Heinrich von Kleist

Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist (18 October 1777 – 21 November 1811) was a German poet, dramatist, novelist, short story writer and journalist. His best known works are the theatre plays Das Käthchen von Heilbronn, The Broken Jug, Amphitryon, Penthesilea and the novellas Michael Kohlhaas and The Marquise of O. Kleist committed suicide together with a close female friend who was terminally ill.

The Kleist Prize, a prestigious prize for German literature, is named after him, as was the Kleist Theater in his birthplace Frankfurt an der Oder.

Heinrich von Kleist
Kleist, Heinrich von
BornBernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist
18 October 1777
Frankfurt (Oder), Margraviate of Brandenburg, Holy Roman Empire
Died21 November 1811 (aged 34)
Kleiner Wannsee, Berlin, Kingdom of Prussia
Occupationpoet, dramatist, novelist, short story writer
Literary movementRomanticism
Notable worksThe Broken Jug, The Marquise of O, Michael Kohlhaas, Penthesilea, The Prince of Homburg

Kleist Signature


Kleist was born into the von Kleist family in Frankfurt an der Oder in the Margraviate of Brandenburg. After a scanty education, he entered the Prussian Army in 1792, served in the Rhine campaign of 1796, and retired from the service in 1799 with the rank of lieutenant. He studied law and philosophy at the Viadrina University and in 1800 received a subordinate post in the Ministry of Finance at Berlin.

In the following year, Kleist's roving, restless spirit got the better of him, and procuring a lengthened leave of absence he visited Paris and then settled in Switzerland. There he found congenial friends in Heinrich Zschokke and Ludwig Wieland (1777–1819), son of the poet Christoph Martin Wieland; and to them he read his first drama, a gloomy tragedy, The Schroffenstein Family (1803).

In the autumn of 1802, Kleist returned to Germany; he visited Goethe, Schiller, and Wieland in Weimar, stayed for a while in Leipzig and Dresden, again proceeded to Paris, and returning in 1804 to his post in Berlin was transferred to the Domänenkammer (department for the administration of crown lands) at Königsberg. On a journey to Dresden in 1807, Kleist was arrested by the French as a spy; he remained a close prisoner of France in the Fort de Joux. On regaining his liberty, he proceeded to Dresden, where, in conjunction with Adam Heinrich Müller (1779–1829), he published the journal Phöbus in 1808.

Grabstätte Bismarckstr 2-4 (Wanns) Heinrich von Kleist 1
Grave of Kleist and Henriette Vogel at Kleiner Wannsee after renovation in 2011
Kleist suicide letter
Suicide letter addressed to his half-sister Ulrike

In 1809 Kleist went to Prague, and ultimately settled in Berlin, where he edited (1810/1811) the Berliner Abendblätter. Captivated by the intellectual and musical accomplishments of the terminally ill Henriette Vogel(de), Kleist, who was himself more disheartened and embittered than ever, agreed to do her bidding and die with her, carrying out this resolution by first shooting Vogel and then himself on the shore of the Kleiner Wannsee (Little Wannsee) near Potsdam, on 21 November 1811.[1]

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, "Kleist's whole life was filled by a restless striving after ideal and illusory happiness, and this is largely reflected in his work. He was by far the most important North German dramatist of the Romantic movement, and no other of the Romanticists approaches him in the energy with which he expresses patriotic indignation."[2]

A life with a plan

In the spring of 1789, the 11-year-old Kleist wrote a letter to his half-sister Ulrike in which he found it "incomprehensible how a human being can live without a life plan" (Lebensplan).[3] In effect, Kleist sought and discovered an overwhelming sense of security by looking to the future with a definitive plan for his life.[3] It brought him happiness and assured him of confidence, especially knowing that life without a plan only saw despair and discomfort.[3] The irony of his later suicide has been the fodder of his family.

Relationship with Henriette Vogel and murder-suicide

Kleist met Henriette Vogel in 1809 through his friend Adam Müller and a sexual relationship flourished between them. They shared a fondness for music, and according to Ernest Peguilhen, Henriette Vogel asked her friend to explain to her the art of sex, as well as to teach her fencing, for the dramatist had been a soldier. The relationship between the two became more intimate in the autumn of 1811. According to their contemporaries, there was no fire of passion but a purely spiritual love. It was Adam Müller's point of view, who in fact had been in love with Henriette for a while. Marie von Kleist, who was the most important sponsor and confidant of Heinrich von Kleist, also made sure that this claim was widely spread.

