I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Volker Schlondorff has spent a large amount of his lifetime trying to forget that he is German, something he considered a rather embarrassing congenital defect. As a young man he loved American music and felt most comfortable at the American Institute in his hometown of Wiesbaden, escaping the conservative atmosphere of the Adenauer era and thinking about becoming an artist or at least joining a circus. From the Jesuit boarding school in Brittany, where his parents had sent him instead, he emerged as a “traditional European rationalist” as well as a “cinephile,” according to his own description. For 10 years he tried to adopt a French identity, working as an assistant to Malle, Melville, and Resnais and watching three films a day at the Cinematheque in Paris, the place he then thought of as the capital of the world. He remembers, however, that “against my will I realized that I was not French and that it was ridiculous to try to be a German filmmaker in France.” He returned to the unloved country of his birth in the mid- ‘60s to make his first own movie, Young Torless , based on the Robert Musil novella. Since then Schlondorff, who for the past five years has chosen New York as his place of residence, has done many adaptations from literature: Marcel Proust’s Swann in Love , Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman , Heinrich von Kelist’s Michael Kohlhaas , for example, and his most famous film, The Tin Drum , after the Gunter Grass novel. “I have always used literature as a source of information and inspiration,” the 51-year-old director explains his passion for an art form he admires as more “noble” than his own medium. Currently, he is showing The Handmaid’s Tale in the United States, a film based on Margaret Atwood’s vision of a totalitarian republic called Giliad, starring Faye Dunaway, Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall. At the same time, Schlondorff is filming Max Frisch’s postwar novel Homo Faber —with Sam Shepard as the main character—at locations in North America, Mexico, and Europe.
Claudia Steinberg Maybe you can talk about your current project, Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, which you are going to shoot in New York and where else?
Volker Schlondorff The novel starts in Central America and then the hero goes on a boat trip to Europe and then he travels from Paris to Athens, crisscrossing Europe, we just follow his travels. It’s a real road movie, which is a nightmare for every production manager who has to book all the flights and hotel rooms and see that everybody is there all the time. Half the budget goes into the traveling expenses. Our main actor, Sam Shepard, doesn’t fly, we have to drive him everywhere. Right now he is on a train from his hometown, Charlottesville, Virginia, to Los Angeles. He’ll get there in two days, then we’ll shoot there for a few days and then it will take him almost a week to go to Mexico and from there he’ll drive to New York, which will take him, we hope, about six days.
CS You did know about that beforehand, didn’t you?
VS Yes, I did, but I took him anyhow, because I thought he was the right choice for the part and it gives me a little time to breathe in between the different sections.
CS Sam Shepard will take the boat to Europe?
VS There are no boats anymore, just one freight liner every week, but it takes two weeks to cross the Atlantic. On the other hand, he wanted the part so badly that he agreed to take the Concorde from New York to Paris. It’s not that he is afraid of flying, he is afraid of being locked into a machine for hours on end. I’m just the opposite. At least once a month I go back and forth from Europe to America, that’s what I have done for the last five years and jetlag is my permanent condition. I do have the highest esteem for someone, however, who says, “I have the same number of years to live as you do but I’ll take my time moving from one place to another.” I think he is working in-between, especially when he is on a train, he can write well.
CS How does it feel to work with Shepard, an actor who is also a serious writer?
VS It is very comforting to have him on the set. I wrote the screenplay myself with Rudi Wurlizer, adapting it from the novel, but in English, a language that is not my own. So to have a writer there, who does not respond as an actor to the material but as a writer is quite reassuring.
CS Would you allow him to make any changes?
VS I trust his instincts, but you don’t change on the set, because you’re just too busy making your movie. But in the weeks of preparations and rehearsals he did not actually rewrite any of the dialogue. He pointed to areas that he thought were strong… he stimulated us.
CS Max Frisch, the author of Homo Faber, wanted you as a director for his book?
VS He had been selling the rights to this book for 25 years, so it was always being optioned by someone and I think he kind of gave up on it. It was a very contemporary novel when it first appeared in 1957 and now it is like a period piece. You have to have the right cars and the right costumes. It might as well be a film playing in the 1900s. We went to Italy, to France, and we will have to change every street, every piece of writing on the wall, every neon sign, and the furnishings in the restaurants.
CS Is Homo Faber also done by an American producer?
VS No, it’s strictly a European production, a French/German co-production.
CS Did Max Frisch have any input as far as the screenplay is concerned?
VS He is a very demanding writer and wouldn’t give the rights without regards to the screenplay. But I always love to consult with the writer anyway.
CS You’ve worked with Gunter Grass, Heinrich Boll…. how was it to work with Margaret Atwood?
