Interview: The Death of Murnau
Interview with Edo Murić, discussing his latest novel The Death of Murnau, was conducted by Uwe Richter in February 2021, for the first issue of Krug, Journal for Art and Literature.
UR: As a writer with a montenegrin background, who lives in Vienna, how did it come to the situation to write a novel about F.W. Murnau, who was a German silent film director? Can you explain the connection?
EM: Apart from the obvious interest in the topic, there shouldn’t be a need for any further explanation. But I am aware that the way the world works is that what we create is not our work, but some kind of product in which we ourselves are the main ingredient. And there is always a matter of identity, of being entitled to write about something you are not part of. This very topic is actually one of the themes of the book. It is above all a book about identity and all the complexities that trouble it; identity in the narrow sense, and one in the cultural sense. It asks a question of what kind of culture can we claim for us and how does it interrogate our identity.
Part of it is a polemic between two opposed opinions. Like Settembrini and Naphta, we have Murnau and his co-director Flaherty discussing the merits of representation of a different, indigeneous culture through a white European artistic lense. Then we have Murnau himself, who doesn’t care about any of the lenses, or at least is convinced that you cannot overcome your perspective to begin with, but that it is worth trying, in order to access that common humanity. But what we have at the center of the story is, in my opinion, more important. It is a young man of non-European background, who is juggling the power system of these two ambitious artists.
UR: Garcia, the young man in the novel is a fictionalized version of Murnau’s servant, whose identity is not quite clear, and who gets to be involved in the situation that resulted in Murnau’s tragic death. He, not Murnau, is the main character.
EM: Exactly. His character is a mirror of the other side of the coin, when it comes to the question of identity. How does the proposition that identities have to be split into enclaves affect the situation from the opposite direction? Can a servant of non-white background integrate himself into the civilisational notion of privileged whiteness? How does it work and what are the things that need to be sacrificed? He is a sort of a battleground of these ideas. Is your identity essential or a construct? If it is the latter, who decides on what it exactly is? And does it even make a difference in the end?
UR: So what is the answer?
EM: I don’t come on either of the sides. Both are acknowledged. But the one that sprang out of the humanistic thought is the one that will probably be as inevitable as the other one.
UR: The humanistic one is the one that regards being a human being as the only worthy identity?
EM: Correct. And you will never be able to prevent the artists from dreaming about the other lands. Or, more precisely, to use the other as a source of identification. This goes for gender as well. It is especially relevant for my next novel.
UR: The idea of destiny, as a curse that cannot be avoided? As a plot element, it is a mechanism that brings Murnau from the curse that was “thrown” at him as he was shooting his last film on Tahiti, to his tragic death, soon after finishing it. How does that fit in the entire phenomenology of ideas that the novel is involved in?
EM: Destiny is a metaphor for that. We could start with the notion of “destiny of birth”. All of us have at some point felt the effect of it. It determines all our opportunities, it shapes what we are and what we can be. An ideal world would reduce that effect to a minimum. Murnau was constantly trying to trick destiny, and I mean it literally. He believed in premonitions, which was why he often consulted clairvoyants. So in a sense, he was an idealist, constantly seeking for that ideal world where an individual is stronger than whatever destiny throws at him.
UR: Elsewhere you said that much of the novel is based on thorough research. How does it relate to some events that actually seem quite fantastic?
EM: While researching about Murnau, I came to the conclusion that being part of strange events was his second nature. Therefore, the more unbelievable episodes in the book are the ones that really happened. Though it turned out to be very difficult to separate the reality from myth when it comes to his life. There is an additional layer of mystification of Murnau, due to him being associated with the occult. Parts of the mythology are certainly produced by the usual mechanisms of popular culture. But a big amount of it was spread by the occultist circles that he was a part of.
But to get back to the question, some conversations, and even exact words that were said, are verbatim taken from various accounts and diaries. Other elements are almost purely fictional.
UR: I have to return to the character of the boy, from the angle of fictionalization.
