Jurgen Fauth has written a terrific new novel called Kino, the story of a silent film director in Nazi Germany and his granddaughter’s quest to redeem him. With a cast of characters including Joseph Goebbels, Fritz Lang and Leni Riefenstahl, Kino raises important questions concerning the nature and purpose of art at the intersection of politics and culture.
Jürgen Fauth is a writer, film critic, translator, and co-founder of the literary community Fictionaut. He was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, and received his doctorate from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. He lives with his wife, writer Marcy Dermansky, and their daughter Nina. Kino is his first novel. Follow him on Twitter at @muckster.
Why did you want to write a novel about a Weimar filmmaker?
I’ve always thought of 1920s Berlin as one of those insanely fertile periods that would’ve been amazing to live through. If you look at the sheer number of great artists and thinkers working during those years, it’s staggering: you have Brecht, Einstein, Murnau, the Manns, the Dadaists, Gropius, Nabokov, Auden, Isherwood, Lubitsch, Reinhardt, Klee, Weill, Dix, Grosz, Kollwitz and on and on and on. An unbelievable flowering of the arts, happening before an extraordinarily volatile political landscape and huge changes in morals, technology, every aspect of culture. Of course now we know that it was all doomed. Everybody left the moment the Nazis took over — one of the great overnight migrations of talent anywhere, anytime — but the sudden, violent end makes the period leading up to it even more fascinating.
Kino got its start when Marcy and I went to Berlin for New Year’s Eve a few years ago. It was freezing and dark, and it felt as if everything had turned black and white. One of the things we did was go visit the film museum. It’s a small place, comparatively, but crammed with stories. Letters from Marlene Dietrich to Ernest Hemingway, a model of the Olympic stadium showing where Leni Riefenstahl put her cameras in 1936, a special exhibit about Hildegard Knef.
On January 1, after a night of European techno and fireworks and borderline dangerous crowds, I sat down in the tiny, underheated kitchen of the apartment we were subletting, still hungover, and started writing a novel set in that world.
How did you walk the line between historical fiction and what Stephen Colbert might call, “truthiness?” As a novelist and a film critic, how do you understand the truth in fiction, or in art, generally?
You know that scene in the beginning of Sideways, where the Paul Giamatti character talks to his ex-wife’s new husband and mentions the novel he’s working on? And the guy says something along the lines of, “There is so much to learn about the world that I consider reading fiction a complete waste of time.” I often thought about him while I was writing Kino, and might have done a few things specifically to piss him off.
Which is to say, the book is fiction. It’s the kind of material that forces you to do a lot of research, but the paradox is that you’re using all these facts to tell a more convincing lie–the research is there to sell the fiction, but in turn, perhaps, the fiction is at the service of a higher truth. Throw in a few layers of unreliable narrators, and you have a real mess on your hands. That said, you might be surprised by some of the details that are, in fact, true. At any rate, you probably shouldn’t read Kino in order to learn facts — that’s why it says “novel” right there on the cover.
For me, the emotional center of the novel seems to revealed in this excerpt from Kino’s journal, with the notion of inaccuracy rendering authenticity in art:
I was speechless. My films connected with Goebbels because the Nazis, too, wanted to bring about the world of their dreams. Yes, Goebbels recognized my incredible talent. Then again, the Reichspropagandaminister didn’t understand a thing. My utopias had nothing to do with perfection because perfection is not something to strive for. All my movies were flawed, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Mapmakers always insert one wrong detail into their maps — a lake that doesn’t exist, a county line that stretches a hilltop too far, a misspelled street name. It is a way to identify unauthorized copies, but it’s also an opening through which the infinite rushes in: if one thing is wrong, then anything might be wrong. It’s the same principle through which a single blank bullet calms the conscience of the entire firing squad.
As a film critic, I often see that word bandied about by colleagues: “flawed.” It’s usually accompanied with a lot of second guessing about how the director in question could’ve done a better job. Steven Soderbergh once compared it to shouting “Watch out!” a few months after somebody got hit by a car. They’re already out of the hospital, they want to forget about the whole thing, and there you are, pointing out what they might have done differently.
But Kino also questions the assumption that art could ever be anything but flawed. Of course it’s flawed–it’s a product of certain circumstances at a certain point in time. There are a million variables. Instead of double-guessing it, you might want to deal with what it is. That the hardest thing for a critic: to hold the judgment, do away with your expectations, and see something for what it really is.
