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Conversation with Volker Schlöndorff, Part 1: Fallen Idols for Friends

The great German director talks about the dark histories of his famous friends, and much more in this interview on life and the movies.

October 3, 2017  |  by László Kriston

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Volker Schlöndorff

Volker Schlöndorff rose to prominence alongside Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders as one of the young titans of New German Cinema in the late 1960s. His penchant for literary adaptations and historical settings set him apart from some of his more navel-gazing peers. Like Herzog, he sought inspiration in Paris where he attended university as a starry-eyed cinephile. His very first films were TV reports from Algeria and Vietnam. Then he burst onto the scene with Young Törless, his adaptation of Robert Musil's novel, which his mentor Louis Malle produced.


Schlöndorff's filmmaking conscience was shaped by the psychological aftermath of the Third Reich. Though his work spans all genres, most of his heroes—and often heroines—are caught up in the squeeze of historical forces and movements larger than the individual, be it Bolshevik subversion (Coup de Grâce), a religious tyranny (The Handmaid's Tale, 1990), the paranoia over left wing terrorism in 1970s Europe (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975), the onslaught of World War II (The Tin Drum, 1979), Nazi brainwashing of the youth (The Ogre, 1996), Nazi-era incarceration (The Ninth Day, 2004), racial tensions in the American South (A Gathering of Old Men, 1987), the Lebanese Civil War (The Circle of Deceit, 1981), workers' dissent (Strike, 2006), or one's own rage to reform society through terrorist means (The Legend of Rita, 2000). But Schlöndorff's searching eye never overlooks the role of his characters in the societal forces that entrap them.   


Schlöndorff won the Palme d'Or in 1979 and an Academy Award in 1980 for The Tin Drum, his version of the magical realist novel by Novel Prize-winning author Günter Grass. He was only forty at this point, and on the heels of his success moved to New York. He would travel to Hollywood to worship at the altar of Billy Wilder, whom he interviewed on camera for days on end. For reasons unknown, Wilder refused to have the interview shown.


Now 78, Schlöndorff remains one of the most charming and personable figures on the festival circuit. The comely Berliner shuns pretense and calls himself a director-for-hire. I sat down with him at the Cairo Film Festival for an interview over breakfast. We touched upon many subjects, including how he handled the troubling confessions of his colleagues Günter Grass and István Szabó. 


LK: Why is it that you always end up doing literary adaptations and historical subjects?


VS: I like books. (chuckles) As simple as that.


LK: So it's not like you set out early to become an adept interpreter of literary masterpieces.


VS: The exact opposite. Young Torless (1966) I did at a time when I was more ambitious, but not yet ready to write one. I just wanted to direct. So I thought, "Hm, okay, I take a book, and never again." And sure enough the second movie [Mord und Totschlag, 1967] was a so-called original, but it wasn't so good, so for the third I returned to a book [Michael Kohlhaas, 1969, based on a short novel by Heinrich von Kleist]. I tried a few more times to write myself. Finally I thought I better do what I'm good at. Which is adapting.

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The Tin Drum (1979) directed by Volker Schlöndorff

LK: But you obviously came from a generation where auteurism and personal relevance were highly regarded.


VS: Oh, nouvelle vague, yes. Absolutely. That was in Germany just as anywhere else. But the difference with most of the other filmmakers [was that] I got the proper training to be a director. Period. (chuckles) I worked on three films per year as an assistant director. I thought directing is enough for me. I don't pretend to go much further than that.


LK: You assisted Alain Resnais on Last Year in Marienbad (1961), Louis Malle on A Very Private Affair (1962) and Viva Maria! (1965), and Jean-Pierre Melville on The Finger Man (1963). What did you learn on those sets?


VS: The French schedule. Which calls [for a shoot] from noon nonstop to eight [p.m.]. No break.


LK: What kind of a boss was Louis Malle as a man running a production?


VS: Very much a team man. Actually, I think he had more assistants that became film directors than any director I know. There was François Leterrier and Alain Cavalier, then Philippe Collin, then myself, and there were two others. He pushed us to make our own movies. And during the work already he included us on how to solve a problem, how to block a scene, how to use the camera, the movement of the actors and the camera, the general tone of the film. Of course some directors didn't tolerate discussion. Like [Jean-Pierre] Melville. But with Louis Malle it was a very open course.


Every night the whole crew sat together to watch the dailies and discuss what we had done. "How did you like this?" "We should have done this differently." "Let's do it again tomorrow." Death of a Salesman was the last time I recall where every night we were all sitting together. [Arthur] Miller was always there, Dustin [Hoffman] and Malkovich, and [cinematographer] Michael Ballhaus, debating endlessly, "You should have told this line differently." The whole crew was included in the process. Funnily enough, in this digital technology that got lost. I think it's a huge loss. I mean I'm too old now, I conclude without debating with the team. But it was the best moment of filmmaking.


LK: Did you also get a sense of what Malle was after as an artist?


VS: Our talks, they were seldom about the deeper meaning. No. You try to make the movie truthful. Which is difficult enough. And make it entertaining. Because the Nouvelle vague was very audience-oriented. Everybody was watching how many entries [ticket admissions], how many audiences another movie had. (chuckles) It was very much about how you get the audience, how you get them involved. You could get an audience with sheer provocation sometimes, by not giving them what they wanted—you got them. Because it created a fuss. We had a very alert audience.


LK: What were your thoughts when Günter Grass came out with the revelation that he served in the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of the Nazi party's SS. What was your gut feeling when you first heard it?


