Jurgen Fauth

The Death Bird

(from the nov­el, KINO)

Steffen and his friends roamed the cafes, lounges, cabarets, bars, dance halls, and back alleys of Berlin every night of the week. He was always flushed, all hugs and love and dri­ve, his rest­less eyes dart­ing while his mouth chat­tered on, fueled by the com­pa­ny and the cocaine. He knew every­one: dancers, musi­cians, retired Dadaists, free thinkers, anar­chist les­bians, drunk­en Russian émi­grés, actors, nud­ists. He was reck­less and infec­tious and he became my teacher in deprav­i­ty. As long as there was one Tingeltangel or revue, just one jazz orches­tra play­ing any­where in Berlin, Steffen would be there, up front, hol­ler­ing and doing his own inim­itable dance, throw­ing his limbs every which way and wav­ing a bot­tle of cham­pagne.

He had picked me out of the crowd at the Wintergarten as a kind of mas­cot, a hand­some, crip­pled freak with a Rheinland accent and a fab­u­lous peg leg. I was young and I learned quick. Drugs let my mind, lib­er­at­ed from my lurch­ing body, soar. Under the Japanese-themed ball­room ceil­ing of the Residenz-Casino, where the tables had tele­phones and pneu­mat­ic tubes, the kalei­do­scop­ic lights of the whirling mir­rored globes and col­ored water dis­plays sent me on dizzy­ing flights of fan­cy while go-go dancers shook their tits and stretched their boot-clad legs, whip­ping the wild and drunk­en crowd into a fren­zy.

It didn’t take me long to under­stand that Steffen pro­vid­ed cocaine and girls for the count­less friends he seemed to have in every sec­tion of Berlin. Most nights, our rounds—from  the Vaterland to Café Braun, from the Stork’s Nest to the Cosy-Corner—were on a sched­ule. The out­ra­geous crowd that fol­lowed Steffen knew they wouldn’t have to pay cov­er fees or cham­pagne tabs. There was always enough Zement for every­one. In return or per­haps for fun, they might go to bed with peo­ple Steffen intro­duced them to. It was Steffen’s par­tic­u­lar genius to mix busi­ness and plea­sure in a way that made every­one hap­py. From Steffen I learned to seek plea­sure in every­thing I do. If it’s not fun, why both­er? That was his mot­to, and I came to see the wis­dom of it. In those days, Steffen meant every­thing to me.

 

As a joke, Steffen intro­duced me as whomev­er occurred to him at the moment. I was an orphaned painter, an under­cov­er Spartakist, a sci­ence pro­tégé on schol­ar­ship. Steffen intro­duced me, and then I had to keep up the lies—that was the game.  I was a sax­o­phone play­er in Bix Beiderbecke’s band. I was a Swedish mes­merist. When I was asked about the leg, I talked about dog­fights high above the Somme; when they want­ed to hear my award-win­ning poet­ry, I said the poems were so Futuristic they hadn’t been writ­ten yet.  All it took was a straight face.

There was one lie that made me seem more inter­est­ing than all the oth­ers. Everyone want­ed to drink with me, get high with me, and sleep with me when we told them I was a movie direc­tor.  It was the lie that turned me into the cen­ter of atten­tion and opened the tight­est twat. One night over din­ner, Joachim Ringelnatz—the whim­si­cal poet who wore a sailor’s uni­form wher­ev­er he went—eyed me fun­ny and asked if I wasn’t a bit young to be work­ing for the cin­e­ma, “für’s Kino.”

I had my mouth full of lamb stew, so Steffen came to my defense. “Don’t you read the papers? Klaus is a prodi­gy! The youngest direc­tor in Neubabelsberg!”

I put down my fork, swal­lowed, and point­ed a fin­ger. “Joachim,” I said. “I don’t work für’s Kino. I am Kino!”

And that’s how I gave myself my own nick­name. At the time I didn’t have the faintest idea about the true poten­tial of cin­e­ma. To be honest—and I know this will sound incred­i­ble to some­one of your generation—I had, in the sum­mer of nine­teen twen­ty-four, nev­er seen a fea­ture film.

Of course, I’d been to the Kino in Frankfurt, but father always made us leave the Film-Palast after the Pathé news­reel, before the movie prop­er. All I ever saw was the Kaiser giv­ing speech­es, columns of sol­diers leav­ing for the front, gen­er­als being dec­o­rat­ed. Afterwards, father tor­tured us with ques­tions about what we had learned, and Heinz always knew all the answers. I begged my father to let me stay, but he said there was no point, that movies were a waste of time.

I was twen­ty-two and I had nev­er seen a movie. When Steffen found out, he laughed his red-faced out-of-con­trol-laugh and announced, still out of breath, that we would rem­e­dy the sit­u­a­tion immediately—after a quick stop at Ronja’s base­ment in the Scheunenviertel, where an ancient Russian woman with long white hair kept ham­mocks and served pipes of sweet opi­um. We arrived at Ufa-Palast am Zoo in a dreamy state to see Murnau’s vam­pire movie.

How can I describe it to some­one whose eyes have been sul­lied by decades of triv­ial images danc­ing by on TV screens? You’ll nev­er under­stand the rap­ture, the hor­ror, the euphor­ic bliss I felt at the sheer visu­al sur­prise. With each pass­ing moment, with every new shot on the screen, waves of plea­sure rolled through me.

During my mis­er­able child­hood, I had been a relent­less day dream­er, spin­ning tales from books into wild fan­tasies that helped me through end­less days of drudgery. I dreamed of the heroes and vil­lains of the books my moth­er called Schundromane, the adven­tures of Alain Quartermain, Phineas Fogg, and Hadschi Halef-Omar. After I met Steffen, I bare­ly slept at all, and my nights were occu­pied with drink­ing and fuck­ing and danc­ing. When sleep came, uncon­scious­ness would have been a bet­ter name for it. Dreams had van­ished from my life until the opi­um, until the movies, until Nosferatu brought it all flood­ing back.

I had read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and I had seen those images before—but not out in the open, out­side of my head, pro­ject­ed against a wall for every­one to share. At once fas­ci­nat­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing, Count Orlok, the death bird, was a wicked appari­tion with a skull-like, elon­gat­ed face and pale wide haunt­ing eyes. Killing for blood was his nature, and he could not escape it. I loved the ghast­ly shad­ows of over­grown nails, the meat-eat­ing plants, the sleep­walk­ing bride, the cas­kets filled with plague-bear­ing rats. This was the oppo­site of father’s news­reels, this was the tech­nol­o­gy of the night, moder­ni­ty pressed in the ser­vice of poet­ry, culling images from dreams and ren­der­ing them vis­i­ble as if by the light of the moon, for all to see.

It was mag­ic.

To Steffen, it was just one more out­ra­geous night in Berlin, but I went back again and again. I must have seen Nosferatu twen­ty times. “Why do you hur­ry, my young friend?” an old man asks at the begin­ning of the film. “No one can escape his des­tiny.” Like Count Orlok, these mag­i­cal mov­ing pic­tures would nev­er let go.

Three years lat­er, I was in charge of my own set in Neubabelsberg, the largest stu­dio in Europe, mak­ing a movie that I had writ­ten. The pro­duc­ers, the stars, the cam­era­men and the news­pa­pers all called me Kino, the name I had giv­en myself over Horcher’s lamb stew. I was a prodi­gy, the youngest direc­tor in Ufa’s his­to­ry. The lie had become truth.

I ask you: what do you call the pow­er to turn your imag­i­na­tion into real­i­ty?