistance. Ludwig turns out to be not such a bad Nazi after all, protecting his lover from the really bad Nazis when he discovers what she is up to. Though her affair with the handsome German begins as a ruse to spy on the enemy, she can’t help falling in love with him.

One might wonder how much romance can be found in a film with virtually no female roles, set aboard a U-boat fathoms beneath the Atlantic. But as we watch the forlorn German sailor in Das Boot (1981) read his French girlfriend’s love letter and gaze wistfully at her photograph, we know as well as he that their affair is doomed. Any fragment of hope for ‘happily-ever-after’ dissolves when he tells his shipmate that she is pregnant. With a half-German bastard in her womb, her prospects of avoiding the vengeance of her countrymen are almost as remote as her lover’s chances of surviving the depth charges of the Allies.

In Michael Wallner’s wrenching novel April in Paris, Corporal Roth finds emotional refuge from his distasteful duties at German headquarters by posing as a Frenchman when off-duty, trying to blend in with the locals. His flawless French accent conceals his identity as a member of the occupying Army. Little does he know that Chantal, the Frenchwoman he romances, is connected with the Resistance. Tragically, as with all of the movies cited above, their affair is destined for heartbreak.

The message here, I’d like to think, is that men and women are first and foremost human beings, not merely a nationality, religion or race. And human beings can’t help but succumb to love, at least as often as they succumb to hate. For a German Romeo and a French/Dutch/Jewish Juliet, plunged into the horrors of the Second World War, lifelong bliss is all but an impossible dream. Yet if you’re intrigued by a love affair between enemies, you needn’t despair of a happy ending. Just wait for the publication of my novel, In the Arms of the Enemy. You’ll be hearing more about that in the months to come…