Hanns Heinz Ewers

Hanns_Heinz_Ewers copyHans Heinrich Ewers (1871-1943) was born in Düsseldorf, the child of a cultured family: his father was court painter to the Archduke of Mecklenberg-Schwerin, and his mother translated books from French (including some by Claude Farrère). He became, as John Clute notes, a central figure in the history of horror.

He was known above all for his books featuring Frank Braun, which are borderline science-fiction and fantasy and wholly horror. In Der Zauberlehrling oder die Teufelsjäger (1907; translated by Ludwig Lewisohn as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 1927), Frank Braun hypnotizes his “inferior” Italian mistress into a becoming a “saint”, complete with stigmata, and in the end helps to crucify her. In Alraune (1911; translated by Guy Endore (1929), and filmed five times between 1918 and 1952), Braun impregnates a whore artificially with the semen of an executed criminal, and creates a wholly immoral woman whose powers were almost fatal to the experimenter. Brian Stableford notes that  it “deserves recognition as the most extreme of all ‘femme fatale’ stories, and together with its predecessor it really did succeed in the mission that Ewers temporarily adopted as his own: to create a distinctively Germanic subspecies of Literary Decadence” (Stableford 666). The third of the series, which came much later, was not so successful. In Vampir (1921; trans Fritz Sallagher, 1934) Braun is most obviously a heroic image of the author, spying in Mexico during the Great War, and becoming a vampire through drinking the blood of his Jewish mistress.

Ewers went to school in Düsseldorf, and began to write poetry in his late teens. After school he did military service, as a one-year-volunteer. He lasted for 44 days until he was dismissed because of his shortsightedness. He studied law, first at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität in Berlin in 1891, and then at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität in Bonn, from 1892. He practiced law for a few years, and the University of Leipzig gave him a Dr.jur. in 1898. He had many other interests than law, however, including hypnosis, occultism and homosexuality. He was an admirer of Oscar Wilde, and published a number of stories in an early journal for gay men, Der Eigene.

In 1901 he moved to Berlin, and there began writing for cabarets, and perfuming his pieces on stage. He married Caroline Elisabeth Wunderwald, who after her marriage called herself Illna Ewers-Wunderwald. For a year they lived together on Capri, an island well known to those who wanted to escape bourgeois prudery. He drank a lot, and also tried hashish and mescaline; he published a volume of fairy stories.

In 1904 he and Illna began a series of travels, which would give him material for later books and short stories. His first trip was to Spain, the product of which was his novella Die Tomatensaus (1905), which has been seen as a forerunner to later splatterpunk. In 1906 they went to central America; a highpoint was Haiti, with its voodoo rituals. In 1908 Ewers went to South America. His fourth trip in 1910 took his to India, South-East Asia, China and Australia.

Soon after this he got involved in the new German film industry, getting together with director Paul Wegener to produce a number of films for the Deutsche Bioscop G.M.B.H. Die Verführte and Der Student von Prag (both 1913) were perhaps the most important of their completed projects.

In 1914 Ewers undertook his fifth major trip abroad, going from Brazil to Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile. He heard about the murder of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo while he was away. He travelled through the Panama Canal (still not officially opened), to Costa Rica and Jamaica and then on to New York, where he heard about the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia. He spent the period of the Great War in the United States of America; but was not inactive on Germany’s behalf: see his War Experiences.

On 3 July 1920 Ewers set off for Germany, which he had not seen for six years, arriving back in August. He published his third novel, Vampir. Ein verwilderter Roman in Fetzen und Farben (1920), which he had written in America in part as commentary on those six years. In 1921 he married a second time (he had separated and then divorced his first wife). He carried on writing novels, and travel books, but also tried to resurrect his career in cinema: his new company was called “Hanns Heinz Ewers Produktion”. His partner eventually ran off to Buenos Aires with the money, and Ewers declared “Nie wieder Film!” [No more films!].

Instead, Ewers got involved with the rising Nazi party. His last novel was Horst Wessel. Ein deutsches Schicksal (1932), about the murdered SA-Sturmführer Horst Wessel whom Goebbels was busy turning into a Nazi martyr. Ewers and Wessel had been in Berlin together, and Wessel had actually taken a part in one of Ewers’ films in 1926. In 1933 Ewers began making a film about Wessel’s life. But senior Nazis were not happy with Ewers. His novel about Wessel was not well-received; like Ewers’ early literary output it was far too immoral to satisfy the Nazis. Ironically, perhaps, Horst Wessel was the first of Ewers’ books to be banned by the Nazis, followed by Alraune and others. One of the problems from Ewers’ point of view was that he had never been anti-Semitic, and when the Nuremberg Laws came its force in 1935, Ewers tried to protect his Jewish friends, getting them visas to travel to America or Britain.

One of the last things of his that came out was a collection of stories, Die schönsten Hände der Welt (1943) [“The Most Beautiful Hands in the World”], which contained two stories satirising the Nazi regime. He was dead by then, dying of tuberculosis in his Berlin home on 12 June 1943.

Brian Stableford wrote about Ewers’ fiction in David Pringle, ed. St James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers (Detroit etc: St James Press, 1998), 665-666. For biographical detail I am relying on the German Wikipedia. 



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