On November 21, 1811, the two traveled from Berlin to Wannsee. Prior to their departure, they both penned farewell letters, which along with an account of the final night they spent at the inn Gasthof Stimming, are now part of world literature. Upon their arrival in the vicinity of the Wannsee in Potsdam, Kleist first shot Henriette and then turned the gun on himself. They were buried together in a common grave at Kleine Wannsee (Bismarckstrasse), which has become a tourist attraction. It was redesigned by the time of the bicentenary of their deaths. On that occasion direct access from Wannsee station to the grave was built. The gravestone, erected by the Nazis in 1936, was turned round and now shows engraved original text written by Max Ring and the Pater Noster's request: "forgive us our guilt" as well as the names and data of Henriette Vogel and Heinrich von Kleist.[4][5][6][7]

Literary works

His first tragedy was The Schroffenstein Family (Die Familie Schroffenstein). The material for the second, Penthesilea (1808), queen of the Amazons, is taken from a Greek source and presents a picture of wild passion. More successful than either of these was his romantic play, Käthchen of Heilbronn (Das Käthchen von Heilbronn) (1808), a poetic drama full of medieval bustle and mystery, which retained its popularity for many years.[1]

In comedy, Kleist made a name with The Broken Jug (Der zerbrochne Krug) (1808), while Amphitryon (1808), an adaptation of Molière's comedy, received critical acclaim long after his death. Of Kleist's other dramas, Die Hermannsschlacht (1809) is a dramatic work of anti-Napoleonic propaganda, written as Austria and France went to war. It has been described by Carl Schmitt as the "greatest partisan work of all time".[8] In it he gives vent to his hatred of his country's oppressors. This, together with the drama The Prince of Homburg (Prinz Friedrich von Homburg oder die Schlacht bei Fehrbellin), which is among his best works, was first published by Ludwig Tieck in Kleist's Hinterlassene Schriften (1821). Robert Guiskard, a drama conceived on a grand plan, was left a fragment.[1]

Kleist was also a master in the art of narrative, and of his Gesammelte Erzählungen (Collected Short Stories) (1810–1811), Michael Kohlhaas, in which the famous Brandenburg horse dealer in Martin Luther's day is immortalized, is one of the best German stories of its time.[1] The Earthquake in Chile (Das Erdbeben in Chili) and St. Cecilia, or the Power of Music (Die heilige Cäcilie oder die Gewalt der Musik) are also fine examples of Kleist's story telling as is The Marquise of O (Die Marquise von O). His short narratives influenced those of Kafka[9] and the novellas of the Austrian writer Friedrich Halm.[10] He also wrote patriotic lyrics in the context of the Napoleonic Wars.

Work in rhetoric

Kleist's work also delved into the realm of rhetoric. Most notable for his use of error and understanding its importance, Kleist's devices used were misspeaking, misunderstanding, mistaken identities, and other confusions of the sort. In his works one can see the most prevalent use of rhetoric within Penthesilea. In the story moments of violence, seduction and war all hinge upon errors in language. Through these errors, Kleist shows how error can influence everyday situation and can be the causation of serious problems. As a sum, Kleist's use of error explores what one can make of ironic errors within speech.[11]

Philosophical essays

Kleist is also famous for his essays on subjects of aesthetics and psychology which, to the closer look, show a keen insight into the metaphysical questions discussed by philosophers of his time, such as Kant, Fichte and Schelling.

On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking

In the first of his larger essays, On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking (Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden), Kleist claims that most people are advised to speak only about what they already understand.[12] Instead of talking about what you already know, Kleist admonishes his readers to speak to others with "the sensible intention of instructing yourself."[12] Fostering a dialogue through the art of "skillful questioning" is the key behind achieving a rational or enlightened state of mind.[12] And yet, Kleist employs the example of the French Revolution as the climactic event of the Enlightenment era whereby man broke free from his dark and feudal chains in favor of liberty, equality, fraternity. It is not that easy though for Kleist. Man cannot simply guide himself into the future with a rational mind as his primary tool. Therefore, Kleist strongly advocates for the usefulness of reflection ex post facto or after the fact.[13] In doing so, man will be able to mold his collective consciousness in a manner conducive to the principles of free will. By reflecting after the fact, man will avoid the seemingly detestable inhibitions offered in rational thought. In other words, the will to power has "its splendid source in the feelings," and thus, man must overcome his "struggle with Fate" with a balanced mixture of wisdom and passion.[13]


