Shortly after beginning my third year at Emerson College I dropped out and took a full year off of school to address my drinking problem. I had hit rock bottom after spending the better part of 2 years or so staring into the abyss. This lengthy stare into the abyss turned into full-blown alcohol dependency and I checked out of Emerson and checked into rehabilitation at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA. After what turned out to be the best five and a half days of my life I moved out to Portland, Oregon to work for my uncle making custom-built garage doors. I lived with my aunt and uncle and my two cousins; two boys ages 8 and 10. Being only a few months sober at the time, it became clear within about a week that this situation did not favor sobriety. Between the hard manual labor, the constantly bleak and rainy Portland weather, and having to deal with young children all day everyday, I felt that I had picked the wrong lifetime to quit drinking.
Out of school with an increasingly cleared head I felt my brain rotting from lack of intellectual stimulation. Not to speak ill of my cousins, but young children do not have very many interesting things to say, nor for that matter are they very good at holding a conversation. Eight and ten year old boys also love to fight and make sport of irritating whomever they’ve deemed victim of the hour. The time I spent looking after these little bastards and trying my damnedest to keep them from killing each other at every chance they got inspired me to take up learning German in whatever spare time I had.
Coldly and cruelly sober, without intellectual stimulation, and with two ruffians to look after, learning German became the perfect hobby for this situation I had found myself in. I studied diligently all those rainy nights alone and when I had to look after the boys and they needed some sharp words I’d yell at them in German and it would freak them out and set them straight. It’s a scary language and it’s close enough to English so that even if you don’t understand what the exact message is, you will at the very least understand the gist of what is being said at you. Every time those boys acted up I knew I couldn’t explode on them in English because they were unabashed and unashamed tattletales so my go to became a sharp and snappy, “Ficken Sie mit mir nicht!” This and other rude phrases kept the ruckus to minimum most of the time and was more effective than I thought it would be. I also practiced by speaking German to the dog—a great big Newfoundland I had to step over every morning to get to my daily five gallons of black coffee, “Entschuldigen Sie mich, Hunde! Guten Morgen!” And of course when I accidently just walked right into the great beast I apologized, “Es tut mir Leid, Hunde!” It’s been a full year now of learning German as a hobby and it is the gift that keeps on giving. And when I read “Woyzeck” and saw Werner Herzog’s 1979 film adaptation, my mind was blown.
It is my pseudo-intellectual, arm-chair anthropologist, opinion that German history and culture are truly an enigma. Pun intended in reference to the Wehrmacht’s Enigma Code used in the Second World War. When studying the German language, one picks up quite a bit of German history along the way. In the most respectful and least ugly American way, I would describe German as a barbarian language spoken formally and thoroughly constructed with discipline. The literal translations of German to English are absolutely insane and what’s interesting is that sometimes these literal translations resemble Shakespeare’s English as far as sentence structure is concerned. Attention to structure is of the utmost importance when speaking German. There is a fine line between speaking good German and making perfect sense when you speak and making absolutely no sense whatsoever. I fall into the latter category of speakers. My brother calls this, “beggar speak.” He’s not wrong; I have a grasp of this language but I am far from anything one might even mistake as mastery let alone fluency. However, what little German I know made my experience reading “Woyzeck” much richer.
As tragic as Buechner’s early death and incompletion of “Woyzeck” is, I would argue that he was doomed to die before completing this play and, moreover, this play was never meant to be completed. The combination of Buechner’s death and incompletion of “Woyzeck” is extremely significant because of what this play, author, and incompletion not only symbolize but also foreshadow. Reading this play from a historical perspective is eerie in contrast to reading “Woyzeck” without knowing a scrap of German history.
In his letter to his wife, Buechner said, “A dramatic poet is in my eyes nothing but a writer of history, but is superior to the latter in that he creates history for the second time.” Buechner was not only right about recreating history, but he forgot to mention that he had a crystal ball and could see the next one hundred years into the future. Buechner doesn’t just recreate history, in “Woyzeck” Buechner writes the prelude to the following century for Germany.
