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An interview with a Nosferatu,

Paula Vitaris interviews Jim Shepard, author of a fictional biography of the director F.W. Murnau

''From the very beginning, my brother overflowed with imagination,'' wrote Robert Plumpe Murnau about Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, one of the great directors of the Golden Age of German silent cinema.

Murnau has now caught the imagination of author Jim Shepard, whose novel about the director garnered enthusiastic reviews upon its publication last April. Mr. Shepard's writing throughout this slender volume is full of a kind of compessed, chiseled meaning even as his main spiritual and moral themes remain understated. ''One reads and rereads certain sentences for the epigrammatic beauty,'' wrote Richard Bernstein in The New York Times. Simon Braud in the British film magazine Empire observed: ''His novelization of the director's life is a beautifully written, intellectually sound account. . . this is less a dissection of F.W. Murnau as movie director and more an ingenious and richly rewarding portrait of a soul in torment.'' If there is one criticism the reviewers have in common, it's that Nosferatu is simply too short. Shepard leaves you asking for more.

F.W. Murnau was born in the Westphalian town of Bielefield in 1888. He attended university in Berlin and Heidelburg, joined Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater as an acting student and began his directing career there. He fought in World War I as a pilot, but his flying career ended when he was forced down after straying over Switzerland. After the war, Murnau returned to Berlin and soon began directing films. He forming a a production company with actor Conrad Veidt, who appeared in several of Murnau's early films, most of which are now lost.

With Nosferatu (1922), his unauthorized adaption of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, Murnau entered the leading ranks of Germany's film directors. His pioneering work on The Last Laugh, Faust and Tartuffe led to an invitation from Fox to make movies in Hollywood. Murnau's first American film, Sunrise (1927), is acknowledged by many critics to be not only his masterpiece, but one of the greatest films ever made. Unfortunately, it was not a box office success and his next two films, Four Devils and The City Girl, were subject to studio interference. They also failed with the public. Murnau then joined up with documentarian Robert Flaherty to make a film about Tahiti, but eventually Flaherty left the project. The resulting film, Tabu, was virtually pure Murnau. It premiered a few weeks after Murnau's death in a car accident near Santa Barbara, California, on March 10, 1931.

Jim Shepard's novel Nosferatu originated as a lengthy short story written in the form of a journal kept by Murnau during the shooting of the film of the same name. It is one of the stories in Shepard's collection Batting Against Castro. Shepard's interest in Murnau continued growing, so much so that decided to expand the story into a novel, also called Nosferatu. The enlarged storyline now traces Murnau's life in episodic fashion, concentrating on the events and films that Shepard found most crucial to Murnau's personal development and understanding of himself, particularly in relation to his closest friend (and in the novel, his lover) Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, a poet killed in World War I. The narrative voice also now shifts between Murnau's first person journals and an objective third person. Many names familiar to fans of German film and culture appear in the book; the three that Shepard describes most vividly and extensively are Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, of course, Conrad Veidt, and the poet Else Lasker-Sch�ler.

In Nosferatu, Murnau and Hans meet Veidt at Max Reinhardt's acting school in 1910. Veidt, the leader of the students, soon introduces the two boys and several other students -- including Ernst Lubitsch -- to Berlin's raucous nightlife by taking them on a tour of the gay clubs and cabarets. While the chronology is historically inaccurate -- in 1910 Veidt was still in high school -- Shepard's portrait of the actor as a sophisticated, witty, enigmatic and sexually ambiguous youth, is a compelling one.

Jim Shepard is the author of four other novels:
Flights, Paper Doll, Lights Out in the Reptile House, and Kiss of the Wolf -- and a collection of short stories, Batting Against Castro.
His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, TriQuarterly, The Paris Review, and The Best American Short Stories.
He has co-edited two books on writing, You've Got to Read This: An Anthology of Short Stories, with Ron Hansen; and Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs, with Amy Hempel.
He earned a B.A. in English from Trinity College and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Brown University. Shepard is the J. Leland Miller Professor of English at Williams College in Williamsport, Massachusetts, where he teaches courses in creative writing and in film. He is married to Karen Shepard and has two sons, Aidan and Emmett, and a 110-pound Labrador.

To learn more about Nosferatu, and to read excerpts from the novel, log on to the Nosferatu site on the world wide web at Shepard's Nosferatu To learn more about the films of F.W. Murnau, there are two websites: Web of Murnau and The Murnau Project.

The following interview with Jim Shepard was conducted by phone.

How did you discover Murnau?

