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-
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-
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-
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 -
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-
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 -
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-
I really enjoyed your descriptions of the secondary characters in the novel, especially
of the poet Else Lasker-
She was very good friends with Hans Ehrenbaum-
The contrast betweexn Lasker-
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 -
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 -
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
An interview with a Nosferatu