That passage you quote is the counterpart to an earlier moment in the book where Kino comes up with the story of his first movie. He claims he saw a painting that gave him the idea. If he’d seen a different painting, the movie would have been about something else. There’s a lot of happenstance in making things out of nothing, and perfection is an overrated ideal at best. In the light of what happened in Germany, Kino sees it as dangerous, even. There’s a certain freedom in “bad” art. Look at what happened with beloved trash like, say, Rocky Horror. The cracks in the work allow for the audience to fill it in for themselves, to complete it. That’s liberating. Wouldn’t a perfect work — if it were possible at all — have the exact same, predictable effect on everyone? Kino would argue that that’s fascist. Instead, he strives to leave openings, “flaws.” Perhaps it creates authenticity, but it also makes the work humane.
What would Kino have thought of the “New Wave,” Godard in particular, and, while we’re at it (gasp), movies today? Here I have in mind the new Hunger Games movie, which I plan to see this weekend, but also, OK, let’s say the recent spate of “comic book movies,” led by the Spiderman franchise? Is Hollywood just another way of saying “the Bank?” Is an “Occupy Hollywood” movement thinkable?
Kino lived to see the very first New Wave films, and there’s a line in the book about his appreciation for “those kids in France who were breaking all the rules.” He would certainly have loved the possibilities they opened up, but somehow I see him getting more excited about Truffaut than Godard.
His love/hate relationship with Hollywood would have intensified over the years as the industry engineered itself into an ever-greedier machine for the delivery of blockbusters. Kino was a risk-taker, and Hollywood now is more risk-averse than ever. He probably would have held on to a few guilty pleasures — Avatar perhaps — because he understood that spectacle has always been an essential part of the movies. But overall, I’m sure he would have called most of today’s major releases Scheissdreck.
It its way, the book tries to suggest a few avenues for something like an Occupy Hollywood movement. After all, the economics of cinema are rapidly changing. We now all have HD video cameras in our pockets, your laptop is a powerful editing station, and you can distribute your movie to millions with a click. So on one hand, you have these superhero extravaganzas and endless remakes that cost ever-more outrageous sums to produce and to market, but on the other hand, we now have access to all the tools we need to make and distribute our own movies. And we do: didn’t we all watch the Davis pepper spraying from four or five different angles? In that sense, the Occupy movement is Occupy Hollywood.
Why Truffaut, more so than Godard?
Just a hunch. Truffaut has always struck me as the more accessible and emphatic of the two, and the way I imagine Kino’s films, they have a slightly naive air to them. He’s not an intellectual but someone who feels his way through his work, and I think that’s where this imagined affinity to Truffaut comes from. Godard’s politics would have turned him off — but he would have loved Breathless and Band of Outsiders anyway.
I’m wondering, is there any connection here, between your work as founder of Fictionaut, trying to create an alternative space for indie electronic publishing that bypasses the mainstream NYC based publication world, and the end of the novel?
Right. For a long time, I was working on Kino and Fictionaut simultaneously, and I’m sure they inform each other. Fictionaut is a place where people can publish and respond to fiction and poetry without first having to navigate the usual gatekeepers. I don’t want to give away the ending of Kino, but the book is certainly concerned with questions of community, collaboration, and distribution. I couldn’t even tell you anymore if it’s by design or by osmosis, but it dovetails nicely with what we’re trying to do with Fictionaut.
I’m struck by how clearly Kino’s films are described in the book. When you wrote this novel, could you see Tulpendiebe or the Pirate movie spooling in your head?
I wrote a lot about Kino’s movies that’s not in the book. The scene where Mina watches Tulpendiebe used to be much longer, and I had in-depth descriptions of most of his other films, especially The Pirates of Mulberry Island. At some point I had started a screenplay about a mysterious crew of pirates living on a fog-shrouded island, and I used parts of it in the book. I suppose some of that shows, even if it’s not on the page.
Will Kino have a sequel?
I consider Mina’s story finished and have no plans for continuing it, but there are other ways in which Kino is open-ended. Part of the idea was to write a book that is complete but overstuffed with people, places, and stories that are only alluded to. What exactly happened at Orson Welles’ party? What’s the deal with the plagiarism suit that’s mentioned? What happened during Penelope’s voice lessons when sound arrived? There are lots and lots of places where the book could be filled in or extended in some way….
You’re a novelist and film critic in love with the movies. Which do you love best?
That’s Sophie’s choice to me, and I’d only answer at gun point. The essential difference is that movies require so much more: equipment, cast, locations, money. It’s collaborative, which is both a blessing and a curse. With fiction, there’s just you and the page, which is a different kind of blessing and a different kind of curse.
