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?