Eric van Viele was an actor renowned for his work on stages throughout Germany. Like many actors of the day, Eric was skeptical about the new medium film, in which some of his contemporaries were starting to dabble. Hearing of the international attention being given to the so-called 'Expressionist' cinema of Germany, Eric reached out cautiously to F. W. Murnau. Little is known of how the pair came to be acquainted, but Murnau granted Eric a role in his upcoming film Nosferatu. Despite being a novice within the medium, and, in the role of 'Sailor' - a bit-part, little more than an extra - Eric van Viele became known as disruptive on set. He questioned Murnau's creative and technical decisions, and the pair were frequently witnessed involved in increasingly volatile arguments. Amongst the cast and crew, rumours were rife surrounding the exact nature of the pair's relationship, and even of off-set violence. While Murnau was promoting his later film, Sunrise, Eric also spoke to the media, referring to the director as dummer hirnloser dummkopf. Finally, Murnau complained to his solicitor about what he described as Eric's slander. Arrested on charges of defamation, Eric van Viele was executed three days later, despite charges never being substantiated.
Except that he wasn't.
I'd heard about the film Nosferatu, read articles about its deviations from its source material, viewed stills in film history books. But I'd never been able to view the movie. Channel 31 played old movies, but tended to stick to talkies. Once I started university, I found that the library had a wealth of DVDs, purportedly for film students to draw on for precedent, but I don't think Man Bites Dog ever served as anything more than salacious entertainment. Even with my CAVAL priveleges, I didn't find a copy of Nosferatu in any of the libraries. Instead, in the summer before my final year of study in 2003, I found a copy of Murnau's film on a budget DVD produced thanks to the film's lack of copyright protection in a discount store.
Sometimes after anticipating a movie for a long time, I am disappointed when I finally watch, but this wasn't the case when I eventually viewed Nosferatu. It was the style of the film that made an impression on me, in much the same way as 2001: A Space Odyssey had. Unlike 2001 though, I made a note of several flaws in the copy of Nosferatu which I had watched. The soundtrack chosen by the DVD's author to accompany the originally silent film seemed to be mismatched, and at times maybe chosen at random (though sounds like bells matched to vision on screen are less tacky in practice than I might have imagined.) The caption cards appeared to have been translated too literally from the original German, and presented oddly in a typeface I recognised immediately as one I'd downloaded myself for an earlier project, a proxy of that used by Coca-Cola.
I vowed to produce my own, more faithful production of the film, but so far the project has yet to be realised.
A few months later, the ABC premiered Welcher & Welcher, Shaun Micallef's sitcom about a husband and wife law firm. Possibly in preparation for the online interactivity for viewers to work with in the upcoming myster-comedy Fat Cow Motel, the series was accompanied by a website which evolved with each episode. Rather than merely promoting the coming episode with a synopsis, the site purported to be the homepage of the real Welcher & Welcher law firm. The site offered free legal advice relevent to the upcoming plot, which I presume from its style, to have been written by Shaun Micallef himself. The information for episode six's release, dealing with a case of defamation, included the document 'So you've defamed a politician?' which included the following excerpt within its Common Questions section:
Who directed Sunrise (1927) and was he ever defamed?
The silent classic Sunrise was directed by the great German director FW Murnau. Murnau was once called a 'stupid know-nothing silly' by Eric van Viele, an extra on Murnau's earlier silent film, Nosferatu (1922). The subsequent defamation case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Three days later, Viele was beheaded.
The joke, of course, is that such a specific question is unlikely to be asked commonly. Nevertheless, it amused my brother and I, and inspired him to watch my copy of the aforementioned film. I joined him for a repeat screening, this time with suppositions about which actor could be the fabled 'Eric van Viele' character. The meddling locals in the pub Thomas Hutter visits in Transylvania were quickly ruled out. They seemed too plain to be someone we had decided in the time between reading the Welcher article and the first quarter of an hour of the movie to be someone of some renown, perhaps a recognised theatrical actor? The carriage driver was a possibility, but we imagined someone without lines, but with plenty of ambition. The sailors were a possibility!
I rewatched the movie a few years later, and remembered the story of Eric van Viele, the ill-fated extra. Searching for information online, the only article that came up was the Welchers' legal advice. By this time, Wikipedia was five years old, and well enough known for its dubious reliability for my brother's university to have documented rules outlawing its use as a source in scholarly work. (An exception was granted for one of his classmates when writing on the impact of Myspace on the music industry, due to the lack of other sources available.) I'd recently dabbled in editing the pages of Wikipedia, usually merely correcting spelling errors or citing sources. When I'd discovered that my former high school's page featured little information other than promoting the achievements of a friend, I decided to elaborate. Perhaps intending to build upon what I guessed to be his self-promotion, I expanded upon his profile. The information was not untrue, but also not anything with sources that could be cited. It was not defamatory, but written in such a way as to appear deliberately far-fetched.
So whilst I saw that it was flawed, Wikipedia was a page I visited regularly as a starting point for topics I might like to find out more about (research being a kind of hobby I maintain to this day.) One of the topics I'd been looking into at that time was cases where belief in something had made it become (or seem to become) real. And so, whilst looking at the history of Nosferatu, with my current research obsession in my mind, I added a character to the cast, citing the Welcher article as a source. Perhaps, at the time, I wondered if this couple of paragraphs of backstory for the fictitious character from a joke could lead to some kind of belief, but I moved onto other areas of interest and forgot about it.
Then, last week, I recieved a number of emails. I didn't see them until the deadline within them had elapsed. All of them were headlined with a notification that someone had left me a message on Wikipedia. I might have thought them a scam of some kind had I not looked into the content. Until I saw them, I wasn't even aware that one could be sent a message on Wikipedia. The earliest of the messages invited me to be a part of a discussion on the validity of my article on Eric van Viele. Later messages increased in their urgency, culminating in one inviting me to view a message regarding the 'speedy deletion nomination of Eric van Viele,' and the stern warning 'Please do not introduce inappropriate pages, such as Eric van Viele, to Wikipedia.'
I followed the link to view the message, and read through the discussion. The users raised valid points, which I agreed with, and I admired that they seemed to have conducted some degree of research (though astoundingly mentioned seeing Eric's name appearing in the credits of Nosferatu.) Following in their footsteps, I was surprised to find that an internet search on the exact phrase 'Eric van Viele' returns over four million results. IMDb lists a second film credit in his name, and several websites include Eric van Viele in discussions of films of the era. As well as the expected DVD copies of Nosferatu (and a two-disc set that I was initially curious about, until I saw that the second disc was merely a sepia-tinted copy of the same film as the first disc) Amazon advertises some unexpected Eric van Viele items. At the end of the Wikipedia users' discussion, it was agreed upon by all that the article must have been created as a hoax, and that it should be removed. They even went on to list it on an entry called 'List of hoaxes on Wikipedia,' though one user states this may be inappropriate as 'the guy was real but the story wasn't.'
And so, Eric van Viele, nothing more than a name devised as a part of a punchline of a joke which did not even appear in a television programme, has apparently, thanks to my ignorant actions, been recognised as appearing in a film he did not, and noted as the longest running hoax in the history of Wikipedia, at 13 years and 3 months.