Nosferatu: A Novelby Jim Shepard, Ron Hansen (Introduction)
From this prodigiously talented writer comes a stunningly original fictional life of the German director F. W. Murnau (1888–1931). Murnau ranks as a founding father of the cinema, not least for his legendary horror film, Nosferatu. Here he is revealed as a hermetic genius who turns against himself, becoming in a sense his own vampire. What shadows Jim/i>
From this prodigiously talented writer comes a stunningly original fictional life of the German director F. W. Murnau (1888–1931). Murnau ranks as a founding father of the cinema, not least for his legendary horror film, Nosferatu. Here he is revealed as a hermetic genius who turns against himself, becoming in a sense his own vampire. What shadows Jim Shepard’s Murnau—through the airfields of the Great War to Berlin in the twenties and to the virtual invention of filmmaking—is the conflict between his impossibly high ideals and his heartbreaking memories of love betrayed and love lost. From provincial Germany through Hollywood in its early days to the South Seas, Nosferatu charts a life at once artistic, intellectual, and deeply human. Ron Hansen provides an introduction to this Bison Books edition.
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By Jim Shepard
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Jim Shepard
All rights reserved.
He first noted sleeplessness in his journal in May of 1907. That year he turned eighteen, passed his Abitur in Kassel, and moved to Berlin-Charlottenburg to study philology. There he got to know Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, who was first a schoolmate and then a soulmate. Their friendship made a poet out of Ehrenbaum-Degele, and a filmmaker out of Murnau.
Murnau was still at that point named Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe. He was a boy from the provinces. His friend's mother was a well-known opera singer, and the father a wealthy banker. They lived in an oversized villa in the Grunewald. The family was passionately interested in culture, which was a sea change from what Wilhelm was used to at home.
Two years later, under the cover of darkness, he and his friend would travel south to an inn in the Upper Bavarian town of Murnau, where the next morning, in a sober, private ceremony, the student Wilhelm Plumpe would give up his cloddish surname and take the name with which he would become renowned.
But that August morning in 1907 he left his home with only his mother to part from. He was sick from nervous anticipation. He continually annoyed and comforted himself by rubbing his thumb over his fist. His mother told him to try to make friends at school. Begin over. And not to get the reputation of being quiet. Well-intended advice, but when the stars sang to the moon, he thought, then he'd be talkative and likeable.
His father's only remark as he prepared to go was "A black tie? Has there been the death of a stage actor?"
His two older brothers, already resentful of the fuss and their mother's agitation, declined to come down to see him off.
He rode the train east in a first-class compartment. His father had absolutely ruled out such an indulgence, and his mother had slipped him the extra money to change the fare. For most of the trip he rode under the insolent scrutiny of two immaculately dressed young men across the aisle. One featured a silk collar with an iridescent rose-and-copper tie, and spar-rock cuff links. Wilhelm was wearing his only suit. On either side of him were trunks too large for the baggage racks: the farmboy, in from the country with all his worldly possessions.
He managed his first hellos as a man of the world. The two young men responded with the thin smiles they might offer the mother of a harelipped infant. Wilhelm gave their expressions the benefit of the doubt and spent the rest of the trip empty-headed with self-conscious excitement. From time to time he peered through his windowpane at the sodden countryside, and through that wet glass he first viewed Berlin's landscape of moraines.
His grand entrance to Charlottenburg involved having to wrestle his trunks off the passenger step of the lounge car. The immaculate fellow passengers had long since left. One trunk became wedged. He heard titters behind him. He sweated and pulled. His embarrassment increased. He felt he should have been wearing a straw hat and carrying chickens in a cage.
Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele was across the platform, watching from a bench. He looked comfortably situated. His compact valise sat parallel to his feet.
For Wilhelm it was as if he'd caught his first glimpse of life's splendor, which in its fullness had always surrounded him, veiled from view and far off. He stared while extricating his trunks. The boy at whom he stared was finely freckled. He had a pleasant squint. He had shell-blue eyes, and the tolerant expression of someone watching a small animal attempt something inexplicable.