It goes way back. I first saw Nosferatuwhen I was about six years old and I was by myself. My parents had the habit of going off and leaving me in the company of not very attentive babysitters. One evening I was watching public television -- we got all the of the New York public television stations -- and in those days public TV would show movies from the Janus catalogue, which had most of the great foreign films. I would patrol the TV Guide looking for anything that would interest a six-year-old boy, usually monster things. I remember the little description of Nosferatusaid something like ''The first adaption of Dracula,'' and I thought, well, that's for me. My poor babysitter had fallen asleep and I was sitting there in the dark watching this film and, as my loved ones will often remark, I've never been the same since.

The effect upon you as a six-year-old must have been enormous.

It had quite a spectacular effect. I think a lot of the aspects of the film that I try to describe them in the novel affected me very profoundly as a six-year-old who had seen a lot of the Universal horror films, which are quite different in tone and effect. There was so much understated menace and dread, and also the otherwordly ugliness of Max Schreck as a vampire and the way his ugliness peculiarly seemed not out of the ordinary to people in the movie, really disturbed the heck out of me. I think a year or two later I saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and was equally devastated, and so my life and fascination with Weimar film began then. For years as a fiction writer, I wanted to figure out a way of writing about Nosferatu. It was only with the notion of creating a fictional director's journal that I began to think I could do it. I had lectured on the film -- I teach film as Williams College as well as creative writing -- I had lectured on Nosferatua number of times, and I thought that would be a wonderful way of working my own feelings and observations about the film into a short story. That involved researching Murnau, whom I had never learned a great deal about, because all I did was lecture on one of his films. I began to realize what a strange and suppressed life he had lived, suppressed both in the sense of while he alive and also after his death.

When you were researching his life, did you begin watching Murnau's other films too?

Yes. I had seen The Last Laugh and part of Sunrise, but when I began to research his life, I obviously went and saw everything that's possible to see, which isn't, of course, that much. A lot of the early German films are lost. I read everything I could about the German films. I obtained most of the additional information on Murnau from sources that still aren't in English. I went to film institutes in both Frankfurt and Berlin where all sorts of stuff has sort of piled up and never been translated. And I also got ahold of a a wonderfully comprehensive book in Spanish on Murnau written by a man named Berriatua. All of that allowed me access to a lot of information that isn't in English.

What got me started about how strange the presentation of his life is was when I read the one biography that was in English, by Lotte Eisner. Eisner was trying to deal with Murnau's family, who didn't want anything about his homosexuality made public. She realized that most critics knew a lot of his stylistic effects were due to his sexual orientation, but at the same time she could not talk about it, if she could avoid it. Her biography is filled with spectacular gaps, one of my favorite being at one point during the filming of Nosferatu, where she remarks that filming was held up for two or three weeks because Sandri, Murnau's exotic Malay house servant, ran amuck and killed the chambermaid and barricaded himself in the house and had to be killed by the police. You never hear about Sandri before or after that episode and she never discusses how odd it is that he would have a handsome Malay house servant who would go amuck. Gaps like that make clear that she knows all sorts of stuff that she essentially assumes a German audience can fill, and as for other audiences, that's their hard luck.

Eisner does discuss briefly Murnau's homosexuality towards the end of the book.

Yes, towards the end, in almost a kind of an apologetic way, she says, I really can't do a book on Murnau without grappling with this issue. But she's very diplomatic about how she concedes that the emotional difficulties Murnau must have been going through had a big effect on his films and that one can see these patterns developing. She also says, there's no reason to be tyrannized by this, and I think that's not only critically astute, but it's also obviously something the family wanted and needed to hear. And that's what allowed Eisner to have her access remain open.

Eisner's interviews with Murnau's family and friends are really quite fascinating.

They're absolutely wonderful, and without them, she would have had even less to go on. When I was researching in Germany, I got in touch with that part of the family still around, [Murnau's brother] Robert's daughter. They made pretty clear that I would have to forego making any public claims about his homosexuality if they were going to give me access to information. I thought, well, since I'm writing a novel anyway, I simply won't use their information. I didn't want to lie to them and say, ''Oh yeah, I'll promise you anything, just give me the information.'' They were fairly cagey. I know they have a lot of his letters, but it's never very clear to me how much of Murnau's journal material still exists. But in some ways not using this material was a godsend, because I can't imagine doing a historical figure whose life is extraordinarily, comprehensively documented. It seems to me the fiction writer needs those gaps. In fact, there's probably a reason why there are so many novels written about what Christ was doing between the age of thirteen and thirty-three.

That's where invention and story-telling come in, when there is no data.

Exactly. In fact, when I was researching in the early stages, there was a sense of real excitement. I was saying to myself, well, I don't know anything about this guy and everything I learn is interesting. In the very final stages, there was actually a growing sense of dread, as in, ''Oh my god, I hope I don't find something that changes everything.'' I feel enough of an ethical responsibility to what I believe to have been the historical fact that were I to have found something that dramatically changed my interpretation of Murnau, I would have had to honor it.

