"Almost everything we believed in did not really survive"
In 1992, during my second year of living in Berlin, I attended a press conference with Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff. The outspoken, highly politicised and hugely talented directors had gathered in East Berlin to honour the first complete retrospective of the films of their colleague Rainer Werner Fassbinder and an exhibition marking the tenth anniversary since his death.
From that point on I would follow these members of the so-called 'New German Cinema', sometimes referred to as the German New Wave. While Wenders and Herzog were regularly at festivals, it was only recently that I managed to speak with Schlöndorff and von Trotta who were also married for 20 years from 1971 till 1991.
“The group was more in Munich than in Berlin and it was a wonderful time in the late 60s and early 70s, because we were young to start with,” Schlöndorff chuckles. “I had lived through this in Paris already, this feeling of being part of a movement that is reinventing cinema,” he says of his time starting out as an assistant to Louis Malle, Alain Resnais and Jean-Pierre Melville.
“Those of us who survive are pretty close-knit. We feel we are from the same brotherhood somehow. Even those who are younger like Wim [who] became a good friend especially now that we are both living in Berlin. Werner and I have always been very close friends and Margarethe and I have reconciled to the point that we don't know any more why we divorced. It’s not so common I think in the cinema industry that you have this feeling still 50 years later.”
SCHLÖNDORFF AND VON TROTTASchlöndorff and von Trotta became an item after he cast her alongside Fassbinder in a 1970 television version of Bertolt Brecht first play Baal. They would marry the next year and continued to work together. She co-starred in The Morals of Ruth Halbfass and starred in and co-wrote his 1972 film A Free Woman, loosely based on her experiences of divorcing her first husband. The highpoint of their collaboration would come with 1975’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, which they co-directed and adapted from Heinrich Böll’s novel and it would be von Trotta’s directing debut. She co-wrote and starred in their 1976 German-French co-production, Coup de Grâce, before Schlöndorff would have the biggest success of his career with 1979’s The Tin Drum, the film version of the Günter Grass novel that won the best foreign film Oscar and the Palme d’Or in Cannes, tied with Apocalypse Now.
They collaborated one last time on Circle of Deceit where von Trotta co-wrote the screenplay and Fassbinder’s muse, Hanna Schygulla, starred. Von Trotta would come into her own as the director of Marianne and Juliane (1981) while Schlöndorff directed Swann in Love and The Handmaid’s Tale (based on Margaret Atwood’s novel and a screenplay by Harold Pinter). Von Trotta would also make her mark with 1986’s Rosa Luxemburg and after they split Schlöndorff moved back to Germany.
“I’ve been living in Berlin since 1991,” he says. “It's a nice feeling to remember those days but it’s way, way past. I mean cinema has changed so much. Almost everything we believed in did not really survive like the real authors’ cinema. Maybe we didn't connect enough with the audience at a certain point. Now Werner does documentaries, I do erratic things that are different from one from the other. There’s not such a clear line any more.”
RETURN TO MONTAUKInterestingly for his recent film, Return to Montauk, loosely based on a memoir by
Max Frisch, Schlöndorff draws on his own experiences. The film follows Stellan Skarsgård’s novelist Max Zorn, who reunites with his former lover Rebecca played by Nina Hoss, when he is in New York promoting his new book, a partly fictionalised memoir where he reminisces about their failed romance. Max travels with Rebecca to the Hamptons to view a home she may buy.
“I thought what a beautiful opportunity to shoot in New York and to go to Montauk, as I had lived in New York for seven years and had visited friends in Montauk. I thought, what if I told my own story? I came to New York to make Death of a Salesman and on my 46th birthday through friends I met a beautiful lady. It was not at a concert like in the movie; everything is different in real life of course. But it was the major event of my life comparable to no other. It led to my divorce from Margarethe von Trotta.”
He has been married to the woman he met, editor Angelika Gruber, for 25 years. What would she think of him saying he doesn't know why he divorced von Trotta?
“Oh, they are good friends,” he chuckles. “What happened was the day Angelika discovered she was pregnant I told Margarethe that I was staying with her and she was pregnant. Margarethe said, ‘Well then I’ll sign the divorce papers right now because you have to marry her’. Till then we were separated, but hadn’t divorced. Margarethe immediately considered her an ally and felt like she had to protect her from me. ‘You’re not going to make the same mistake again!”
When von Trotta asked to read his Return to Montauk screenplay, Schlöndorff declined. “I said, ‘It’s not for you’. I don't like her to read my screenplays. I like her to see my movies. I would feel influenced by her reaction.”
THE LONE WOMAN WITH THE BOYSIn our earlier interview von Trotta noted how she had been the only woman in their group in the 60s and 70s. How was that? “Stressful.” Did she get her way? “Yes. But I never told them what I wanted to do because they weren’t interested. They were always talking about their next film.”
Even so, she looks back at the period as a ground-breaking time.
“We felt a bit solitary. We were moving like a group but everybody did individual films. It wasn’t like the Expressionists who were close in style. But we were a pressure group against television and the subsidy institutions and we felt strongly about being part of the generation who were the first to fight against the sinister past. I think that was our energy and our strength. Werner [Herzog] always said that we had to forget this period of rupture of the Nazis and we had to look to Fritz Lang and Murnau and the filmmakers who came before.”