Behind Wilhelm an elderly woman finally asked if he needed assistance. Wilhelm forgot to speak, for looking at the boy on the bench.
Later he asked his new friend why he hadn't helped.
Hans said he thought it was something he should manage by himself — first day and all that. He then asked why, if he had seemed so rude, Wilhelm had come over and introduced himself.
All this had transpired while they shared a hansom to school. Wilhelm, emboldened by his first day of adventure, had confided that he'd thought to himself, If you don't talk to him now, you'll only waste weeks trying to find him again. And so he had stacked his two trunks and lumbered over, teetering under the weight.
At a pub outside of the school grounds, his new friend asked the hansom to stop and wait. Inside, he bought them each a tumbler of milk. He seemed as unembarrassed in a foreign place as an Englishman.
He was barrel-chested. His cheekbones were broad, and the unlined quality of his face reminded Wilhelm of bread dough. His lower lip was prominent, as if he were undecided between deep thought and a tantrum.
He chatted about opera and the theater. Wilhelm felt as though they were picking up the thread of a conversation they'd already begun.
He watched his new friend surreptitiously. He could make out the shadow of his eyelashes. He watched him drink his milk. Within a half hour, he was trying to transmit looks in which he'd invested his heart and soul. Hans carried on with his conversation unfazed.
Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele wanted to know what the new arrival's goals were in life. Intimidated, Wilhelm said, "The theater." He had never vocalized that ambition before. He'd told his parents he intended to study philology.
He lapsed into embarrassed silence.
Hans volunteered that besides poetry, he had no specific dreams; he was still in the "unencumbered good time" of his youth. He turned his foot inward every so often in order to glance at his shoes, which evidently pleased him.
For the rest of the ride he held forth in a mini-lecture. They might be studying philology, he said, but their ultimate concern was art, which meant they should consider themselves artists. Berlin was open to innovation. The Secessionists had triumphed over the academicians; the galleries were supportive; the press willing to review new directions. Berliners were open-minded, difficult to please, skeptical and critical. In a nutshell, the city was an express, hurtling forward.
Periodically, Wilhelm nodded feebly.
Expressionism, for example, had originated in the provinces — small Bavarian towns, little seaside villages in Schleswig-Holstein — and yet when had the world come to hear of it? When those artists had traveled to Berlin!
The lecture continued later in Wilhelm's room. Toward twilight, when Wilhelm noted that the administration had scheduled an orientation tea, Hans responded that he had called for another hansom. They were going to Berlin for an orientation of their own.
The hansom deposited them at a streetcar stop. The streetcar arrived in minutes. Following Hans onto it, Wilhelm remembered the way he'd planned to go into Berlin after a month or so of settling into school and working up his courage.
Had Hans been to Berlin before? Wilhelm asked. His family was from the Grunewald, Hans answered. Then, respecting either his friend's embarrassment or excitement, he kept silent.
The streetcar rattled into the city center as the lamps were coming on. Along a row of bakeries, middle-aged men were hauling up their awnings and getting out their bicycles. The streetcar passed four-story homes flanked with ancient chestnut trees, and luxury hotels with names done up in electric lights — the Adlon, the Bristol, Horcher's. Lunchrooms and beer and sausage emporiums. Bars for draymen and coal- and potato-dealers. It stopped opposite the Komische Oper, which featured a twin bill of Damnation: 1,000 Women! and Berlin Without a Blouse.
They disembarked on the Leipzigerstrasse near Thälmannplatz, neither of them speaking. Wilhelm noted the location as if he'd be following a trail of bread crumbs home.
In an antiquities shop, they saw a display of prehistoric bones of the sort dug up in Asiatic deserts, then they walked slowly down a long, dim arcade, reading posters in the half-light.