VS The Handmaid’s Tale was very demanding on the screenplay level, which was written by Pinter. She had been through most of the discussions. In our meetings she didn’t rewrite the screenplay but gave me additional focus. When it came to the shooting, she didn’t interfere at all. She didn’t even want to see the dailies. Instead she waited to see the finished film with an audience at the Berlin Festival. Pinter, on the other hand, came to the cutting room in Munich to see every new editing of the movie and we discussed it, changed the scenes around… Pinter is very much a craftsman, coming from the stage, and I guess this is also the way he worked with Joseph Losey. He directed a few movies himself for British television.
CS Did you know the novel before the screenplay was presented to you?
VS I had it on my night table for two years but I somehow never opened the book. So I read the screenplay first and was very intrigued because I understood only half of it: Pinter’s writing is very minimal and radical, so I wanted to find out where all this came from and I read the novel and it got even stranger, because Pinter had brought it to a certain normality, almost, while in the novel there is this stream of consciousness and it has very disturbing and embarrassing associations.
CS Which scenes would you refer to as being disturbing?
VS The Handmaid’s Tale is about a heroine who reflects a lot about her own passivity, wondering how she can be so weak and so submissive, and how she can put up with so much humiliation. There seems to be almost a vicious pleasure on Margaret Atwood’s side to see what next torture she can inflict upon her and what even worse thing could happen to her. The other side is that she always saves herself by remembering her past, the arguments she had with her mother and her girlfriends, which are all things that are not in the movie, so the question was: how can you still have a character that holds up without resorting to all that stream of consciousness? I had to adapt from Margaret Atwood’s novel, but also from Harold Pinter’s screenplay, both of them very distinctive, finished pieces. I never felt that the Pinter screenplay could just be shot page by page. It was very much like walking on a tightrope with two weights on either side, Atwood and Pinter. The Handmaid’s Tale is a book about ambiguity and everything on screen becomes factual. It’s very hard to maintain ambiguity on screen. That’s actually a quality of moviemaking, it’s like painting, you have to say, “This is the color and this is the form.”
CS Do you think this is even more extreme if you work with science fiction material?
VS I shot this film as if it were a contemporary set, and shooting it in a sort of mainstream area like North Carolina you get the feeling “this is Giliad.” I just took it for granted that this is about today and not about the future.
CS That, I guess, is one way of preserving the ambiguity… What is it that attracted you to the material?
VS The mixture of reality and fantasy, of the hilarious and the gruesome, the sarcastic tone of Pinter and that there is neither a really positive hero nor a real villain, the most sympathetic character is the villain while the so-called positive main character is not entirely sympathetic.
CS Because she is too passive?
VS She’s too passive and she’s just human. You don’t get that a lot of times; you get those super women like Sissy Spacek or Sally Fields, saving the farm from the tornado or from the bank and all on her own like a female Rambo. You hardly ever get someone who admits to his or her own weakness.
CS What I found most surprising in her behavior was that in the beginning, when she loses her child and her husband, she copes with that situation with total submissiveness, totally non-hysterically, almost with calm.
VS I think that is a very true and also European attitude. If tragedy hits you that hard you’re not going to solve anything by crying. Actually, we had one hysterical outburst in it and we finally cut it out because if you show your despair under these circumstances, then you’re done. That’s what the torturer is waiting for. When you want to survive you cannot have your emotions take over your actions. She has to submit to this monthly rape and say to herself, “There is a part of me that will survive this humiliation.” I think there lies the parallel to all the Eastern Block countries: for 40 years, the people there could never do or say what they actually felt and all of a sudden they are very strong.
CS Who came up with the costumes, did you have this vision of red and blue and so on?
VS The whole way of shaping this future society was the result of days and days of arguments with Jennifer Bartlett. This is our third collaboration, we did an opera in Paris and a play in Munich together, she was the conceptual artist on this project, and she delivered a very radical and modest contribution, because she said, “I’m not going to design anything in this movie. This all has to be taken from existing material.” She had the intelligence and modesty to say that this future society will sort of be a K-Mart society—we’ll take the costumes out of a Sears catalogue or elsewhere. All of Faye Dunaway’s and the ladies-in-blue’s costumes are just a dress we bought a hundred pieces of from a catalogue. We simply serialized what exists around us and didn’t try to make it look flashy because there is a moral attitude inherent in any design and if you design an exciting future you’ll say “It’s really exciting to live in Giliad; look at the cars they have, look at the dresses they wear,” and then you turn it into something positive when, in fact, it is just the same as any dull, grey Eastern society, except that they use American colors, red, blue, and white. I watched the television coverage of Bush’s inauguration and all the women in Washington wore blue and they all had blue hats, some more ugly than others and they all had almost identical blue coats; they were all from different designers, but if you looked at a rough pattern it was amazing how uniform it was.
CS You just got back from Germany yesterday; could you talk about your view of the situation there?
