With the most sprawling POW film ever produced as its backdrop, This Great Escape details the short but eventful life of Michael Paryla, a part-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who moved to Canada with his mother in 1949, only to return to Germany seven years later to become an actor. Among his roles: an uncredited 57-second appearance in the 1963 film The Great Escape as, of all things, a Gestapo agent.
Part biography, part memoir, and part mystery, Andrew Steinmetz’s follow-up to his 2008 novel, Eva’s Threepenny Theatre, is, like its predecessor, a genre-bending exploration. Employing diary entries, first-hand testimonials, and an occasionally irreverent, postmodern tone, Steinmetz investigates the storied production of John Sturges’s classic film in an attempt to uncover details surrounding the life and tragic death of Paryla, a man who aspired to greatness but managed only to skirt the edge of history.
It is clear that, for Steinmetz, this is a personal journey; however, he struggles to find a clear narrative through-line for his story. Paryla’s somewhat ethereal existence – marked by displacement, a lack of discipline, and being forced to live in his successful father’s shadow – is often overwhelmed by details of The Great Escape itself, including analysis of the film’s main characters, descriptions of the tunnels used to shoot the climactic sequence, even examinations of which lead actors had been in the war and whether the experience influenced their on-screen performances.
Additionally, the many different narrative techniques tend to detract from the momentum. The book has an erratic, sometimes manic feel that hampers the reader’s immersion in the material. As it crosscuts between conversations and different writing styles, Paryla recedes into the background, absent from his own story, while the author steps into the spotlight.
Things begin to settle down once Steinmetz arrives in Hamburg, and the chapter “Stop Pause Play” proves most essential in fastening together a cohesive narrative out of what otherwise comes across as an uneven collection of scenes.