For dinner, Hans debated with himself: Austro-Hungarian, Czech, or Russian. He chose a Russian café that was a favorite of his mother's, and there they stuffed themselves to the brim with cold eggplant slices in oil, miniature Siberian dumplings in broth, a pink lamb shashlik and, for dessert, kisel, an opaque fruit jell.
After dinner, Wilhelm's host announced that they were going to the All-City Revue You've Gotta See It! After paying the check, he led Wilhelm on a winding ramble which terminated at a huge dirty cellar that Wilhelm's father, Herr Plumpe, would have called a Low Place.
The crowd was bumptious and jovial. The first skit turned out to be a celebration of the new elevated trolley. Then some Hohenzollern statues somewhere were ridiculed in a kind of comic dumb-show. Then a female personification of the city sang "I have the foibles of my youth, I'm still a young metropolis!" And then a woman dressed as a cross between a sailor and a Catholic Cardinal — "Claire Waldoff!" Hans exclaimed as she emerged from behind the curtain to cheers — sang "Anyone Who's Reflected on These Times Will See: Everything Our Dads Respected Seems to Us Stupidity." The whole thing was tatty and absurd. The crowd sang along and offered alternative lyrics. Wilhelm was exhilarated. Everyone around him seemed to be the ultimate Berliner. His host told him afterwards that they were probably all from Gelsenkirchen.
Outside, Hans announced that he was hungry again, and pulled Wilhelm inside another café by the jacket and introduced him to bouletten, minced meatballs, which he said was a Berlin specialty. Pyramids of them trembled on heavy china plates on the counters. They were eaten at room temperature, slippery with onion and fat, along with sour cucumber pickles and hard rolls.
They returned to their rooms with eleven minutes to spare before bed check. In the hansom ride back, Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe could not put into words what the evening had meant to him. It had been similar to how he'd imagined storms in the tropics progressed: from exhaustion and terror to exhilaration and exaltation. The whole way back they barely spoke. Occasionally Hans smiled to himself, and when they arrived, he refused to let Wilhelm pay the fare.
A week later Wilhelm was again pitched into a hansom, and this time taken to the Ehrenbaum-Degele home in the Grunewald for Sunday dinner.
The house was five stories high. The bottom floor was faced with antique fitted stone, the next two stories with granite, and the top two with Tudor paneling. In the center of the second story, the family initials were worked in iron and followed by an exclamation point. On one side, a dormer with two small attic windows and a large, arched window below created the effect of a house gaping at its approaching visitors. On the other, a stand of hundred-year-old pines extended into the forest. As they walked down the drive, Wilhelm felt unreasonable joy at the wealth of others.
They entered through a garden drowsy with sunlight. Wicker armchairs were arranged at intervals. A gardener dozed in a caved-in chair.
The house's sunroom was decorated with bowls of primroses and asters. The window frames were bright green. His host handed him a magazine, then went off to round up his father and mother. In the four corners were sprays of a dark red flower he could not identify. The Fallen Warrior from the Glyptothek confronted a Praxiteles Hermes on the mantel. Some contemporary paintings were lined up in box frames over the buffet table. Underneath, a dog, an Alsatian, lay asleep. Each paw constricted alternately, as if it were playing the piano.
The Ehrenbaum-Degeles made their entrance. Hans's father was the portrait of the prosperous Jewish banker. He had the expression of someone who, having discovered some minor embezzling, had decided to overlook it. When introduced, he transformed that into a warm smile and a searching look. He shook his guest's hand once, firmly, and introduced himself as Herr Ehrenbaum.
The mother introduced herself as Mary Degele, and insisted on "Mary." She was two inches taller than her husband, with her son's large-boned features and the sort of hair one saw in Biedermeier prints. From her first glance at Hans it was clear that her devotion was for her an unshakeable source of satisfaction.
Both parents were pleased to hear that their guest had admired Mary onstage, as Lucia. She engaged Wilhelm immediately with questions about school, and they all arranged themselves on some Swedish chairs. He answered the questions as best he could. He found he could not move his eyes from her.