VS All these changes, of course, are so exciting, and they are only the beginning. First, the East Germans all want to have a refrigerator and a Volkswagen and sneakers, but that’s going to disappear very fast, this consumerist attitude. I believe that this whole exchange between East and Western Europe is going to give a soul to that supermarket we live in. The Economic Community so far has been really just a supermarket, but now with Central and Eastern Europe, it will become again a true culture with a lot of tensions that will challenge our attitudes. When I was in Berlin, I saw thousands of people coming over on the weekend, and they were actually watching us with the question “Who are you?” It’s the same when you go over there—first, all you saw were the decaying buildings and the grayness of it all and now you’re getting interested in the people. You ask yourself, “How did they survive for 40 years?” All of a sudden they are like diamonds with more strength than anybody else. A year ago we would have said they’re all like grey mice: completely adapted and uniform.
CS Has the “soul” surfaced yet?
VS If you travel in Eastern countries you know that you don’t get away with formality. In France, an exchange is just politeness and that’s it—you move to Central and Eastern Europe, people want to know more than your facade, they want to dig into you. I hope they are going to breakup some of our rather boring behavior. Western Europe has turned into a very well-kept museum by now, everything being so orderly. Don’t touch any object, don’t move its place. I think now everything is going to move and be moved and turned upside down. As long as there were only a million or half a million or a few hundred thousand coming over every year, they could be absorbed, they could get lost, but now I think it will be all different. It feels like getting a second chance. In the ‘50s, West Germany was rebuilt under Adenauer to be a very conformist, “Restoration” society, and now you get the same chance to rebuild the other half of the country and I think they have a lot of values there which they don’t want to give up; they have not waited for 40 years to sell out now at a discount price. They’ve been through too much. I think it’s a great opportunity.
CS As far as history is concerned, East Germany dealt quite differently with the past.
VS They are the only ones who did the de-Nazification. In West Germany every judge, every doctor, every bureaucrat who had ever been employed with the Nazis took his job just where he left it, while in the East they radically eliminated all these people from their jobs. Also, they were the ones who had to pay the reparation to the Russians while we took the dollars from the Marshall Plan. That’s why they are so radical, they say “We didn’t go through all this to now find ourselves just with Deutsch marks and big cars.” They have a much more ethical attitude about life and what they expect from governments. Especially since they have been through such a corrupt government, they are much more demanding. The next thing I believe they’ll do is question our institutions, they’ll question our politicians. I don’t think they’re cynical yet.
CS I’m wondering whether the East German postwar generation had to cope with the same type of guilt feelings that we grew up with in West Germany?
VS They had to work off their guilt. They had to take in thousands of students from Africa and other places. They have been the main supporters of the Palestinians.
CS Have you been in contact with artists and filmmakers from the East?
VS I’ve always known writers and movie directors from East Germany. The filmmakers are most concerned now that they will be out of a job. The same goes for Polish and Czech filmmaking, which was state funded and the audience didn’t have a choice but to go and see those movies. Now, with the borders opening, the major Western companies will move in and all they’ll have will be Batmanand Star Wars and it will kill all the national film industries, because if they have to live on the market they will never make it. The filmmakers will be glad to have a commercial done from time to time in the West so they will be able to pay their rent. But I’m confident that they will fight for, I wouldn’t say the privilege, but the right to do art. Even though they produced an official art most of the time, it was at least still granted to them. As filmmakers they were on a yearly payroll the same way as in the West the theater people are. All this will disappear.
CS In the ’60s you returned from Paris, where you had worked for several years, to Germany, because you then decided that you should make films in your own country, to deal with your own culture. What made you leave again and move to New York?
VS Change in life; if I were an American I would go to Europe. It’s been exactly 25 years since I made my first movie and I made all of them sort of consciously German movies, European movies, while otherwise being interested in what was going on elsewhere. When I came to New York for the Death of a Salesman, which was supposed to be only for a short work period, I found this society so much more alive, so temporary and so unfinished as opposed to this museum I was talking about that I thought I’d stay. To the industry here I was a total unknown and it’s great to start all over again.
CS So for the last five years you have been working exclusively in the United States?
VS Yes, I have been working mostly on what you call development projects. How most directors live in this country is by developing ten projects for one that is actually being done. You get handsomely paid, but that’s it and that can be pretty frustrating. In the meantime, I have done some projects for television, but the real ones are all on the shelf and I hope some of them will be done eventually. I’ve mostly been trying to penetrate the country, doing my homework sort of from within‚ you may also call it “living.”
CS How far did you get into these unrealized projects?
VS Until about the sixth draft of the screenplay, sometimes to the location scout. One was canceled four weeks before we started shooting, others are killed when you turn in the first draft of the screenplay.
CS You seem so content about this.
VS I don’t need to see my movies necessarily on the screen, because I realize that nobody even remembers some of my earlier, better movies, so I feel there is really not so much of a difference between a movie you actually did and one that you only imagined. As long as I can work on a piece I’m content. It’s a very perishable thing, a movie, so I’m not working for posterity.
—Claudia Steinberg is a screenwriter and journalist living in New York, who writes for such German publications as Die Zeit, Viva, and Pan.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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