Filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, whose new movie, the subtitled Diplomacy, opened today in New York City (opening at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on November 7), studied economics and political science at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographique (IDHEC) in Paris, the setting of his fictional Diplomacy, which we recently discussed. Diplomacy concerns two men, a Swedish diplomat and a Nazi commander in Paris during the fascist occupation of France, in a tense conflict over the final Nazi command to totally annihilate Paris as American troops came to liberate the city of lights.
Schlöndorff worked as an assistant director with Louis Malle (Viva Maria!) and directed operas in Germany and Paris and a controversial, Oscar-winning surrealistic adaptation of the Gunter Grass novel The Tin Drum (1979). This is an edited transcript.
Scott Holleran: Does Diplomacy, based on a stage play, humanize and thus legitimize the Nazi regime?
Volker Schlöndorff: Oh, no. I hope not. I don’t feel sympathy or compassion for the conflict of the [Nazi] general. He was looking for and he got [what he gets]. I added a lot more to the play in that sense. I had access to [the history of] what he did in Poland and the partaking in execution of Jews, so I wanted him to be as much a villain as possible because of the dynamics of the drama. He has to be unflinching. He has to do what he is told to do, namely destroy Paris. At the end, the consul has to somehow break this armor and get through to the human being which exists in every human being but that does not humanize the Nazi regime to me. He is not even a Nazi he’s more of a military man—he’s a [character] construct—a military man used to obeying orders.
Scott Holleran: Had you seen the play on stage?
Volker Schlöndorff: No, I did not, I must say fortunately. I was just doing another World War 2 film in Paris for French television while the play was on but I never had time to make it. Two years later, the offer [to adapt the play for film] came to me, which I was grateful for. So I was free to imagine it in my mind. I wanted to make this [movie] very intimate, not stagy at all. I never saw the play, so I have no idea how they did it on stage.
Scott Holleran: Did you read the play?
Volker Schlöndorff: Yes, of course.
Scott Holleran: Did playwright Cyril Gely drive the script?
Volker Schlöndorff: I did. I submitted it to him and he reacted to my first draft. I had taken off quite a bit, maybe too much, but I had also edited it and did quite a bit of research so a lot of stuff became much more realistic. It still is, of course, fiction. This negotiation never took place in this way. However, if they had met, I think this would have been the conversation and I think this must have been going on in the mind of the general.
Scott Holleran: Is the Swedish diplomat character, Raoul Nordling, neutral?
Volker Schlöndorff: Not at all. Sweden was neutral. But he was not acting on behalf of his government. He wanted to save Paris, he wanted to save the people and he was passionate. The two of them had a number of encounters and, when you read their memoirs, the [Nazi] general is very self-serving and the [Swedish] consul explains his lifelong attachment to Paris. With the general, what comes across is that he’s a military man devoid of any imagination and humanity. With him, it’s more of a dogmatic sense of honor—you feel that his only dilemma was how he saves his honor—and whether destroying Paris would forever destroy the honor of his family.
Scott Holleran: Duty to the state is among the Nazi’s most closely held ideas. Why?
Volker Schlöndorff: The most terrible things happen when people follow duty to the state. Following one’s individual conscience is more important—you have to take orders from yourself, not just take orders you’ve been given—and it’s not always easy to achieve that. To really examine yourself—and, then, to have the strength to disobey—is difficult.
Scott Holleran: —Like Edward Snowden—?
Volker Schlöndorff: —Absolutely, though I’m not that familiar with his case. But I think he must have had that double dilemma and faced the difficulties. He must have found the strength.
Scott Holleran: What’s your most influential film?
Volker Schlöndorff: My own or films by others?
Scott Holleran: Both.
Volker Schlöndorff: The easy answer is [Elia Kazan’s] On the Waterfront. I was a boy of 15 or 16 years old [when I saw it] and I was very upset. The movie always stayed with me at difficult moments and periods of my life. I know it’s a bit silly but I don’t care. I can commit to that. It’s hard to say which of mine are most influential. I know that The Tin Drum (1979) is important to people in their imaginations and feelings. The Last Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) had a huge impact but I don’t think that the influence of movies can be measured in immediate terms. It’s more that every one of us has his own attitude but needs nourishment and encouragement to persevere—and that’s where movies come in. They are the food for our souls, though they don’t change our minds.
Scott Holleran: Did controversy help or hurt The Tin Drum’s reputation?
Volker Schlöndorff: It helps. Controversy is always good. A movie is made to be debated, if you have a committed and engaged audience. We often do not have enough debate and polemics. I hate when people say ‘I love your movie’ or ‘I hate your movie’ and leave it at that. I want to know why.
Scott Holleran: Do you think Gunter Grass’s later disclosure that he had worked as a youth as a Nazi SS officer hurt the perception of The Tin Drum?
Volker Schlöndorff: It hurts himself. I don’t think it hurts the novel or the movie. But his own aura was hurt tremendously. I understand him and we are friends. He says ‘I couldn’t say [I was a Nazi sooner] and if I had said it, I probably couldn’t have written The Tin Drum’ because he was trying to deal with this thing in him.
Scott Holleran: You made an American film for television, A Gathering of Old Men (1987), featuring Richard Widmark and Louis Gossett, Jr., which explores a similar theme of people’s complicity in widespread injustice, redemption and a single act of defiance against the state. How did that film shape your career?
Volker Schlöndorff: It shaped my life. I loved doing it. I discovered the South and Louisiana, made a lot of friends and adopted two children as foster kids. I took them out of public [government-controlled] schools and put them in private schools. They were from welfare mothers and they didn’t know their fathers. So, now I have family in Louisiana. Richard Widmark and I got along very well and he became a true friend.
Scott Holleran: Widmark’s character grows and comes to accept new ideas in A Gathering of Old Men. As a German, do you accept the thesis of Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg that one can hold an entire country accountable for the evil acts of its government?
Volker Schlöndorff: Absolutely. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been doing the movies I’ve been doing. Even though we were children and were not therefore responsible, [Nazi Germany] is [part of] our culture and [as Germans] we are responsible for that culture—we have to work on that because the march of [human progress] is very, very slow and none of us is on his own; we are all part of society. When I’m in the South, even though I have a lot of Cajun friends and they are a minority, I feel as though these groups in the South as a whole are responsible [for the South’s culture], not only individuals but as groups.
Scott Holleran: Coming back to Diplomacy, does diplomacy, properly understood, mean negotiating with fascist states, such as Nazi Germany or Islamic Iran?
Volker Schlöndorff: Absolutely. One should always try to negotiate. Whether in Ukraine or Syria, the military option is always the worst. The role of diplomacy is to prevent wars.
Scott Holleran: What is your favorite aspect of Paris?
Volker Schlöndorff: Under the bridges, because I’m a runner and that’s where I run. It’s where I used to sit when I was a student to do my reading. I like running on the left bank [of the Seine River] or the right bank.
Scott Holleran: Your work dramatizes the rise and fall of the totalitarian state, in The Tin Drum, its effect on the individual in The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), and, with Diplomacy, its bitter end. Why the interest in dictatorship?
Volker Schlöndorff: My birthday, 1939, the year of my birth. My strongest remembrances to this day are of the [second world] war and, then, the postwar period, which was still a continuity of the war. I didn’t ask to deal with dictatorship. I was thrown into it and, as a student in France, I was confronted with it daily for almost 10 years, being a German in France. Life dealt me with a deck of cards. I wish it had been a different deck of cards.