His Gesammelte Schriften were published by Ludwig Tieck (3 vols. 1826) and by Julian Schmidt (new ed. 1874); also by Franz Muncker (4 vols. 1882); by Theophil Zolling (4 vols. 1885); by K. Siegen, (4 vols. 1895); and in a critical edition by Erich Schmidt (5 vols. 1904–1905). His Ausgewählte Dramen were published by K. Siegen (Leipzig, 1877); and his letters were first published by Eduard von Bülow, Heinrich von Kleists Leben und Briefe (1848).[1]

Opera adaptations



  1. ^ a b c d e  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Kleist, Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 15 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 845–846.
  2. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  3. ^ a b c Heinrich von Kleist, The Marquise of O– and other stories. Ed. and translated by David Luke and Nigel Reeves. (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 7.
  4. ^ Tanja Langer (2011). Wir sehn uns wieder in der Ewigkeit - Die letzte Nacht von Henriette Vogel und Heinrich von Kleist. München: dtv. ISBN 978-3-423-13981-6.
  5. ^ Karin Reschke (1982). Verfolgte des Glücks. Findebuch der Henriette Vogel. Berlin: Rotbuch Verlag. ISBN 3-88022-266-5.
  6. ^ Günter Blamberger (2012). Heinrich von Kleist. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-596-15346-6.
  7. ^ Gerhard Schulz (2007). Kleist. Eine Biographie. München: Beck. ISBN 978-3-406-61596-2.
  8. ^ Schmitt, Carl, The Theory of the Partisan, page 5
  9. ^ Walter Hinderer, "Kleist bläst in mich, wie in eine alte Schweinsblase" in Franz Kafka und die Weltliteratur, Ed. Manfred Engel, Dieter Lamping. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006) 66-82.
  10. ^ Halms Werke, Vol. 11, ed. by Faust Pachler and Emil Kuh; Carl Gerold's Sohn, Vienna, 1872, p. vii
  11. ^ Sng, Zachary. The Rhetoric of Error from Locke to Kleist. Stanford. Stanford University Press. 2010. Chapter 5.
  12. ^ a b c Heinrich von Kleist, On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking. Ed. and Trans. by David Constantine. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004), 405.
  13. ^ a b Heinrich von Kleist, On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking. Ed. and Trans. by David Constantine. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004), 410.
  14. ^ Heinrich (1977) on IMDb
  15. ^ Heinrich Penthesilea von Kleist on IMDb
  16. ^ Kohlhaas oder die Verhältnismäßigkeit der Mittel on IMDb
  17. ^ van Hoeij, Boyd (16 May 2014). "'Amour Fou': Cannes Review". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 17 May 2014.

Further reading

  • Banham, Martin, ed. (1998). The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43437-8.
  • Croce, Benedetto (1924). "Kleist." In: European Literature in the Nineteenth Century. London: Chapman & Hall, pp. 52–59.
  • Helbling, Robert (1975). The Major Works of Heinrich von Kleist. New York: New Directions. ISBN 0-8112-0563-0.
  • Jacobs, Carol (1989). Uncontainable Romanticism: Shelley, Brontë, Kleist. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Lamport, Francis John (1990). German Classical Drama: Theatre, Humanity and Nation, 1750–1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-36270-9.
  • Maass, Joachim (1983). Kleist: A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • McGlathery, James (1983). Desire's Sway the Plays and Stories of Heinrich von Kleist. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 978-081431-734-1.
  • Meldrum Brown, Hilda (1998). Heinrich Von Kleist The Ambiguity of Art and the Necessity of Form. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-815895-5.
  • Minde-Pouet, Georg (1897). Heinrich von Kleist, seine Sprache und sein Stil. Weimar: Emil Felber.
  • Ohff, Heinz (2004). Heinrich von Kleist: Ein preussisches Schicksal. Munich: Piper Verlag ISBN 3-492-04651-7
  • Parry, Idris (1988). "Kleist on Puppets." In: Speak Silence: Essays. Manchester: Carcanet.
  • Servaes, Franz (1902). Heinrich von Kleist. Leipzig: E. A. Seemann.
  • Siebert, Eberhard (2009). Heinrich von Kleist – eine Bildbiographie. Heilbronn: Kleist-Archiv Sembdner ISBN 978-3-940494-59-7
  • Staengle, Peter (2009). Kleist. Sein Leben. Heilbronn: Kleist-Archiv Sembdner ISBN 978-3-940494-44-3
  • Steig, Reinhold (1901). Heinrich von Kleists Berliner Kämpfe. Berlin: W. Spemann.

