A Conversation with Volker Schlöndorff

On Film / Interviews — Oct 16, 2014

This past August, on the occasion of Volker Schlöndorff’s being selected for a Silver Medallion award by the Telluride Film Festival, Criterion’s Peter Becker talked with the German filmmaker about his long career. A short version of the conversation was previously published in the Telluride Watch. Here, to mark the arrival of Schlöndorff’s latest endeavor, Diplomacy, in theaters this week, we present a longer cut.

Peter Becker: Let’s start right at the beginning. You were a film watcher before you were a filmmaker, right? Didn’t your career begin in the Cinémathèque française?

Volker Schlöndorff: Well, that is absolutely true. Though first I watched from the projection booth. But that was still way back in Germany, where I knew a guy who was running the machines, you know, those heavy projectors at the time, with the carbon light. And when I came to France, it was precisely to learn about filmmaking, because I had the feeling in Germany there was no place where I could go. This was in the midfifties. And so when I arrived in France, I pretended to study other things—the baccalaureate and later, at the Sorbonne, sociology and politics and whatnot. But the real reason I was there was to go every night at six to the Cinémathèque to see the three movies that were screened. So that was really my school of filmmaking.

PB: And it wasn’t just cinema, it was also a community, right?

VS: It was a very strong community, and actually, I wrote quite a funny chapter about it in my autobiography. I am now talking of ’57, ’58, the beginning of the nouvelle vague. I had advanced under Lotte Eisner’s guiding to be the simultaneous translator for the movies that were either in German or had German subtitles, sitting with a mic in the front row of the Cinémathèque and putting it into the best French I could muster. And so next to me in the first row, you had really the hard-core Cahiers du cinèma assembly, like Godard—always in a dark coat, held together with his hands, collar up and shoulders forward as if to hide either his face or his entire persona. And next to him you had Chabrol and Truffaut, who were much more fun to watch in their livelihood. And behind them you had what later became Positif. These guys came to the movies not for whatever structuralist, analytical aspect but for the sheer womanhood of the stars. So they would be raving about Gardner or Louise Brooks or whoever it was. The minimum adjective would be divine out of this realm. It was a totally exuberant thing, the gang leader being Ado Kyrou, a surrealist. It was the same community of people you met every night, and you couldn’t help befriending them, which was later very helpful as a network.

PB: That’s a natural progression to what for many cinephiles would be a dream entry into the world of film, working with Jean-Pierre Melville, Louis Malle, and Alain Resnais on incredibly iconic films like Last Year at Marienbad. How was that experience?

VS: Let me just come back to the Cinémathèque. I mean, we were starved for pictures without knowing it. We simply knew the weekly new openings. There was no rerun of films in regular theaters. There was no VHS or DVD or, of course, Internet. Television never screened old movies. So you literally had two or three places in all of Europe, one being Paris, the others being Moscow and Rome. And maybe Copenhagen, I don’t know. These were the only places where you could see what the previous sixty years of filmmaking had produced.

Once you joined the group that was watching these films, it was like early Christians in the catacombs, but at least you became part of a brotherhood. And so that is how my connections were made. I met Louis Malle through a writer who was a friend of Bertrand Tavernier’s father, Bertrand being in the same school as me in Paris.

I met Melville at a cine club, which was appropriately called Cine Qua Non, after a screening of Johnny Guitar—which he found horrible, and he warned us against such degenerated American films and told us we should stick with William Wyler and Robert Wise and forget about this Nicholas Ray. Invariably, we had sectarian feelings about filmmakers, and the disputes were very open and mostly right after the screening on some boulevard in Paris, rain or shine. Melville took sort of a liking to me and had me work on a film then, when I had almost no experience, Léon Morin, Priest [1961], with Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva. Well, actually, I’m getting confused about this. That was my third movie as AD. Before that there had been Zazie dans le métro [1960] and Marienbad [1961], as you just mentioned. It’s exceptional, these three movies within my first year in the profession. Well, I guess I’m a lucky guy.

PB: It also wasn’t very long before you made your own first film, Young Törless [1966], right?

