German Filmmakers and Movies

“Books always provided the dialogue I needed in life” – Volker Schlöndorff On His 70th Birthday

Volker Schlöndorff; © Thilo WydraVolker Schlöndorff; © Thilo WydraIf anybody has mastered the art of adapting literature to the silver screen, then it surely has to be Volker Schlöndorff. He can look back at a creative output of almost 30 films and there are most definitely still a few more to come. On 31st March 2009 he turned 70.

“Books found me, they always fitted in with the particular phase I was going through – books always provided the dialogue I needed in life.” (Volker Schlöndorff)

He was born the son of a doctor in Wiesbaden on 31st March 1939, but it was in Paris where Volker Schlöndorff learned the tools of his trade. That was in the middle of the 1950s, beginning of the 1960s, the time of existentialism and the Nouvelle Vague. He went to school with Bertrand Tavernier and every day he went to the Cinémathèque française where he watched three films. He sat in on some of the all-time greats of French cinema or sometimes worked on the shoot as assistant director – ranging from Louis Malle (Zazie, 1960) and Alain Resnais (Last Year in Marienbad, 1961) to Jean-Pierre Melville (Leon Morin, Priest, 1961).

Scene from “Der junge Törless”While his self-taught colleagues were busy putting the Oberhausen Manifesto together, paving the way for a German film d’auteur, young Schlöndorff was getting to grips with the basics of filmmaking, gearing up to start shooting his first feature film in Germany after his return from France in 1965 – an adaptation of Robert Musil’s 1906 novel The Confusions of Young Torless. The film, premiering at the International Film Festival in Cannes, was the forerunner of all the important motifs to be found over and over again in Schlöndorff’s work. This applies in particular to the ambivalence of the main character, Torless (Matthieu Carrière) who observes and comments on the brutal bullying of the loner, Basini, by his comrades, yet never actively gets involved and in the end becomes a loner himself.

Style switching as a principle

Scene from “Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum”Volker Schlöndorff never devoted himself to any, one particular aesthetic approach. The stylistic elements he uses differ from film to film, there is no recurrent theme. Schlöndorff, whose role models include Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, seems to make sure that every new project is totally different from the previous one – like the profound contrast between a major production like Der Unhold (The Ogre, 1996) and the following low-budget production Palmetto (Just Another Sucker, 1998); there is also an amazing contrast between Young Torless, filmed in severe black and white, and Mord und Totschlag (Degree of Murder, 1967) – a wild, colourful mixture of road movie, whodunit and black comedy.

In 1969 he got to know the actress, and later director, Margarethe von Trotta, and married her in 1971 and it was with her that Schlöndorff wrote the screenplay for the adaptation of the Heinrich Böll novel, Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, 1975). They went on then to direct the film together. In the film the gutter press and the police force are depicted as being suppressive and manipulative institutions and this led promptly to the film-directing duo being accused of sympathising with the terrorists of the RAF (Germany’s Red Army Faction terrorist group).

Oscar laureate

Scene from “Die Blechtrommel”May 1979 saw the premiere of Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) and this film is still considered even today to be Schlöndorff’s masterpiece. In 1980 he became the first German since Emil Jannings in 1928 (for Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command) to win an Oscar. The adaptation of Günther Gras’s epic novel was up to that point the most successful, post-war German film. The Tin Drum was also a huge hit in Cannes, even if at the 1979 festival Schlöndorff had to share his Golden Palm with Francis Ford Coppola (for Apocalypse Now).

The 80s were Schlöndorff’s journeyman years. After making the anti-war film, Die Fälschung (Circle of Deceit, 1981), with Bruno Ganz and Hanna Schygulla in Beirut, he went to France to adapt a chapter from Marcel Proust’s Á la Recherche du Temps Perdu called Swann In Love. In the middle of the 1980s he was drawn to New York. In the USA he made three films that from an aesthetic point of view could not in fact have been more different: Death of A Salesman (1985) based on the play of the same name by Arthur Miller, A Gathering Of Old Men (1987) and The Handmaid’s Tale based on a novel by Margaret Atwood.

Poetry in muted tones

Sam Shepard in  “Homo Faber”In 1991 Schlöndorff realised maybe his most personal project – the filming of Max Frisch’s Homo Faber. The story of Walter Faber (Sam Shepard) who whilst roaming the world on both a geographical as well as inner odyssey unknowingly encounters his daughter, Sabeth, and falls in love with her. The story (as was the case in Death of a Salesman) centres on the fatal realisation that one has missed so much in life. Homo Faber is probably also Volker Schlöndorff’s most gentle film, above all it is most definitely his most poetic – alongside Der Fangschuss (Coup de Grâce, 1976). In Germany about 1.5 million people watched the film, including Max Frisch who saw it just two months before he died – making it one of the director’s greatest films, yet also one of the last of his films to be successful at this level.

Volker Schlöndorff turned 70 on 31st March, but no way is he thinking of retirement. For the summer he is working on staging a theatre production of Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness and he is also writing a screenplay with the author, Peter Schneider …

Thilo Wydra
is a free-lance publicist, author and the German correspondent for the Cannes Film Festival. His publications include “Volker Schlöndorff und seine Filme” (published by Heyne Verlag, Munich 1998), “Margarethe von Trotta – Filmen, um zu überleben” (published by Henschel Verlag, Berlin 2000), “Rosenstraße – Die Geschichte. Die Hintergründe. Die Regisseurin” (published by Nicolai Verlag, Berlin 2003), “Romy Schneider – Leben, Werk, Wirkung” (published by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/Main 2008).

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
January 2009

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