The Conrad Veidt Society

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-Schiller 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-Schiller'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-Schiller 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-Schiller 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.

An interview with a Nosferatu

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