Return to Montauk
German Film Week 2017
67. Berlin International Film Festival 2017 – Golden Berlin Bear (Nominee)
„… a vibrant, insightful drama.“ The Film Stage
Max Zorn, a writer in his early sixties, travels to New York to launch his new book. His wife Clara is expecting him; she has been working on the book’s publication for the American publisher. Zorn’s very personal novel tells the story of a great but failed love affair. Max soon meets the woman who was the target of his affections at the time, German-born Rebecca, now a successful lawyer in New York. The pair return to Montauk for one winter weekend in this small coastal town at the end of Long Island where they were once so happy together. Rebecca is distant and hurt. Max tries to get close to her. They talk about their years apart, rekindling memories of their shared past. But is there a present or a future for the feelings they once had for each other?
After his adaptation of ‘Homo Faber’, Volker Schlöndorff once again returns to the universe of his friend Max Frisch. Variations on the original story’s motifs of happiness and the pain that comes with remembering are transposed to the screen for this new, cinematic version.
Source: 67. Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin (Catalogue)
Return to Montauk is dedicated to Max Frisch, the celebrated Swiss author whose 1975 novel Montauk, about a memorable weekend spent by an aged writer with a young woman in Long Island, looms as an inspiration for the film. And this is no coincidence, considering Frisch and the film’s co-writer and director, Volker Schlöndorff, had been friends, with the German director even adapting one of Frisch’s books into film. Return to Montauk in a way feels like a conversation between them, two old men, one alive and the other dead, looking back on the past and attempting to reconcile it with the present, using the power of literature and cinema to use time and memory to tell a story of affection and regret.
Max Zorn (Stellan Skarsgård) travels to New York to promote his new book, where he is welcomed by his wife Clara (Susanne Wolff). What Clara doesn’t know is that the subject of this new novel is Max’s former paramour, Rebecca (Nina Hoss), whom he seeks out and sees again eventually. She is now a posh lawyer in the city and is not very happy to see him. But then some things must be confronted, and after several passive-aggressive encounters, and between secrets and lies, Max and Rebecca finally have their time together, in a small coastal town two hours from the city, where they have once shared a beautiful memory.
Viewers who don’t find writers interesting as lead characters can feel frustrated while watching Return to Montauk because Max is one of those European intellectuals who can be eloquent when speaking in public but whose emotional insecurities can surface easily in private, and the film focuses more on the latter. He is soft-hearted and dwells a lot on the past, which, at 60, is rather understandable. The film speaks of him and for him; it listens to him and babies him; and one can’t help but think that this approach is deliberate because in a way the story isn’t only about Max’s longing to reunite with his former flame but also about how time has made him older: older but not wiser. He wants to „correct the past“ without realizing that it can’t be done, that he has no control of anything. Return to Montauk depicts this failure, and towards the end one realizes that wisdom can never be earned easily: it always takes time.
Return to Montauk stars Stellan Skarsgard as Max Zorn, a Berlin-based author visiting New York for a book tour. He is already married, but for most of the movie he has another woman on his mind: Rebecca Epstein (Nina Hoss), who in his memories is the one who got away. He ends up looking for her, and he shows some real persistence when she repeatedly turns him down. But she eventually relents, and invites him on a weekend away in Montauk to look at a house she wants to buy.
They have history in Montauk, and they spend much of their time talking about it. There is a lot of talking in this movie, a lot wistful remembrances of what they did when they were young. Cleverly, there is a lot of talk about how so much of it might not even be true. The film plays old romance as a nostalgic illusion, with Max unable to look past his own limited perspective to consider what the relationship was really like for his partner.
It’s intriguing, but it can make for frustrating viewing. The point is clear enough, but the film takes a pretty long time expounding on it, trapping the audience within the very limited view of its main character. Max Zorn just isn’t really worth following, in spite of his intellectual loquaciousness. His misanthropic behavior just isn’t as interesting as the movie makes it out to be, and there isn’t much investment in a character arc that would make him something more substantial. It’s beautifully shot and well-acted, with Nina Hoss in particular commanding the screen in ways that transcend the screenplay. But it’s also just kind of tedious. All in all, it’s an admirable enterprise, but not a particularly entertaining one.