External links

Alkmene (opera)

Alkmene (Alcmene), op. 36, is an opera in three acts, with music and libretto by Giselher Klebe. Klebe based the libretto on Amphitryon by Heinrich von Kleist, which in turn was based on Molière's play of the same name. The composer dedicated the work to his mother, the violinist Gertrud Klebe.

The opera was commissioned for the opening of the current building of the Deutsche Oper Berlin where it premiered on 25 September 1961, the second production in that house.

Amphitryon (film)

Amphitryon is a 1935 German musical film. Written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, it is based on plays by Molière, Plautus, and Heinrich von Kleist, which in turn are based on Greek mythology.

The film is known by a variety of other names: Amphitryon – Happiness from the Clouds, Amphitryon – Aus den Wolken kommt das Glück in Austria, Amfitryon in Greece, Anfitrione in Italy, Det gudomliga äventyret in Sweden.

Amphitryon was filmed in Ufa-Atelier, Neubabelsberg, from 2 February 1935 – May 1935. It was one of UFA's many multiple-language version films: a French version, Les dieux s'amusent (The gods are having fun), was shot at the same time.

Catherine de Heilbronn

Catherine de Heilbronn is a 1980 French TV film made by Éric Rohmer for the television channel Antenne 2. It is a record of Rohmer's stage production of the play Das Käthchen von Heilbronn by Heinrich von Kleist at the Théâtre des Amandiers in 1979. The cast includes Pascale Ogier, Arielle Dombasle, Marie Rivière, Jean-Marc Bory and Pascal Greggory.

Der Prinz von Homburg (opera)

Der Prinz von Homburg (The Prince of Homburg) is a German-language opera in three acts by Hans Werner Henze with a libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–1973). It was completed in 1958 but premiered on 22 May 1960 in Hamburg.

Die Verlobung in San Domingo

Die Verlobung in San Domingo (The Engagement in San Domingo) is a 1960 opera by Werner Egk after Heinrich von Kleist, premiered on 22 November 1963 at the Bavarian State Opera.

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin (10 July 1922 – 8 March 2013) was a German publisher and convenor of the Munich Conference on Security Policy until 1998. A member of the von Kleist family and an officer in the Wehrmacht during World War II, his parents were active in the German resistance against Adolf Hitler. Kleist was designated to kill Hitler in a suicide attack and was the last surviving member of the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.

Kleist Prize

The Kleist Prize is an annual German literature prize. The prize was first awarded in 1912, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the death of Heinrich von Kleist. The Kleist Prize was the most important literary award of the Weimar Republic, but was discontinued in 1933.

In 1985 the prize was awarded for the first time in over fifty years. Between 1994 and 2000 it was awarded biennially. A monetary sum of €20,000 accompanies the award.

Kleist family

Kleist is a Pomeranian Prussian noble family. Notable members of this family include:

Henning Alexander von Kleist (1677–1749). Prussian field marshal.

Ewald Jürgen Georg von Kleist (c. 1700–1748); co-inventor of the Leyden jar

Ewald Christian von Kleist (1715–1759); German poet and soldier

Barbara Sophia von Kleist, mother of Adam Stanisław Grabowski (1741–1766) Prince-Bishop of Ermland/Bishopric of Warmia

Friedrich Emil Ferdinand Heinrich Graf Kleist von Nollendorf (April 9, 1762 – February 17, 1823), born and died in Berlin, was a Prussian field marshal

Heinrich von Kleist (October 18, 1777 – November 21, 1811), German poet, dramatist, novelist and short story writer. The Kleist Prize, a prestigious prize for German literature, is named after him

Karl Wilhelm Heinrich von Kleist (1836-1917), General of the Cavalry (Germany)

Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist (1881–1954); German Field Marshal

Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin (1890–1945); conspirator in the 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin (1922–2013); son of Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin; another conspirator in the 20 July bomb plot

Man on Horseback

Man on Horseback (German: Michael Kohlhaas – der Rebell) is a 1969 German drama film directed by Volker Schlöndorff based on the novel Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich Von Kleist. It was entered into the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. Another film based on the book was released at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Penthesilea (Kleist)

Penthesilea (1808) is a tragedy by the German playwright Heinrich von Kleist about the mythological Amazon queen, Penthesilea, described as an exploration of sexual frenzy. Goethe rejected it as "unplayable".

Penthesilea (opera)

Penthesilea is a one-act opera by Othmar Schoeck, to a German-language libretto by the composer, after the work of the same name by Heinrich von Kleist. It was first performed at the Staatsoper in Dresden, Germany on 8 January 1927.