Was this the first historical character you had written about?

Yes. My second novel was about a historical event. It was about an absolutely catastrophic bombing mission that the 8th Air Force flew in the Second World War, but everybody who populated the book was a fictional character. So this is the first time I'd written about somebody who had a body of history behind him.

As a fiction writer, when you're writing about a historical character and you know what the facts are, what kind of responsibility do you feel towards sticking to those facts?

When the facts seem eloquent, or really important, I think you pretty much have to stick to them. It seems to me you're writing a very different kind of book if you don't. You're writing one of those ''suppose Britain lost World War II'' speculative books. I'm not very much interested in that genre. When I learned that Murnau did specific things in Berlin, then those were the parameters I had to honor when I was writing fiction about him in Berlin. The amount of room you have to play with is fairly large, even though it seems quite narrow at first. For example, I knew which people he knew when he was in Berlin in 1910 and which people he hadn't met yet. I didn't, obviously, know exactly what he did with his nights and days and all that sort of thing, and who he liked more than others in any given moment, so that obviously allowed me a lot of room to maneuver. In the case of Conrad Veidt, for example, it was pretty clear to me that Veidt was much more sophisticated and cosmopolitan in 1910 than somebody like Murnau was.That may have been so at some point, but you have Murnau and Veidt meeting in 1910. And in that year, historically, Veidt was still in high school. He didn't join the Deutsches Theatre until 1913 and undoubtedly didn't meet Murnau until then.

Right. What I get on Veidt is always about how precocious he was, so what I did then was launch him into 1910 and make him this sort of pretender, in a way. But yes, that's a good example of moving somebody forward.

Nosferatufirst appeared as a short story in the form of a journal kept by Murnau during the shooting of the film Nosferatu. When you're writing a journal, you're writing as that person. How daunting is that to become Murnau, so to speak?

Astoundingly daunting, especially for someone like myself. I'm an Italian from Bridgeport, Connecticut. I was aware that I was doing something extraordinarily presumptuous. I recently gave a reading in Boston and a guy in the audience said, ''What do you think about all these heterosexual people, yourself included, who now seem to be writing about the gay experience?'' I was talking about how daunting that was, but I was saying that it actually seemed less daunting to me than trying to write about a Westphalian like Murnau in the Twenties. The German voice seemed as daunting as anything else. There are so many aspects of Murnau's personality that seem different than me, that the whole thing seemed daunting. But I took heart from two generalized areas of reassurance. One was that writing almost any other sensibility is, in fact, an incredibly presumptuous thing to do, whether you're writing a woman's voice or a man's voice from the Fifties or in your brother's voice. How in God's name do you justify any of these things, on the one hand. The other thing I took confidence from was that all sorts of aspects of Murnau's emotional center, as I began to understand it, rang bells with me and I did feel as though I could empathize with him. Without that emotional connection to an imagined or projected figure, I couldn't imagine doing this.

In fact, having finished this, I was casting around for another novel. Somebody sent me a work on Lindbergh and I was intrigued by the story, so I started reading about Lindbergh the way I'd read about Murnau. I began to realize that emotionally, in terms of what I was beginning to understand about Lindbergh, I really didn't connect with him in a fundamental way. The more I thought about it, the more I thought I couldn't write about him. Obviously Lindbergh would have been as easy or easier to research than Murnau. But I began to feel as though the things that were being said about and by Murnau sounded very familiar.

You said you connected with an emotional center. What was that in Murnau's case?

What I began to hear about Murnau all the time was the way in which people considered him extraordinarily guarded and cold and technical in his work, yet he would always be a little bemused and surprised by that. In his own writings and in his own remarks, he would lament that as though he understand it, but periodically he would seem genuinely surprised that he was coming across that way. I teach, which is a very performative and outgoing way of spending your time, and I hear much of the same thing from students, who will say, ''You seem on the one hand to be engaging and very performative and outgoing, and on the other hand, I feel like I never really get to know you.'' So I've heard before that accusation of being guarded while in a position of supposedly communicating, both as a writer and as a teacher, and I began to get intrigued by it.

That's what happens in performance; it's a way of not being yourself.

Yes. And it's striking that some performers pull off the illusion of ''I'm not being myself, but in fact you've gotten a glimpse of my innermost heart'' and others construct the illusion in a different direction. Murnau, I think, always felt that that was part of the way he was being reviewed. There's a line I quote from one reviewer, who says, ''Murnau will teach us to see modern film, others will teach us to feel it.'' I don't think he ever felt completely at ease with those kinds of formulations.

