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-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-Schiller 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 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-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.


An interview with a Nosferatu

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