Weston Prize Nominee Andrew Steinmetz on his Obsession, and This Great Escape

Cover This Great Escape

Andrew Steinmetz' This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla has just been shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. Here, he explains how the book was born out of family lore, a movie clip, and a ten-year-long obsession. 

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This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla is the record of my almost ten-year obsession—indeed a crazy-ass obsession, as a reviewer has classified it already—to tell the story of my second cousin, Michael Paryla, a part-Jewish actor who had a bit part in the movie The Great Escape, acting alongside a cast that included Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, and James Garner. 

Michael Paryla was born in Vienna in 1935. His parents had fled Germany in 1933, immediately following the Reichstag Fire. They both were actors. His father, Karl Paryla, was Austrian and was politically active, a communist. Michael’s mother, Eva, had a Jewish background. 

Michael spent his childhood a war refugee in Switzerland, and in 1946 at the age of 14 he moved from Zurich to the Russian Zone of post-war Berlin, where he stayed until he emigrated to Canada in 1949. 

In Canada, he attended high-school in Sault Saint Marie and university in Montreal. But he returned to Germany in 1956 to become a theatre actor. 

He died in Hamburg, on January 21st, 1967, the same evening he was perform in GB Shaw’s The Apple Cart at the illustrious Thalia Theatre. He was 32 years old. I never met him. 

Michael Paryla. Seen by millions, never noticed, eclipsed by that Hollywood firmament of stars. And he was uncredited for his role in the movie. 

 

I grew up knowing two things about him. One: that he was an actor and had a role in The Great Escape in which he—a refugee from Nazism, from a part-Jewish family that had fled Germany—played a Gestapo agent. I also knew that he had died relatively young from an overdose—a mix of alcohol and barbiturates. Perhaps it had been an accident, but maybe it was suicide. Either way, it was a tragedy.

My obsession with telling his story started a bit later. Somewhere along the line I must have posited a causal relationship between him having had that role in The Great Escape, and him dying young from an overdose, as though the movie role had somehow directed his fate. 

I started to hypothesize that maybe he had made some kind of Faustian decision, a deal with the devil. He would play this Gestapo agent in order to fast-track his career and then he couldn’t live with his actions, ending up dying a few years later. I realize this was a leap; it was wrong-headed, confusing causation with correlation. 

But, for better or worse, prophetic or crazy-assed, it's from there that I started working on The Case of Michael Paryla.

The book is a hybrid. Genre can be a sort of prison camp for the writer, and I wanted to escape from convention. I wanted to treat a traditional subject matter in an inventive manner. 

When I set out to write about Michael, I promised myself that if I was going to take a traditional subject—that of family history and family memoir—then at least I would make an attempt to make it new and fresh. I wanted the thing to be as imaginative and spectacular as the original escape plan of the prisoners of Stalag Luft III.

Many chapters in the book have different styles or tones because each chapter deals with a different layer of Michael’s story. I believe content and form, rightly harnessed and bonded by some sort of alchemy, should guide the writing and not the conventions of some overarching genre such as the third-person biography, which might “speak” with an academic or moderate voice that presumes to be objective and to know the "truth." As a reader I’ve long had the suspicion that non-fiction voice is a trope, and the non-fiction narrator’s voice is often as artificial as the voice of a character in a novel. In any case, it is the voice of a carefully manufactured persona.

One of the first things I did when I began working on this book is I got a DVD copy of the movie and watched Michael’s 57 seconds over and over for hours and for days, fast-forwarding him, fast-rewinding him, pausing him, and putting him on play. I wanted to believe I could discern most of what there was to learn about Michael by watching how he behaved stranded in the no man’s land of the motion picture—never mind his biographical details, his diary, or oral history. In retrospect, that’s pretty crazy-assed. But I went with it, treated the experience as an experiment, and it turned out to be fruitful and a lot fun. 

 

(Michael Paryla appears in this clip at 4:56)

When I write, I like to hang out on that corner where improvisation and obsession meet. A lot of interesting things can happen there. My rule of thumb comes from Walter Benjamin: “These are days when no one should rely unduly on his competence. Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.” 

Since Michael Paryla was an actor, this resonated doubly while working on This Great Escape

Andrew Steinmetz

Born in Montréal, Andrew Steinmetz is the author of a memoir, Wardlife, and two collections of poetry, Histories and Hurt Thyself. His novel, Eva's Threepenny Theatre, tells the story of his great-aunt Eva, who performed in one of first touring productions of Bertolt Brecht's masterpiece The Threepenny Opera in 1928. An unusual fiction about memoir, Eva's Threepenny Theatre won the 2009 City of Ottawa Book Award and was a finalist for the 2009 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. Steinmetz is also the founding editor of Esplanade Books, the fiction imprint at Véhicule Press. This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla is his latest book.

September 23, 2013
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