Extracts from the Mar 2014 Journal

The drama of German Expressionism

The National Theatre recently staged an important, but rarely seen, play by the best-known of the German Expressionist dramatists, Georg Kaiser (1878-1945). From Morning to Midnight (Von morgens bis mitternachts) was written in 1912 and first performed in April 1917 at the Munich Kammerspiele. It is a classic piece of Expressionist theatre, with its clipped, staccato dialogue, its abandonment of a conventionally structured plot and realistic, individualised characters, and its attempt to pierce through the surface detail of everyday bourgeois life to convey the deeper reality of human existence in an industrialised, mechanised society devoid of values beyond soulless materialism.
Although this play was performed at the Garrick Theatre in London in 1922, in a translation by Ashley Dukes, German Expressionism never established itself on the British stage. For all that, it remains one of the most important theatrical movements of the twentieth century. Like the avant-garde, modernist movements that erupted into the visual arts in the first years of the twentieth century, when figurative paintings representing external reality were replaced by extreme distortions of that reality or by abstract, non-figurative compositions, Expressionist theatre aimed to break decisively with the tradition of realism that had dominated the nineteenth century.
Expressionism, which began around 1910 and petered out in the mid-1920s, sought to create a wholly new artistic means of conveying the human experience. In place of the representation of surface reality, it aspired to express the essence of a situation or scene and, in place of the investigation of the psychology of individuals, it presented types, whose experience stood for that of whole categories of people. In From Morning to Midnight, the main character is simply called the Bank Clerk, while the other characters are also named functionally, according to their roles in the drama. They include the Lady, whose arrival in the bank at the play’s beginning causes the Clerk to throw over years of arid working routine and abscond with a pile of the bank’s money; his Wife and Daughters, representing the conventional family life that he abandons; and the various figures that he subsequently encounters in his whirlwind, one-day trajectory through the pleasures of Berlin, culminating in the Salvation Army Girl, who seems to offer him redemption but ultimately betrays him to the police.
The provincial bank where the Clerk works is depicted as the archetypal setting for the dehumanised, alienating routines of modern working life, dominated by the power of money. Expressionist stage sets concentrated on the essential features of a scene, often using lighting to focus on the central character, while other figures exist in a secondary, half-lit world, emphasising their status as mere players in the protagonist’s drama. This was the case with plays like Walter Hasenclever’s Der Sohn (The Son) (1916), the first Expressionist drama to reach the stage, where secondary characters embody aspects of the Son’s inner life. In its structure, From Morning to Midnight is also an example of the Expressionist Stationendrama (the term is taken from the Stations of the Cross), a loosely knit succession of more or less autonomous scenes, almost cinematic in effect, charting the fate of the main character.
The play’s language is stripped down to its basics for maximum expressive effect, in line with the Expressionists’ desire to rediscover the essential humanity of mankind beneath the deadening layers of modern life. This striking, declamatory style was known as the ‘Telegrammstil’, attributed first to the poet August Stramm: ‘Mensch, werde wesentlich!’ (‘Man, become essential!’) was the final line of the poem ‘Der Spruch’ (‘The Saying’) by the Expressionist poet Ernst Stadler. The characteristic mode of expression for these writers was a rhetorical outcry of extreme intensity, which became known as ‘der Schrei’ (‘the scream’), with obvious reference to the celebrated painting by Edvard Munch. Stadler began his poem ‘Anrede’ (‘Address’) at a white-hot pitch with the line ‘Ich bin nur Flamme, Durst und Schrei und Brand’ (‘I am but flame, thirst and scream and fire’).
