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The Boston Phoenix I Am a Camera

The filmmaker F.W. Murnau comes to new life in Jim Shepard's fifth novel.

By Peter Keough

NOSFERATU, by Jim Shepard. Alfred A. Knopf, 208 pages, $22.

APRIL 6, 1998:  Unlike the domineering and self-inventing Fritz Lang, subject of a fine recent biography by Patrick McGilligan, F.W. Murnau, the other great master of the German Expressionist cinema, remains as elusive and haunting as the title revenant of his most famous movie, Nosferatu (1922). The master of the subjective -- as demonstrated in that film and such masterpieces as Der Letze Mann (1924), Faust (1926), Sunrise (1927), and Tabu (1931) -- Murnau himself remained aloof, though expressing himself eloquently on the subject of cinema. "Simplicity, greater simplicity, and greater simplicity still, that must be the nature of the films of the future," he wrote. "All our efforts must be directed toward abstracting everything."

That seems to be the direction of Jim Shepard's luminously impressionistic, deeply evocative, and often brilliant fictional take on the filmmaker's life, also titled, ominously, Nosferatu. Like Shepard's previous novel, The Kiss of the Wolf, Nosferatu reads like a vividly thoughtful screenplay (Harold Pinter's ingenious, unproduced adaptation of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past comes to mind). But unlike that book, which turned into an unresonant thriller, this one offers glimpses into the ineffable realms of desire, identity, doom, and beauty.

The hero, still bearing his birth name of Wilhelm Plumpe, is initiated into those realms as a bumptious provincial youth heading to Berlin for his first year of university, in 1907. At the train station he falls in love with a stranger, Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, a cosmopolitan neophyte artist and poet who will introduce Wilhelm to the city's heady, hallucinatory whirl of blithe spirits, ambiguous sexuality, surreal poetry, and the oppressive statute 175 against "contrary sexual sensibility."

If the law and one's own prudishness rule out carnal consummation of desire, there's always the sublimation of art. At Hans's insistence, Wilhelm is inducted into the avant-garde theater of Max Reinhart, which offers him insight into the artistic uses of light and darkness on stage and outrageousness in private. Wilhelm's father, a proper burgher, is unamused and cuts him off without a pfennig. Undeterred, Wilhelm takes his passion for Hans beyond hyperromantic conversations about Goethe and classical tragedy. The two take a trip to the spa at Murnau, where Wilhelm passively submits to Hans's desire and takes as his new name that of the town where he lost his innocence.

Or, perhaps, gained it. As Shepard relates it:

He dreamed he was free and that people loved him. He'd done nothing wrong and was fully happy, and the one he loved most was kissing him. . . . It was a glimpse into that other world.

He slept. In the moments before he woke, he savored his existence as someone else, without future or past.

But history and nihilistic caprice interrupt that dream. The Great War breaks out, and on the eve of Hans and Wilhelm's mobilization, Wilhelm succumbs to the seduction of a poseur named Spiess who rationalizes the indiscretion by announcing that "the more elevated a man was, the more he was influenced by demons." Hans learns of this, and the two depart unreconciled for separate destinations on the front. Three years later Hans dies in the line of duty, leaving Wilhelm forever bereft and wondering whether his betrayal had finally driven his lover to suicide.

Why, in fact, Wilhelm betrayed him in the first place is unexplained, except for this passing thought: "The frivolous finds eloquence in relation to the important because of what it debases and destroys." Since the act determines the direction of Murnau's life and art, Shepard's failure to clarify it seems like a serious flaw. In general, such ellipses lend the book an evocative sense of mystery and transience, but this one is a nagging omission.

When Wilhelm volunteers as a fighter pilot following Hans's death, he gains less insight into the barbarity and carnage of war than into the aesthetics of the new cinematic medium:

he began to understand flight itself as a new manner of perception: whereas the old way had been to look from a stationary point at objects before you, here you moved through and swept across the image. . . . What sort of image could the photographer record with such an advantage? What sort of image could a motion picture record?

And, later:

His experience in the Air Corps had exploded his old homogeneity of vision. From that day onward, he would be free of human immobility. He would be in perpetual movement.

It's a canny insight into the art of a filmmaker who would create the spinning room of the drunken, deluded doorman in Der Letze Mann; the flight over a misty welt with Mephistopheles, in Faust; and the unmanned ship of doom sailing into harbor in Nosferatu, an image imitated by Steven Spielberg in The Lost World. In the novel's words, he gave "the spectator the illusion of agency."

As for the man who made the images, he retreats in the latter part of the novel behind journal entries and a stark account of the nightmarish making of his last film, Tabu. In their poetic and deeply personal intensity, Wilhelm's impressions -- as Shepard imagines them --are reminiscent of the late filmmaker Derek Jarman's published journals. But Shepard is, oddly, farther removed from his subject when he writes in the first person than in the third person.

The end comes abruptly when Wilhelm dies in a suspicious car crash. The book also ends abruptly, partly because Shepard passes over such crucial periods in the director's life as his rise at the German studio UFA and his downfall at the hands of the Hollywood Philistines who butchered the masterpiece Sunrise. In some ways, what is unstated makes Shepard's Nosferatu all the more haunting, refuting the claim of one of Murnau's colleagues that "our new art has an advantage over literature because the image can be clear and concrete even as it remains inconceivable."

Peter Keough is the film editor of the Boston Phoenix.

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