VS: First I tried my hand at a short film, because besides the filmmaking, I was among those who were politically very engaged. This was the height of the Algerian Independence War, and it was the end of the Indochina, meaning the French-Vietnam, War, and these wars took place in the streets of Paris partly, because of all the immigrants, the Algerians, and the different factions within French society. So the short I made, in between I think Zazie and Marienbad, was about some Algerian freedom fighters.

PB: If we think about that first short and then Törless next to each other, in a way you have a picture of two strains that have always been very important in your career. There’s been the strain of political engagement in the present or in the near past, and then there are the adaptations, collaborations over time, experiences of different texts, filming of unfilmable novels.

VS: I felt very much at ease with literature. Let’s say it came out of an accidental reading of Robert Musil’s [The Confusions of] Young Törless, where I thought I’d find my own years in French boarding school somehow reflected. There’s always a power struggle, within every institution and especially within boarding schools, when you get all these strong-headed young men together. They’re like young dogs fighting with each other. It’s rites of initiation, in a sense. And so I found that very personal experience in Musil, while at the same time there was an amazing parallel to what had happened in Germany and how the Nazis had taken over an entire society. But frankly, I thought this was going to be my only movie based on literature.

And the next one, Degree of Murder [1967], was different. But Törless had been a success, I mean a critical success—meaning it seemed to be a decent picture. That’s my definition of success. And Degree of Murder was not clear. I didn’t come to any special point. Even today, I wouldn’t know exactly what it was about.

So for the next one, I returned to literature, and very soon I discovered that I was, somehow, good at translating literature. And even though it was at the time considered a minor genre, I thought, It’s better to do what I’m good at than what I really like to do. And I must say, literature has been good to me.

PB: Well, you have not made it easy on yourself. It’s not as if you’ve been picking boys’ adventure stories.

VS: I would love to do Mark Twain, but that was too far away!

PB: Here in Telluride, we’re going to have another surprising literary adaptation with Baal [1970]. But it’s not even adaptation, in a sense, right?

VS: Well, actually, it’s word by word, more or less, the first draft of Bertolt Brecht’s first play, which at the time he didn’t want to show to anybody. He first showed his second play, Drums in the Night, and only after that had been a certain success did he come out with Baal, which was something he had written when he was nineteen, still in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, where he actually met this strange character, a drunkard with a guitar who was hanging out in the beer halls and chasing women and trying to get other people to pay for his drinks. This man was indeed called Baal, his family name. And Brecht was somehow looking to the wilderness of his passions and of his behavior. He himself was no Baal at all.

When I first came upon this work, it seemed to express so much of the feeling we had in ’68, ’69, and it had been written fifty years earlier, unbelievably, right after the First World War. Like to throw all civilization overboard, looking for the instincts, for the original passion of our genes, when we were still closer to Mother Nature. And here it was expressed, coming out of the First World War, like the German painters Otto Dix and George Grosz, indeed, in a very, let’s say, antibourgeois way. Not only the morals but the aesthetics were so antibourgeois. And then as I was looking for the character to play this part, I came upon Fassbinder, who was still doing theater. And it seemed to, again, be such a correspondence. We shot this fifty-year-old piece of literature as if it were social reportage, contemporary to us.

PB: That’s an interesting way to put it, taking this piece of literature, really poetry, and treating it as reportage. And Fassbinder himself in the film has that animal nature that you’re talking about—you feel it so much.

VS: Yes, and I found out very fast that his so-called animal nature, well, it was sheltering an extremely sensitive soul. We did a lot of rehearsal before we shot, for about three weeks, and he was extremely careful with everybody around him.

Later it was said that he was so abusive with parts of his company and actors. But that was not it at all. He had a high self-esteem, in a sense, but at the same time he was vulnerable, and he was aware of the vulnerability of others. And he acted accordingly, the way he treated everybody. Besides, he treated me with great respect.

PB: That’s important for a young director, too.

