This picnic staged by Pieter Peeperkorn at the Flüela Falls is a central episode in Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Literally, it’s a picnic, but metaphorically, it’s a contrast between man and the force of nature in which nature is dominant. Mann’s description of the power and chaos of the Falls suggests that nature and man are inimical. Peeperkorn, standing before a raging waterfall telling his friends of his impending suicide. Imagine, too, that no one can hear him over the chaotic rumbling of the water. One of the friends, Ludovico Settemmbrini, who had often been to the falls, warns that “when you come close, it is brutal, at this time of the year. You won’t be able to hear yourselves think — mark my words.”

Peeperkorn is so used to imposing his powerful personality, he presumes otherwise. He has chosen the Falls to make an important announcement, and so, gathering friends for a picnic, he stands with this back to the Falls and speaks. The result is a disaster. His voice is inaudible: Such words as they were accustomed to hearing from him, they could read on his lips or divine from his gestures:Settled” and “Absolutely!” — but that was all. They saw his head sink sideways, the broken bitterness of the lips, they saw the man of sorrows in his guise. But then quite suddenly flashed the dimple, the sybaritic roguishness, the garment snatched up dance wise, the ritual impropriety of the heathen priest. He lifted his beaker, waved it half-circle before the assembled guests, and drank it out in three gulps so that it stood bottom upwards.  The few words they do understand are “settled” and “agreed.”

Peppercorn’s oration. Felix Hoffman. In The Magic Mountain. New York: Heritage Press, 1962

Amidst the chaotic roar of the falling water, the picnic ends on a note of puzzlement. None realize that Peeperkorn has announced that he will shortly commit suicide.

Refreshments are inconsequential. Peppercorn’s Malayan valet (he has no name) carries a “capacious basket” with pastries, hot tea, coffee, and two wine bottles.

For his film adaptation of the episode, Hans Werner Geissendorfer ignores Mann’s intentions. Geissendorfer rewrites the Flüela episode so that Peeperkorn (at best a heathen) kneels in a shallow stream at the top of the falls speaking to God.

See Thomas. Mann. The Magic Mountain, Der Zauberberg, Edited by Translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924. Reprint, 1934; Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. Translated by John E. Woods. New York: Vintage International, 1924. Reprint, 1996; Thomas Mann. Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955. Translated by Richard Winston, Clara Winston. Los Angeles. University of California Press; Hans Werner Geissendorfer. The Magic Mountain (1982). Screenplay by Gillian Greenwood and David Thomas based on Thomas Mann’s novel (1924); Ernest Ludwig Kirchner. Davos In Snow (1923), oil on canvas. Kunstmuseum Basel