313: Irmgard Keun

Archival Spaces 313

Irmgard Keun: Child of all Nations

Uploaded  20 January 2023

Irmgard Keun, ca. 1929 Berlin

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague, Andréas-Benjamin Seyfert, announced on Facebook that a previously lost German film from the early 1930s, Eine von uns (1932), starring Brigitte Helm, had turned up on YouTube. The film was an adaption of the sensational, New Realist novel, Gilgi, eine von uns (1931), by Irmgard Keun. Her first novel had turned her into an icon of the new woman, independent, self-assured, sassy, and sexually liberated. Her second novel, Das kunstseidene Mädchen /The Silk Girl (1932), about the downward slide of a 20-year-old Berlin flapper, none too bright, was written in a stream-of-consciousness, slangy style  – comparable to that of today’s Instagram influencers. It was another literary and commercial sensation. Then came Hitler, her books were banned, and her wealth confiscated, not because she was Jewish, but because her image of German womanhood contradicted Nazi ideology.

Eine von uns (1931)

Coincidentally, I have just been reading Irmgard Keun’s 6th novel, Kind aller Länder (1938), published in Amsterdam in German. By that time, Keun had been in exile for several years, constantly looking for jobs, money, and visas, living on the edge in Belgium, later Holland. While her first two novels had been bestsellers, in the case of Silk Girl selling more than 50,000 copies before being banned,  her exile novels reached only a few thousand.  Amazingly, she managed to write four novels on the run. Kind aller Länder is narrated by Keun’s ten-year-old self, working through her adult experience of exile. Like The Silk Girl, Child of all Nations stylistically reproduces the voice of her female protagonist, in this case, the child Kully’s syntax, sentence structure, and unfiltered opinions of the adult world around her.

The novel begins in medias res, without chapter headings, without character introductions, a continuous stream of short sentences and even shorter paragraphs, in the first person voice of a very young girl:  possibly writing in her diary about how the staff in her hotel treat her as a cute little thing, i.e. until her dad disappears to find money to pay the bill. She and her mother stay behind without a penny as  „a security deposit.“ The novel’s first sentence ends with the statement that people say her father should have never married. Thus from its opening lines, the reader perceives a child who has grown old far beyond her years, constantly imperiled but innocently accepting her fate.

The Beach at Ostende, 1936

While her father travels to Prague, Budapest, Paris, and Poland, obsessively searching for work and cash, mother and daughter are stuck in a luxury hotel in Ostende, unable to buy food, often starving for days. When Kully’s birthday present arrives from her father, they can’t pay the import duty, so it remains in customs. Meanwhile, her mother cries, because she is unable to borrow money, unlike her husband who bums change from waiters, doormen, the mailman, friends, other women he seduces, fans of his writing, his Dutch publisher who pleads poverty. Kully understands that her father is a well-known novelist who hates Hitler and the Nazis hate him, so they can’t return to their home in Germany.

Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in Ostende, 1936. Keun was Roth’s lover

Between her mostly absent and alcoholic father – he sometimes forgets her in cafes when he is drunk – and her emotionally paralyzed mother, Kully studies a bit in two school books, but doesn’t go to school, spending her time collecting stones, mussels, and sea stars on the beach, at least until they move on to Brussels.  There, she and her mother take long walks “My mother says, that’s almost as healthy as eating.“ In the meantime, long letters from her father to her mother arrive and are quoted extensively, letters filled with hope and dreams that never go anywhere. Things hardly change when they move on to Amsterdam. And so it goes. At one point, Kully and her father travel to New York and Norfolk, VA, – her mother missed the boat and was left behind – but eventually return to Amsterdam, where the novel ends. We know her future is uncertain because the Wehrmacht will soon overrun the country.

Kindertransport arriving London, in 1938
German Refugee Children, 1941

On the novel’s last page, someone asks her, whether she is homesick. She says, she is, but always for a different country. Then she writes she is almost never homesick, if her mother is there, and never when her dad is with them. Child of all Nations is remarkable for its focus on children. While the autobiographical literature on German-Jewish intellectual refugees from Hitler is now voluminous, I know of no other work of fiction that describes the fate of their children in such an unsentimental fashion.

Arrival of Reichskomissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart in Amsterdam, 1940

Irmgard Keun’s own fate was unique. In 1940, with Germans in the streets of Amsterdam, Keun staged her own suicide – as reported in a British newspaper -, then got a SS officer to issue her a passport under her former husband‘s name, allowing her to return to her parent’s home in Cologne. She remained there in hiding for the duration of the war and lived the rest of her life in utter obscurity, unable to find publishers to reissue her famous novels. She was not republished until the 1970s in Germany, when feminist critics rediscovered her work, shortly before she died in 1982.

Happily, this century has seen the publication of much of Keun’s amazing work in English: Gilgi, One of Us (2002), The Artificial Silk Girl (2011), After Midnight (2020), Child of All Nations (2008), and Ferdinand, the Man with a Kind Heart (2020).        

Irmgard Keun, late 1970s

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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