Book review: “Drei Männer im Schnee” by Erich Kästner

This hilarious little book was chosen as a read for a German reading group. It is not a recent publication: it dates from about 1934 and has been translated in many languages and turned into a film. The English title is “Three men in the snow”. It’s German author, Erich Kästner, is now perhaps far better known as the author of the “Emil” series for children. When the first book of this series was published, it sold over 2 million copies in Germany alone.

When Erich Kästner wrote his play with the German title which translates roughly into “The lifelong child” in 1934, the Nazis already detested his writings so much, he was unable to get anything published in his own name. So this play which would become the basis of his book “Drei Männer im Schnee” was published by the unknown playwright Robert Neuner, a pseudonym. Of course, this comical play became a huge success, when it was performed in Bremen.

Though Kästner changed a few things in the novel-version, the main story is the same. The book opens with the narrator discussing with the reader how millionaires seem to have gone out of fashion. One supposes Kästner not only means the very rich who own lots of money, but the truly rich who perform good deeds and enjoy life. The narrator then relates how he and a friend were travelling and met another person who told them a strange story about a real millionaire.

Then the proper story starts with Herr Tobler, the millionaire, being totally and utterly bored. He already does good deeds, but still: life is quite boring. So when he wins a prize in a competition he set up for one of the many, many companies he owns, he decides to jazz things up a bit. To the utter horror of his daughter, chauffeur and housekeeper, Herr Tobler will accept the prize. Herr Tobler is an eccentric and decides to study human nature, by doing a bit of role-playing.

So Herr Tobler, his chauffeur, and Dr Hagedorn – the third winner who is jobless and poor and lives with his mother in Berlin – end up at a very, very posh and fashionable hotel during the winter season. But hotel staff accidentally mixes up identities and act on their presumptions and outward appearances.

What follows is a comedy of errors revolving about the three men having a “holiday” in the snow. The men become firm friends of course. But the mistaken identities and errors provide a chance to gently mock and criticise society about its behaviour and presumptions. Nevertheless, the criticism never becomes severe and as this is a comedy, in the end, everything ends well – or for the majority of those involved.

The criticism is still very applicable. People still treat others differently depending on presumed social standing, wealth, influence. Unfortunately enough, we just do not treat a beggar in the street reduced to scavenging from litter bins, or the many homeless pleading for small change to be able to have a bed, like we do a Richard Branson or a Bill Gates.

While reading this little book, something continually made me think of the film “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. Though it is no “mistaken identity” film, it shares with the book a certain similar flavour, but contains severer criticism of our society.

As for the book: it remains a highly readable comedy and despite having been written in 1934, is not at all dated. So if you are looking for an enjoyable little novel, have a go in German or the translation of your choice.

“Drei Männer im Schnee” / “Three Men in the Snow” by Erich Kästner, first published in 1934, is occasionally available through Amazon.

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