In the journal sections written in the first person, did you base the writing style on Murnau's own writings?

Yes, that was the germ I worked outward from. There are only a few examples of his writing that I had to work with. One of the primary ones that I enlarged upon was his essay, I think for Film-Kurier, where he talked about what he was hoping for in a cinema of the future. In the novel, I double its length. In the daunting task of trying to achieve his voice, that was something that I really clung to. And the other thing I would do is search around in German literature for voices that clearly had influenced Murnau or voices that at least sounded to me very much from that same sort of high Romantic yet cosmopolitan strain. So people like Rilke were helpful. Lasker-Sch�ler was helpful. It was very helpful to read the letters and journals of people Murnau admired, like Goethe. What I was trying to get a grip on -- besides the very German feel to his voice and language -- was his suppleness, or instability, depending on your take on it, of his style in which he would slip between Romanticism and a kind of cosmoplitanism or self-consciousness. It was a peculiarly Germanic way of looking at things.

Murnau's feelings about his lost love Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele is the never-ending issue of his personal life in the novel. Hans is not mentioned in the original short story version. When you were writing the short story, were you thinking at all about Murnau's relationship with Hans?

When I was writing Nosferatu, I already believed at least that Ehrenbaum-Degele had been the great love of Murnau's life. It was really a tactical decision with the short story to not try and cast the whole thing as what I feared in short story format would look like a romantic tragedy -- also, the story was already getting overlong. But he filmed Nosferatubecause of this. What I wanted to concentrate on in the short story version was the way certain aspects of his character that Murnau both lamented and refused to completely reject were being beautifully reflected in the film he was making. The more I learned about Murnau, the more I thought this is absolutely essentially. And the more I realized that Hans was going to form the spine of the novel, the "Nosferatu" chapter would have to reflect that growing understanding that he was never really going to get free of Hans.

What's the importantance of the vampire figure to Murnau in your book? Does he identify with him?

One of the things that always struck me about the vampire in Nosferatuwas the way his sinister menace, his malevolence, seems to diminish as the film goes along. You begin with these images that I think are the most striking and sinister images of vampirism ever in film. Then, by the end, by two-thirds of the way through, the vampire is carrying a coffin around this little bourgeois town, trying to look for his house. By the very last image of the vampire -- that moment when he disappears with the rising of the sun -- he looks like somebody's elderly uncle having a cardiac. There's a strangely vulnerable quality and frail quality to Schreck's Nosferatu that begins to gather power as it goes along. I think fundamental to Murnau's understanding of the vampire is that sense he had of the vampire being both menacing and yet in an extraordinarily pathetic position. He describes that quality of being supernaturally out of place, and on the other hand, oddly unnoticed, which I also think seemed to Murnau vividly familiar.

That's a really interesting way to look at it, to see the terrifying Nosferatu as a pathetic character.

I think the difference between how he appears in the early scenes -- and I think the pivot takes place sometime around his arrival at Bremen -- and the later ones, is quite striking. Obviously he's still menacing, but in those later scenes he's quite a different vampire than he was earlier. He's out of his element and also getting closer and closer, of course, to the woman who's going to demolish him. When I teach the film, the students are always absolutely enthralled in the first half, but then they find it very hard to take seriously moments like Nosferatu tiptoeing around carrying his coffin or being patient when he takes that little boat across the canal and it floats along. I really don't think that Murnau, when he was filming those scenes, was thinking, well this will be the most frightening way I can have the Nosferatu enter Bremen, tiptoeing along, carrying his own coffin. Stoker knew well enough that that wasn't going to work, if the idea was terror. Stoker never allows Dracula to ever have those moments, where you go, Well, there's something actually frail about this figure.

When and why did you decide to expand your story into a novel?

I very much loved working with Nosferatuand it ending up being a a cool publication. It was published in TriQuarterly. The editor called me up and said, "Do you have any images that you want to go along with this?" I was able to pick out whatever images I wanted and they published about ten with the story. It was an awful lot of fun. I still felt like the more I was learning about Murnau, the more I was getting interested in him, and so, I thought, well, let me just start piling up information on some of his other films and see if this begins to feel like a novel to me. I started doing the same researching for Tabu and Faust and Sunrise and The Last Laugh. Then I discovered more stuff about Murnau's time in the Air Corps. I had written a lot about flying earlier, and I love to write about flying, so I thought, this is going to sound like kismet or something.

Why do you like to write about flying?