VS: Well, for him I was sort of a filmmaker already, and actually he loved very much Degree of Murder. It was his favorite picture, he told me, the one I didn’t like. The one I considered a failure, he considered my best, at the time. So we had a good relationship, and I don’t think we ever, ever spoke about Bertolt Brecht.

We spoke about the characters and how they were related to us. It was a very lively thing. Also, I’d cast Margarethe von Trotta, whom I didn’t know before the casting, and not knowing that this was going to be a lifelong relationship. So there were lots of things going on. And I think it was the first, in a sense, professional shoot Rainer ever saw. Now mind you, we tried to do everything as if it were not professional, the small crew and so on. But, I mean, I had learned my trade, and he was extremely attentive—not only himself but he had his whole theater group partaking, or at least assisting in the aisles, so that they all would be involved, because he knew he was training them to be his production team.

PB: So this film really has an unknown historical importance, for having brought you and Margarethe von Trotta together and for having introduced Fassbinder to a film crew and giving him a training ground.

VS: Yes, but I had also taken things from Rainer, like the DP [Dietrich Lohmann], who had just finished with Rainer on Love Is Colder Than Death. So they had started filmmaking together. I saw the first cut of that film before we started shooting. And the interesting thing is this young cameraman, whom I had taken an immediate liking to, had done this film with Rainer in very static black-and-white shots, and I asked him for wild colors and everything handheld. Well, he immediately adapted to it, and he was equally at his beginning, and we had a great summer together.

PB: This might be a good moment to shift to a subject that I think is probably one of the first things people associate with you: the New German Cinema. You mentioned that when you were young, there really were no films to watch of the kinds you wanted to see. What kinds of films were showing in Germany in the ’50s? Why did the New German Cinema need to come along and shake things up?

VS: Well, certainly the feeling that there had been nothing was my feeling, but it was probably very subjective, because, in the late ’40s, in the early ’50s, again and again there had been people trying to renew somehow world cinema—let’s put it as simple as that—but they failed. They were rejected by what was then a flourishing industry. This was before television, you know. Movies had millions of spectators.

And there were no German films except The Bridge, by Bernhard Wicki, we could relate to. And on the other hand, there were the French and the American movies. My revelation to become a filmmaker, among others, was On the Waterfront. Even right now, I’m reading the letters of Elia Kazan, so as a role model, he’s still looming there, much more than the French directors, certainly more than the French directors I worked with. But also, we had seen in Germany the French movies before the nouvelle vague, their film noir, like the Rififi series or Casque d’or. So we had a complex of deficiency.

We knew everybody—not to mention the Italian films—so we knew all that and we were wondering, with what you might call hurt pride, why no one was doing this here. Are we incapable of this, or is our culture really dead? The exodus of the Fritz Langs and Billy Wilders and so on, did it really finish off Germany filmmaking once and forever? So it was a challenge on our side, I must say almost a patriotic challenge, to say, “Yes, we can.”

PB: Sometimes we talk about things as movements that just happen to be coincidences of effort, people doing things at the same time, and sometimes we see really coordinated movements. When we think of New German Cinema, we might think of the Oberhausen Manifesto, which makes it feel very much like a real movement. And on the other hand, your work seems fundamentally independent and not part of any specific ideologically or even aesthetically guided mission. To what degree did you have a feeling that, with Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders and Fassbinder and the others, you were really forging a new movement?

VS: Well, Peter, it came out sort of in one season. And not the year of the manifesto [1962]. It was really in the summer of ’65, when all of a sudden there were these filmmakers who had written this manifesto, like Alexander Kluge and Ulrich Schamoni. And filmmakers who were absolutely total autodidacts, like Werner Herzog, who just bought a camera and started filming without ever asking anybody anything.

And the third current was myself, coming from Paris, having had extremely intensive training for five years—sort of the professional one. And these three currents merged in the same summer, with our first pictures coming out, and it was obvious—I mean, we didn’t know each other before, we knew each other through these first films, or let’s say during the prepping of the movies—but it was obvious that we were a movement, whether we wanted it or not, different as we were. An intellectual like Alexander Kluge, or Werner in his own way, then me, and when later Wim and Fassbinder joined, again, they joined this group in a very coherent way. I mean, it was a very open group. It was not sectarian. We were still, including Fassbinder and Wenders and a few others, not much more than a dozen. And for years, we considered ourselves as a solidarity, a community.

