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German director: Far-right populism a threat to culture

Meike Krüger sh
September 3, 2019

Many of director Volker Schlöndorff's films focus on German history, such as "The Tin Drum." He told DW why recent regional election gains for the AfD are just as damaging to the cultural realm as they are to politics.

Veranstaltung "Africa on the Rise" der DW Akademie
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Volker Schlöndorff: "A shift to the right always questions culture"

Born in Wiesbaden in 1939, Oscar award-winning director Volker Schlöndorff is one of Germany's most successful filmmakers. He often focuses German history in his films, which include The Tin Drum, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, Death of a SalesmanReturn to Montauk and a 1990 adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

DW reporter Meike Krüger sat down with him in the wake of regional elections in the state of Saxony and of Brandenburg, through which far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) made strong gains, without however becoming the strongest party as feared by many observers. ​

DW: How do you feel about the results of the regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg?

Volker Schlöndorff: The fear is still there. Even a potential fear remains frightening. The high voter turnout saw a lot of people voting for the AfD, which means people who would have otherwise not voted participated in the elections this time to protest.

At first I thought that was wonderful news: many more people are now going to vote, are actively participating in democracy and are finally interested in politics again, even younger people. But not at all! They just went to protest everything.

Read more: Volker Schlöndorff: 'Tin Drum' director at 80

A scene from The Tin Drum by Volker Schlöndorff
The film "The Tin Drum" won an Oscar for Best Foreign language film in 1980. It takes place when the Nazis were in power in GermanyImage: Imago/AGD

What do you think is the reason for that?

Thirty years after the fall of communism, these are people who haven't even experienced the GDR personally. They long for a myth.

How could the GDR become a myth? Why could there be "Ostalgia" [nostalgia for former eastern Germany] at all? How is it possible to mourn this state that was full of injustices? How can one say today that everything was better? The word "retarded" has to be used in both senses here.

As a director, you have experienced German history for yourself and have portrayed it in your films. Where do you think we are right now in Germany?

Like the rest of the world, we are facing a tremendous change due to globalization. That's how they talked about it in the beginning, as an economic term. But it doesn't really concern me, except that my TV comes from China and I can order everything from all over the world on the internet. But my life should actually go on as it did before.

But now is the moment when globalization has reached all the way into the lives of families in small villages. Nothing will be the same as before. This is not a sudden change, but rather a slow change from over the past 15 years. Nobody can claim that the world will not change.

What would be your directorial advice to people from the cultural scene?

As people working in culture, we can only depict what we see around us. And that is perhaps the best educational material. In films we can show how people might react in unusual situations, including when they react in the wrong way. If they long to have something back that can't come back, that's a lost cause. Nor can we get back what we had in the past — the supposedly ideal world, which in reality was completely broken. That's what politicians must say.

The election results show a clear shift to the right. The AfD is the second strongest party in Brandenburg and Saxony. What threat does this pose to culture?

A shift to the right always calls culture into question. One of the (far-right) concepts is that we don't need culture, that it's for the elites and that the general population has nothing to gain from it. That is nonsense, of course, because culture is a form of nourishment.

If there is a shift to the right, then culture needs as much support as politics. We must support it even more. The more politicians pander to those who are dissatisfied by giving them more, the more they incapacitate people who are becoming increasingly dependent on the welfare state.

Read more:Germany: Berlin reacts to far-right surge in eastern elections 

From the film Return to Montauk
His 2017 film "Return to Montauk" competed at the Berlin Film Festival Image: Wild Bunch Germany/Jim Rakete

How real is the danger of the far-right now after the regional elections?

To fundamentally change a society, it is said that 25% of good-willed people among the entire population are enough. Conversely, I believe there is always a potential of 25% of unsatisfied people gathering here and there, depending on what politicians are offering them. You have to come to terms with that.

A society consists not only of democracy-obsessed people of good will, but also of many unsatisfied people. The art is balancing the two. However, you can't find a balance by smoothing out the differences. I think you have to come clean and be honest. A politician will certainly make himself unpopular in the short term, but then he has to stand by it and not go back on their word immediately because the mood is changing.


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