A.S. Mehta dramatises Orson Welles’s story of meeting Adolf Hitler.
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The interrogator never blinked: a calm lion deciding which part of a wounded gazelle to devour first. Welles stared back; he had used the non-blinking technique himself when performing in small theaters. It forced all eyes to focus on his face. Now all eyes at the banquet were on them, without Welles’s help. Who doesn’t want to see a gazelle’s final moment? All eyes, except for those of one man, who sat a few chairs away in the mansion’s backyard, slurping spoonfuls of Speckknödelsuppe. The taste of the soup seemed to be his only worldly concern.
“Who invited you here?” The interrogator leaned forward and placed his knuckles on the table. The tension in his arms left no doubt that he wasn’t going to repeat his question. His face was stoic, save the slight pulsation in the vein on the side of his receding hairline. The pince-nez glasses accentuated his hard stare.
Welles saw no choice but to answer. He barely spoke his interrogator’s language. He had learned a few words when he played the role of a Duke from this country. Other than that, Welles relied on his guide. That damned guide! Why did he follow him? Welles’s eyes flicked to the guide, seated across from him, next to the standing interrogator. The guide, a tall, muscular blond man, slouched in his chair trying to sink under the table.
“He asked you who invited you here.” The guide whispered again and immediately faced the interrogator.
Welles’s anger rose. “My guide invited me here. I just hired him as a sightseeing guide in Innsbruck. We went hiking in the Tyrol mountains, and after a few days he said a great man was back in the country. That someday he would be a powerful leader. That great man would be the guest at the banquet, and my guide could get me in. So here I am. I’m not sure what the hubbub is about.”
The interrogator straightened. He smoothed the sleeves of his brown military-style jacket. Though his jacket supported several ribbons and emblems, he seemed neither military nor police. He turned to Welles and spoke in English.
“He says,” the interrogator pointed to the guide, “that you are an American. Lucky or unlucky for you, I speak some of your language. How did you get in here?”
The guide began to explain in German, but he didn’t get far before the interrogator turned to Welles. “He says you’re a famous American actor. What’s your name?”
“Welles. Orson Welles.”
The interrogator motioned and conferred with three aides. One rushed away and brought back a leather portfolio. They scanned the papers, talking.
Welles leaned forward and whispered to his guide, “Who is he anyways? He doesn’t look like a policeman.”
“He’s much… more.”
“But what’s this all about? So what if I’m one guest too many? I can leave.”
“It’s too late for that, Mr. Welles,” the interrogator said. “The reason you were brought to my attention is because a guest complained that an unusual foreigner had insulted our leader.”
He stood at attention and faced the soup slurper with the funny mustache. “Our Führer!”
“Look, I…” Welles shut his mouth.
He was in real jeopardy now. For the first time, Welles realized his predicament. He considered running, but a quick look around vanquished those thoughts. The woods leading to the mountains of Innsbruck were the distance of a baseball field. Too far to run. The security men lining the backyard of the Gothic mansion would catch him before he made it three paces.
Welles turned toward his questioner. “Look, good sport. Sir. I assume you mean my comment that your leader, your Führer, didn’t look like a powerful man. In my country, America, that’s a compliment. We don’t like kings, or people who act like them. Looking like a man of the people is a good thing.”
“A convenient answer. There is one problem. You, Mr. Welles…” he leaned forward, his face only a foot away from Welles’s, “are a liar!”
Welles felt the sputum and warm stale breath on his face. The other attendees behaved like spectators at a tennis match, bobbing their heads between their Führer and the two of them, waiting for a signal from their leader.
“What do you mean?” Welles protested.
“You gained entry by claiming to be a famous American actor. That’s a lie.”
“Why? Because I’m not on your list of famous Hollywood actors?”
“We have many lists. You’re not any kind of famous actor.”
“I’ve been in Dublin for the past year. I’ve acted at the Gates Theatre and the Abbey Theatre. Look at those lists. You’ve made a huge mistake.”
