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Volker Schlöndorff stages the Battle of Verdun

Rick Fulker / Jochen KürtenMay 27, 2016

At the site of the cataclysmic World War I battle, Volker Schlöndorff sets 4000 young people into live action. The German film director has often turned his attention to films on wartime history and literature.

Volker Schlöndorff. Photo: Daniel Naupold/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Presiding over the official commemoration ceremony on Sunday (29th May) marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun are French President Francoise Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The actual anniversary of the battle's beginning was on May 21.

For three weeks, 3000 youths from France and 1000 from Germany have been miming the war catastrophe by modern means: rapping, staging a kind of dance of death and filming the results on their smart phones. At the ceremony, they will position themselves across the expansive soldiers' cemetery at Verdun. Afterwards, the politicians on the scene will inspect their photos and videos and enter a dialogue with the young actors.

"The politicians are supposed to explain to them why we should remember the event," explained Volker Schlöndorff to German public broadcaster SWR. Describing the live production as "half war, half dance," he continued, "it will be left to the spectators' imagination to picture that behind every cross, there is a human being."

Memorial cross at the Douaumont Cemetery near Verdun. Photo: Reuters/V. Kessler
The remains of over 130,000 non-identified French and German soldiers lie at the Douaumont Cemetery near VerdunImage: Reuters/V. Kessler

The 77-year-old German film director, who since his youth has repeatedly lived and worked in France, was asked by Hollande to plan "a different kind of ceremony lacking pomp or military exercises."

Also scheduled for the May 29 commemoration is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, in which Israeli and Arab musicians perform side by side.

Political stories and literature on the big screen

German history - first and foremost pertaining to the Nazi era and World War II - is a leitmotif in the films of Volker Schlöndorff. Another recurring theme are movies based on works of literature. His initial success "Der junge Törless" (Young Torless), based on a novel by Robert Musil, revealed Schlöndorff's signature style: deep penetration of the underlying story, impeccable filming technique, a strong narrative and entertaining moments. The 1966 opus catapulted the director into the upper league of New German Cinema, a period of innovative, low-budget moviemaking that lasted from the late 1960s into the 80s.

Henceforth, Schlöndorff was regarded as a literary specialist. The son of a physician who lost his mother at an early age has always been a passionate reader. Filmings of Max Frisch's "Homo Faber" and Heinrich Böll's "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum" followed, but his most triumphant success was "The Tin Drum." Based on the novel by Günter Grass, it won the 1980 Oscar as "Best Foreign Film."

David Bennent as Oskar Matzerath in 'The Tin Drum'. Photo: ullstein - Tele-Winkler
Schlöndorff's greatest triumph: 'The Tin Drum,' starring the young David Bennent in the role of Oskar MatzerathImage: ullstein - Tele-Winkler

France, Germany and the US

Exploiting his Oscar fame, the filmmaker from the German city of Wiesbaden turned his back on his home country for a while to work in Hollywood, directing star-cast movies like "Death of a Salesman" with Dustin Hoffman in 1985 and "The Handmaid's Tale" with Faye Dunnaway and Robert Duvall in 1990.

In his 2008 autobiography "Light, Shadow and Motion," Schlöndorff described how he learned the filmmaker's trade in 1950s France, assisting the renowned directors Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Resnais and Louis Malle.

A shot from Schlöndorff's film 'Swann's Way'
Schlöndorff has also filmed Marcel Proust's 'Swann's Way'Image: picture alliance/United Archives/IFTN

Directing the famous Babelsberg Studios near Berlin from 1992 - 97, he returned to France several times, exploring aspects of the Nazi-era German occupation of that country in "Das Meer am Morgen" (Calm at Sea, 2011) and "Diplomatie" (Diplomacy, 2014). Terrorism in Germany, the labor strike movement in Poland and the political stance of the Catholic Church before 1945 are themes that also turn up in his work.

The new foundation of Europe

Volker Schlöndorff demonstrates political activism in his newest project as well - one in which he leaves the filming to the young actors. "An experience that is unimaginable in present-day Europe," is how Schlöndorff describes the famous World War I battle.

Between February 21 and December 18, 1916, some 300,000 soldiers died in the Battle of Verdun; between one and two million persons sustained severe injury.

"But we have to remember that these huge slaughter fields and cemeteries are the foundation on which we are now struggling to build Europe," added Schlöndorff. "And bringing that to mind demonstrates that it is worth the effort."