Category Archives: Frisch, Max

The perpetual temptation not to see

Dalrymple writes that in Max Frisch’s 1953 play Biedermann und die Brandstifter (The Firebugs or The Fire Raisers), a town is subject to a rash of arson attacks. Everyone is terrified by the prospect of more. The action takes place in the home of Herr Biedermann,

a rich bourgeois who makes his money from the manufacture and sale of fake hair restorative. Two dubious characters, Schmitz and Eisenring, take up residence in Herr Biedermann’s attic. He does not want them there, but is too cowardly and pusillanimous to evict them.

Gradually,

they make it clear to Herr Biedermann that they are the arsonists of whom the town is afraid. They move drums of petrol into the attic; they ask Herr Biedermann for help with the fuse with which they are going to light the fire; they even ask him, successfully, for the matches with which to start it. Throughout the preparation of the fire, Herr Biedermann—though he hates, fears and despises Schmitz and Eisenring, and again through cowardice and pusillanimity—refuses to accept the evidence before his eyes.

Eisenring explains Schmitz’s uncouth behaviour

by his unhappy childhood, and Herr Biedermann, through sentimentality rather than from real sympathy, feels unable to answer.

The compromise with evil

He invites the two interlopers to

a dinner of goose stuffed with chestnuts (before accepting the invitation, Eisenring makes sure there is to be red cabbage also), and though the two are complete ruffians, they insist that the best silver, including finger-bowls, be laid on a damask tablecloth.

After dinner,

they burn the house down, and the final scene takes place in Hell, where Herr Biedermann and his wife protest their innocence.

Frisch

lived through the Nazi takeover of Germany, but saw it from the German-speaking fringe. He is writing not just about the Nazi era: his play is about the perpetual temptation not to see, and then to compromise with evil.

Eisenring tells Herr Biedermann the secret of his success (but still Herr Biedermann disguises the truth from himself):

  • Joking is the third best method of hoodwinking people.
  • The second best is sentimentality. The kind of stuff [Schmitz] goes in for—an orphanage, and so on.
  • But the best and safest method—in my opinion—is to tell the plain unvarnished truth. Oddly enough. No one believes it.

Biedermann und die Brandstifter

Dalrymple commends to us the work of Max Frisch, especially his play The Firebugs

The only dénouement of the West’s pusillanimity and cowardice

It is time, writes Dalrymple, to reread Max Frisch’s Biedermann und die Brandstifter (1953), written

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 08.48.47in the aftermath of the war as an attempt to explain (and to warn) how a patent evil can triumph in a civilised society.

The wilfully blinkered protagonist

is a comfortable bourgeois living in a town that is beset by mysterious acts of arson. He is visited at home by Schmitz, a hawker, who half-persuades, half-intimidates his way into an invitation to lodge in Biedermann’s attic, and who soon brings a second hawker, Eisenring, to stay in the house.

Gradually it becomes clear that Schmitz and Eisenring

are the ones setting the fires in the town, but Biedermann refuses to acknowledge it. His blindness arises from moral and physical cowardice, and from wishful thinking—the hope that what he sees does not really mean what it obviously means.

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 08.49.23Schmitz and Eisenring bring barrels of gasoline into the house and Biedermann,

pusillanimous to the last, helps them make the fuses and gives them the matches with which they burn his house down, with him and his wife in it.

Flüchtlinge willkommen

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 08.48.04So, even now, say a few Germans. In Sweden they cried (until they brought in border checks),

Flyktingar välkomna.

Dalrymple turns to Max Frisch’s Biedermann und die Brandstifter (1953), written

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 08.48.47in the aftermath of the Second World War as an attempt to explain (and to warn) how a patent evil like Nazism can triumph in a civilised society.

The play’s protagonist, Dalrymple explains,

is a comfortable bourgeois living in a town that is beset by several mysterious acts of arson. He is visited at home by Schmitz, a hawker, who half-persuades, half-intimidates his way into an invitation to lodge in Biedermann’s attic, and who soon brings a second hawker, Eisenring, to stay in the house.

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 08.34.08Gradually it becomes clear that Schmitz and Eisenring

are the ones setting the fires in the town, but Biedermann refuses to acknowledge it. His blindness arises from moral and physical cowardice, and from wishful thinking—the hope that what he sees does not really mean what it obviously means.

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 08.49.23Schmitz and Eisenring bring barrels of gasoline into the house and Biedermann,

pusillanimous to the last, helps them make the fuses and gives them the matches with which they burn his house down.