Schoeck used the contrast between C major and F♯ major as a musical basis for his work. Robin Holloway has noted the similarity of theme to Richard Strauss' Elektra, as well as Schoeck's use of two pianos in the instrumentation.

San Domingo (film)

San Domingo is a 1970 West German drama film directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. It tells the story of a man who joins a rock music hippie commune. When the commune members learn that his family is wealthy, they tell his parents that he has been kidnapped and demand a ransom. The film is loosely based on the story Betrothal in St. Domingo by Heinrich von Kleist. The actors are primarily non-professionals. The film received the 1971 Deutscher Filmpreis for Best Cinematography and Best Music.

The Broken Jug

The Broken Jug (German: Der zerbrochne Krug, also sometimes translated The Broken Pitcher) is a comedy written by the German playwright Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist first conceived the idea for the play in 1801, upon looking at a copper engraving in Heinrich Zschokke's house entitled "Le juge, ou la cruche cassée." In 1803, challenged over his ability to write comedy, Kleist dictated the first three scenes of the play, though it was not completed until 1806. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe first staged the play in Weimar, where it premiered on 2 March 1808.The Broken Jug mocks the failings of human nature and the judicial system in a forgiving way. It is similar to Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex (c. 429 BCE), in that in both plays the judge is guilty, but different insofar as Adam knows from the start who is guilty, as does the audience, and is trying his hardest to conceal the truth.

The play follows the story of "Adam" and "Eve". Adam is covered in various injuries and talking with his secretary Licht. The jug is not mentioned in these first five scenes although the audience is made aware that Adam is a highly suspicious character. The trial lasting from scene seven through to scene eleven, shows the characters on stage trying to piece together the events which led to the breaking of the jug. At the end of scene eleven Eve states that Adam broke the jug and Adam escapes in the confusion.

The Broken Jug (film)

The Broken Jug (German: Der zerbrochene Krug) is a 1937 German historical comedy film directed by Gustav Ucicky and starring Emil Jannings, Friedrich Kayßler and Max Gülstorff. It is an adaptation of the play The Broken Jug by Heinrich von Kleist. The film was popular with Adolf Hitler.

The Earthquake in Chile

The Earthquake in Chile (German: Das Erdbeben in Chili) is a novella written by Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811) and published in 1807. The novella's central characters are two lovers caught up in the chaos of the 1647 Santiago earthquake in Chile.

The Marquise of O

The Marquise of O (German: Die Marquise von O) is a novella by Heinrich von Kleist on the subject of forced seduction. It was first published in 1808.

The Prince of Homburg (film)

The Prince of Homburg (Italian: Il principe di Homburg) is a 1997 Italian drama film directed by Marco Bellocchio, based on the play Der Prinz von Homburg by Heinrich von Kleist. It was entered into the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.

The Seed of Discord

The Seed of Discord (Italian: Il seme della discordia) is a 2008 Italian film.

The film is a modernisation of Heinrich von Kleist's novel The Marquise of O. It was entered into the main competition at the 65th Venice International Film Festival.

X (Klaus Schulze album)

X is the tenth album by Klaus Schulze. It was originally released in 1978, and in 2005 was the fifth Schulze album reissued by Revisited Records.

On X Schulze attempted to execute a concept album of six "musical biographies" evoking contemporary or historical intellectuals with an influence on Schulze: Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Trakl, Frank Herbert, Friedemann Bach, Ludwig II. von Bayern, and Heinrich von Kleist. (In Ludwig II. von Bayern Schulze uses a theme borrowed from the third movement of Vivaldi's Concerto No. 11 in D minor (RV565) for 2 violins, cello and strings.) The work is from the classic era of Berlin School.

For two of the tracks, "Friedemann Bach" and "Ludwig II. von Bayern" (as well as the first few minutes of "Heinrich von Kleist") Schulze recorded a modest string orchestra and looped them on tape. He had done this in 1972 on his first solo album, Irrlicht, but this time he did not filter the orchestra beyond recognition. The mixture of classical music and unearthly electronic sounds gives X a much more organic sound than anything Schulze's contemporaries were doing at the time, such as Jean Michel Jarre's Equinoxe. On following releases Schulze employed a cello, particularly on Dune.

"Objet d'Louis", the bonus track on the 2005 reissue, is a 1978 live version of "Ludwig II. von Bayern" with a complete orchestra, recorded while Schulze was on a tour in Belgium.

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