Rory MacLean meets Ulli Lommel
Lommel was born in Zielenzig in December 1944, five weeks before the town was overrun by the Red Army.
‘Can you imagine a worse time or place to be born?’ he asked me when we met in his Berlin apartment. ‘It was 20 degrees below zero. My mother wrapped me in a carpet because she had no blanket. Around us other babies were dying. Yet I survived, and ever since I always seem to find myself in the eye of the storm.’
His mother was the actress Karla van Cleef. His father was Ludwig Manfred Lommel, a hugely popular radio comedian during the late Weimar and National Socialist years. After the war young Lommel grew up in Bad Nauheim, and - like most of his generation - felt suffocated.
‘In those years Germany was living in denial. The Nazi time was never mentioned, not at school, not in the home. It was stuffy, almost unbearable. I felt as if something wasn’t right.’
Then in 1958 rock ‘n’ roll music blasted into his life like ‘a liberating force’, amplified by Elvis Presley who - while serving in the U.S. Army - lived in the house next door. Presley agreed to come to Lommel’s 14th birthday party and together they sang the German folksong Muss I’ denn zum Städtele hinaus (later recorded as ‘Wooden Heart’) and (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear. Soon afterwards Lommel grabbed for freedom, forming his own band, quit school and ran away from home. When his anxious father called the police, the young Lommel telephoned him and shouted, ‘How could you do this to me, you old Nazi?’
Three years later the elder Lommel died, father and son never having spoken again.
The reasons for our choices can be conscious and unconscious, and early experiences often shape the course of a life. Lommel admitted, ‘Since my childhood I’ve felt uneasy with the demonising of an enemy. In my work I find myself standing up for the outsider, the accused. Again and again I want to understand their perspective.’
After a stint at Berlin’s UFA acting school Lommel began to land top roles in film and television, appearing on the cover of the teen fan magazine Bravo. In 1967 he moved to Munich and met the New German Cinema directors Peter Schamoni, Rudolf Thome and Robert Van Ackeren. Newcomer Rainer Werner Fassbinder asked him to star in Love is Colder than Death, Lommel’s commitment enabling him to finance the picture. Halfway through the shoot, Fassbinder asked him if he’d mind bringing in his beloved MG, along with its ownership papers.
‘Sure, but why do you need its papers?’ asked Lommel.
‘Because we’ve run out of money,’ replied Fassbinder.
Lommel sold his car to finish the picture and, over the next decade, he and Fassbinder collaborated on 21 productions.
‘Fassbinder expressed exactly those feelings which I’d had as a 14-year old,’ Lommel recalled. ‘He dealt with reality and truth. He exposed those strange double standards, and West Germany’s buying into the capitalist dream. Working with him was another kind of liberation for me.’
Fassbinder produced Lommel’s directorial debut Tenderness of Wolves (Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe), based on the crimes of the serial killer and cannibal Fritz Haarmann. The movie was nominated for a Golden Bear and took Lommel to Paris where he fell in love with Anna Karina, the muse and ex-wife of Jean-Luc Godard. Fassbinder wrote Chinese Roulette for the couple.
In 1977 Lommel’s Adolf and Marlene, a speculative drama about the relationship between Hitler and Marlene Dietrich, brought him to the notice of Andy Warhol, with whom he then created the cult classics Blank Generation and Cocaine Cowboys. The success of The Boogeyman tied him to America, and Hollywood, where he directed a further 43 horror, adventure and war films.
‘In the early 70s - after the murder of Kennedy and King and with the Vietnam War - I was one of those people for whom America was no good. But when I moved to the States I began to see a much more complex picture. I felt a kind of freedom there that I’d never found in Europe. To my dying day I’ll remember my first coast-to-coast drives, my heart filled with such gratefulness to be allowed to experience the amazing openness of the land. I think that openness enters the soul of people, engendering generosity and tolerance, enhancing a freedom of thought, of spirit. America opens you up, making your heart feel as big as the roads, as the wheat fields, as the far horizon.’
At the Volksbühne Fucking Liberty will tell the story of Lommel’s quest for freedom, as he himself lies centre-stage in a coma (in 2009 Lommel fell into a week-long coma after a boating accident). Erich von Stroheim, the late great silent film director, will be the Master of Ceremonies, leading the audience on an innovative ghost train ride (Geisterbahn) of new and old media which will also revisit cinema’s origins and 500 years of American history. Key roles will be played by the Volksbühne’s finest stars, many of whom Lommel worked with over the course of his career, including Volker Spengler, Sophie Rois and Margit Carstensen who played Dietrich in ‘Adolf and Marlene’.
‘Of course the title Fucking Liberty can mean both a celebration and a damnation of freedom,’ he pointed out.
Lommel is a lanky man, dressed in low-slung jeans and golden running shoes. He seems unable to sit still for more than a minute, moving his hands to illustrate a story, jumping up to explain a point, then kneeling back on his chair. Behind him in the apartment were half-a-dozen baseball caps and a pair of worn cowboy boots. Over the hours our conversation ranged from Fassbinder’s Anti-Theatre ("antiteater") to Warhol’s Factory, from the 16th century German cartographer who named America to the experience of flying into America on 9/11/2001. And then back to the joy of having the freedom - and courage - to choose.
‘I’ve been vilified for my experimental movies, many of which are marketed as horror pictures,’ he went on. ‘But I see myself as an advocate for the underdog, trying to understand – to give a soul to – those who are demonised by society. I don’t condone their actions, but I want to explain the psychology of people who break the rules. I’m bored to death by the point-of-view of the police detective.’
I asked finally – again – about his father, about the guilt and pain that endures after a last, incomplete conversation, and about its influence on his work.
‘I think that art can heel,’ he told me, gazing up at an open window. ‘Within every one of us is a painter, a dancer, a storyteller. I believe that if every individual’s artistic side was nurtured at school, it could channel much frustration and anger, and change the way people live their lives. Change even the way a potential serial killer might have lived his life. Maybe this is just an illusion. But I really do believe that art heals.’