Disclosure: I am friends with Jürgen Fauth.
More important disclosure: Jürgen Fauth has written a fantastic new novel, Kino. It is lyrical and funny, blending history and cinema into a tasty haze of familial angst and awakening. It even has some sci-fi in it, if you believe what some of the unreliable narrators are saying.
In Kino we meet a young woman named Mina, newly married, living in New York at the beginning of the Iraq War. She receives some mysterious metal cans which turn out to contain reels of a film long thought to have been destroyed. It is Tulpendiebe (The Tulip Thief) made by Klaus “Kino” Koblitz, the Wunderkind of Neubabelsberg – the youngest director in German's Ufa Studio and, also, the grandfather Mina never knew.
The film is so antiquated it will only work on an old German projector (a Doppelnockenverfahren!) so Mina must go to Berlin. Here she learns about her Grandfather's youth, literally stumbling into a film career, his exploits as a director, his time (collaborating?) under the Nazis and his later, doomed project in Hollywood. Kino takes a fun peek at history (Fritz Lang and other luminaries are important players) and at the cold war (conspiracy nuts will enjoy reading about MK-PSYNEMA), but it also presents a unique spin on film historians and their culture.
I've spent many late nights watching and discussing film with Jürgen Fauth. I particularly recall coming back at three in the morning after opening night of Revenge of the Sith to watch Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera. As such, it was a special treat to dig in and discuss his book. Before you read it, though, check out this viral video stunt, which we discuss farther down the page.
Kino has a unique narrative structure. It is something of a triple period piece shaded by the film industry: Germany before and during the war, early 1960s bloat before the "New Hollywood" era and 2003, when broadband hit critical mass. Let's talk about them in order. You present the German studio Ufa as a drug-fueled carnival of innovation. How much of that is for real?
Some of it, maybe even most of it. When you read the histories, it really does sound like all of Weimar-era Berlin was a drug-fueled carnival of innovation (love that phrase.) After Germany lost World War I and the Kaiser was gone, the old ways were disappearing fast. The hyperinflation in 1923/24 got rid of lots of pre-war morals – apparently, cocaine was everywhere, and families pimped out their daughters to survive. After that, things never returned to normal. And I don’t know if it was a result of that, but the era truly had an amazing flowering of the arts, including film: Murnau, Dietrich, Brecht, Reinhardt, Klee, Gropius, Lubitsch, Dix, Weill, you know the names. As far as Fritz Lang goes, I’ve read that he was open to experimenting with whatever drugs were going around. My imagination did the rest.
And Lang was a monster on the set, as depicted in the book?
I’m opening the biography at random, and here’s a quote from a longtime friend of Peter Lorre’s: “Fritz Lang was a sadist, a bona-fide sadist, and Lorre could have killed him. He made him suffer all through M.” It’s true that he had his actors do endless re-takes, and it’s true that he used to count off movements and gestures. [e.g. shouting “Twelve!” meant to give a pre-determined facial reaction.] It’s also true that he carried a Browning in his jacket. When he burned the robot-Maria at the stake for the finale of Metropolis, everybody was worried for Brigitte Helm’s safety. Yeah, by all accounts, he was a monster on the set.
Arguably the heart of Kino is the story of what went down on the set of his only American film, The Pirates of Mulberry Island. Without getting into plot revelations, this frenzied sequence details an early 1960s runaway production, on location in Mexico. As someone who has some experience in filmmaking (albeit on a microscopic level) I can attest that a cult mentality quickly evolves on set. We've all heard stories of megalomaniacal directors - can you talk a bit about some stories that may have influenced this sequence? Also - how is your director, Klaus "Kino" Koblitz different from just the usual power-mad dictator?
The most obvious influence on the Pirates shoot is Hearts of Darkness, one of my all-time favorite documentaries, about the making of Apocalypse Now. I just love that movie – what went down is so completely over the top that it was hard to invent anything that even comes close, yet Apocalypse Now is an all-time masterpiece. Hearts of Darkness starts with a Francis Ford Coppola quote: “There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.” That’s more or less what happens in Kino. I’m not sure what else I can say without ruining things, except that the Cary Grant/LSD connection is well-established, as I’m sure you know.
The framing story - that of a young woman discovering the stories of her grandparents - is set in 2003-04. Partially, I would imagine, this is so people who were around prior to WWII would still be alive and able to speak about those days. However, it syncs up nicely with the proliferation of digital cinema - something that factors into the conclusion of the book. Also, having the days of "shock and awe" coincide with stories of the Reichstag Fire don't hurt either. Now that it is 2012, do you consider the "now" part of Kino to be a period piece?
It wasn’t quite a period piece when I started writing the book in 2006 -- still the dark years of the Bush administration – but looking back at it now, it’s definitely odd to remember Scott Ritter and the looting of the Baghdad Museum and all that crap Donald Rumsfeld said. Ari Fleischer, you remember Ari Fleischer? Good lord. You’re exactly right about all the reasons I decided not to move the action into the present: the Internet needed to be at a certain stage of development, and I was relying on a number parallels between 1933 and, say 2004. It’s amazing how fast we forget -- America really felt like a very different place during those years.
