Volker Schlöndorffs film "The Morning Sea" tells a dark chapter in the history of German occupation during the Second World War. The accounts of two authors helped inspire the screenplay.
His new film was a personal project, not just another film about the Second World War, said Volker Schlöndorff in an interview with DW. The assassination of a German officer in the region of Brittany, France in 1941 and the ensuing barbaric revenge exerted by German occupying troops - during which 48 French citizens were shot dead - provides the backdrop for Schlöndorff's new film, "The Morning Sea" ("Das Meer am Morgen"). The motion picture is not simply a meticulously detailed retelling of historical events. Literary, as well as other sources served as inspiration for Schlöndorff's new feature film.
Remembrance of youth
To begin with, a look back in time explains why "The Morning Sea" became such a personal film for the director. As a 17-year-old, the young Schlöndorff was an exchange student, studying law in Paris. Every day he visited the legendary Cinémathèque Français, a film archive, and became acquainted with the history of cinema. He rejected an offer to study at Paris' University of Film, instead, he chose a vocational training course. Schlöndorff went on to assist some of French cinema's biggest names.
As a young adolescent he had heard about the revenge mission carried out by the Nazis in Brittany. Decades later, he decided to research what had happened and stumbled upon some astounding sources during his research activities.
Two famous German authors, Ernst Jünger and Heinrich Böll – themselves stationed in France during the Second World War – inspired his writing of the screenplay. Ernst Jünger was a member of the staff division of the German military commanders in Paris between 1941 and 1944. Jünger was commissioned by the German military commander to France, Otto von Stülpnagel, to provide a literary account of the shooting of hostages. Jünger carried out the request, but later destroyed the manuscripts. After the war, a duplicate was discovered that was only made public a few years ago. Schlöndorff wrote a foreword to the reissued publication entitled, "On the Hostage Question."
Transcripts by Heinrich Böll, then stationed as a soldier in Brittany, close to where the horrific events occurred, also served as a reference point for Schlöndorff's film. Böll's short stories "The Legacy" and "The Train was on Time" do not deal with the atrocities directly, but function as a record of a young man – later a Nobel Prize winner – dispatched to war. In Schlöndorff's film, the young German soldier appears to find his bearings in relation to Heinrich Böll and his literary characters.
When Lieutenant Colonel Karl Hotz was shot by French resistance fighters in Nantes in October 1941, it sparked a series of draconian revenge attacks carried out by the Nazis. The German military commanders stationed in Paris argued that excessively harsh and sweeping revenge tactics could potentially sabotage occupation of the area, fearing that arduously sustained peace in occupied France could be brought to an end. In the end, 48 French citizens were shot. The list of those to be executed, the majority of which were communists, was provided to the Germans by French collaborators.
Moving farewell letter
One of those executed was 17-year-old Guy Moquet. Almost every child in France is familiar with his farewell letter to his parents and friends. When incumbent French president Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007, he declared Moquet's text should be read in schools every year. "Guy Moquet is to France, what Sophie Scholl is to Germany," said Volker Schlöndorff. It was Ernst Jünger, of all people, who translated Guy Moquet's farewell letter – as well as the farewell letters of the other executed hostages – into German. These moving documents are available to readers today in the book "Ernst Jünger: On the Hostage Question."
All manuscripts, impressions, the authentic and fictive elements, influenced Schlöndorff's film. They were woven together through the "art of screenplay writing", said the filmmaker when talking to DW. He was both drawn to and repelled by Ernst Jünger: "Jünger was a lover of France, a disciplined writer but on the other hand a perpetrator." The role of the writer and soldier, Ernst Jünger, is impressively played in "The Morning Sea" by actor Ulrich Matthes. However, Heinrich Böll does not appear. In the film, the character of a young German soldier (Jacob Matschenz) is based on Böll.
After its premier at the Biarritz Film Festival and a preview screening at the Berlinale, "The Morning Sea" is set to be broadcast on the French-German bilingual television channel ARTE. Schlöndorff said German television broadcasters and film financiers had misgivings about the project. In contrast, the film garnered much interest in France: "For me, it is not about coming to terms with the past," said the Oscar winner in an interview with the specialist film magazine "Filmecho/Filmwoche". He explained the film was more about showing how people react in extreme circumstances. "The Morning Sea" is double-edged: Schlöndorff's examination of French and German history, coupled with a very personal encounter with history.
Author: Jochen Kürten / hw
Editor: Jessie Wingard