Volker Schlöndorff: A Citizen of the World

Volker Schlöndorff: A Citizen of the World

Volker Schlöndorff was born on March 31, 1939, in Wiesbaden. He won an Oscar as well as the Palme d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival for The Tin Drum (1979), the film version of the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass.

Renowned German filmmaker held an online workshop in the 38th FIFF.

Who Needs an Identity?

People like to mark you. For the past two years I have been working in Africa on a documentary about agriculture in dry zones and how to keep soil, trees and agriculture.

When I was in Ethiopia, people said in surprise, “You filmmakers, why did you come here to make a film about Africa?” “What is your identity?” And every time this question was asked. I asked myself, who needs an identity? I believe this is a terrible and boring topic; Identity, gender, etc. I think all this is extremely stupid. I’m talking about personal identity, cultural identity, something you acquire in life. I do not believe that people are born with an identity, but they acquire it.

Memories of Childhood

The year I was born defines my whole life. I was born in March 1939; six months before the start of World War II. I remember I had a very happy childhood. My mother was alive and she loved me.  And my father and brothers as well. I remember when I was very young we used to go to the shelter every night because we lived in a city in Germany that was bombed every night. I remember a memory very well. I was not yet five years old. My little brother and I were playing at home.

We had a multi-storey house. My father was a doctor and his office was on the ground floor. We were on the second floor. Suddenly we heard screams from the stairs. We hurried out to see what was going on. Black smoke in the air, and the only servant we had was rushing us back into the room. He locked the door from the outside.

I was constantly hammering  on the door. I later recreated this scene in The Tin Drum with the character of Little Oskar, where he hammers on the door when his mother is dying. This is exactly what happened to me. In the kitchen, my mother made wax on a stove. Suddenly the whole stove exploded in her face. She looked like a live torch. My mother got burned and died. Of course, I did not see this incident, but imagined it, as I sometimes see in children’s books. When this happened, I had a black out for a while.

Americanization of Little Volker 

The next memory I have is the American troops coming to Germany. It was March 1944. The war was not over, but the first Americans reached the region where we lived. Our house in the city had been bombed and we had been living in a wooden cabin in the woods for some time. Our servant shouts, “They are coming, they are coming.” My older brother climbed a tree to hang a white bed sheet. He wanted to signal, “We are surrendering.”

The three brothers and I were in a wooden cabin with our father when we saw a unit of US Army soldiers coming. We guys were attracted to these soldiers very soon, because they were completely different from German soldiers, who were fleeing. The Germans had lost the war and were hopeless. Suddenly, these soldiers arrived very calmly. They were chewing gums; they gave children chocolate bars and our parents food. They behaved well and did not cause any panic. For the grown-ups the world had collapsed and turned upside down. But a new world had begun for children. A number of children joined the Americans. Five or six years later, in the area where I lived, you saw more American men than German men, and we grew up with American officers and their families. We went to the boys’ club; We had music and cinema; We had a library and access to books. We started with Huckleberry Finn and reached Hemingway a few years later. So we really grew up in a small America.

My friend Richard Holbrooke once said of this period, “The Americanization of Little Volker, about which you must make a film.” Maybe he was right. I was not a real German, nor were my other friends. A number of girls married American soldiers and immigrated to the United States. They felt that there was no hope in Germany. I had a sense of a strange identity: American identity.

Where is the root of all this literary adaptation?

In those years, we thought about how we could be someone else. In thatsense, the study helped me. When I came back from school I sat down and read. I read Arthur Schopenhauer, and I read the works of Russian writers – who are very influential – as well as books by American authors. I somehow lived the characters in the book. Later I often wondered why I made so many literary adaptations. I was more affected by the bad things that happened to the protagonists than to the real people around me. Well, it was very easy to understand. It was a reaction to the loss of my mother. I did not want to suffer the death of another person. So I preferred to engage with characters in the book, characters who had no external existence, and I never lost them, and they always stayed with me. All those books are still with me. And my mother is still with me; as a guardian angel. Maybe it can be said that I have a literary relationship with her. There are two suitcases of his belongings in my house. Sometimes I hear her whisper. I have a brief conversation with her. So the real world and the literary world and somehow my inner life are just as important to me. And maybe this is the answer to the question I am always asked; why do you adapt books, and do not write the script yourself. Another aspect of the study is that there is no immediate cinema.

The Tin Drum

Tin Drum” (1979) became my brand. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscar in Hollywood. The film now looks like a brand of clothes sewn on the back of a shirt: Dior, Chanel, Gucci, and The Tin Drum. We were joking about it.

