Volker Schlöndorff: ′There is a major volte-face taking place′ in France | Film | DW | 05.05.2017
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Volker Schlöndorff: 'There is a major volte-face taking place' in France

Renowned German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff told DW why he's optimistic about the French election - and why he turned down Steven Spielberg to take on a political crisis.

DW: You lived and worked in France for a long time. Could you imagine living in a France led by Marine Le Pen?

Volker Schlöndorff: It's not going to happen - thank God. Mr. Macron has rescued the situation. Common sense will win over ideologies in France. I think that's the event of the century.

Since I lived in France in the mid-1950s, the country has been overcome by ideologies. It's apparently the working class against the rich business people. The world has since completely changed, but these categories of right and left and class struggles have persisted. They're what caused Hollande to fail.

But now I finally have the feeling that liberation is coming. I hope this is just the beginning of real development.

Is the Europe that you know and have advocated for as an artist becoming obsolete?

No. In France, Europe has never been as popular as it has in Germany. We Germans scrambled to become European so we would no longer have to be German and so we could leave our guilt behind us. For the French, France was always the first priority and then came Europe.

I recently made two films back-to-back in France, "Calm at Sea" and "Diplomacy." In the team and everywhere else I observed how the young generation thinks in European way and how European they want to be. They look to Berlin as the place to be and not to Paris. There is a major volte-face taking place.

Susanne Wolff and Stellan Skarsgård in Return to Montauk ( Wild Bunch Germany 2017/Franziska Strauss)

Susanne Wolff and Stellan Skarsgård in "Return to Montauk"

Let's talk about your films. Your current work, "Return to Montauk," is based on a story by Max Frisch, but you included many of your own life experiences. What do we learn about Volker Schlöndorff in the character of Max Zorn?

Yes, the story itself is retold nearly one-to-one. Thirty years ago, I spent five years in New York and met a wonderful woman. I fell so badly in love with her that I still think about it today. Some 13 or 15 years later, we met again and I - or we both - wondered whether we shouldn't try it again. One very, very exciting weekend was enough to test it out.

The films you've made in the past 50 years have influenced your life, and your life has influenced your films. Is there one film with which it all began?

Between the ages of 20 and 25, during the Nouvelle Vague period in France, I had the opportunity to be an assistant to wonderful directors like Melville and Louis Malle. Then I made my first film, "Young Törless," with an incredible sense of fear, but never again would I have so much self-confidence.

When I was fortunate enough to receive international applause in Cannes, I knew, that's it. If it hadn't worked out, I would have changed professions and become an architect or something like that. [Eds.: "Young Törless" won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival.]

The Nazi period, the postwar period, student protests, RAF terrorism, social upheavals and similar topics are common themes in your oeuvre. You experienced these historical events first-hand. Were you able to make an impact, for example with "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum"?

That was exciting. [German writer] Heinrich Böll wrote this pamphlet called "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum" in self-defense. Actually, it was about his own lost honor, because he had been accused of being the spiritual father of the violent [terrorist group] Baader-Meinhof-Gruppe and, later, RAF. He was upset and depicted how a person can be destroyed by the press and by cooperation between the press and the police apparatus.

DW KINO presenters Hans Christoph von Bock (left) and Scott Roxborough (right) with Volker Schlöndorff (Hans-Jürgen Kassube)

DW KINO presenters Hans Christoph von Bock (left) and Scott Roxborough (right) with Volker Schlöndorff

I have always viewed myself as a political filmmaker because you really cannot make a film without having political awareness. You have to be aware that a film has an impact and try, in the interest of education, to represent the world accurately.

It is very regrettable that the beginnings of Baader and Meinhof, before it became RAF, could not be influenced and that it had to escalate to violence. It really wasn't necessary for bombs to be thrown in Germany.

How do you view directors today who are often not politically involved?