Without spoiling it, the end of the book is about remix culture, movie piracy, and the ways in which stuff tends to escape the grip of the copyright holders these days and inspires people to participate. I’m thinking of things like Star Wars Uncut, which I adore. It may yet turn out to be the most important movie of the decade. So it only made sense to extend this idea into the real world. There’s this remix artist, Ivan Guerrero, who’s done amazing “premakes” of movies like The Empire Strikes Back” (1950) and The Avengers (1952) by recutting old material. He agreed to make a trailer for Kino’s first movie, Tulpendiebe from 1927. It’s assembled from nine different copyright-free movies and I love every second of it.
The Tulpendiebe tumblr started as a place for me to post material related to Kino. At first I just posted my research, photos, art, quotes, and movie clips, but lately, in the spirit of remixing, we’ve invited people to participate, so if you have something related to the world of Kino, you can send it in and I’ll post it. We’re giving away ebooks and signed books, and there’s talk of a multimedia enhanced ebook version of Kino, with everybody’s contributions included.
When I mention this book to people, the story of someone learning about the past because of a lost silent film, they invariably mention Hugo. (Maybe it has something to do with the two syllables ending in O.) Obviously you started working on this long before you ever knew of that film, but I'm wondering what you made of it?
I didn’t see Hugo until pretty late, until most of the brouhaha, Oscars and so forth, had already died down. I liked it a good deal – better than The Artist, at any rate – but I thought it was precariously balanced between a kid’s movie and a film about nostalgia, which probably only appeals to adults. Of course I paid special attention during the scenes where Hugo watches Melies’s movies, and the flashbacks to his filmmaking days – some of that did feel very close to what I was doing in Kino. In a way it’s sort of a pre-Kino Kino, isn’t it? Minus the drugs and the fascism and the wanton sex. Seriously, I always thought of Kino as a book concerned with how movies, family, and history (or politics) interact. Hugo is concerned with movies and family, but not the last part of the equation.
You've been a movie critic for over a decade at About.com and, obviously, quite enthralled with film history. And you are German. And yet the German film historian in your book, Dr. Hanno, is kind of a big dope. When he's described as wearing striped pajamas with images of Bogart and Bacall on them emblazoned with quotes from To Have And Have Not I nearly spit out my tea. Was this a little self-mockery over your own obsessions?
Um. Yes, some self-mockery, and some gentle mockery of my fellow movie-obsessives. We’re such a strange bunch, sitting in the dark while the other kids are out playing in the sunshine, staring at what’s basically a wall. We’re known to *fly* places, sometimes across oceans, to spent entire days inside, watching one movie after the next, few of which are ever heard of again. We argue over obscure details that most people shrug off with, “it’s just a movie.” You remember that documentary Cinemaniacs, about a bunch of borderline insane movie freaks? When I first came to New York I thought, wow, these people are really nuts – living between piles of VHS tapes, planning their lives according to the schedules of the Museum of the Moving Image – but by now, I’ve met plenty of people like that and I can see where they’re coming from. It’s not a particularly healthy or social obsession, and like most things I do, I try to get into it as fully as possible and keep a healthy distance at the same time. So yes, Dr. Hanno gets made fun of. You know how to whistle, don’t you?
There are no doubt people reading this who are intrigued by the films made by Ufa during the Weimar years. Can you recommend maybe five titles? Leave Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari out of it.
Also, as the story progresses, we see how the German film industry changes under Nazism. Is there anything worth seeing other than Leni Riefenstahl's fascist propaganda Triumph of the Will or slightly less Hitler-riffic Olympia?
Assuming you’ve seen Metropolis, Nosferatu, and Dr. Caligari, I’d check out Pandora's Box, Die Nibelungen (the newly restored version should arrive on US shores soon), The Golem: How He Came Into The World, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, The Last Laugh, and maybe a mountain film or two, like The White Hell of Pitz Palu and SOS Iceburg.
There are some pretty interesting films made during the thirties and forties, as well. Some of the early musicals are amusing, like The Congress Dances and Three Good Friends – and of course The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich. If repugnant propaganda is your thing, Kohlberg and Jew Suss are the way to go. I can barely stand to watch Triumph of the Will, but Olympia is beautiful and seductive. Toward the end of the war, the movies got ever more bloated and escapist. Titanic is worth seeing, and not just because Goebbels had the director murdered during production. The Punch Bowl is a classic comedy, and I’m also fond of Munchausen, which was written by children’s author Erich Kästner under a pseudonym because his work was officially forbidden. Finally, Helmut Käutner’s Under the Bridges, made during the last few months of the war, is a lovely film.
Up on the Tuplindiebe tumblr I've got clips – and some complete films – of many of these titles.
Kino is currently on sale at cooler book stores and at all the online retailers, and also for your Nook or Kindle.