The Conrad Veidt Society

An Interview with a Nosferatu

''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 compressed, 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 formied 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-Schiller.

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 at 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.

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

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