Sylvie: A day in the life of a French film star
I slide out of the shiny, black Mercedes-Benz with two miniature swastika flags waving in the breeze. I feel a tug at my heart when I’m back here in the old neighborhood in the 11e arrondissement filled with age-old ateliers, workshops devoted to the art of making beautiful things. A creative spirit lives on here from the days when workers crafted exquisite décor for the aristocracy. Golden doorknobs, Chinese silk wallpaper, gilded wood paneling.
I inhale the smell of freedom born here in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine during the Revolution. Now the Germans occupy Paris and it remains bottled up.
Waiting to uncork.
The tension in the air makes me tighten my gut as I take in the familiar sights of the narrow passageway. The vine-covered walls, cobblestones polished with the patina of footsteps from the past, curious faces sneering at me through multi-paned windows, telling me I’m not welcome.
I feel like a crushed rose in a bouquet.
Still, I can’t help but relive the days when I was young and innocent to the ways of politics.
It’s not something I’m proud of, but I can’t ignore being chosen as one of Goebbels’ select few in French cinema.
Not if I want to survive.
Before I can take a breath, the Nazi staff car is surrounded by an unruly crowd. I wasn’t expecting a welcoming committee.
Or not so welcoming.
Banging dented pots. Waving a dead fish. Holding their noses. I feel a rising frustration, not to mention a great hurt, at their indignation, but I can’t let anything sway my mission. Or do anything that looks suspicious. I have a message to deliver right under the nose of the SS officer breathing down my neck. Besides, you never know who’s watching you.
I smile big, put my game face on. Play to the crowd. After all, I am an actress.
‘Bonsoir, mes amis, je suis Sylvie Martone…’
‘We know who you are,’ I hear from the crowd.
‘We don’t want you here.’
The mood gets ugly when someone spits on the toe of my elegant black pump.
I grit my teeth and ignore it, knowing my leather-soled shoe is another reminder of the hated German occupiers and the pain and sacrifice forced upon Parisians. I’m well aware they don’t have enough to eat, they’re obligated to observe curfews, and they patch the soles of their shoes with varnished wood.
I dine at the Hȏtel Ritz, move about the city freely, and sport haute couture high heels courtesy of the studio wardrobe department. New leather shoes are impossible to come by since the Germans requisitioned millions of pairs from the shops and boutiques to send to the Vaterland, a phrase I hear often from my handsome escort.
Captain Karl Lunzer. An SS officer from Berlin, decorated hero to hear him tell it, avid sportsman, and trusted aide to a top Nazi Wehrmacht commander stationed here in Paris. He wears his status well as an officer in a finely pressed, grey-green uniform along with a Luger pistol in his belt, and black leather gloves. A tall, lean man with his bright blond hair cut so short on the sides it bristles. He has a fetish for carrying a polo whip with a brown leather handle, which he is quick to use at the slightest provocation.
He’s glued to my side like a postage stamp I can’t get rid of. I pretend not to notice the spontaneous gesture of defiance on my poor shoe. Karl is not so forgiving.
‘Get back in the motorcar, Sylvie. It’s not safe for you here.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Karl,’ I toss back at him, then grab a tied bunch of yellow daffodils from the leather seat of the luxury motorcar parked near the carriage gate. I keep my smile big but my voice low so only he can hear me. ‘These are my fans.’
‘I must insist, Liebling…’
I pat his arm and then wet my lips. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
It takes every ounce of self-restraint I have left to keep smiling, not lash out at my old neighbors for putting my mission in jeopardy. The bigger I smile, the more tension I feel, my body vibrating with a familiar anxiety, similar to what comes over me when someone forgets their lines and I have to improvise. And do it fast.
But this is no movie set.
The fools. Don’t they know the whole lot of them could be shot?
I quiet my breathing, sway my shoulders to catch Karl’s eye, knowing that although he exhibits meticulous manners around me, he’s an SS officer known for inflicting justice on anyone who challenges his authority. I cringe, remembering earlier today when we rushed out of Aux Deux Magots café after raising a toast to the premiere later of my new film, Le Masque de Velours de Versailles (The Velvet Mask of Versailles), his Nazi cohorts downing beer after beer. I couldn’t ignore the note slipped under my plate at the café demanding my immediate attention.
The flower of the day is yellow daffodils.
I froze. The color of danger.
A change of plans. I couldn’t let my fear show, alert Karl anything was amiss. The late afternoon sun cast the perfect light on my skin, my black Fedora cocked at a right angle as I smiled and asked the dashing lieutenant sitting across from me to film us with my home movie camera. A spontaneous whim on my part to allay suspicion from my actions and keep up my act in front of my German admirers.
That only attracted more attention.
I couldn’t escape the press eager to photograph France’s ‘beloved actress Sylvie Martone with her new Nazi friends’. As a newsman snapped a photo of us posing in front of the silver Mercedes, all I could think about was, Emil will love all this publicity.
