Technology of the night: ‘Kino’ by Jürgen Fauth

When Wilhemina Koblitz, called Mina, comes home after visiting her new husband in a New York hospital, the decadence of Weimar Berlin and the magical possibilities of cinema are likely distant from her preoccupations. The delivery of a pair of metal film canisters changes all that though, to the point that she plunges into a search in space and time for the truth about her long-dead film director grandfather, Klaus “Kino” Koblitz, a pursuit that ends up turning her life upside down.

The search portrayed in Jürgen Fauth’s debut novel Kino is actually a high-octane chase that extends from the streets of Berlin all the way to a derelict house in the Hollywood Hills and a nearby film studio. Yet the real target lies in the distant past, and Mina has to navigate the varied and conflicting versions of her grandfather’s life and death as best she can in order to find the answers she is looking for.

Much of Kino could be characterized as a historical novel, yet whereas far too many examples of that genre are merely ordinary stories dressed up in period costume or serve as showcases for an author’s encyclopedic research, Fauth creates a structure that brings the German past into striking immediacy. The story of Kino’s rise through the cocaine-fueled Berlin nightlife to the summit of Germany’s silent film world would be engaging enough on its own. As would his subsequent fall as the Nazis come to power and, depending on who you believe, his choice or need to emigrate and try to continue his career in Hollywood as so many German cultural figures were forced to do by the rise of Hitler.

Yet the reader is constantly reminded of those mysterious film canisters showing up at Mina’s Brooklyn apartment, and that both the film they contain and the convoluted, contradictory story behind their maker has a pressing relevance for the various groups trying to get their hands on Kino’s lost masterpiece.

Considering the darkness of much of the subject matter – Nazis, suicide, drug addiction and divorce – the novel is filled with humor, though of the black variety, as when the one-legged Kino writes in his diary: “I wasn’t always a pathetic old doped-up cripple. Once upon a time, in another country, I was a young and hopeful cripple.”

Fauth effectively evokes a variety of worlds in the novel without slackening the pace of the frantic chase that summons them in the first place. He also deftly weaves the fictional world of Kino with the real-life world of Fritz Lang, producer Erich Pommer and Joseph Goebbels among many others, grounding the often unreal events of the novel in the similarly unreal events of what took place in the Germany and Hollywood of that time.

The evocations of imaginary films is also well done, as is suggesting the near supernatural powers attributed to the images Kino creates. From the moment of Kino’s first encounter with cinema, the art is connected with powers well beyond the merely artistic. Kino refers to the first film he sees (Murnau’s Nosferatu) as “ …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.”

And in the course of events the two obsessions the novel recounts – the grandfather’s cinematic one and his granddaughter’s need to unravel Kino’s mystery – intersect as Mina hears an account of the catastrophe that Kino’s one Hollywood production turned out to be, a description that shows her bloodlines by sparking her imagination:

“Mina wished that she could have seen that movie. Maybe it was the effect of jumping into the pool, or the jetlag, or the lingering effect of the red pills and the coffee, but what Marty described did not sound like the disaster he was making it out to be.”

Even Marty, the producer who had initially backed Kino’s last chance behind the camera (a decision that ended his career in movies), sees in retrospect that there was more to this megalomaniacal, visionary megaflop than he had realized at the time, a film whose prophetic powers is made clear by its being retitled Twenty-twelve (as in 2012):

“I now know that he’d done the only thing he could have. Back behind a camera for the first time in twenty years, he tried to pack everything into this one film, all of his disappointed hopes, his accumulated grief, his wildest ambitions. He turned it into something we weren’t ready for, using every trick he had learned, from the expressionists, from the Nazi masters of propaganda, from the commercials, from decades of obsessive viewing. Twenty-twelve contained bits and pieces from earlier stories, scenes pilfered from his other movies, and a strange private mythology. It was reality warping and prophetic.”

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Categories: Book Reviews

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