I did an intensive study of Thomas Mann’s work back in the day, particularly Doctor Faustus. Mann, as you know, settled in Pacific Palisades, California, where he helped German artists and others looking to escape the Nazis, and aided in their resettlement. Paul Tillich did the same in New York. Tillich found teaching work at Union Seminary in Harlem. Union Seminary was also the place where the young pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer visited for a time, when he made his fateful decision to return to Germany and certain death. There is a “Bonhoeffer Room” at Union, where he struggled with his conscience over that decision; entering that room is like entering sacred ground. I was intrigued in the novel, about the way Kino is treated after his defection. He is sort of the anti-Bonhoeffer, in a way.
There are a million stories from that time, each more hair-raising and heartbreaking than the next. I almost gave up on Kino after reading a biography of Leni Riefenstahl — it seemed that the real stories were so much more outrageous than anything I could dream up. It was important to me that Kino’s relationship to the Nazis would stay ambiguous: did he remain in Germany for the sake of his wife and her family, or was it pure opportunism since the Nazis offered him movies and Hollywood didn’t? A little bit of each? I leave that judgment to the reader. Fritz Lang liked to tell the story about how Goebbels offered him to become “the Führer of Cinema” and how he fled the country on the same day — but it turns out there’s probably a good deal of self-mythologizing at work there, too.
I want to ask you about what Kant might have called the “architectonic” of this novel, about its construction, about your use of multiple unreliable narrators, and about your use of literary devices such as e-mail and Kino’s journal. The e-mails, in particular, were long. At times I found myself wishing that Mina, given her youth, would have just texted! When were you aware that these devices were necessary, and did you doubt their use, or calculate their benefits and limitations?
I’m very concerned with structure. The book’s basic shape is obviously borrowed from Citizen Kane, but there was never any question that Mina would be much more central to the story than the Newsreel reporter in Kane. So I took some liberties with that formula but tried to keep the pastiche feel by including other “materials” in addition to the third person narration. The e-mails happened naturally. Mina makes some odd choices, especially in the beginning, and hearing her explain them to her husband seemed helpful.
The original draft also included screenplay sections that covered some of the more noir-ish sequences, like the rooftop chase in Berlin. The first thing my agent, Rachel Vogel, said to me was that the screenplay sections had to go. In retrospect I realized how right she was. I’d been cheating, trying to get the scenes written faster, but it left too much work to the reader.
James Salter is a terrific writer, but as you know, he was also a screenwriter. He wrote the screenplay to Downhill Racer for Robert Redford. And Salter was once interviewed in Paris Review about movies, and he said this, which I’d like you to comment on. He said, “A movie is a single performance, and it’s remembered as a performance. Movies are never re-performed. They are not alive. They are sometimes remade years later, but everything in them is absolutely fixed and will always be fixed. They are not great prose, where, as one critic pointed out, seems to catch fire, first in one place and then in another.”
Respectfully disagree. I’d argue that the “performance” of each happens anew every time you read a book or watch a movie. It’s something that happens between you and the page, between you and the screen, and they’re both equally alive. Great books, great movies, at any rate.
For example, I watched Aguirre, The Wrath of God for the first time in a few years last night. It was a shoddy, scratched-up print, and seeing the dots flicker on the screen felt endearingly pre-digital. This was in Germany, so there were no subtitles — a first for me. I’d been stood up by not just one but all three friends who were going to join me, so I felt more sympathetic to Aguirre’s seething rage than I might have otherwise. Maybe because of that, the movie struck me as much funnier than ever before. There’s a note of absurd humor running through it that I hadn’t grasped the same way in the past. I sat close enough to the screen to have to choose where to look (Kinski’s eyes, usually, but not in every shot), and I saw many details for the first time. Kino would say that the movies don’t really happen on the screen at all, they happen in your head — just like a book does.
What is it like for you, as native German speaker, to write in English? Why did you write Kino in English and not German, and how might it have differed if written in German? Or was the goal all along to write it in filmic images, try to transcend language. Is this even possible? Do you not think in German?
I don’t think in German, at least not when I’m in the US. I started learning English in fifth grade and picked up most of it through comics books, movies, and song lyrics. After I came to the US, I had this idea that my writing in English was similar to those athletes who train at high altitudes: when they compete at sea level, they win because they suddenly get so much more oxygen. Would I feel a similar boost if I started writing in German? As it turns out, that theory is bunk.
That said, I can never resist a juicy German phrase. The sounds just kill me, especially in juxtaposition with English. French tends to look pretentious (n’est-ce pas?), but German seems to amuse people — think Schadenfreude. There’s so much German in Kino we’ve added a glossary to the book, which, it turns out, is going to be 80% curse words. The hope is that you won’t have to look up every word because they fit into the text in such a way that they’ll make sense by themselves. That’s how I used to read English books — there was always a certain degree of noise, words I didn’t understand, but the trick is to just absorb them and keep reading. Understanding every word is overrated.