Then we raced off, headed to the private screening, but not before the SS officer harassed a poor soul crossing the street who failed to get out of the way, forcing the staff car to hit the curb. Without a backward glance, Karl bolted out of the car and struck the man’s face with his whip, drawing blood. My adrenaline spiked, my sense of decency pushing me forward to help him, but the deprecating look on Karl’s face stopped me. I did nothing. And for that I’m ashamed.
When Karl got back into the motorcar, he chatted about his last post in Warsaw as if nothing had happened. How ugly the city is now, in ruins from the fighting, and how grateful he is Hitler spared Paris and she retained her beauty. Like you, Fräulein, he was quick to add, kissing my hand and glaring at my breasts straining through the silk. I answered him with a wide smile, playing my part as his companion.
I didn’t dare show any indication of the unpleasant sensation that hit me when he touched me. No wrinkling of my brow or teary eyes, only a forced smile. A difficult moment. He’d take any show of unpleasantness as a sign of my distaste for der Fuehrer, something I wasn’t careful enough in the past to disavow. It took me a while to convince the captain I find being in his presence most attractive. I can’t afford to let anything get in the way of that… even the natural changes my body is experiencing as a new life grows within me. A secret I must keep from Karl, my fans. I never expected this at thirty-three… quite an inappropriate time for it to happen to me, but I feel blessed.
I talked Karl into stopping at a flower market along the way so I could greet fans and boost awareness of my first film opening since the Occupation, then pass by my old apartment in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine before heading to Le Grand Rex. He seemed to genuinely enjoy mingling with the curious onlookers smiling and nodding at us. He took a daffodil from the bunch I bought and handed it to the elderly madame selling the blooms, telling her in decent French she reminded him of his grand-mère. I regarded him with a wistful sigh. For a moment, he seemed almost human. I soon wiped that attribute from his slate.
He is and always will be a Boche. A not-so-flattering term for the German occupiers.
Now, wary of jeopardizing my mission, my body shakes with uncertainty at how to deal with this spitting incident. My nerves are getting to me. My stomach plummets and I swallow down a bout of nausea. I have only myself to blame. I knew suggesting we come by here might put me in a heartbreaking dilemma.
I swallow hard, hoping Karl doesn’t grasp the intensity of my toothy smile. Even when I don’t feel it, I act the part, never forgetting how hard I worked to get here.
It’s important to me to show the people of Paris I’m still their Ninette. That doesn’t stop me from feeling like an imposter. Tears sting my eyes as I wonder what happened to the memorable character I created in silent film serials back in the late 1920s. I keep asking myself, how did I, Ninette, end up holding on to the arm of an SS officer? Nuzzling up to the Nazi swine like a she-hound in heat, the foul smell of his deeds rubbing off me and staining my soul?
These Parisians staring at me were once my neighbors when I was starting out in pictures. I lived here back then, at number 23, a three-story, white stone building with ivy climbing up the walls and a hand-carved blue door. They helped make me a star, drank rich espresso with me on cool mornings while they acted out their favorite scenes from my early films. Before I became box office gold, according to Emil, the director who discovered me as a teen.
Now they hate me.
Ten or fifteen hearty souls gather around me, staring, waiting for something dreadful to happen. I let my gaze wander over the motley group, knowing their foibles. Like the baker’s wife with the big laugh, or the wizened cabinet maker, or the aging soubrette. And the teenage girl with freckles and glasses, her mother using her broom to sweep her daughter inside whenever a lad smiled at her. All waiting for the deadly reprisal of the SS, the smirk, the arrogance, followed by a keen shot from a Luger or a public beating. I feel the intensity of their foreboding, believing someone will be singled out to pay for the rash deed of spitting on my shoe. No one runs. That would define them as the guilty one.
Instead they wait.
Their angst hangs heavy in the air as I step forward, my arms filled with daffodils tightly bound with coarse string. I ignore the shiny spittle on my expensive shoe as I look up and down the cloistered passageway. The inhabitants of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine do their best to keep out the distasteful flags of the Third Reich, for whatever happens outside, German soldiers have no reason to wander in here. No brothels, no tabac shops. The street seems untouched by the Occupation, its secret passageways revealed behind black iron doors you only have to swing open… if you know the secret and, thank God, the soldiers in grey-green and black hobnailed boots don’t.
‘Shall I arrest them all, Sylvie?’
Karl brandishes his whip, cracking it against the stone wall washed clean of the blood of the revolutionaries. The sound is as chilling as if he were striking bare flesh. I abhor his show of power, like he’s a bully on a school ground. The younger ones clap their hands over their ears, the women make the sign of the cross. The men shield them with their bodies.
I draw the line here.
‘No, Karl,’ I say in a clear voice, laying my hand on his arm. ‘These are my fans… whatever happened is merely a mistake, n’est-ce pas?’ I scan each face, my eyes pleading for them not to make things worse.
‘We’re not your fans anymore,’ comes a daring speech from a woman with a baby on her hip, her blue apron soiled and dirty.