Buechner was writing “Woyzeck” in the 1830’s, a time period in which I would make the argument that was the true beginning of the 19th Century, as we know it. This was a generation after the conclusion of Napoleonic Wars ending in 1815 with the Congress of Vienna. The Industrial Revolution had already begun in England and was about to spread worldwide and change the world forever. Culturally, this was the end of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment and the dawn of Romanticism. It was in the early 1830’s that German art critics coined the term, “Romanticism” as a way of describing art that was inspired by the fantastical and mystical. In Germany at this time, many artists were finding inspiration in ancient German Mythology and Germanic Pagan traditions. The Romantic Era was defined by a rejection of Logic. After the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic Wars, coinciding with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, Europe was done of Logic. The zeitgeist turned toward interest in escapism and individualism. It is my opinion that Buechner writes “Woyzeck” with a complete comprehension of what is to follow in this Age of Romanticism.
Many of the greatest German philosophers and thinkers of the 19th century came up with theories that echo back to “Woyzeck” in a way that one would think that it was actually Buechner who wrote the play based on these men’s work. However, what makes Buechner’s play so eerie is that he wrote “Woyzeck” before Marx’s “Das Kapital,” before Nietzsche came up with his Ubermensch and Master and Slave Morality theories, before Otto von Bismarck made his “Blood and Iron” speech, before Freud began his research on human sexuality, and long before Madame Blavatski became a world famous Occultist, and pseudo-sciences became popular and sickening fascinations. There is a little bit of Nostradamus in Buechner and in “Woyzeck” it feels as though he is giving us a peak behind the curtain and showing us what is to come. Buechner predicts the fate of Germany. In “Woyzeck” a lowly soldier of assumed foreign descent, is driven to madness by society and commits murder. This is a chilling premonition of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the millions of atrocities he and the Nazi Party were to commit a century later.
One of the most significant symbols in the play is the knife that Woyzeck murders Marie with at the end of the play. Marx would argue that this outburst of violence represents the lower classes’ rise against the oppression of the upper class that has pushed them to their limits. This is an example of Marx’s Conflict Theory. The knife covered in blood is the metaphorical image that Otto von Bismarck used in his “Blood and Iron” speech announcing his ambitious, geopolitical goal of German Unification. Considering that Marie does try to make amends with God and seeks redemption in the Bible passage about Mary Magdalene’s atonement but still dies a brutal death at the hands of a man who we can assume does not fear God, Nietzsche might read that and say, “Gott ist tot.” Even more eerily, Nietzsche’s full quote from The Gay Science is as follows:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?
It is almost as if Nietzsche is referring to the end of “Woyzeck” when Woyzeck stabs Marie with the knife and tries desperately to clean the blood off in the pond and in one ending he disappears into the water. On the other hand, Freud might say that this act of murder comes purely out of Woyzeck’s sexual frustration. Woyzeck spends a good deal of the play going mad with jealously over Marie who can barely look at him or touch him. The use of a phallic object—the knife—and the multiple passionate thrusts penetrating into Marie makes this more than a murder; it is a subconscious rape motivated by sexual frustration and repression.
It is also worth pointing out that Woyzeck buys the knife from a Jewish pawnbroker who calls him a swine at the end of the transaction. When I first read this scene all I could think was how this scene is played out one hundred years later and turned on its head in the Nacht der langen Messer. The 1934 Night of the Long Knives was for the most part a Nazi Party in-house clean up to facilitate the transition of power from the SA to the SS. However, four years later in 1938, it was the SS that targeted the Jewish populations of Germany and Austria in the Kristallnacht pogrom using the same terror tactics of murder, mayhem, and arson.
There is something strangely prophetic about “Woyzeck” and the symbolic parallels between the dramatic narrative and characters and themes and the historical events that lead to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. There are many things that Woyzeck and Hitler have in common. Hitler was probably history’s evilest vegetarian and Woyzeck here eats nothing but peas. (On a side note, I think Hitler’s insanity can be confirmed and summed up in the fact that he was an ardent tee-totaling vegetarian but he used meth regularly. What sort of psycho won’t eat meat on principle but somehow figures that meth totally OK?) Woyzeck is not a very common German name and one can assume that the character may be a Pole or a Czech. I am familiar with the Cyrillic Alphabet and the name “Woyzeck” spelt using Cyrillic characters reads exactly like the proper pronunciation of the name rather than when spelt using the Latin alphabet. Hitler was an Austrian who joined the German Army in the First World War. Both men (assuming Woyzeck is from elsewhere based on his name) were non-Germans who joined the German army.
