When Volker Schlöndorff received the Oscar for his literary film adaptation, The Tin Drum, in 1980, few suspected that the German auteur who cut his teeth in Paris would soon try to build a career in Hollywood. It was just one of many of the career turns that Volker Schlöndorff, who celebrates his 80th birthday on March 31, has made across near 60 years in film.
As the death of Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1982 symbolized the decline of postwar German cinema, Volker Schlöndorff used the fresh fame of his Oscar triumph to make the transition across the Atlantic.
After making his first English-language film, Swann in Love (1984), starring Jeremy Irons and Alain Delon and based on the first two volumes of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Schlöndorff remained true to his literary roots when he moved to Hollywood a year later.
Having helped birth the New German Cinema with his deft 1966 adaptation of Robert Musil's challenging first novel, The Confusions of Young Master Törless, Schlöndorff's film version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1985), with Dustin Hoffman in the lead, and the Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid's Tale (1990) — decades before it was adapted into a blockbuster Netflix series — saw him make a seamless literary transition to Hollywood.
The German Autumn
But it was his Oscar- and Palme d'Or-winning adaptation of Günter Grass' The Tin Drum in 1979 that is still remembered as Schlöndorff's greatest literature-inspired film. Even the curmudgeonly Grass praised the film adaptation of his novel, likely because the director consulted him regularly while adapting the script.
The Tin Drum had been preceded by the 1976 war drama Coup de Grâce, an adaptation of Marguerite Yourcenar's novel of the same name; and by the acclaimed The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum in 1975, based on the novel by Heinrich Böll. But instead of World War II and the Nazis, the film shone a light on a dark contemporary chapter in Germany history.
Here the director explored the contemporary politics of the so-called German Autumn, when the terrorist Red Army Faction group was at its peak in West Germany. With Schlöndorff joining the ranks of Fassbinder and Alexander Kluge on the 1977 omnibus film Germany in Autumn that explored the socio-politics of the time, he went further with the theme in the short film War and Peace from 1983 and The Legend of Rita in 2000.
A Parisian education
The Oscar winner has always maintained an auteur approach to filmmaking that was gleaned during his time in Paris in the 1950s. After studying political science at the Sorbonne, the aspiring young filmmaker assisted directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Resnais and, above all, Louis Malle, who became his teacher and friend.
With some of his most recent films, Schlöndorff has repeatedly returned to the country where he received his cinematic training. In The Sea in the Morning (2011) and Diplomacy (2014) he highlighted aspects of the German occupation in France during the reign of the National Socialists.
The director of politically insightful and historically reflective films like The Tin Drum, despite its magic realist style, has continued to ask the tough questions in his latter career work. From terrorism in Germany to strike movements in Poland or the attitude of the Catholic Church before 1945, Schlöndorff has not mellowed with age in terms of subject matter. If anything, such uncompromising films are now easier to make since he tends to work on lower budgets, and without the constraints of Hollywood.
German cinema is fortunate today to have a director of such rank who has endured for more than half a century. Not only because he gave the local film industry a boost with his Golden Palm and Oscar; but above all because he has remained a great artist who has not lost sight of the world around him.