‘I still like your movies,’ spouts a girl of about fifteen. Her eyes sparkle with admiration for a moment, then she holds her nose and furrows her brows. ‘I don’t like him.’ She points to Karl, who steps forward, forcing the girl to jump back into the crowd, who form a protective barrier around her.
‘That girl needs to be taught a lesson.’
‘She doesn’t understand, Karl, how hard you and Herr Goebbels are working to keep the French culture alive.’ There’s no one more hated in Paris than Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda for the Reich. Holding the bouquet with my black suede gloved hand, I continue. ‘That’s why we’re here… to invite them to see my new film.’
‘What’s the name of your film?’ The fifteen-year-old dares to peek her head out. I grin. Ah, the audacity of youth. I remember it well.
‘Le Masque de Velours de Versailles,’ I answer with an eagerness that lightens the mood. I project my voice to the crowd so everyone can hear me, keeping my tone upbeat, a bit sugary not squeaky. Like I’m doing a voiceover to promote my films. ‘It’s the story of a milkmaid in the Sun King’s court who becomes a spy when she catches Louis’ eye and then saves her little sister from a nasty sultan’s harem.’ Wild escapades of a heroine rising up against authority, exactly what moviegoers want these days. ‘I hope you’ll come to see it when it opens next week at the Gaumont.’ Undaunted by the tension in the air, I dig into my jacket pocket, grab some tickets and wave them above my head.
‘Oh, yes, please!’ The perky girl with the glasses and freckles holds her hand out, but her mother grabs her by the arm and pulls her back.
‘You ain’t taking nothing from that woman,’ she spews in a husky voice. Her square face is flushed, grey hair escaping from the plaid scarf wound tight around her head. ‘She ain’t the Sylvie Martone we used to know.’ Her words are harsh, but her eyes betray disappointment and that hurts me the most. I’ve always prided myself on being an actress who can make an audience cry and bellow with laughter, who can incite intense anger as they stare at me up on the silver screen. But never disappointment in my performance… never walk away shaking their head. Now it’s because of my acting ability they turn against me and therein lies the hurt.
I can’t tell her the truth…
I leave the movie tickets sitting on a nearby wrought iron table, knowing full well the children will grab them after I’m gone. Behind me I hear—
Whispering. I know what they’re thinking as I walk up to number 23 and knock on the weathered wood. Then again. No one answers. I turn. ‘Where is Fantine?’
A rhetorical question. Only I know why Fantine won’t answer the door.
‘She’s too ashamed to show her face, mademoiselle…’ says the woman, leaning on her broom, ‘with the likes of him stinking up the street.’ Her proud, lined face sets into a sneer, her short, pudgy nose wrinkling with distaste.
I hear Karl snarl like a hungry tomcat.
My arms filled with yellow daffodils. I step forward when I see him reach for his Luger.
Not so fast.
If I have to play this part, I may as well use it to my advantage. These are my people even if they hate me. I’ll not let him make them any more miserable than they already are.
‘Please tell Fantine I brought these yellow daffodils to cheer her up.’ My whole body is tingling though fatigued. I find it harder to keep up the pace I’m used to. I pray my hormones adjust and I don’t make a fool out of myself. Though I’m thrilled with the changes within my body, it’s got to remain my secret… I have to act the movie star, deal with the insolence of the crowd. They don’t want me hanging around their neighborhood even if I own the apartment and hired a woman to take care of it.
A woman they adore. Fantine is a charitable ex-baroness, twice widowed with a raspy voice, a kind-hearted soul with a limp, giving them cheese she commandeers from the black market, watching their babies when they have to queue up for bread, always ready with a cheerful tune to lift their spirits.
No wonder she doesn’t want to come out when her employer is hated so much, they say to themselves.
I fight to keep smiling, knowing why Fantine can’t show her face, but they’ll never know my secret.
‘I’ll place the daffodils outside for her.’ I lay them on the neatly kept stoop. ‘It’s important she gets the flowers.’
‘You may leave them, mademoiselle,’ says the woman with the broom, ‘only because they’re for Fantine.’
‘Merci.’ I nod. I feel confident the blooms will remain undisturbed until a pair of large, steady hands removes them, the message received. A life depends on it. The locals would never reveal what happens here after curfew, thanks to the pride instilled in them since so many who fight against the Nazis call here home.
I grin, mission accomplished. I slip my arm through Karl’s.
‘Come, Karl, we’ll be late for the premiere.’
Cheers at our departure, then more jibes tossed at me. By heckling me, my old neighbors in the working class district perform their parts well.
For that, I’m grateful. Or lives will be lost. Including the man I love.
As the big, silver Mercedes races through the winding streets on the Right Bank, I break into a sweat. I lean forward and hold onto the door handle as the touring car enters the traffic circle, then makes a sharp right onto the Boulevard Voltaire. My stomach turns… but I can’t reveal to the handsome SS officer sitting next to me why I feel faint…
All that matters is, in his eyes I’m Sylvie Martone, film star – and Nazi collaborator.
I can never let him believe otherwise.
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