Christoph Hein Critical Essays

Introduction

Christoph Hein 1944-

German playwright, essayist, short story writer, children's writer, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Hein's career through 2000.

Best known for the political undertones of his fiction, Hein is considered among the foremost German authors of the twentieth century. In his nonfiction works, Hein expresses advocacy for “reformed democratic socialism”—in which freedom of expression exists—and often denounces capitalism as a materialistic system of repression. Hein's fiction explores the psychological and social damages inflicted on an economically and politically suppressed society. Hein articulates his political themes through the use of allegory, and his works comment on socialist and capitalist societies through the study of individual characters. While Hein's delineations of alienation and conflict are well-suited to German cultural contexts, his themes transcend solely German settings. Hein occasionally offers his own political beliefs in his fiction, but he typically allows his readers to form their own opinions. Hein is regarded as an innovative and eloquent contributor to modern German literature.

Biographical Information

Hein was born on April 8, 1944, in Heinzendorf, Silesia, Germany (now located in Poland), the third child of Günther and Lonny Hein. At the end of World War II, his family was forced to flee to Bad Düben to escape the Soviet Army that had invaded East Germany. Hein's father, who was often active in hindering the efforts of the state to control and censor religion, became a pastor in their new town. Hein attended the town elementary school from 1950 to 1958. He was later transferred to the West Berlin Evangelisches Gymnasium zum grauen Kloster (Evangelical Gymnasium at the Gray Cloister), a humanistic preparatory school for the children of East German ecclesiastics and intellectuals not politically affiliated with the Socialist Unity Party. The Hein family moved to East Berlin in 1960 to allow Günther to direct his church's youth organization. Hein continued to live with his family and traveled daily to school in West Berlin until the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. At this difficult time, Hein's family decided to remain in East Berlin, and he chose to stay with them. Due to his father's resolute political stance, Hein was denied admission into a myriad of elite preparatory schools, as well as trade schools, film schools, and drama schools. Eventually Hein gained admission to the Vocational School for the German Book Trade in 1961, where he attended until 1964. He then worked in a bookstore for two years before marrying Christiane Zauleck in 1966 and completing his high-school graduation exam. Interested in theater since the age of twelve, Hein acquired apprentice work as an assistant to director Benno Besson and earned extra income by writing articles for weekly papers such as Sonntag and Jung Welt, acting in small theater roles, waiting tables, and assembling machinery. Still suffering the repercussions of his father's political beliefs, Hein was denied admission to the Cinema College in 1966 by Germany's Ministry of Culture. He entered the Karl Marx University in Leipzig in 1967, but after causing political tumult, he was forced to transfer to Humboldt University in Berlin, where he graduated after completing his senior thesis on pluralistic logic. Hein continued to work with Besson at the Volksbühne theatre and adapted many plays, including various works by French playwright Molière.

Hein was promoted to house author at the Volksbühne in 1974 and began to produce his own original plays. Hein left the Volksbühne in 1978 to escape state harassment and to pursue his writing career full-time. In the 1980s, Hein began publishing long and short fiction in addition to his drama, essay, and nonfiction work. His most well-known fiction includes Der fremde Freund (1982; The Distant Lover), Horns Ende (1985; Horn's End), Der Tangospieler (1989; The Tango Player,), Das Napoleon-Spiel (1993; The Napoleon Game), and Willenbrock (2000). Hein has also won numerous literary awards, such as the Heinrich Mann Prize in 1982, the West German Critics's Prize in 1983, the City of Hamburg Prize in 1986, the Lessing Prize in 1989, the Andres Prize in 1989, and the Fried Prize in 1990. In addition to his literary achievements, Hein is said to have been instrumental in the movement for free speech and expression in the German Democratic Republic. A speech he gave in 1987 led to the abolition of state-sponsored censorship in East Germany. He was also a key figure in the investigation into German police brutality in 1989.

Major Works

One of Hein's first original plays, Schlötel, oder Was solls (1974; Schlötel, or What's the Use), focuses on a West German student who moves to East Germany during the 1960s to promote the concept of a free work force amongst factory workers by encouraging a system of incentive pay. Instead of embracing the opportunity to operate without governmental control, the workers react with either apathy or defiance towards Schlötel's efforts. Schlötel eventually drowns himself, and after his suicide, the government agrees to implement the incentive pay program. Hein's first play to be performed in West Germany, titled Lassalle fragt Herrn Herbert nach Sonja (1980; LaSalle Asks Mr. Herbert About Sonja), centers around the life of the founder of the General German Workers' Union, Ferdinand LaSalle. LaSalle and German society are depicted as petty and superficial, and the main plot elements are insignificant when contrasted to the political turmoil that serves as the background for the play. The Distant Lover depicts the psychological self-repression of the heroine, Claudia, stemming from her life experiences in the confining system of socialist Germany. The plot centers around the death of her lover, Henry, and examines the self-imposed distance she places between herself and others. Themes of alienation, violent intrusion, and indifference also pervade the work. The play Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q (1983; The True Story of Ah Q) is Hein's adaptation of Lu Xun's short story of the same title set during the 1911 Chinese Boxer Rebellion. Hein portrays the protagonist, Ah Q, as a modern, egotistical, middle-class intellectual who remains oblivious to the impending revolution after being locked in a room by a bureaucrat blindly following government orders. Horn's End focuses on two deaths: the murder of Gudrun Gohl, who substitutes herself for her mentally handicapped daughter who has been institutionalized and marked for death by the Nazi regime; and the suicide of historian Herr Horn, unjustly accused of being a Western spy and subsequently ejected from the Party. The novel is composed of a series of factual accounts of town history described by several different narrators. The work examines the ways that history can be influenced by individual perspective and the ways memories can be altered or suppressed by the state. The subjective stories told by the various narrators are periodically interrupted by the voice of Horn's ghost, which directs the youngest narrator to “remember” historical truth. Passage (1987) follows the journey of a group of Jewish refugees who are attempting to escape from the Gestapo in France to Spain in 1940. The drama highlights the transformation of a retired German officer of Jewish descent, Hirschburg, from German nationalist to humanitarian. Die Ritter der Tafelrunde (1989; The Knights of the Round Table), Hein's last play before the fall of the German Democratic Republic, is set in King Arthur's court at the end of Arthur's reign. The drama is an allegory depicting the inability of a waning German regime to adapt to political change while clinging to the unattainable ideal of democratic socialism. The play illustrates the strain placed upon the new regime in establishing a new system.