“Yeah,” said Gunter Gross. It’s the same for me. “Look, I wrote a few novels, I won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but it’s all about the Tin Drum. “It would be better to have such a label than not to have it at all,” he said.  I’m convinced that if the film has been lasting and amazing so far and has retained its novelty, it may be less about Gross and me, but almost about the protagonist: David Bennent, what an extraordinary child he was. He was ten years old when I saw him. He was 11 years old at the time of filming and turned 12 when the production finished. When he appeared in front of the camera, the scene came to life, whether it was screaming or beating the drums or talking in front of the camera, without even blinking. He was amazing. The screenplay I wrote with Jean-Claude Carrier freed me a little from the power of Gunter Gross prose. Jean-Claude soon realized this. He understood Oskar, the boy in the story very well. From birth to two decades later. Oskar gets older and goes to school, but resists physical growth. He is curious about everything. Eventually, Oskar turns 21 and decides he has to be a grown up now, and suddenly he starts to grow.

This is a story we tell, but it is in fact an arc of the Nazi era. When Oskar is born, Hitler tries to form his first group. When Oskar goes to school, on the first day of school, Hitler comes to power. It’s the first day of World War II when Oskar sees his mother‘s lover on the street. When Hitler first roams the city, Oskar is standing by the roadside. When Hitler travels to Paris with his architects to tour the city and stand on top of the Eiffel Tower, Oscar is there a few weeks later.

In fact, what we see is a narrative of the rise and fall of the Nazi regime. So the film is no longer just a story of an individual, but a story of society and an epic. At that time, due to the distribution, I had to cut 20 minutes from the movie. Years later I was allowed to add these sequences back to the film, now the film is complete.

Circle of Deceit

From the first days of filming The Tin Drum I became close friends with Gunter Gross. Grass and I travelled to India and Indonesia to promote the film. There I found out that Nicholas Nicolas Born, a friend of the Gross and a novelist I did not know, had written a novel about the war in Lebanon and a foreign journalist who had gone to the country to cover the civil war. I quickly read the book and realized that I wanted to turn it into a movie. Years earlier, in the last year of the Algerian War, I was with Louis Mall in Rabat, Algeria.

Many points in Bourne reminded me of Al Jazeera. So instead of staying in Hollywood and working after winning an Oscar, I went to Beirut, Lebanon with Bruno Ganz and Hanna Schygulla and made Circle of Deceit (1981). This movie also has no date. Making this film is one of the most amazing experiences of my life. We made the film in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. All the fighters, Phalangos and others were there, and the real fighters only allowed us to film their fights for a few hours a day. It was funny. Even though the fighters and soldiers were doing terrible things. They all wanted us to film them. Each soldier plays the role of a hero, the hero who wants to be filmed. However, we had the chance to film real events.

Working in Hollywood

After making The Ring of Deception, I thought that maybe it would be better to go to Hollywood. I was invited by Arthur Miller and Dustin Hoffman to make the TV movie Death of a Salesman (1985). So after a few decades, I returned to my American identity. It was not difficult because my younger brother lived in New York and had two children at the time. He was married there. He was a doctor like my father and all my older brothers. Everyone in my family is a doctor. So I went to New York to see them. At first, I just wanted to make Death of a Salesman, but I stayed in the United States for a few years. There I made The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), A Gathering of Old Men (1987), The Voyager (1991) and several other films. It was a sense of home for me.

Interest in actors

I love working with actors. Every time I make a film, I choose someone who has a real identity. I want the audience to sympathize with the character. Of course, not with the adapted character, but the character of the actor in that role. Young Torres stars Mathieu Carrière, The Tin Drum stars David Bennent, The Circle of Deceit stars Bruno Ganz Hanna Schygulla, and Death of a Salesman stars Dustin Hoffman and John.

Others may believe that I am an author filmmaker, but I really do not want to define myself as an author. I consider myself a director; A professional director. The old definition says that a director should only direct, but his style of filmmaking should be very personal, but in the end, you can call him an author. He is an audio-visual author. And from this perspective, the actor is very important to me. Think of all the old movies I grew up with. In High Noon, Gary Cooper is important to me, not the director. In Sabrina is Audrey Hepburn. In The Apartment are Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine.

Return to Germany

I was ready to show The Handmaid’s Tale when the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall was announced. I immediately thought to myself, “What are you doing here in New York?” “You have to be in Berlin now.” It was very unexpected. None of my contemporaries even thought that the Berlin Wall would collapse and the Soviet empire would fall. So after seven years, fully adapted to American-style filmmaking, I came back to Germany, and I still am in Germany. Here again is the question of identity. You may look different in another country, you may speak another language, and you may live in another culture, but you never lose your culture even by pretending to be in another culture.

The 2021 FIFF is underway the Iranian capital until June 2.


Copyrigh © 1982 - 2021 FIff. All rights reserved.