Kalliope Muse speaks to me

Emigrée from GR
Die Manns: Ein Jahrhundertroman - Heinrich Breloer

This book is the companion to a TV miniseries produced by the German television and broadcasted in 2001 in three episodes. I have watched the DVD in parallel to reading the book. Heinrich Breloer was both the director and the script writer.

The work is a highly successful mix between fiction and documentary. The fictional side is emphasized by its subtitle: Ein Jahrhundertroman. The dramatized saga has an outstanding cast. The internationally known Armin Müller-Stahl plays the role of Thomas Mann, while the other actors, even if not so well known outside of Germany, are also excellent.

It is a documentary because a fair amount of archival material is cleverly interspersed with the fictional reconstruction. Extracts of older filmed interviews with some of the children--Golo, Monika, Erika--, are invaluable. Older, black and white, vignettes with Thomas and Katia Mann, as well as with other now legendary figures, such as Bruno Walter, Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Roth and Lion Feuchtwanger are also included. Several precious excerpts from historic speeches, such as those Thomas Mann gave when he received the Nobel Prize in 1929; his Deutsche Ansprache in Berlin in 1930; and his communication in English when he arrived in NY onboard of the Queen Mary in 1938 fascinating to watch. The latter is memorable because we see Katia by his side mouthing her husband's words; she had also learnt the speech by heart.

But the most extraordinary presence in this hybrid between Biography and Legend is Elisabeth Mann-Borgese, the youngest of the three daughters, as she accompanies the camera and Breloer when the documentary was filmed. We feel as if she were taking us on the tour of the fabulous Munich house as well as of the other later homes in Thomas Mann’s extended life of exile. Her almost continuous presence along the director, opening up her memories and checking on the reconstruction of facts and personalities, is an invaluable contribution to this filmed document. It is her presence and her oversight that completely validates Die Manns and lifts any possible veil of scepticism on our part. And in so doing the make-believe gains in its simulacrum of authenticity while continuing to render the Manns story so much more approachable.

She certainly becomes the most endearing of the family. She has managed to keep her good spirits in her 80s and often laughs at some of the thorny episodes in the history of her family. We see tears in her eyes when she is read the dedication that her father composed for her mother on her seventieth birthday. We are privileged indeed in having her testimony, for she died about one year after the film was broadcasted.



The first episode begins in the early 20s and covers roughly the period during the Weimar Republic. At that time Mann’s eldest children were in their twenties and the youngest of the six was around five or so. It is during those years that Mann was finishing and publishing The Magic Mountain and received the Nobel Prize. While the father was reinforcing his literary presence, his talented and tormented eldest children, Erika and Klaus, were searching and experimenting with their lives and their artistic and intellectual inclinations. Theirs was a generation of strong beliefs and they benefitted and suffered the colossal shadow of their father. We see with pain how they played openly and defiantly with drugs, with politics, with sexual choices, and shadily with each other. They were caught between the apparently solid, well-established, entrenched and bourgeois Mann household and the abyss. Isn’t this a Thomas Mann leitmotiv?

The second period or fist exile phase shows their life in Switzerland, near Zürich and their arrival in the US. My fascination with the both strong and weak personalities of the two eldest children was fostered in this second episode since it was mostly them, and more effectively Erika, who convinced the father that he had to break openly with the Nazis. She accompanied Thomas to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Feburary 1936 to submit his open letter proclaiming his official break and denouncement of the Nazi regime. Fischer Verlag had to move the publication of his works to Vienna.

In the third and final episode the exile continues in the US and it takes place mostly, after a brief interlude in Princeton, in the Pacific Palisades, where figures such as Lion Feuchtwanger, Bertolt Brecht, and Arnold Schoenberg had formed the so called community of Weimar on the Pacific. These were the years of Doktor Faustus, and of difficult personal episodes. In the final stage we follow the Manns as they surreptitiously leave the US back to Switzerland. They recognized early on the practices of political oppression that were growing during the McCarthy era. It is in Switzerland, the final home, where Thomas Mann passed away on August 16th of 1955.

