The Conrad Veidt Society
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-
Murnau's feelings about his lost love Hans Ehrenbaum-
When I was writing Nosferatu, I already believed at least that Ehrenbaum-
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-
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 -
When and why did you decide to expand your story into a novel?
I very much loved working with Nosferatu and 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-
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 -
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 -
An interview with a Nosferatu