PB: Let’s now touch on what was the breakthrough film for New German Cinema, into the mainstream, or at least that’s the way I remember it: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [1975].

VS: Yes, and not only for myself. One reviewer wrote at the time that this was the breakthrough, and he didn’t mean the breakthrough of Volker Schlöndorff the filmmaker, but the breakthrough of German filmmaking, of our New German Cinema. I mean, so far, we had more or less honest results in art-house theaters, and this was the first movie that really got through to the major audience. And maybe not even for its cinematic merits, I’d say. It was because it became the expression of the credo of a whole generation, toward what had become of ’68, of what had become of the student movement, the relation between violence and protest, around the Baader-Meinhof Group, of course.

And this somehow was the merit of the movie, that it seemed to find common ground for lots of people where you would not have expected that an audience would go for that, would be politically so engaged. That was the real surprise.

PB: Well, first of all, it’s an amazing film, just as a piece of moviegoing. I think it appeals first because it works so well as a film. But I think it also has a really timeless way of capturing an anxiety that we all should feel about state power, and our distrust of the way it’s used. And how fragile our situation is.

VS: That’s exactly what was the big surprise. You know, Margarethe was codirector on the film, so we toured the world with it later on, and we were surprised—whether it was in Quebec, where there was a lot of unrest and student revolt at the time, or in Argentina or even in Russia—that people thought the movie was made about their situation.

That was especially striking in Russia but, of course, comprehensible, because she’s fighting a bureaucracy, she’s fighting a police machine that controls in the name of state everything. So you’re absolutely right. This was Berkeley, this was Chicago. It was everywhere at the time.

PB: From Katharina Blum through The Tin Drum [1979] in many ways must have been a very heavy period of your career. Let’s talk about bringing The Tin Drum to the screen. That adaptation by itself requires so many decisions to be made. The book is so huge, and Günter Grass, the author, unlike Bertolt Brecht, is there.

VS: I was at first intimidated by him, but somehow I liked the challenge, and to this day, by the way, we remain friends. What’s so interesting is I didn’t want to make this movie. I thought it was a huge challenge whether one could make a movie at all about it, but that certainly it wouldn’t be me. I thought it needed more anarchy or somehow a different type of director. I don’t know, Polanski would have come to mind.

So sometimes when you feel that a thing can’t be done or it’s not for you, you put more rigor into making it than in certain pieces where you’re passionately convinced that this is going to be the one and only, and then you get self-indulgent and the results will punish you terribly.

I think at the beginning of The Tin Drum, I was really looking around for advice. I asked Günter Grass how he came to write it. It was a very interesting process. I asked Jean-Claude Carrière [who worked with Schlöndorff on the script] a lot about his early work with Tati, as well as with Buñuel. And so the gestation took at least a year before we actually started writing. I was extremely insecure, and that’s the way it goes. Sometimes it’s when you’re really challenged that the best in you comes out.

PB: The Tin Drum would certainly go in the category of books that some people would say were unfilmable, too big. And then you turn around, not so long later, and take on Swann in Love [1984]—again, not what most people would say was an easy rendering to the screen.

VS: The difference was, at the beginning I didn’t really like Günter Grass’s literature or his novels. Ever since I came to France at age sixteen, I was in love with everything Proust ever wrote. So The Tin Drum had somehow been imposed upon me by my German heritage. Swann was really a labor of love for me.

PB: Later, when you were working in New York, was that a significantly different experience or was it just a change of language, a change of scenery, but the same independent filmmaking that you were always doing?

VS: Well, funny enough, I felt like I was coming home. Meaning, before coming to France, I fed on American films and on American culture, and I grew up in the heart of the American zone of Germany, which was Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and so on. There were more American men, certainly, than Germans around us. I was totally Americanized, between age six and twelve, including by Mark Twain and later Hemingway and Faulkner. We lived in a little American suburb, with the families of the officers who came to Germany, and by some geographical accident, I was right in the middle of all that. So in that sense, coming to New York was like I finally got to the place where it all started.