As Breuler’s title indicates, his work is about the family. It is unavoidable that the presence of the Noble Prize writer would seem immense. He is repeatedly referred to, in particular by his children, as Der Zauberer, and indeed Müller-Stahl makes his first appearance in the film in the guise of Thomas Mann dressed up as a Magician for a family Christmas party. But the focus of the film is the whole family. We learn a great deal about the six children, and also about the older brother Heinrich. Their lives are marked by the degree of love and attention they received from the father or by how stifling was his presence on their own creative abilities. He was most fond of his two elders, Erika and Klaus, as well as of the young Elisabeth. The other three, Monika, Golo and Michael suffered from being unequivocally neglected. In their interviews Monika and Golo openly express the criticism of their father. This is painful to understand.

The only truly happy one was Elisabeth even if her choice to marry someone thirty-six years older when she was barely twenty is a very tempting piece of information for those who love psychoanalysis. But she had a happy marriage even if the price she paid was widowhood at an early age and the predictable loss of a father for her daughters when they were still very young.

Watching this film we understand that Death should creep up in Thomas’s literary output. Death surrounded the Manns. The two sisters of Thomas and Heinrich committed suicide. So did Heinrich’s second wife, Nelly. And two of Thomas’s sons, Klaus and Michael, also took their lives. In contrast, others could cling to life in the most extreme and perilous circumstances. Monika was with her husband in the ship City of Benares on their way to Canada and fleeing the London bombings, when a torpedo from a U-boot reached their ship. Her husband, the art historian Jeno Lanyi (a Donatello expert) drowned, but she held onto a floating object until she was rescued twenty hours later. This strength in fastening to life, full of hope and desperation is to me unfathomable.

While we learn a great deal about the other Mann members, Thomas remains inscrutable. His cold and distant bearing (zurückhaltend) as well as his fastidiousness and meticulous way of working seem at odds with the depth in the sensitivity of his writing. This film retains the mystery around him. Even when he hears that his son Klaus has taken his life, the camera shows a silent Müller-Stahl stepping back into a shadow that veils and remodels his figure into a dark silhouette. Chilling.

To match the mystery that shrouds the husband, the wife and mother Katia is another enigma. She put up with the husband’s obvious, but obviously hidden, homosexuality. She became a protector of his Diaries when they fell in the hands of Nazi authorities, helping her husband to try and recover them. I was shaken to learn how much she cared to preserve a written testimony that she knew would undo, if read, the happiness of any married woman. She would take her husband’s side in any of the conflicts with the six children. She acted as his tireless secretary and typed and proof-read most of what he wrote. She never seemed to have doubts about him. Her aim was to create the perfect writing environment to her exacting husband, so that he would not feel any signs of exile at his desk, for, as he said, Germany was where he was (Wo ich bin,ist Deutschland). She must have thought that her purpose in life was to be the Wife of Talent. And this she did with unquestionable devotion.

But it is Heinrich for whom I felt the most. Exile in the US was very hard for him. This was in sharp contrast to his time in France, where the culture and the language were highly congenial to him and where he enjoyed the company of friends and of Nelly, his stunning new wife, who if somewhat common, was also young and fun. He spoke no English and, in difference to his brother he did not continue writing in German. His books were not translated and therefore not read. Earning no income he had to rely on his younger brother for financial support. The difficulties for the couple pushed Nelly further along the path of alcoholism to her own end. It broke his heart thoroughly.

This documentary has taught me a great deal but it has also left me craving for more. I am looking forward to reading [b:The Magic Mountain|88077|The Magic Mountain|Thomas Mann|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347799215s/88077.jpg|647489], [b:Doctor Faustus|34440|Doctor Faustus|Thomas Mann|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347486711s/34440.jpg|3180640], and Heinrich’s [b:Professor Unrat|1147020|Professor Unrat |Heinrich Mann|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347324712s/1147020.jpg|1134476], [b:Der Untertan|1509432|Der Untertan (Das Kaiserreich, #1)|Heinrich Mann|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1184464739s/1509432.jpg|1501016], as well as biographies on Thomas and [b:In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story|2187700|In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain The Erika and Klaus Mann Story|Andrea Weiss|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348577124s/2187700.jpg|216673].

I also have the DVD with Mephisto based on the work by Klaus Mann.


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