You can't tell someone to be politically involved. I was born in 1939 and when I was growing up after the war, I was always asked the same question, both at home and abroad: "How was it possible for the Nazis to come to power? How was it possible that you tolerated the Holocaust?"

But I can understand them very well. I even envy writers and filmmakers that are able to concentrate fully on their direct surroundings. Take Maren Ade with her films and her most recent work, "Toni Erdmann." For me, it was a highly political film, but she would probably disagree.

What can be done today to counteract the ever growing wave of populism?

Documentary films can have a big impact. The moment that a million Syrians came to Germany, I actually wanted to drop everything and do a joint documentary together with Alexander Kluge and Stefan Aust. But just at that moment, Stellan Skarsgård and Nina Hoss were available and I had to take advantage of the opportunity to film "Return to Montauk."

Volker Schlöndorff on the set of Return to Montauk with Nina Hoss and Stellan Skarsgård (Wild Bunch Germany 2017 / Ann Ray)

Schlöndorff on the set of "Return to Montauk," with Nina Hoss and Stellan Skarsgård

You adapted Günter Grass' most significant novel, "The Tin Drum," into a film and it became your big success. In 1979, you won the Golden Palm in Cannes for "The Tin Drum," and in 1980 an Oscar. Did Hollywood producers run down your door after that?

The day after the Oscar, I got an offer from Steven Spielberg. He was working in television on "Twilight Zone." He was impressed by my film and said, "You could make an episode." I thought about it and said, "No, now I have carte blanche and can do what I want in Europe. Why should I move to Hollywood?"

I was very concerned about a political problem - the war in Lebanon - at the time. So I went to Beirut and filmed "Circle of Deceit" with Bruno Ganz and Hanna Schygulla there, because I felt that it couldn't be that a war was happening at our front door and that a whole city was in ruins. How naïve of me... There has since been Sarajevo, Baghdad, Grozny, Aleppo - and it doesn't end.

Three years later, a coincidence brought me to the US after all when Dustin Hoffman and Arthur Miller offered to have me film "Death of a Salesman."

Dustin Hoffman is known to be a perfectionist. What happens when two perfectionists work together?

All great actors are perfectionists. Hoffman is only difficult when he suddenly notices that there is something not perfect about the role, the piece, or the screenplay. But since the play by Arthur Miller was the epitome of perfection for Hoffman, there wasn't a single time that he had doubts about a sentence or a situation, so everything went wonderfully.

Susanne Wolff, Volker Schlöndorff, producer Regina Ziegler and Nina Hoss at the premiere of Return to Montauk on May 3 in Munich (Imago/APress)

Susanne Wolff, Volker Schlöndorff, producer Regina Ziegler and Nina Hoss at the premiere of "Return to Montauk" on May 3 in Munich

Sometimes you get the feeling that cinema is running out of stories to tell. Where do you situate your form of cinematic storytelling between all the superhero movies and Netflix series?

I refer to Arthur Miller, as far as stories are concerned. He once told me, "When the Old Testament was written, people thought there were no stories left to tell. But then the New Testament came and that was a whole different story."

We live from telling each other stories. Just the medium changes. And that has changed uninterruptedly since the advent of film art. In 1911, it started with very simple silent films in Berlin Babelsberg. Then sound was invented and the first recording studio was built. Later, color was added, and today there is digital cinema.

The most difficult thing will always be finding good stories with the right people and that is a challenge for everyone again and again. Every generation needs its own story.

In "Return to Montauk," the writer basically says there are two types of regret: regretting what you've done and regretting what you didn't do. Which film would you rather not have made and which film opportunity did you regret turning down?

Several, but fortunately, since they were flops, they were quickly forgotten. A film with Senta Berger, "The Morals of Ruth Halbfass," and my "Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas," didn't work out at all.

Which film I should have made? Perhaps I should have accepted the offer from Steven Spielberg and done a television film in the US right after "The Tin Drum." Getting to know and work with Spielberg would certainly have been exciting.

Watch more on Volker Schlöndorff in this week's edition of KINO.


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