The Tango Player, set in 1967, deals with themes familiar to Hein's work, including apathy, alienation, and self-imposed imprisonment. Hans-Peter Dallow, the protagonist, has been released from prison. Dallow has completed a sentence for serving as a piano player in a production containing a song that mocked a high government official. Dallow asserts throughout the novel that he should not be held responsible because he did not read the song lyrics. Dallow's meaningless relationships, his longing for the simple routine of imprisonment, and his ironic indifference to important political events all permeate the book. Eventually he is reinstated to his old position as university professor of history. His acceptance of the position underscores his preference for living under an imposed, indifferent system rather than in a world where freedom of choice exists. Bridge Freezes before Roadway (1990) recounts the story of a West German citizen being interviewed after the death of a former East German colleague. During the course of the interview, it is revealed that the citizen had denounced his colleague in order to receive a promotion. The dead colleague received the promotion despite his associate's condemnation, and then moved West to secure himself a life within a capitalist society. The protagonist of The Napoleon Game, Wörle, is a West German lawyer who becomes bored with the continual games that he has orchestrated throughout his life. He creates a new game that integrates a series of complex variables including the murder of an indifferent citizen. The novel is composed of two letters written by Wörle to his defense attorney. Wörle's first letter—written from prison—gives an account of his motives for murder, his history as a game-player, and his defense of his actions. After he is acquitted, he writes a second letter introducing his next game, in which his lawyer is forced to participate. The goal of the game is to ruin a citizen with an impeccable reputation. Wörle's character is widely considered to represent a capitalistic view and Western values. Randow (1994) portrays the difficult circumstances of a woman who owns property in the Randow Valley border region of Poland who is violently forced by the state to sell her land. The story focuses on the elements of greed and opportunism that are typically found in capitalist societies. In Von allem Anfang an (1997; Right from the Start), Daniel, a thirteen-year-old schoolboy in an East German town, flees with his family to the Soviet Zone of Germany. The novel is set in 1956 and is narrated from a child's perspective. The novel is loosely configured and events are not related chronologically, giving the work a somewhat circular structure. Willenbrock follows the life of a citizen in East Berlin in the late 1990s who owns a small used-car business. After two Russian thieves burgle his home and steal several of his cars, Willenbrock becomes frustrated with the apathy of the police force who are indifferent to the invasion. Willenbrock wounds a teenage intruder a few weeks later and goes without punishment for taking the law into his own hands—an outcome that fills Willenbrock with a sense of peace and contentment.

Critical Reception

With the publication of The Distant Lover in 1982, Hein gained international recognition as one of the most influential German writers of his generation. Critics have almost universally acclaimed Hein's use of subtext in The Distant Lover to effectively convey the scope of repression and alienation imposed by a socialist system. Reviewers have also praised Hein's ability to effectively penetrate the psychology of the female narrator in this work. The True Story of Ah Q was not received as warmly by critics. Many commentators—while praising the drama for effectively conveying the state of revolution across cultural boundaries—negatively assessed the social and political development in the play as static and flat. Hein was also criticized for presenting The Knights of the Round Table as an allegory instead of as a more direct portrayal of socialist decay. His detractors have argued that the subtle nuance was unnecessary as there were no restrictions on literary expression in Germany in 1989. The Tango Player gained considerable critical attention for its clever use of subtext to depict the images of apathy and self-imprisonment that have become common in Hein's fiction. Certain reviewers have compared this novel to Franz Kafka's The Trial. However, some critics have complained that the novel's resolution is empty and incomplete.

Despite the success of The Tango Player, Hein's highly controversial The Napoleon Game received decidedly mixed reviews. Some have argued that the novel lacks significant themes and direction. Others have disagreed with that assessment, praising the novel for peering into the void of ideology left by capitalism. Many critics have disapproved of Hein's picture of Western values and were angered by the monstrous representation of capitalism in the character Wörle. After the publication of The Napoleon Game, critics have noted a less subtle depiction of the political messages in Hein's works. Randow, for example, has been almost universally condemned by reviewers as a boring, aggravating, and overly didactic work. Additionally, Right from the Start was considered to be a disappointment by critics who had expected Hein's post-unification literature to be more openly critical of the fallen regime. Some critics have viewed the work to be autobiographical, as certain aspects of Daniel's life share similarities with Hein's childhood. The book has been praised for its convincing description of the world from a child's perspective and for the objective quality of its narrative. Willenbrock has been recognized for its ability to express German sentiment, despite the fact that some critics have faulted the plot for its integration of irrelevant tangents. Hein's essays and speeches have been noted as the work of an artist dedicated to improving society as a whole. Critics have argued that the self-contradictory quality in certain speeches and the disillusionment over a failed socialist system has prompted Hein to redirect his negativity towards Western society and capitalism. Though certain groups have assessed Hein's work as outdated and relevant only to the German culture, the majority of reviewers have deemed Hein's writings to be appealing to a universal audience.