There is something extraordinarily visceral and eloquent about the movement of flight that has always moved me a great deal. My first novel is about a young 12-year-old boy who steals a Cessna. And the second novel, again, is about the 8th Air Force. A lot of my short stories have been about flight, too, and the critics have talked about how it seems important to my way of seeing the world. I had read it in Eisner and hadn't paid much attention to how long he must have been a flyer. So discovering that Murnau had been a flyer -- and I discovered this surprisingly late -- made me think that he was even more of a kindred spirit than I thought he was. It also occurred to me that nobody I knew had ever pointed out that here was a man who had been perfectly happy as a theatrical director, then had gone into and come out of the war, and then suddenly became not only a film director, but a film director quite preoccupied with the notion of a moving camera. It seemed to me that flight itself had to have been one of the revelations that had moved him from being one of Reinhardt's best pupils to a filmmaker who wanted to do nothing that would like like filmed theater. There's a wonderful book by a literary critic named Paul Virilio named War and Cinema in which he talks about the way flying gives you a new paradigm of seeing. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this had to have been some version of what Murnau experienced.

At what point, then, did you definitely decide you were going to expand the story into a novel?

I think probably the moment that I realized that the Air Corps stuff was important to Murnau. I realized that there were three or four things that the novel would assert that I hadn't read anywhere in Murnau scholarship. It seemed clear to me as well that it was very likely that he deserted, a subject that was never brought up. The way it's always handled, Murnau is despondent over his friend -- or lover, depending on what your take is. He joins the Air Corps, he has lots and lots of crashes, he gets lost and puts down in Switzerland, and gee, just a few months later he's directing a big theater production. That all seemed to me highly suspicious. The more I knew about it, the more suspicious it sounded.

As if once he had the revelation you think he experienced, he didn't need to go back to the war.

I think that was it, as well as the idea that the war had killed the person most dear to him and was killing lots of other people as well. I think the more he thought about it, he realized, ''I don't need to be a part of this any more.'' But really, it was the timing between his being forced down in Switzerland and his first directing job that made me the most suspicious, because there was very little time between the two. These productions don't go up without directors. Everything seemed quite unlikely to me in the official story.

The novel, unlike the short story, shifts between first and third person. What did you decide to use that kind of narrative structure and how did you decide when you would use each voice?

When I first conceived of expanding it into a novel, I assumed it would be all like the short story -- it would be a novel in the form of a journal. I wrote a large stretch of it that way. I tried writing in journal form most of the sections that are now in the third person. To me they felt a little too airless and hermetically sealed in with Murnau. It felt, after a while, as though you wanted to break out of the confining intimacy of that voice. Also, there's a fictional price you pay for maintaining the illusion of a journal, which can get tedious over the long haul -- ''I had a bagel today and the coffee was cold today. . . '' The more I thought about it, the more I thought that I could go to a third person that would provide the illusion of a little more omniscent distance and still stay very close to Murnau's voice. In a paradoxical way, that seemed to open the novel up, without opening the novel up. So there are moment that are truly omniscent sounding, where the novel will say things like, two years later in a sober, private ceremony, he would do this, but for the most part the third person voice is intended to stay very close to his own first person voice; for example, the third person section narrating how he met Hans and stuff like that. The idea was to give you a feeling of relief from the journals and to give you a bit of excitement when you come back to the journal, as though maybe you're getting a little bit more intimate information.

How much information did you find about Murnau and Hans beyond Eisner's book on that relationship?

The stuff that was really the most helpful were the tributes I found in Germany that were written to Murnau after his death by organizations like the Society of Free Spirits [a group that celebrated Greek ideals]. They would talk in greater detail about the great relationship of Murnau's life with Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele. At one of the institutes, I found in a little plastic bag the book that Hans gives Murnau in the novel at Christmas [when they are staying at the town of Murnau in Bavaria]. It's the copy of Faust with the little inscription in it. That made me sit up and say, Well, I think I've figured out why Murnau changed his name to Murnau. The way it's usually handled by film critics, the announcement is made that at a certain age Murnau changed his name from Plumpe to Murnau. It was only when I researched his life that I began to realize how odd that detail is and how odd it is that that goes unexplained. It's very much as though somebody were writing my biography and announced that when I was 18 I changed my name from Jim Shepard to Jim Boston. Why would he chose that? And then I discovered that same year Murnau spent a romantic weekend in this town. This is a good example of the way in which a novelist can make assertions through his intuition that a reputable historian can't do. A historian is still forced to say, This is a very attractive theory, but there's no proof of it. Whereas a novelist can say, there's enough proof for me!

Although all the sections of the novel are linked by Murnau's unresolved emotions about Hans, the book itself is structured episodically, dealing with particular events and films in Murnau's life. It skips over some very important parts of his life, particularly when he goes to America to make Sunrise, and also skips over the making of Faust. How did you decide which events and films you would discuss and which ones you would leave out of the book, and why?

