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Suicide Pact Ended Turbulent Life of Writer, Spy, Editor Kleist

December 20, 2011

Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) -- On a mild November day in 1811, the author Heinrich von Kleist shot his terminally ill friend Henriette Vogel by Berlin’s Wannsee lake. A minute later, he turned the gun on himself. She was 31, he was 34.

They had written their farewell letters during a long last night, fueled by wine and coffee laced with rum. The staff at the inn they stayed at told police the pair was high-spirited, even exuberant as they made their way along the shore, ordering more coffee before carrying out their suicide pact.

For the bicentenary of his death, Kleist’s lakeside grave, shared with Vogel, has been renovated with funds from the private Cornelsen Culture Foundation. Paths have been cleared and plaques erected in memory of the duo.

Exhibitions, books and performances honor the hot-headed, subversive author of such classic plays as “The Broken Jug,” “The Prince of Homburg” and “Penthesilea.” He also wrote disaster-packed short stories and novellas, among them “Michael Kohlhaas,” “The Marquise of O” and “Earthquake in Chile.”

Now considered among the greatest German writers, Kleist alienated contemporaries. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who staged “The Broken Jug” for an appalled Weimar audience, said he felt “horror and revulsion at something in his works.”

It took 100 years before Kleist was understood and valued. Thomas Mann called him one of the “greatest, boldest, most ambitious poets in the German language,” radical and eccentric to “the point of madness.”

Cruel World

Kleist pushed himself to extremes, suffering breakdowns, sickness and debt. The universe he portrayed dishes fates out randomly; society is cruel.

“Earthquake in Chile” is the tale of a last-minute escape from death thanks to nature’s intervention. It turns into a tragedy of mistaken identity and gruesome mob lynching -- a child is smashed to death against the pillar of a cathedral.

In “Michael Kohlhaas,” a horse dealer loses everything -- including his wife -- in his fanatical crusade for justice after his horses are illegally confiscated.

Yet Kleist’s work is not without humor, mostly dark. “The Broken Jug” (Der Zerbrochene Krug) is a farcical satire about a corrupt judge forced to hear a case in which he is the unacknowledged criminal. His absurd efforts to avoid exposure become increasingly hilarious and implausible.

Bad Denim

Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater staged all Kleist’s plays for the bicentenary. They remain in the repertoire into next year, including a fast and fun “Broken Jug,” directed by Jan Bosse, showing on Jan. 8 and Jan. 29, 2012. It’s an energetic, contemporary adaptation, complete with bad denim and plenty of tricks at the audience’s expense.

Kleist was born in Frankfurt an der Oder and joined the Prussian army at age 15, extricating himself after what he described as “seven wasted, irretrievable years.” He was keen to study and registered at the Viadrina University in his home town.

Two years later, he quit his studies abruptly in what has become known as his “Kant crisis,” brought on by acute existential doubt about the value of learning if truth cannot be absolute. He traveled instead, breaking off a two-year engagement when his fiancee refused to leave Frankfurt an der Oder to run a farm with him in Switzerland. There, in Thun, he began writing.

More wanderlust and another breakdown followed in 1803. In 1805 Kleist joined the Prussian civil service, quitting before France’s conquest of Prussia in 1806. Fiercely anti-Napoleon, he was imprisoned in France on spying charges in 1807.

After spells running a literary magazine in Dresden and hanging out in Prague, he finally moved to Berlin in 1810, where he started his paper.

Gossip, Crime

The “Berliner Abendblaetter” was a daily, four-page mix of theater criticism, gossip, lurid crime stories, lengthy essays and poetry. Kleist used it to pour vitriol on a theater director who refused to stage one of his plays.

After falling afoul of the Prussian censors, he was forced to close it. A futile search for a new source of income followed. Then came his decision to die.

Vogel, suffering from uterine cancer, was not the first woman Kleist asked to die with him, but she was the first to say yes. In his suicide letter to his long-suffering half-sister Ulrike, who had finally lost patience with his pleas for money, Kleist wrote “the truth is that there was no help left for me on earth.”

A double exhibition addressing Kleist’s life and work runs through Jan. 29 at the Kleist Museum in Frankfurt an der Oder and at the reconstructed rococo Ephraim Palais in Berlin.

For more information:

--Editors: Mark Beech, Jim Ruane.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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