These dramatic and stylistic devices served the purpose of conveying a new and more truly humane vision of life. Expressionist plays tended to begin with the main character’s abrupt break with his existing life - in From Morning to Midnight the Clerk’s theft of money from the bank. The protagonist then sets out on a series of experiences (the ‘Stationen’) in which he – or, as in Ernst Toller’s Masse Mensch (Masses and Man), she - discovers a new set of values - moral, social, political and aesthetic - to replace the corrosive materialism, militarism and authoritarianism of existing society. Through that discovery, the main character undergoes a transformation (‘Wandlung’ – the title of Toller’s first drama), becoming a ‘New Man’. This ‘neuer Mensch’ was the ideal of playwrights like Toller, Hasenclever and Reinhard Johannes Sorge, whose play Der Bettler (The Beggar) (1912), is often seen as the first Expressionist drama to be written. This process of the spiritual regeneration (‘Erneuerung’) of the hero was intended to foreshadow the regeneration of the whole of society. Expressionism was thus a utopian, idealist movement that strove for nothing less than a spiritual renewal of society, a renewal whose necessity was drastically reinforced by the mass slaughter of the First World War.
Kaiser’s plays are ambivalent about the possibility of such a renewal. In From Morning to Midnight, the Clerk, having been disappointed with the pleasures of the metropolis, glimpses a new world of spiritual values in the figure of the Salvation Army Girl; but, when he throws away his money at a Salvation Army meeting, the supposedly otherworldly penitents hurl themselves on the banknotes and the Girl denounces him to the police. Utterly disillusioned, he shoots himself. However, in Die Bürger von Calais (The Burghers of Calais), written at almost the same time as From Morning to Midnight, Kaiser depicted the triumph of regeneration through a historical case - that of the six citizens of Calais whose willingness to sacrifice their own lives to save their town from the besieging English in 1347, immortalised in Rodin’s sculpture, secured the lives of all. In his essay Vision und Figur (Vision and Figure), Kaiser stated that all true drama was underpinned by a vision. ‘Von welcher Art ist die Vision? ’ (‘What is the nature of the vision?’), he asked, and replied emphatically: ‘Es gibt nur eine: die von der Erneuerung des Menschen’ (‘There is only one: that of the regeneration of mankind’).
Expressionism marked the revolt of the young generation of the 1880s and early 1890s against the materialism and commercialism, the complacent philistinism of pre-1914 Germany, where man’s spiritual side seemed to have been stifled in the dehumanised world of the modern industrial metropolis. It was that spiritual side of human existence, ‘Seele’ (‘soul’), that the Expressionists sought to rediscover, as their dramatic techniques sought to reveal truths that lay beneath the surface detail of modern life. Paul Kornfeld’s important essay Der beseelte und der psychologische Mensch (The Spiritual and the Psychological Person) (1913) develops the distinction between the ‘old’ alienated, soulless man and the New Man of the future. That caused a generation conflict, as the sons, for example in Hasenclever’s Der Sohn or Arnolt Bronnen’s Vatermord (Parricide) (1920), rejected the alienated, materialistic world of their fathers and sought new values.
The Expressionists’ sense of the imperative necessity of creating a new and better world was greatly accentuated by the toll the First World War took on the young writers: Sorge was killed on the Somme in 1916, August Stramm on the Eastern Front in 1915, and Ernst Stadler, the intermediary between three cultures who had studied French and German literature at the (then German) University of Strasbourg before being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, near Ypres in October 1914. Only a complete transformation of existing society, it seemed to the Expressionists, could avert such catastrophes in the future. Their works frequently have an apocalyptic note, predicting both the end of existing society and the birth of a new, spiritually regenerate community. Kurt Pinthus gave his famous anthology of Expressionist verse the title Menschheitsdämmerung (1920), meaning either the dawn or the twilight of humanity, thus implying both the demise of the old world and the birth of the new.
But these hopes for a radically better world faded rapidly after 1918. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they resolved to destroy the entire legacy of Expressionism, along with its exponents, many of whom were Jewish. Toller committed suicide in New York in 1939, and Hasenclever took his life in a French internment camp in 1940, to avoid falling into the hands of the advancing Germans. Paul Kornfeld, who had enjoyed success with his drama Die Verführung (The Seduction) (1917), was deported to Poland, where he died in 1942. Hans Davidsohn, who under the pseudonym Jakob van Hoddis had written the classic Expressionist poem Weltende (End of the World), was deported from a mental institution to Sobibor in 1942. Georg Kaiser, non-Jewish, fled Germany in 1938; he died in Switzerland in June 1945.