It was a difficult decision. I knew I wanted to do Nosferatu, because that's the source of my obsession. I felt like I had to do The Last Laugh too because it was one of Murnau's primary obsessions and that was the film that made him an international star. In terms of the other films, my original plan was to do Faust and Sunrise as well as Tabu. In fact, I wrote a huge part of the Faust section. Ultimately, I dropped both films for two different reasons. For Faust, there was so much stuff that seemed to rebound on the Hans story and it began to feel really over-determined, because the Faust story is so close to what those two went through originally as students in the book, where a section tells about them using Faust to tantalize each other. The more I began to develop the Faust section, the more it seemed, in an odd way, that it was becoming unconvincing in the way reality can become unconvincing. Everything seemed to rebound back towards Hans. In the case of Sunrise, even though most people, maybe including myself, consider it to be Murnau's greatest film, I felt that it was taking too much away from what was becoming the spine of my book, which was Hans. Ultimately I decided that I couldn't put all the films in, because I felt the reader's ability to march from film to film was going to be steadily diminishing. If you looked forward and realized you had six more films to go, you'd go, "Oh my god, how am I going to read these?" Tabu seemed to me to be absolutely crucial. The whole experience seemed to open up to Murnau a whole new way of coming to terms with himself and maybe forgetting, and at the same time it was clear to me that he was searching for [friend and artist Walter] Spiess, who was running around the South Pacific. It isn't clear historically why he was searching for him, but in my case I make him searching because he thinks maybe Spiess has information about Hans. That was very important in terms of my understanding of Murnau, because after Hans he was never as happy as he was in Tahiti. There was a huge let-down involved in that too, because at some point it clearly occurred to Murnau that even here he wasn't going to be happy. He pretty much returns [to the United States] voluntarily. After he's there for a little while, he makes noises to his mother and to various friends in America, ''Why do I have to come back?''

Why do you see Tabu as so crucial to Murnau?

A lot of European intellectuals and romantics in Murnau's position had always romanticized the South Seas as a place where a whole different standard of living was upheld. There is that belief that homosexuality could operate in this unselfish enjoyment, something they talk about in the Society of Free Spirits early on in the novel. I think they had genuine hopes about a place like Polynesia, where the sexual code was completely different. In the early stages of his visit there, I think Murnau dared to hope that he had stumbled into something like that, where everything wasn't recrimination and blackmail and guilt. He was, I think, quite happy, and then began to realize the patterns of exploitation and damage were not going away. Although he always claimed that he intended to go back, he leaves Tahiti with some real sadness, I think, because Paradise turned out to be not Paradise in sexual terms and it still hadn't allowed him to put Hans completely behind him. The latter is pretty much my assertion.

You see that in Tabu itself, where the first part takes place in a paradise-like home of the native people, and then the two main characters move to the European section of the island.

Exactly. For me the image that I always found extraordinary and also emotionally supported my position about Hans came at the end of the film, when the boy is swimming after the boat carrying away the girl he loves. He's swimming and swimming and then he drowns -- it's this extraordinary image of never quitting, which leads to self-destruction. That seemed perfect for that understanding that I claim Murnau had of realizing he's never going to be rid of this feeling about Hans. When I first saw Tabu, I found that last image extraordinarily moving, but I couldn't exactly place why. I knew that in the context of the film it was moving to know that this boy was that devoted to the girl, but it still seemed to carry more of an emotional charge than that. As I began to learn more about Murnau's life, I began to figure out why, at least to my satisfaction.

Do you think that Han's death stunted Murnau's ability to relate to other people, at least romantically?

Yes. On one hand, I think Murnau recognized that he had blown an enormous opportunity [when he is unfaithful to Hans]. On the other hand, he used it as an excuse for not allowing himself to connect to other people as well. It's hard to figure out where one stops and the other begins. There's a moment when I have Spiess say something like, Hans is your obsession. I'm just a catamite who helped you through your ceremonies of regret I think for Murnau one of the great paradoxes that he was always wrestling with was how he could claim to himself that I'm a one-man guy and I'm completely cold and forbidding and don't need anyone else, yet he had a series of lovers, some of whom were fairly long-term.

There is also the obsession with his art. One of the aspects I liked best about your book was when you discussed Murnau's aesthetic approach and what he wanted to do with the camera. How much were you interested in conveying Murnau's artistic technique?

That's what actually first interested me. That's what the original story Nosferatuwas centered on -- it was the portrait of the artist as a young filmmaker in a brand-new art, and that love for the problems and potential of early filmmaking never went away when I was writing the book. It made it hard to decide when I was structuring it to drop the Faust and Sunrise sections, because I could read about early movie-making until the cows come home. But I began to suspect that my readers didn't have quite the limitless fascination with it that I did. That "cool stuff you learn when you read about what people were doing in the Twenties in movies" -- I could have gone on forever with that.