VS: I was shocked! We were close friends. We were here in Cairo together. And many other places. We were personal friends. I asked him, "Why didn't you ever tell us?" And he said, "But I tried to tell it. At the end of the 50s, early 60s. Nobody wanted to know about it. So I dropped the subject. Because it was brooding within me, it gave me energy to do all the work I have done since. To be creative." It was a trauma within him that pushed him to deal with that subject.

He was 17 years old when he joined the SS troops. So I think at that age everybody is allowed to make a mistake, especially in the middle of a war. In the '50s, I was told, it was impossible to start a career in Germany either as a painter or as a novelist if you admitted to that background. You would have been branded ex-Nazi, not allowed to speak. How much freedom would you get with that stamp on you? So we had a very, let's say, intolerant society because everybody wanted to say, "We have nothing to do with the Nazis anymore." He said, "I tried timidly, and felt there was not a good reaction, so I shut up." And once you have shut up for a number of years, it gets more and more difficult to admit. (chuckles)

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Volker Schlöndorff and Günter Grass on the set of The Tin Drum, 1979

LK: What did you feel when István Szabó, the Oscar-winning Hungarian director of Mephisto, was revealed in 2006 to have been a police informer himself in the 1950s, during Communism? When it came to light thanks to a film historian, at first he tried to spin it, insisting he was doing it to give false statements in order to protect a classmate who participated in the 1956 uprising against the Soviets. Then days later he admitted he agreed to be an informer because otherwise he could not become a film director.


VS: I had seen so many cases like that with very fine people. I thought it's none of my business. I wasn't there at the time, I don't really know. I want to judge István on the films he made and how he behaved during the time I knew him. We had a reunion as we served on the board of European Film Academy. As the session started, István got up, it was like 2 months later, and said, "I would like to explain a few things about this and that." At that moment, I saw it coming. I got up, and I said, "István, gentlemen friends, please, we don't need any explanations from István. I don't want to hear it." And István said, "But I want to say it." I said, "Okay, I don't want to hear it." I left the room. And then he went on for an hour. Kind of a confession, justification, and whatnot. I felt this was the kind of thing you could learn from Billy Wilder: certain things better remain unsaid. (chuckles) I just wasn't ready to listen. I felt it was beyond István's standing. I felt it was undignified. Nobody in the room was accusing him, or asking him, or had any doubts. Nothing whatsoever. I felt that he was really a victim of the situation. That he himself thought he has to explain this.


LK: I think it's also probably the burden; that he could finally talk about it after almost 40 years.


VS: Yeah. You know when you feel shame for someone. And I felt shame that I had to listen to that. I don't want to know that. I don't know, maybe I was too harsh then. I hope he doesn't hold it against me. I still like his films. It's so interesting to see Sunshine now, knowing that.


LK: And Mephisto, a treatise on the artist's torn conscience over collaborating with an evil regime. The last line, given by Klaus Maria Brandauer, alone in an empty arena, with the spotlight on him, is really the summary of the film, and ultimately, István's personal tragedy: "What do you want from me, I'm just an artist!"


VS: And Colonel Redl is the same. [Szabó's 1985 feature about Alfred Redl, head of counter-intelligence for the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy who spilled military secrets to Tsarist Russia, deeply affecting how World War I would unfold after his death. He committed suicide in 1913.] It's always about betrayal, betrayal. It's a little bit like Günter Grass. If he had openly admitted that he was in the Waffen-SS, maybe his work wouldn't have been as good. He had this trauma, this demon working in him. So he had to come to terms with it again and again and again. (chuckles) Yeah. Maybe bad conscience is a great creative energy.


LK: What motivated you to make Diplomatie (2014)?


VS: Actually, the film was very personal for me because I grew up in Paris, I went to school there in the '50s, and the idea that I might not have survived the war for me was something very relevant. All powers nowadays are trying to solve conflicts with military means, and diplomacy is more like a cosmetic thing on it. But Richard Holbrooke brokered the peace in the Yugoslav war. As a diplomat.


LK: This plot to blow up Paris, obviously it was an actual one...


VS: It was not as refined as we show it. That was the plan. It was pretty much vast. But not as vast as I show it. This was the order, but a lot of it was still on paper. It would have not destroyed Paris like Warsaw, but it would have done a lot of damage. I didn't know myself before doing the research that it was such a close call. I'm not a historian. I'm not interested in discovering a new truth. I'm more interested in the psychology of the characters. And how does such a person function.


LK: Why is it that during World War II there was a strong emphasis among some filmmakers in Hollywood to satirize the grave world crisis? There was To Be Or No to Be by Lubitsch, The Great Dictator by Chaplin...


VS: For a simple reason: there was no television then. A lot of the politically interested information and exchange and debate that today take place on television happened in the movies.


LK: Is that the reason why when the hotspot became the Middle East, and Bush went to Iraq, it did not result in today's To Be or Not to Be, or a comedy about Osama Bin Laden?

VS: I'm not Billy Wilder, but he once told me, when I wanted to make a comedy on the armament race leading to the destruction of the world through too much nuclear warheads everywhere, he said, "You can't laugh it off, it's too serious." (chuckles) I said, "Well, what about Dr. Strangelove?" And he said, "Not a comedy. It's a satire."


LK: Important distinction.


VS: I don't have an answer to the question why there were these comedies [back then, but not now]. In a sense Borat was a comedy. We are too politically correct nowadays. (chuckles) Wrong again, because with the Hayes code in 1940, they were more politically correct. So they had to be very cunning.


LK: Which is where the Lubitsch touch comes from. The mastery of innuendo. Let the audience add two and two together, never say in the film that it's four.


VS: Well, but Lubitsch always had that touch.

(More about Lubitsch's greatest disciple, Billy Wilder in Part Two.)


Laszló Kriston is a film critic and journalist based in Budapest.

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