Menschen Im Hotel/Grand Hotel: Seventy Years of a Popular Culture Classic

Article excerpt

On 31 March 1929, the first installment of a sensational new novel called Menschen im Hotel. Ein Kolportageroman mit Hintergrunden (literally People in the Hotel. A Potboiler with Complications, translated into English as Grand Hotel) appeared in the mass-circulated Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (Berlin Illustrated Newspaper). The year before, its author, expatriot Austrian Vicki Baum, had generated an uproar with her equally sensational novel stud. chem. Helene Willfuer (literally Chemistry Student Helene Willfuer, translated into English as Helene), and now everyone in Germany wanted to read her latest creation. This was just as Baum and her publisher, the House of Ullstein, had planned; after all, they had spent much time and money over the previous several years cultivating Baum's career as a bestselling writer.1 Yet neither Baum nor Ullstein could have envisioned just how big a hit her new brainchild would be. Menschen im Hotel quickly crossed the borders of the German-speaking countries, eventually to reach worldwide circulation, then transcended the constraints of the novel genre as it was adapted repeatedly for stage, screen, and radio. In the end, Menschen im Hotel/Grand Hotel-without its original subtitle-became one of the most successful popular culture products ever created by a German-language writer.2 Today, the novel is still in print in several languages, a musical version is touring worldwide, and fans can pick up the 1932 MGM movie at local video stores. Clearly Menschen im Hotel has become a popular culture classic. How and why Baum's novel, designed for 1929 Berlin as short-lived popular literature, has survived for over seventy years is the subject of this study.

Vicki Baum's original 1929 Menschen im Hotel is replete with sex and scandal, but also contains moments of realism and formal nuances which raised it above the average potboilers of the day. The novel has no linear plot; it jumps back and forth in time in a series of sometimes unrelated, sometimes connected episodes that form a mosaic of the lives of six people who experience crises in a luxurious Berlin hotel before going their separate ways. There is the terminally-ill provincial bookkeeper Kringelein, who has left wife and job behind, withdrawn his entire savings, and fled to the metropolis of Berlin in hope of finding "real life." His industrialist boss, General Director Preysing, has come to the same hotel for a pivotal business meeting and lies during crucial negotiations to close a deal. Intoxicated by his bluff, he celebrates by buying the companionship of financially struggling hotel stenographer and sometime call girl Flammchen, a completely unsentimental 1920s New Woman who neither believes in true love nor expects a man to sweep her off her feet. Baron von Gaigern is the third son of an old aristocratic family and ex-World War I officer who desperately needs money and has been plotting to steal Grusinskaya's pearls, but falls in love with her instead. Modeled on Pavlova, the aging dancer Grusinskaya has experienced "boos" on stage for the first time and considers suicide before falling for Gaigern. Finally there is the solitary Dr. Otternschlag, also a survivor of World War I and now a morphine addict who lives at the hotel and observes everyone and everything from his seat in the lobby. When the novel ends, Preysing has killed Gaigern and ruined his own life; Fl5mmchen departs with Kringelein; Grusinskaya leaves not knowing her lover has been murdered; and Otternschlag still broods in his lobby armchair.

Once magazine and book sales figures gave evidence of the popularity of Menschen im Hotel, Baum was pursuaded to dramatize her story, and in January 1930, the first stage version of Menschen im Hotel premiered in Max Reinhardt's Berlin theater, directed by later star Gustav Grundgens.3 Hoping to recreate the novel's episodic form, Baum constructed a loose progression of scenes which were performed on a revolving stage with much hectic action, including a for-the-time breathtaking opening scene with six characters talking at once in telephone booths. …