There were more subtle elements that I picked up on, which I thought made “Woyzeck” the link between the Romantic Era and how it effected Germany’s future. The Doctor in “Woyzeck” was a totally Romantic Era inspired character. He was a complete quack and a buffoon and he is the one who is responsible for a lot of Woyzeck’s misery. This Doctor doing more harm than good is a truly Romantic Era theme. This is a personified rejection of logic or at least those who would lie to you and tell you that they know what they’re doing. To me, I thought the Doctor was like a Romantic parody of Robinson Crusoe who was the Enlightenment Hero. Robinson Crusoe was man of pure ration and logic and used his intelligence to survive alone on an island for 28 years. I think the Doctor is a mockery of the Enlightenment values that Robinson Crusoe represents.
Another thing that caught my attention was how nature played a role in “Woyzeck.” The character Woyzeck hallucinates and hears voices in the woods and when he’s out in the field that tell him to kill Marie. It is almost a cautionary tale about man’s return to nature. The Captain and the Doctor say that a good man is one who is in complete control of his animalistic side and ignores his natural instincts. These men are discussing the basics of Victorian Ideals and sexual repression that would become the cultural norm later on in the century. I would be very curious to know what Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau would have to say about “Woyzeck.” Woyzeck himself certainly does not find God in nature. Even if “Woyzeck” is not a Transcendentalist play, I think that what Buechner here is recognizing is that in the Romantic Era people are moving away from organized religion and going all the way back to ancient mythology, paganism and mysticism, pseudoscience, Transcendentalism, and the Occult. Not only does this become the reality of the Romantic Era but unfortunately it all comes to a head and takes a horrible turn for the worst in Germany.
In writing “Woyzeck,” Buechner reveals to us that he has some unbelievable power of foresight and gives us an artistic and poetic representation of the history that is to become. Buechner writes history before it happens. One could teach an entire course on how “Woyzeck” is extremely historically significant to Germany in its prophetic detailing of the German century to follow. I would go a step further than that and say that although Buechner seems to predict the future of his nation, what I believe to be the most significant part of Buechner’s “Wozeck” is that Buechner died before he could finish the play and the work remained incomplete. Could there really be any other fate for a man symbolically writing Germany’s future? By dying before finishing his play, Buechner unintentionally becomes part of the oracular metaphor. How fitting is it that this man seems to know so much about what is to come but his work is left unfinished? This is a real life metaphor for Germany and this is how the German people feel about themselves culturally.
I’m currently reading Tobias Ruther’s book, “Heroes: David Bowie in Berlin” which is a historical account of the musical artist David Bowie’s time spent recording music in the city of Berlin from the years 1976 to 1979. The author Tobias Ruther is a Berliner and he is a man who is proud of his city and goes so far to say that Berlin is the city which best represents Germany, its people, its culture, and of course its history. On a side note, I wonder how a Bavarian from Munich would take that argument; I imagine he’d take it with a smirk and a sarcastic, “Jawohl!” Tobias Ruther spends a lot of time in the book talking about what Berlin represents, what the city is like, and what it was like at the height of the Cold War when it was an island in the middle of the Eastern Bloc.
Bowie went to Berlin more than thirty years after the end of the Second World War and yet he didn’t even walk a full city block before he noticed scars still left over from the War. There are still buildings in Berlin that were part of Albert Speer’s great plans to build the city into the grand capital of Hitler’s Reich and ultimately intended to be the capital of the world once the Nazi’s conquered it. Bowie even visited the Fueher-bunker, the bomb shelter where Hitler spent his last days before committing suicide. His body was burned just outside the entrance to the bunker. Ruther says that the Berlin that Bowie was living in was still rebuilding itself from the War. Ruther also says that Berlin is the city which best represents all Germans and how the Germans see their destiny as a people: Berlin is the city that is always becoming, cursed never to become. The German verb is, “werden” which makes up basically the entirety of the German language future tense. “Werden” or “to Become” is an integral part of the German language and this is symbolic of how, “becoming what you are meant to be” and “fulfilling your destiny” are very significant aspects of German culture and the German identity. Buechner never became the great playwright he was destined to become. “Woyzeck” is a great play, but it was never finished; it never became.