“We have indeed, Mr. Welles. Our mistake was letting a charlatan actor in his thirties sit within a few meters of our Führer.”
“I said I’d leave. No harm done.”
“A great harm has been done. The party and our leader have many enemies. Officially, we have not been invited to Austria. Though it is the country of our Führer’s birth. We cannot have word get out that an insignificant man got so close to him.”
“I’ll tell no one.”
“No,” he drew out the next two words, “you won’t.”
“Look, sir, you got me all wrong. I’m just a kid. I’m sixteen.”
The interrogator snorted.
“I’ll show you,” Welles persisted.
He looked at his lap and undid the efforts of the last two years. He slouched his shoulders, unpuffed my chest, and stopped jutting out his chin. He cleared his throat and allowed his real voice to return. Then Welles looked up. “This is who I really am. What I really look and sound like. The real me.”
Welles heard murmurs from both sides. The interrogator blinked. And for the first time the Führer stared at the American.
The questioner continued, “I do not understand.”
“I’m a plain-looking guy with chubby cheeks. Such people don’t get to play handsome heroes. Two years ago, I started practicing at making people believe I looked like a hero. That included lowering my voice from a tenor to a bass-baritone,” Welles explained.
“For two years?”
“Mr. Welles, it appears you do have talent. Pity.”
He walked to the end of the table and conferred with the Führer. Two brown jacketed security men moved on both sides of Welles.
“Hey sport, how much trouble do you think I’m in?” Welles whispered to the guide. He glanced at the Führer who was speaking to an aide while giggling and nodding his head as if judging a pie-eating contest.
Finally, the interrogator returned. He motioned to two of his men. One of them tapped the guide’s shoulder, who stood and left with them without speaking.
“Where are you taking him?” Welles protested.
“That is the least of your concerns. Come with us.”
Welles stood and took a final look at the attendees. They were no longer paying attention to his presence. One man swirled his wine under his nose and took a delightful sip. Another playfully shared a pastry with his wife. The Führer continued to chat and giggle.
The interrogator and two aides corralled Welles to the front of the gothic mansion. A black sedan pulled up the circular drive. One aide sat next to the driver. The other settled in the rear and motioned to Welles to get inside. From the back seat, Welles saw an attractive woman and a four-year-old boy walk toward the interrogator. The boy left his mother’s side and ran into the interrogator’s open arms. The man lifted the child up and swung him in a full circle. The boy’s giddy laughter reached Welles’s ears. The interrogator put the boy down, gave a kiss to the woman, and walked to the waiting car. He got in and slammed the door. No one spoke as they left the mountain terrain of Innsbruck. Though it was late afternoon, the path darkened under the thick pine forest canopy covering the gravel road.
“Can you tell me where you’re taking me? I deserve the truth.” Welles turned to his tormentor.
“Truth?” the interrogator snorted. “You live a life of deception.”
“I’m just an actor.”
“A sixteen-year-old who claims to be a famous actor in America. Or is it Ireland?”
“Ireland now. I had to leave America.”
“Why?” the interrogator asked.
“My father died because of my actions a year ago. He drank himself to death after I sent him a letter. I told him I didn’t want to see him again. I thought it would make him quit. It did the opposite.”
“I fled to Dublin. To the Gates Theater. I told the manager, Hilton Edwards, I was a famous Broadway actor.”
“He believed you?”
“I think he knew I was lying. But he let me audition. I got the part. Then several more.”
“Congratulations, Mr. Welles. I think that may be the longest period you have told the truth.” He turned to the driver, “Halten Sie hier an.”
The driver pulled the car to the side of a narrow brick bridge overlaying a ten-foot wide stream.
“Do you have streams like this where you’re from, Welles?”
“It’s a nice stream. We have some like it in the Finger Lakes, in New York.”
“Not like in Austria. You need to see these up close. By the way, this is yours.” The interrogator reached into his pocket and removed Welles’s leather valise. He placed it in Welles’s front jacket pocket. “Your passport. Now, go, take a close look at our lovely stream.”