EM: Garcia Stevenson, the first person narrator, is a complicated case and obviously the most fictionalized. By all accounts a marginal yet important character, which in a sense drew me towards him. He was sometimes seen as a stereotypical angel of death, if we are to rely on the qualification made by Lotte Eisner, who was one of the foremost Murnau biographers. Think of him in relation to Thomas Mann’s Tadzio even. It was his beauty that led Murnau to his death, according to her, connecting it somewhat awkwardly to a sort of shared destiny of all gay men, which is supposed to be their obsession with beauty.
The camera operator on Tabu, Floyd Crosby, described a beautiful feminine looking native boy, working as Murnau’s servant during the shooting of the film, though he didn’t name him. Salka Viertel, who saw Murnau on his deathbed, described Garcia as a beautiful Polynesian youth, who was his servant. He was waiting outside of the room where Murnau was dying. Everyone agrees that he was beautiful, though we don't have any picture of him, and we have no information about his background. We just have these snippets, which I used to create a character, probably a mixture of more than one person. But in my opinion, this character needed to be crystallized for the reader, precisely because of such superficial accounts of him that we have.
Baseless rumours by the provocative artist Kenneth Anger, which he was spreading around in Hollywood in the following decades, had Murnau at the wheel and underage servant performing a sexual act on him, which was supposedly how the crash happened. This interpretation does not bode well with any of the facts that we have, neither when it comes to who was driving the car or who was in the car, nor to the circumstances and relationship with Murnau. However, there does seem to be some suspicious messing around with the truth by the Murnau Estate itself, some coverup of potential embarrassment, if you will. They went out of their way not only to disprove the salacious interpretations, but to be on the safe side, early on they did everything to deny the fact that Murnau was a gay man to begin with, which may or may not have had any bearing on his relationship with Garcia. His brother, who was the head of the estate, denied Murnau’s homosexuality all his life. As a result, confusing, rather defensive information survived in various monographs, published by them over the years, where Stevenson is presented as a white butler, who at 31 was much closer to Murnau’s age, and in any case far from a youth, and not in any way significant apart from being involved in the accident. Again, this does not correspond with the independent information that we have from the eyewitnesses.
All these contradictions made me eager to play a bit with deconstructing these myths, for the boy is as much a part of the mythology as Murnau himself. And these notorious rumors make the myth even more outrageous and interesting.
UR: Representation of Murnau seems to be ambivalent. He is not a tortured artist.
EM: He was manipulative and selfish. Probably, borderline abusive. But, of course, there is always more to it than that. He wasn’t someone I personally would like to work with. But Hollywood, which he defied by going independent, was much worse, which in a sense made him a hero.
UR: The novel touches upon the political climate of the world at the time. The Great Depression.
EM: At the end of the day, I am interested in old-fashioned humanism. The shooting of a film deep down in French Polynesia as a sort of an escape from the reality of the socio-political destiny of the world, was an implication that was hard for me to ignore. Murnau had basically found his paradise, while the whole world was falling apart.
And not only the great depression, but the evils of racism and fascism in Europe. My personal favorite character is without any doubt Salka Viertel, Murnau’s close friend, who was an Austrian-Jewish emigre. The world of German and Austrian emigration before the Second World War has always been a subject of my interest. But much of the scholarship that I encountered was mostly focusing on big male names, such as Brecht and Eisler, and almost exclusively writers, musicians and theater people. On the other hand, the ones who were part of the film business have never been taken seriously, unless they were in some professional way connected to the former, such as maybe Fritz Lang. Salka Viertel, endlessly more fascinating than her more famous husband Berthold, was a sort of a stabilising factor of much of the emigre intelligentsia from the late 20s up until the end of the Second World War.
UR: Your upcoming novel brings you back to Montenegro?
EM: It brings me back, but to a corner of time that was as of yet less explored, as well as in a community that is as distant to where I grew up as possible. It is the world of Montenegro’s tiny Catholic community, in the south-west, whereas I was born and grew up in the north-east of the country, under completely different circumstances.
I was pulled to the topic due to one very important formative element of my growing up in the 1990s, during all those turbulent years in the Balkans. It is late don Branko Sbutega, one of the leading anti-war intellectuals, progressive writers, poets, who was forced to emigrate during the war because of his dissident ideas. He was a Catholic Priest from the Kotor parish, a person who possessed an incredible humanistic spirit. My upcoming novel is connected to that very spirit but deals with earlier times, when that part of the country was ruled by Venice.