She had a genius for making herself comfortable. She seemed to have developed a quietly sexual relationship with her divan. Servants came and went with trays, but amid whatever flurry and agitation, her face was a calm sea. Her expression, when she listened, suggested infinite patience. The lines of her throat were very beautiful. Wilhelm made a note to remark to Hans later that the pictures of Winterhalter were very much like her.
The cook escorted Hans's grandmother, who seemed no more frail than Bismarck, out to the group. She said her hellos and settled beside her grandson on an ottoman. He kissed her cheek and said, "Why don't you tell Wilhelm about your Parisian artist? Only don't say a word about the Prussian whorehouse; you'll ruin the family reputation."
The grandmother turned to Wilhelm and said placidly, "He teases me."
Hans lowered his head to her breast like a horse and she ruffled his hair. Taking his ease, he seemed to Wilhelm the epitome of all those welcomed and sheltered by their families.
They talked away the afternoon. Mary Degele led them through an appreciation of Furtwängler and the Philharmonic. (The family had just been to see the Glorious Seventh, and some Brahms.) Had Wilhelm ever had the opportunity to hear Furtwängler's Seventh? No, he had not. She handled his chagrin graciously, explaining the maestro's greatness with wry and demystifying anecdotes, and then, with the artlessness of someone asking him to appreciate a beautiful day, invited him to be their guest in the future.
The cook came back out and lit the lamps. The family heard the story of how the boys had met. On the subject of their aspirations, Wilhelm held forth in a way that was inconceivable in his own home. In this house, apparently, he had courage. He argued for the sublimity of the theater: for the deeper pleasure of moving people directly, in person, and seeing the emotions of one's own soul entering theirs. Hans argued for the supremacy of the written word and for the writer's pleasure of moving others across time and space. When in support of that notion he recited from Rilke, Wilhelm was entranced by the quality of the family's attention.
Herr Ehrenbaum took part in the discussion, encouraged his son in whatever point he was making, and took evident pleasure in what his wife was about to contribute.
Hans's grandmother announced that she had run out of energy, and Wilhelm wondered if it was time to go. In lieu of asking, he admired aloud a print of the Belvedere by Winckelmann. Mary Degele discussed its acquisition, and remarked on the sensuality of the south, in contrast to the prudishness of the north. Wilhelm felt himself blushing in response, despite all furious attempts to stop.
Once again the boys got back to school just in time to dash through their toilet prior to bed check. That night, listening to the snores and whimpers of his fellow neophytes, Wilhelm remembered her hair and her manner and thought, That's my real university. That's where I'll learn everything I need to know.
Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe had been raised in silence and routine in a cool blue nursery at the beginning of a comfortable era in his family's fortunes. Who understood him? His mother; his brothers. Then, not even them. His early childhood had been Westphalian, meaning that blank pastureland on which enormous, coarse-boned farmers raised ponderous draft horses, and the Plumpes had lived in a town so quiet that when Wilhelm looked out a window and finally did see a passerby, it was as if a tapestry had moved.
When he was five, they moved to Kassel, which his father saw as a fitting residence for the well-to-do man of independent means. Earlier his father had taken over an uncle's textile firm, and then sold it at an obvious profit. Wilhelm had been born in the Three Emperor Year of 1888, a few months after the coronation of Wilhelm II. Two years later, the Kaiser had designated Kassel as his summer residence. Wilhelm's father had immediately settled them in the vicinity of the palace, in the villa colony of Mulang.
Excerpted from Nosferatu by Jim Shepard. Copyright © 1998 Jim Shepard. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and two short-story collections, including most recently Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories and Project X. He teaches at Williams College and in the Warren Wilson MFA program. Ron Hansen is the author of numerous books, including A Stay against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction and Atticus, a National Book Award finalist. He teaches writing and literature at Santa Clara University.
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