Of all the most famous names to emerge from the period known as New German Cinema, Volker Schlöndorff might be the one whose style is hardest to pin down. Werner Herzog gives us sympathetic portrayals of extreme outsiders and Wim Wenders delivers genre films in his esoteric, spare style, but Volker Schlöndorff’s films aren’t as immediately recognizable to the naked eye.
Born in Wiesbaden, Germany to a physician father, he was moved to Paris as a teenager by his father’s work, where he later won scholastic awards for his studies in philosophy and eventually graduated from the Sorbonne with a degree in political science. His film career was the result of his studies at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques, where he made friends with Bertrand Tavernier and Louis Malle and got his first gigs as the latter’s assistant on Zazie Dans Le Metro and Le Feu Follet, but it’s the early part of his schooling that is key to understanding the films he eventually made as director. Beginning with his feature debut Young Törless, Schlöndorff showed his interest in examining the gray area of morality, and this would be the one element binding together the rest of his nationally, thematically and stylistically varied and diverse oeuvre: “The style is in the approach to the human being,” he says of himself, noting that his friends have told him that they recognize his films within minutes and suggesting that this is the reason.
Volker Schlöndorff had his first major financial hit with the dramatic thriller The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which he co-directed with then-wife Margarethe von Trotta before she went on to her own successful career as filmmaker (they divorced in 1991). His career high point was his adaptation of The Tin Drum, which triumphed at Cannes and the Academy Awards but he continued to make his mark on culture well after, directing the first screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the early nineties (and, in my opinion, doing a better job than the gloomy television adaptation) and working as recently as the 2017 film Return to Montauk.
The Criterion Channel has put together a collection of ten works (thirteen if you’re in the States) by this austere and challenging filmmaker and the films that represent his endless voyage into the impossibility of easily categorizing right and wrong. Here are the films of Volker Schlöndorff in my preferred order:
The Tin Drum (1979)
After a series of movies contemplating the nature of good and evil, likely inspired by having grown up German with the legacy of the Second World War, Volker Schlöndorff deals with his native land during that specific period head-on in this celebrated adaptation of the novel by Gunter Grass. Oskar (David Bennent) is born into a world of bickering adults and believes there’s no point in joining them, choosing to stay three years old and expressing his emotional outrages by pounding on his toy drum and breaking glass with his shrieking voice. As Germany gives over to Nazism, his tin drum becomes more obvious as the inarticulate symbol of protest that goes unheeded. Vivid and expressive in a way that is not typical for Schlöndorff, for some it might come across as a mannered and overly allegorical, a thinking man’s Jojo Rabbit if you will, but it passes by quickly (even at the extended length of the director’s cut now on Criterion) and features outstanding performances.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta, 1975)
Volker Schlöndorff teams up with his then-wife Margarethe von Trotta to create an excoriating exposé of faulty journalistic practices in modern-day Germany. Angela Winkler plays the title character, a charwoman who takes handsome Jürgen Prochnow home from a party and the next day finds herself the target of a police investigation. Her one night stand is a known anarchist who has been targeted by authorities for some time and her involvement with him now makes her an accomplice. As the police do their work sloppily, an ambitious reporter for the Zeitung does even worse, breaking ethical laws and inventing anything provocative to sell a headline and, in the process, destroying a woman’s life. Schlöndorff’s fascination with moral gray areas somehow works well with von Trotta’s love for a juicy dramatic plot and what they come up with is shamelessly manipulative but wholly engrossing.
Schlöndorff followed the visually austere Handmaid’s Tale with a bright and beautiful film that takes an American engineer (Sam Shepard) all over the world in the late fifties. After coincidentally running into the brother of an old friend on a flight that crash-lands in the Mexican desert, Shepard boards a ship to France to attend a work conference and, on it, meets a beautiful young woman (Julie Delpy) with whom he begins a passionate affair. They drive through the European countryside, first to Italy and then to Greece on the way to meet her mother, but as truths about her are revealed, the walls close in on our protagonist with a sense of inescapable fate that he should have noticed was being set up from the beginning. The film plays in a minor key the entire time: it’s neither exciting nor unforgettable, but the acting is superb and the scenery provides as vital a character as the human figures do.
Swann in Love (1984)
Volker Schlöndorff’s most beautiful film, adapted from the first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Jeremy Irons is the ideal flaneur of the title who risks the respectability of his position in society by obsessing over a charismatic courtesan (Ornella Muti) with whom he has already broken. Still consumed by his passion for her, Irons pursues Muti through a series of social occasions, interrogating her friends about her past affairs before finding himself pounding at her door in the middle of the night to gain one more access to her bedchamber. Sumptuously produced and design, the ornate sets and costumes recall the beauty of Visconti, while Schlöndorff presents this sexy love story with enough cool irony and restraint that when he does indulge in a very erotic under-the-covers scene, it’s up there with the hottest you’ve ever seen. Gemlike supporting performances add the perfect finishing touch, particularly Fanny Ardant and Marie-Christine Barrault, and Alain Delon has a whooping good time as the eccentric count and best friend to Swann who loses his heart to all the world’s prettiest boys.
