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|Erich Kästner (1899-1974)|
German satirist, poet and novelist, whose military experiences made him pacifist after World War I and opponent of totalitarian systems. Kästner is best known for his juvenile novels, but they were not popular among Nazis – his famous Emil und die Detektive (1929) did not first get publishing permit. Kästner's children's books reflected his social optimism based on his belief in the renewing power of the each new generation of youth. His books have been popular with Israeli children.
Erich Kästner was born in Dresden, the only child of Emil Kästner, a saddler, and Ida (Augustin) Kästner. When Emil could not continue his special line of work, he ended up in a luggage factory. To help to support the family, Ida took odd jobs as a semstress and hairdresser. Kästner attended the Lehrerseminar, a teacher's training college. During World War I he was conscripted into an infantry regiment for a year. The experience made him a life-long opponent of militarism. After military service, he studied German literature at Leipzig university. In the 1920s he worked in a bank and contributed to the pacifist Die Weltbühne and other papers. In 1925 Kästner received his Ph.D. for a dissertation on Frederick II and German literature. Kästner's early works, collections of poems, appeared in the 1920s.
When Kästner lost an editorial position after publishing 'Abendlied des Kammervirtuosen' (Evening Song of the Chamber Virtuoso), an erotic poem, he moved in 1927 to Berlin, and became a freelance writer. Upon publishing Ein Mann gibt Auskunft(1930) Kästner devoted himself entirely to writing. In 1931 he was elected to the membership of the German PEN club.
Kästner gained first wider fame with the juvenile novel Emil and the Detectives. It has been dramatized and filmed several times. Emil Tischbein, the hero of the novel was featured also in Emil und die drei Zwillinge (1933). In his books written for young readers, Kästner used humour to expose human folly and social ills.
Emil und die Detektive - Emil and the Detectives (1931), film directed by Gerhard Lamprecht, screenplay by Billie Wilder, starring Rolf Wenkhaus (Emil), Käthe Haack (Emil's mother), Fritz Rasp, Rudolf Bierbrach, Olga Engl, Inge Landgut. Remade in 1935 as Emil and the Detectives, directed by Milton Rosmer, original screenplay Billie Wilder. – Following the novel closely but not exactly, the film depicts a valiant boy from Neustadt. Emil is sent off to Berlin to visit his grandmother and his cousin. His mother gives him 140 marks to give to Grandma. On a train a fellow passenger steals the money. In Berlin Emil spots the thief on a streetcar. He finds assistance from a gang of Berlin street kids. They follow the thief into a hotel, but Emil don't find the money from the man's room. Next morning a hundred or so children follow the man to a bank, where he tries to change a hundred-mark bill. Emil can prove that the money is his – there is hole in the bill from his pin. The man turns out to be a wanted bank robber. Emil gets a reward, which he uses to buy his mother a new hair dyer. – The novel concludes with a triple moral. When each character has been asked what he or she has learned, Emil responds that you can't trust anybody, his mother says that you can't allow children to travel alone, and Grandma states that you should send the money through the post office. – Kästner complained that the screenplay vulgarized the story. Kästner had written the original script in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger.
In the 1920s, the most lively art form in Berlin was the literary political cabaret. In the stage procuctions, Kästner cooperated with Kurt Tucholsky, "a fat little Berliner who tried to stem the catastrophe with his typewriter", as the author himself put it. Many of his lyrics were set to music and performed in cabarets. 'Das Abschiedsbrief' (The Farewell Letter) was composed by Kurt Weill. In one of his poems Kästner parodied Goethe's 'Mignon song': "Do you know the land where cannons are in bloom? /You don't? You're going to!"
If we had won the war – good heavens! –
As a poet Kästner represented the "new factualism" movement that began in Germany in the 1920s. In the four collections of verse published between 1928 and 1932, he combined stylistic elements of expressionism with conservative verse forms and his own social philosophy. The accuracy of Kästner's view of the prewar Germany was well exemplified in his satirical poem 'Kennst du das Land, wo die Kanonen blüchen?' (1928, Knowst Thou the Land Where Only Cannons Grow?), in which he predicted the rise of Nazism. Walter Benjamin criticized Kästner's poems, coining the phrase "left-wing melancholia". According to Benjamin, the left melancholic "takes as much pride in the traces of the former spiritual goods as the bourgeois do in their material goods."