Understanding all of this, I think that it was Buechner’s destiny to die young and “Woyzeck” was never meant to be completed. I think that one can make connections all day citing instances in “Woyzeck” that seem to prophesize the future of Germany but the strangest coincidence of all is the historical fact that it was not finished, moreover, because the playwright whom appeared to have all of the answers died before he could finish it. It is so fitting to German culture and German identity that the man who wrote Germany’s script died before he could finish it. Gott ist tot. In the context of German culture, it feels like no coincidence that Buechner died and left “Woyzeck” incomplete. It had to be. This is history becoming art.
One could easily see it as a Greek Myth: A man writes a play that predicts the future of his nation—whether by great coincidence or supernatural foresight he writes the script that his nation is to follow. But the playwright does not know the end of his play. He writes three endings and dies before putting all of the scenes in the order he wants. But time moves forward without stopping. The script is incomplete and the future of this nation seems to never quite come to fruition. And in the end, we know that the playwright saw into the future but he did not understand exactly what he saw. He wrote three endings not knowing which one was to be the final scene. Just over a century later it turned out that he was correct but confused. He saw all three endings, but he did not understand that not just one but all three would come true.
Think about the three endings that Buechner wrote. In one ending, Woyzeck wades into the pond after murdering Marie and tries to throw the knife farther and farther out into the water and he drowns trying to cover up his crime. In the second ending, he does the same thing but he does not drown but he gets out of the pond and his child turns away from him in horror. In the third ending, Woyzeck is arrested and put on trial. The judge finds him guilty of what is described as, “a beautiful murder.” When I think about these three endings, I think about Germany in 1945 and how these are symbolic and poetic future historical metaphors. This can all be seen as an allegory or metaphor for the end of the Third Reich.
Hitler and many other Nazi Party members ended up taking their own lives, drowning in their own hateful crimes. In the second ending, Woyzeck sees his child once he’s come out of the pond but his child is horrified by him and turns away from his father. This could easily be a metaphor for how the Germans felt betrayed by the Nazis and Hitler’s promises. I think that Tobias Ruther would say that Germany after the Second World War was just like that young child. Germany was betrayed by those who she trusted and those who promised her the world. Germany in 1945, when it was all over, was an orphaned nation. Germany had to start over with others looking after her. An entire generation of Germans was lost and had no history to look to for guidance. An entire generation of Germany was born in a nightmare and had to grow up on its own finding itself in a situation created by terror and chaos. For many Germans after 1945, there was no past as Ruther talks about in his book.
The third ending is the clearest look of all into the crystal ball. This is the Trial at Nuremburg. “A good murder, a right pretty murder; as pretty as a man could ever hope to see. We haven’t had one like it in ages,” I believe are final words of one of the officers in the courtroom. I find it personally sickening at worst and creepy and anti-social at best to call a murder, “beautiful.” I am an Immanuel Kant man myself and would only say that the most a murder can be is, “sublime.” Choosing to interpret the choice of diction in this last line in the courtroom as a way of calling the murder sublime, I think the basic message that is being conveyed is simply shock and amazement that a human being is capable of such a heinous act of violence. I think that Kant would say this is a reaction to the sublime. The Holocaust was the most terrifying act of mass murder ever perpetrated in human history. The grim, cold, and calculated efficiency with which the Nazis murdered millions of innocent human beings in the matter of only a few years was never before seen in human history. Everyone who participated in the Nuremburg Trials was overwhelmed by the situation and at first; the Allies had no idea how to try these war criminals for crimes against humanity that they had never before seen. The trials lasted well into 1946 because the Allies were trying to use law, due process, and reason to come to terms with acts of evil that were unfathomable and seemingly beyond human capacity. The Nuremburg Trials, just like the trial of Woyzeck as stated by the officer, left us in awe of what evil we are capable of when we are pushed to the limits of our sanity.
Buechner knew all three endings. He just didn’t know that it would end all three ways simultaneously. To paraphrase Mark Twain, that is the difference between fiction and real life: fiction has to make sense. Sometimes, however, real life makes more sense than we think it does and sometimes it has more symbolic meaning than we realize. I think that Buechner was doomed to die and leave “Woyzeck” incomplete because of what I believe the play symbolizes. Buechner’s death and incompletion of “Woyzeck” adds a very potent metaphysical aspect to this work if one reads it as a prediction of things to come. I don’t know if I believe in fate, but I would argue that “Woyzeck” was never supposed to be completed and Buechner was destined to die before completing it. This history behind “Woyzeck” is the perfectly sublime metaphor for the ever-becoming Germany. And thus, its writer himself was written into history’s play.