“I really don’t need to…” Welles protested.
“I insist.” He stepped out of the car, followed by the two assistants.
Welles resigned to his fate and followed the guards. “It’s nice. Can we go?”
“Mr. Welles, that’s no way to experience the water. You can remove your shoes and walk in the water.”
Welles hesitated but obeyed: he yanked off his shoes, stuck the toes into the freezing mountain water, and waded in a few feet. He climbed on a flat moss-covered stone and looked up. The two guards climbed down the steep embankment on the other side of the bridge.
“Why are they coming down?”
“Walk under the bridge, Mr. Welles.” Suddenly, the interrogator became distracted by an incoming car. Welles recognized it as local police. The white vehicle stopped. A man in a green uniform with a feathered cap exited the car and approached the interrogator. An inhospitable conversation followed. Then the official re-entered the vehicle and left.
“Come back up, Welles,” said the interrogator, annoyed.
Welles pulled on his shoes, retraced his steps, and got into the sedan. They left in silence. Welles was grateful for the Austrian policemen and for the few more minutes of life that fate had bestowed on him. His hands began to shake, and he shoved them under his legs. He might never act again; he might never get to give a perfect performance. Welles replayed the roles he had acted in over the years and reflected on mistakes. The last scene in Othello was rushed. He should have looked at the audience more in Hamlet. He remembered the production of Richard the Third, where he played the lead, and the school radio production of Sherlock Holmes, which he had adapted. He had received accolades for playing the power-hungry main character and for writing and reading the role of the villainous genius Moriarty. Yet now, Welles knew he had done them wrong. He thought of the mustached leader at the banquet. How his acolytes doted on every casual gesture and word. He turned to the interrogator, who was humming a tune and enjoying the scenery. Tonight, Welles had glimpsed true evil. These men were not frightening because of their differences; they were frightening because of their similarities to everyone else. That sameness accentuated these subtle differences. But what chilled Welles’s spine the most was the arbitrary way these evil men made stark decisions. On the stage, he had played them wrong.
“Tell me, Mr. Welles, what would you do if you could ever return to America?”
Welles reflected on the face of evil he had seen tonight: both vulgar and casual at the same time. He needed to show people what he’d seen – he needed to put them on the stage.
“Sir, I want to go back to America and start college. And I want to tell people how beautiful this country is.”
The interrogator nodded. He tapped the driver on the shoulder, and the car halted. He exited the sedan and motioned for Welles to follow. The gravel road ended in a hundred yards. Pine trees surrounded the men. The interrogator removed a silver cigarette case and offered one to Welles. The young actor shook his head.
“Goodbye, Mr. Welles.”
“Where do I go?”
“Forward. Down the hill.”
Welles stared into the woods. A thin strip of grass ran down the center. He stepped off the road and followed the grass like it was a tightrope. Click. He stopped at the sound and drew in his breath. The nerve endings in his back burned in anticipation of the searing pain of a bullet. When it did not come, Welles exhaled and continued down the path. He heard the crunching of the gravel beneath his leather soles and the escalating pounding of his heart. There was laughter behind him. Perspiration rolled down his forehead and stung his eyes. He refused to wipe them though he could no longer see. He stumbled through the dense trees. The path ended, and he swerved around. The Germans were gone. Welles pivoted to the right. The road took a sharp turn down a steep hill. At the bottom was a concrete platform. From the distance came the sounds of metal clanging and bells. A village train station.
Welles scampered down the hill and bolted to the platform. Inside the ticket booth sat a uniformed somber man.
“Sprichst du English?” Welles proffered.
The man shook his head.
“I can help,” said a kind voice behind Welles. He turned. It was a middle-aged woman with a peaked linen cap. “I’m a teacher. How can I assist?”
“Thank you so much, miss. Can you ask how much for a train…” Welles reached into his front pocket and removed the valise the interrogator had placed there. His passport and money were all there. “How much for a ticket to the Port of Calais? Are there trains to France? I need to get back to America. To go home.”