Justice - it’s never too late

It took half a century after the Second World War to begin to face the enormity of what had been allowed to happen. By this time, many of those who had survived had died without the injustice of their suffering being realised.
But it’s never too late. Generation after generation of scholars are increasingly taking up the task of unearthing yet untold stories and thereby giving literary justice to those who received only injustice in their lives and in their deaths.
Two books recently reviewed in the AJR Journal have contributed much to this welcome research, in particular exposing the myth that the suffering of survivors ended with the end of the Second World War: Landgericht by Ursula Krechel and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich by Steve Hochstadt (reviewed by Peter Fraenkel and George Vulcan respectively).
These two books are linked in that my father, Judge Dr Robert Michaelis, was one of the 18,000-20,000 Jews who found refuge in Shanghai during the Second World War and is the main character in Landgericht, which Ursula Krechel calls a novel. In fact, Landgericht is a biography of my father with the gaps in the author’s research filled in from her imagination. I first became aware of this book when a member of the Mainz Local History Society emailed me in October 2012. He had invited me to address the Society in November 2012 but we had not met. So a total stranger was informing me that the 2012 Frankfurt Book Prize had been won by a book about my family that I knew nothing about! It was even more of a shock when I saw interviews with Krechel on YouTube and read the book. I was plunged into a weird state of identity confusion – what was fact and what was fiction?
It wasn’t long before the local Mainz paper printed a full page about the book together with photos of my parents. Friends in Germany sent me more news cuttings and internet interviews with Krechel. When I got to read the book I found it was indeed a biography of my father, carefully researched from archives in Shanghai, Berlin, Lindau and Mainz, where he finally settled after the war. She called him Richard Kornirzer. So I was Selma Kornirzer??? Really? Krechel had appropriated a part of my family history I didn’t even know about! Why had she not at least contacted me before her book was published? She named my book, Person of No Nationality: A Story of Childhood Loss and Recovery (2010), in her acknowledgements and used it for a chapter about the Kindertransport and my brother and me coming to England. So she could have contacted me through my publisher. Why didn’t she? [more...]

Gathering the Voices

My role as a solicitor requires me to be particularly mindful of human rights in the legal context. Needless to say, this area attracts strong views. Recent criticism of the influence of the European Convention on Human Rights and the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg Court on UK law has come from high-profile politicians, senior judges and sections of the press.
At times, the human context behind the abstract legal concepts has been misrepresented, or even neglected, in the ongoing debate. This is why I think projects such as Gathering the Voices - a project collecting, contextualising and digitising oral testimony from men and women who sought sanctuary in Scotland to escape Nazi-dominated Europe - are so valuable.
For over three years, the Gathering the Voices Association has been collecting the stories of survivors based throughout Scotland. There are now about 20 testimonies available to access for free at www.gatheringthevoices.com More interviews will be placed on the website shortly as the interview team has carried out more than 30 interviews.
The website is intended to provide an educational resource for schools and individuals. The Gathering the Voices Association is proceeding with a number of other projects. In particular, they are working with teachers to prepare two teaching packs, for primary and secondary schools, based on the testimonies. These will go to every school in Scotland. Another project, the creation of a travelling exhibition based on the testimonies, should be completed by autumn 2014. It will then be a permanent resource which can be displayed in museums or libraries or other venues throughout Scotland. [more...]

Art Notes

How the space in which we live and work can change is examined by the Royal Academy of Arts in its latest show, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined (until 6 April 2014).
Seven creative architects took up the challenge to change our physical perspectives, but the endgame is the same: hugely imagined constructs, in bamboo, polypropylene, pine or concrete.
Diébédo Francis Kéré presents a tunnel of white, light-emitting arches made of 1,867 polypropylene honeycomb panels with holes into which you can poke something resembling coloured straws.
The architects’ mantras decorate the walls: ‘What are you aware of in the space you inhabit?’, ‘How do spaces shape our lives?’, or this from Chinese philosopher Laozi ‘What is important is what is contained, not the container.’
And in the main octagonal Central Hall, the point from which all the galleries radiate outwards, you can read Churchill’s message: ‘We shape our buildings. Thereafter they shape us.’
The love of classical harmony is reflected in Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura’s severe, grey arches; others, like Álvaro Siza’s courtyard installation, also underscore the historical values of Burlington House. [more...]

Letter from Israel

I wanted to prepare a suitable version of the advertisement for my novel The Balancing Game for inclusion in a website which posts my articles from time to time and whose motto is ‘There is a Jewish Story Everywhere.’ For this purpose I enlisted the help of one of my sons, who, among his many talents, is a designer and computer whiz. [more...]

Letters to the Editor

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