I was a little surprised that you decided to skip over the time in Murnau's life when he came to America; it would have been a fascinating opportunity to explored the meeting of his European sensibility with the commercial Hollywood approach.

Another one of the reasons I dropped Sunrise was because it seemed to me Sunrise itself is a whole novel. I really dropped, as you say, his whole experience colliding with America. That meant I also dropped a whole network of fascinating friends who at first I tried to incorporate in a kind of glancing way. I finally realized I couldn't really do that. Murnau was good friends, for example, with Greta Garbo, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, I couldn't have Garbo as a minor character. It would be like one of those annoying historical novels where you say, Hey, isn't that Sigmund Freud over there? It just seemed like the whole thing was going to be stocked with these walk-on celebrities. It was a little bit dangerous in that regard in the earlier sections with the Germans and Reinhardt, but what I was counting on was that for most readers, those people weren't the kind of luminaries that somebody like Garbo is. A lot of readers who encounter Lasker-Schüler, or even Lubitsch would just go, Oh, I guess this is just some German guy. Whereas, if I had all these people like Heinrich Mann and Greta Garbo wandering around, it would be this star-packed thing. At some point with Sunrise, I thought either this novel is going to get three times as long or I'm going to have to drop this.

I really enjoyed your descriptions of the secondary characters in the novel, especially of the poet Else Lasker-Schüler. She is one of the few female characters in the book besides Hans' mother Mary. What intrigued you so about her?

She was very good friends with Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele. My sense of her is that she was always kind of sniping at Murnau and that she was never as delighted with Murnau as Murnau had hoped. There clearly was some kind of competition for Ehrenbaum-Degele's attention. So the portrait of Lasker-Sch�ler that Murnau would provide is probably less sympathetic than somebody else would do. What interested me about her was that initially she embodied for me a different way of approaching that instability between cosmopolitanism and romanticism. Lasker-Sch�ler's work and life seemed to me very much like that, and I found it a take on Weimar culture that was new enough that it should go into a novel. She was a character who enjoyed a genuinely interesting loopiness. What I ended up believing about Lasker-Sch�ler is that she never bothered to nail down for herself what was self-conscious presentation and what was just her being who she wanted to be. What I did find most interesting about her was the heartbreak of her relationship with her son [Paul, who died of tuberculosis]. That rebounded on Murnau in all sorts of interesting ways, too, because Hans was clearly taken and fascinated with Paul. It really isn't a difficult leap for Murnau to make in terms of his treatment of Hans and Paul. One of the things that is really heart-breaking about Lasker-Sch�ler is that she's always talking about how much she cares for Paul and how much it bothers her that she's making a difficult life for her, but she couldn't stop. One of the lines of the novel is an exact quote from her, when she says, "I always say that I'm worried about him and then I keep dragging him into these filthy holes." The scene where he asked her to step out of the room so that he could die was a real one I found somewhere. I thought, what a terrible, terrible thing to have to face when your son is dying. Could you leave because I don't want you to see this?

The contrast betweexn Lasker-Schüler and Murnau was also interesting because she is so colorful and uninhibited and Murnau is so quiet and repressed.

Right. In fictional terms it seemed like a great way of both allowing somebody to goad Murnau about his repression and also to make his inhibitions -- and his attempt to construct himself as the very measure of propriety and control. This threw that into relief. At one point Hans calls Murnau The Knight Beyond Reproach but I don't think Else bought it for a moment.

How did you see Hans?

I was touched by something I read about Hans, and it became the detail that centered him for me. He had tried to model himself on the calm good sense and honesty of [Greek historian, essayist and soldier] Xenophon. On one hand, it seemed touchingly sweet that he would have decided on a classical model as a way of deciding who his model of rectitude should be, but on the other hand, it was quite naive, because you don't even need to be a historiographer to realize that Xenophon had his own agenda and that you're not exactly reading the unvarnished truth when you read his version of how he tramped all over the Persian empire killing people. It seemed to me a really nice way of centering in my imagination this guy who is both quite sophisticated and quite innocent. And that combination, I think, Murnau is narcissistically drawn to as well.

Hans' family -- his mother, Mary, is an opera singer and his father a prosperous Jewish banker -- is also the family Murnau wished he had.