And right for the first film, Death of a Salesman [1985], Michael Ballhaus was there, so we knew how we were going to shape our crew. Our producers were Arthur Miller and Dustin Hoffman, and they let us be, because they had the feeling we knew how to do it. And even in the later films, you felt that this independent film scene in New York was very much shaped on what the French nouvelle vague, what the European films since the early ’60s, had imported. So I had absolutely no problem whatsoever.

PB: What possessed you to sit down with Billy Wilder [for the 1988 conversations that became Billy, How Did You Do It?]?

VS: It was really part of this invitation to do Death of a Salesman, and I felt so much at ease, bathing in American culture and to be in New York. I would never have gone back to Germany if it hadn’t been for the fall of the Wall, five years later.

I was curious, of course, to see how others had done it before me. How the immigrants had done it. And Billy Wilder, who was a fan of Katharina Blum, wrote me a letter at the time. We became friends. And I was above all curious to know how, while still being such a European, he could be such a totally American filmmaker, how he could achieve that incredible feat.

PB: But you did end up going back, after the fall of the Wall . . .

VS: Yes. I’m not a religious person, but I felt like it was a calling. What are you doing here? You should be in Berlin. So that’s what I did, and I never regretted it. These last twenty years were very fascinating, to see how things change.

I came back to make movies, because I thought these two societies coming together, with such opposite departures, could only produce very, very good stories. I had not foreseen that I would get involved with the studio where Wilder and Fritz Lang and others had worked, that I would end up spending seven or eight years running a studio. But that was part of the reunification. It was part of what was happening in Berlin.

PB: If we look back over the last ten years and compare it to when you started out, what’s changed in you as a filmmaker? And what’s changed, as you look around, in the industry itself?

VS: Well, certainly the industry changed totally. I didn’t change too much, let’s put it that way. What became more important is the work with the actors, because we are so freed through digital technology. As a director, you don’t have to get involved a lot with the pure technical craft, which used to be a good part of our job. So you can spend so much more time with the actors and focus on just that.

I feel the progress also as a liberation. It is much easier to work in a free and even improvising way than it ever was before. You can catch the moment better, and even in the editing, to finally have overcome all the old syntax and grammar of filmmaking. Because now, in a sense, everything goes, but at the same time, the storyline becomes so much more important because the only way to hook people is through a story and characters—which has been true forever. So that didn’t change.

The industry, the way producers and people come together, has certainly changed a lot. It has exploded into millions or thousands of participants, whereas it used to be, as I said, we were a dozen when we started. In all of France, I don’t know, there were maybe a dozen producers. You knew them. You’d say this project might be for him and that other for somebody else. In the late ’60s, early ’70s, you could still have the feeling that you knew every movie made in the world in the last ten or twenty years. This is lost. We’re in an atomized universe, so I suppose young filmmakers are much more lost than we used to be.

PB: It’s very exciting to have a new film from you here, especially one that’s been so anticipated. If you were introducing Diplomacy to an audience, what would you say, in your few words?

VS: Well, I’d say this is about the power of the word and of convincing somebody to do the right thing. It’s literally the title; it’s about diplomacy. It’s not about Germans and French, or a German general. It’s not even about morals—should we destroy a city or not? It literally is what the conviction of one man, through talking and through tricking and through lying and through being honest and everything combined, can achieve, and that there could be words to finish wars. That is really what I’m passionate about in this film, and, of course, on the side to celebrate Paris, which for me was not difficult.

The dedication of the movie at the end to Richard Holbrook is not just a gesture. That is the whole deeper meaning, that wherever you look in the world, you have a feeling that most conflicts are totally stupid and unnecessary. They’re not even about territorial conquests. It’s all about things that people have in their minds, the idea of an enemy, the way to fight them. And so, words . . . I think words can change reality.