“Immer zu!” Don’t stop! The phrase literally translates as, “ever to!” but what it means is closer to, “Keep going!” or “Don’t stop!” Those are the words that haunt Woyzeck and I argue haunt Germany. He hears Marie say them to the Drum Major and he hears them in the woods. The voices in his head tell him to keep going! “Immer zu!” Don’t stop! I think that this is more than just an idiom for the German people. I think that this is Germany’s built in self-destruct mechanism. The “Immer zu” mentality is why Germany, like its capital Berlin, is ever-becoming and cursed never to become. Time and time again these people push themselves beyond their capacity because they say to themselves, “don’t stop!” If Julius Caesar were alive today, he would agree. The great military genius Julius Caesar found nothing but defeat after defeat when he led his Roman legions into Germania. In his writings he credited his defeats to the shear determination of the German warriors. I’m sure he would be familiar with the intention behind the “Immer zu!” mentality.
John Lennon heard the same thing when he took the Beatles to Hamburg in the early 1960’s. When the Beatles were starting out in Hamburg, they got a semi-permanent gig at a club called the Kaiserkeller. The club owner told them to as loud and as fast as they could for as long as they could. The Beatles in Hamburg all got into the habit of taking the drug Preludin—a type of speed—and playing loud and fast four hour shows. John Lennon recalled the club owner at the Kaiserkeller always yelling at the band, “Mach schau, mach schau!” and “Macht schnell!” “Make a big show and go faster!” “Immer zu!” After the Beatles achieved worldwide success, John Lennon always credited the band’s experience in Hamburg and learning the, “Macht schell! Mach schau!” German approach to musical performance as the major turning point for the band.
David Bowie came to Berlin in 1976 and began recording music at Hansa Studios. Hansa Studios faced the infamous Berlin Wall. The building was so close that the guard in the watchtower could look into the windows of the studio as David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and producer Tony Visconti recorded the song that would become Bowie’s tribute to the Berlin Wall and the unofficial anthem of the city of Berlin: “Heroes.” The chorus of the song goes, “We can be heroes/just for one day.” However, when Bowie translated the song to German, he came up with, “Dann sind Wir Helden/nur für einen Tag,” which comes out to, “Then we are heroes/just for one day.” The difference in the translation to me reflects Bowie’s understanding of the German post-World War II, Cold War identity as he saw it. I prefer the German version of the song, just like the Germans did at the time and still do today, because there is no ambiguity about our metaphorical Hero-status. In German, “Dann sind Wir Helden” means we are heroes as opposed to the English version, which implies the possibility of becoming heroes. “We can” rather than, “we are.” Also in the English version Bowie sings, “I will be king and you will be queen,” whereas in the German version he sings, “Ich bin der König und du Königin,” “I am the king and you are the queen.” I don’t know if this is Bowie’s take on Nietzsche’s Ubermensch and Willen ze Macht (the will to power) but I believe that the reason why the song was and still is so popular in Germany and is an unofficial anthem of Berlin is because the message of actually being heroes—even if it means only for one day—has always been a reoccurring theme when analyzing German cultural identity. Bowie is singing about how it feels to succeed at willing oneself to power.
There is a major difference between the promise of “becoming” and the reality of “being;” especially to a people who feel they are ever-becoming and never to actually become. Just for one day, we are heroes. We can finally stop and take rest. Bowie’s “Helden” is a paean to the pay-off of “Immer zu!”
The tragedy of Buechner and his incompletion of “Woyzeck” is something straight out of Greek Mythology. Buechner said the playwright writes history twice. I argue that by writing “Woyzeck,” not only did he write history twice but he also wrote a future. From Nostradamus to Nosferatu, never has so simple a plot as a man murdering the mother of his child come to symbolize so much. The connection between Buechner and “Woyzeck” and the following German century is almost impossible to believe if it were not true historical fact. Reality my not have to make sense in the way fiction must as Mark Twain put it; but when real life does make sense, the truth is almost too difficult to believe and one may even mistake it as fiction.
“Woyzeck” is the play that never became. It hangs in history like a tapestry depicting one hundred years of the things to come for a people who spent the century trying to become. It represents a culture that spent that century saying to itself, “Immer Zu! Dann Sind Wir Helden…Nur Für Einen Tag!” And just as in “Woyzeck” and for Buechner himself, to say the very least, it all ended quite badly.