It's the kind of family that Murnau in both his pragmatism and in his idealism would recognize the advantages of. On one hand, here's the mother, who's about as plugged into high culture and graciousness as you're going to get, and then here's the father, who's loaded with money and is quite tolerant. It's his dream family. Here's a boy -- Murnau -- who is pretty clear on the fact that he's going to be jettisoning his own family soon, and he goes to the big city and finds almost immediately exactly the family he was looking for. They seem to shelter him. It is clear that both mother and father took to Murnau very quickly, possibly because of that model of rectitude and control that he presented himself to be. I get the feeling that Murnau was the sort of boy we all once knew who got along famously with adults. Meanwhile, he's annoying most of his peers, but adults think he is the cat's pajamas.

That's quite a fascinating portrait you draw of Conrad Veidt. You present him as this mysterious, almost sinister figure, yet underneath there is also this great compassion. And as the leader of a certain group of Reinhardt's theater students, he takes Murnau and Hans and some of the other boys on a nighttime crawl through Berlin's gay clubs. Of course in 1919 Veidt starred in Different From All the Others, which did make him something of a gay icon. But I'm wondering what are your sources for your portrayal of him, and how did you envision him?

There were two things that focused my attention on Veidt, besides his obvious prominence in the film world. One was Different From All the Others. When I went to Frankfurt and Berlin, I realized that when he became a homosexual icon, simultaneously he became an icon for speaking out for compassion. I came across a lot of interviews with Veidt where he talked about the need for compassion and understanding and why he decided to make this film. Then, when I was going over the very beginnings of Murnau's career, I began to realize that Veidt had done an awful lot to facilitate the Murnau's first films -- Satanas, Sensucht and others. That alliance seemed to me quite striking as well, especially given that soon after they seem to be, not on bad terms, but also not on especially close terms. That began to get my mind going as well. I decided to cast him as someone who, even though he's younger than Murnau, seems much more precociously understanding in terms of what he's doing there. Also, of course, I loved the physical descriptions that I was always getting in those years as well. I quoted someone to describe Veidt at some point as looking like something you'd find hanging at a crossroads in winter. In the case of Veidt, what I had was some crucial details about his background and a pretty vivid sense of his physical presence. His filmography is really striking in terms of the way these themes of a double life come up over and over again, whether it's Januskopf or any number of other films. It seemed very likely to me that for somebody like Murnau, Veidt would have seemed inspiring and frightening at the same time, so that's the way I decided to take it.

You have a line where where Veidt says that if he is asked what his nature is, he calls himself musical. That's exactly how Christopher Isherwood's uncle describes himself in Christopher and His Kind. Did you borrow that from that book?

I think that's where it comes from. It seemed perfect for my fictionalized Veidt to show that quality of pretending, in a kind of urbane way, that he's not answering the question but at the same time he is answering the question. That seemed to me absolutely essential towards my understanding of Veidt, so that's where that came from. Again, he's maintaining an illusion; we're all being very urbane and witty and not speaking directly. Anybody hearing that sentence would know what he meant.

Did watching Veidt's films affect your portrayal of him?

Yes, I think so. I knew that some readers would have an experience of Veidt from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A lot of people don't even remember the later part of his career, except for Casablanca. But I thought if there was any visual image of Veidt that I would need to plug into, it would be the famous image of Cesare. For example, in the scene where they're attending Reinhardt's party, that's really the visual Conrad Veidt that I'm describing, when somebody says that Murnau and Veidt, who were both very tall, stand out above the crowd and that Veidt looks like somebody who always wears black and tries to affect a sinister and tragic air. I read that someone accused Veidt of always wanting to do that, but I never read anywhere that Veidt always wore black. I don't even have any evidence that he wore black all the time at that point in his life. What I was trying to do is call up in a pleasurable way for the reader Veidt's performance in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

How about Murnau's own films -- did his disciplined approach to your art affect your own writing in general?

I think Murnau has. That began well before I started writing this book. What's often said about Nosferatu as opposed to something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the way Murnau enlisted nature itself in the service of the supernatural, and that, I think, had a huge effect on me. The idea that he could simply pan a range of mountains and in the proper context, with the proper filming, make me feel that in some ways those mountains were part of some sort of diabolical cabal, was not only a huge contribution to film history, but a huge contribution to my own aesthetic. The ways in which The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari unsettles us are pretty easy to figure out; there's not a right angle in the movie. But the ways in which Nosferatu unsettles us, even when the vampire's not on screen, are awfully intriguing. In one point in section of the novel where Murnau is filming Nosferatu, I talk about the way Alexander Granach as Knock brings the diabolism closer to home. When I watched that film again, it struck me how striking it was that Knock, as a character, even in the way he's been introduced, seems to have been dropped in right out of The Cabinet of Caligari. I don't think that could be a coincidence, but it does seem to point out for Murnau's dimmer viewers, myself included, the way he could have taken this in a much more traditionally expressionist direction. But instead he merged this tradition of expressionism into a much subtler thing.

Thank you for taking so much time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

Thank you!

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