Young Törless (1966)
Schlöndorff’s debut feature is a smart, contemplative Zero for Conduct set at an Austrian boys school at the turn of the century. Basini steals money from Beineberg and is caught, leading the robbery victim and his two friends Törless and Reiting to decide his punishment. Törless believes he should be reported to the school authority and expelled, but the others decide they’d rather keep it a secret and have a hold over the thief. Törless thinks is a good idea until he realizes that his two friends aren’t punishing Basini for his crime, they’re running away with the opportunity to have power over another human being, and it sets his mind thinking about good and evil and the practical value of education. Expertly shot and beautifully scripted, you’d never know this was anyone’s first time at bat considering the depth of performances he gets from the youngsters and the lack of conventionality in the story’s outcome.
Death of a Salesman (1985)
The 1984 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is filmed for television with most of the play’s cast members reprising their roles, headed up by Dustin Hoffman in the lead. Willy Loman is entering his sixties after decades of work, finding that as he reaches for the rewards promised by the American Dream there is nothing but disappointment and disillusionment left for him. His sons, one a former football star (John Malkovich) who is now without a purpose in life, and his other (Stephen Lang) a hedonistic womanizer, make Loman feel even more meaningless because their idea of success has nothing to do with his, while his wife (Kate Reid) makes it her mission to find dignity in whatever is left of her worn out husband. Current conversations about capitalism only offering the short end of the stick to most Americans can find a good deal to relate to in Miller’s criticism of post-war prosperity, which Volker Schlöndorff takes beyond the specific geographic setting by placing the action on intentionally artificial sets that reflect the character’s mentally fragile state. How Hoffman’s performance works for you depends on whether or not you’re already into his brand of scenery chewing. For some, the blustery energy is a powerhouse excitement; for others, the overdone makeup, theatrical gestures and scene-stealing facial expressions will add up to a collection of mannerisms and little else (his co-star Kathryn Rossetter, who plays the “Woman from Boston”, is one of the women who accused Hoffman of sexual misconduct committed during the initial theatrical engagement). The film, however, wisely sticks to the script and Schlöndorff does not get in the way of highlighting how effective Miller was at respecting the pain and anguish of the cycles of life, while remaining true to his political principles.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian nightmare, about a world in which the control of women’s bodies has turned a country into a fascist police state (inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution), is popular in high school because its allegory doesn’t exactly need a mature, nuanced mind to deconstruct it. Harold Pinter’s screenplay adaptation is structured superbly and features great dialogue but it’s as cold as Atwood is obvious, the film has drama but lacks insight and falls back on the age old stereotype of love as the human force that overcomes all political will (in this regard it’s basically a feminist retelling of Brazil). What it has over the later television adaptation, however, is that Schlöndorff convincingly creates a world that looks very normal but whose activity is not, making grocery shopping look innocuous in a world where women are forced to procreate while lying in Faye Dunaway’s panty-hosed lap (terrifying). Taking his lead from the bright energy of the late, great Natasha Richardson in the title role, Schlöndorff emphasizes bravery and humour in the characters rather than the plodding grimness that the show overindulges in later on; having Victoria Tennant play Aunt Lydia as a wolf in sheep’s clothing is a much more accurate depiction of the package that conservative nightmares come in than the show’s turning Ann Dowd into Kathy Bates in Misery.
The Ogre (1996)
Volker Schlöndorff reunites with Tin Drum screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière for another eccentric and devastating look at the Second World War. John Malkovich plays the naive giant who survives a brutal childhood in Catholic school and grows up with a particular love of protecting children from harm. When he is accused of molestation by a vengeful little girl, his prison sentence is pre-empted by his being sent into battle with the French army, where he is quickly captured by the Germans and put in a POW camp. From there he is sent to work at the castle of a German count (Armin Mueller-Stahl and his beautiful blaue augen) where scores of youngsters are being prepared for battle as Hitler Youth; in taking on their care, Malkovich inadvertently takes part in the destruction of the children he is so bent on protecting. Richly photographed and featuring a surprisingly soft and delicate performance by the usually overripe Malkovich, this film starts out much stronger than it ends, getting quite messy in its plotting by the end, but has imagery that is haunting.
Coup de Grace (1976)
German Freikorps soldiers fighting in the Russian civil war are stationed at a Latvian chateau in a barren landscape, the house run by a young countess (co-writer Margarethe von Trotta) and her eccentric aunt (1920s cabaret curiosity Valeska Gert). Von Trotta’s soldier brother is among the men operating out of her house, as is his handsome best mate Matthias Habich, with whom the countess is in love and who she pursues openly and without shame. She is summarily rejected, and it pushes her in a direction that has Schlöndorff, ever the pragmatist who plays his love stories out under the most reserved circumstances possible, wondering if what we call our politics are the result of our intellectual consideration or simply our indulging our own insecurities. Starkly photographed and devoid of any emotional resonance, this is an interesting if not unforgettable experience.
An experimental curiosity made for television in which Volker Schlöndorff adapts Bertolt Brecht’s first play, originally produced in 1923, about a poet raging against the world around him by drinking too much, mistreating women (among them von Trotta) and sparring with men both friend and foe alike. The conceit is that the script is more less adapted exactly from the play but filmed in a modern setting using bare bones lighting and a free, cinéma vérité style of camera movement. Rainer Werner Fassbinder is, unsurprisingly, an ideal choice for the role, as able to grime his way through the disjointed scenes with cigarette in one hand and booze in the other while constantly, expertly reciting the superb verse. For all that it’s done well and with great skill, however, it’s not exactly interesting, and it’s doubtful that it will have much appeal beyond those already primed to love the author or artists involved.