Kästner's tragic novel Fabian (1931, Fabian: The Story of a Moralist) was a story about Germany's "lost generation", in which he analyzed the chaotic last years of the Weimar Republic. Jakob Fabian, the moralist of the title, loses his low-paid job, girlfriend, and his friend commits suicide. Fabian returns to his home town, Dresden, but there is no hope for him. "What was the point of his staying in this town, in this box of building-bricks gone mad?" Kästner asked. "After all, he could watch Europe's decline and fall just as easily from the town where he was born." Despite the sad tone, the book has its humorous moments. With his friend Fabian visits a lesbian bar, the "Cousine." Later on Kästner's view of women, who dress in tuxedos smoke cigars, and drink hard liquor, has been criticized for making them symbols of urban degeneracy. The Nazis attacked the book because of its sex scenes. "There was a mirror on one side of the lift. Fabian took out his handkerchief and rubbed the blotches from his face. His tie was askew. His temple was burning; and the pale blonde was looking down at him. "Do you know what a megaera is?" he asked. She put her arms around him. "Yes, but I'm prettier."
In spite of the pressure of the Nazis, Kästner refused the membership of Reich Chamber of Literature, controlled by Goebbels's propaganda ministry. He also refused to move to Switzerland. From 1933 to 1945 he was prevented from publishing his books in his home country – they appeared first in Switzerland. Emil and the Detectives remained still available also in Germany. Unlike several other intellectuals and writers, who suffered from Nazi policy, Kästner remained in Germany during Hitler's rule. He was among the few authors, perhaps the only, who was present, when the Nazis burned books in May 1933, his own included.
Kästner was arrested by the Gestapo in 1934 and 1937 because he used to cross the border regularly to consult his Swiss publisher. For Josef von Baky's Münchhausen (1943), starring Hans Albers in the title role, he wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym of Berthold Bürger. The spectacular Agfacolor production was set in motion by the propaganda minister Josef Göbbels to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the UFA studios. Goebbels wanted to prove that an Ufa color film was as good as American color films. Münchhausen borrowed freely from such Hollywood productions as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Thief of Bagdad. Its fantasy world was far from the harsh realities of the ongoing war.
After the movie was released, Hitler ordered that Kästner should receive no further commissions. At the end of the war, he became magazine editor of Die Neue Zeittung of Munich. He also founded the children's periodical Der Pinguin. During the postwar years, Kästner was an active participant in the Munich cabaret Die Schaubude (from 1951 Die kleine Freiheit). In his play Die Schule der Diktatoren (1949) Kästner unmasked inhumanity in the form of comedy, but he did not gain such success as with his portrayals of immorality in his novels and poems.
Kästner's other best-known juvenile books include Das fliegende Klassenzimmer (1933) and Das doppelte Lottchen (1949), in which twin sisters try to reunite their parents. Der kleine Mann (1963, The Little Man, tr. James Kirkup), about two inches tall boy, received the Batchelder Award in 1968 for its translation. Its sequel was Der kleine Mann und die kleine Miss (1967, The Little Man and the Big Thief). Drei Männer im Schnee (1934), written for adults, was successfully filmed in the 1930s. Die Konferenz der Tiere (1949, The Animals' Conference) adopted the mode of George Orwell's famous Animal Farm (1945). Later works include memoirs, Als ich ein kleiner Junge war (1957, When I Was a Little Boy), a diary Notabene 45 (1961), plays, several collections of poems, and anthologies of world humor.
In 1957 Kästner was awarded the Büchner Prize for literature, the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1960 and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1961 for his autobiography. From 1952 to 1962 he was president of the West German chapter of the PEN Club. Kästner died of cancer on July 29, 1974, in Munich. Closely tied to his mother, Kästner never married, but had an illegitimate son. His grave is situated in an idyllic churchyard of the baroque Church of St George in Bogenhausen. After Kästner's death, the Bavarian Academy of Arts established a literary prize in his honor. In Dresden, a café-bar on Alaustrasse, Neustadt, was named after Kästner. A statue stands close to the house where he was born.
For further reading: Social Criticism in the Early Works of Erich Kästner by J. Winkelman (1953); The Poetic Style of Erich Kästner by J. Winkelman (1957); Erich Kästner in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten by L. Enderle (1966); Erich Kästner by K. Beutler (1967); Erich Kästner: Studien zu seinem Werk by R. Benson (1973); Erich Kästner by H. Wagener (1973); Erich Kästner by R.W. Last (1974); Erich Kästner by H. Kiesel (1981); Erich Kästner by W. Schneyder (1982); Erich Kästner, ed. R. Wolff (1983): Erich Kästner: Eine Personalbibliographie , ed. U. Lämmerzahl-Bensel (1988); Erich Kästner by H. Bemmann (1994); Erich Kästner, ed. M. Flotnow (1996); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999) - Other major writers banned in the 1930s and during WW II: Alfred Döblin, Bertolt Brecht (fled to the United States), Thomas and Heinrich Mann (fled to the United States), Franz Werfel (fled to the United States), Erich Maria Remarque (fled to the United States), Joseph Roth (fled to Paris and died in a poorhouse), Robert Musil (fled to Switzerland), Nelly Sachs (fled to Sweden). - See also Ernest Jünger, who first supported the Nazis.