Interview: Volker Schlöndorff

2012-02-14-9440-2280_Volker_Schlondorff_IMG_x900Filmmaker 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.

SMV5BMTg1NDIzNTQ5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY2MTU2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_cott 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.

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Movie Review: Diplomacy

MV5BMTg1NDIzNTQ5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY2MTU2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_“Is Paris burning?” Volker Schlöndorff’s fictionalized Diplomacy, starring Niels Arestrup as Nazi general Dietrich von Choltitz and André Dussollier as Swedish consul Raoul Nordling and opening today at New York City’s Film Forum (and at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on November 7), responds to Adolf Hitler’s infamous question of his Nazi commander with surprisingly provocative answers.

The French and German-language movie (with English subtitles) opens with Beethoven’s 7th symphony amid black and white footage of Warsaw’s destruction by Germany in the summer of 1944. An old man walks the streets of Paris in the dark, suspicious of everything around him, which ought to tell the audience something important about him. Mysterious narration explains to the audience that “we were all going to die, Europe was consumed by war. The Germans planned to destroy, to raze, everything. Especially Paris.” A flame appears out of nowhere as the camera pans up past a Nazi soldier to a figure standing on a balcony overlooking Paris. He is the Nazi general, smoking a cigarette, indicating in one sweep that tonight he holds the power to ignite Paris, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and all.

After an introduction to the general and his pills, underlings and surroundings, the German answers his subordinate’s question, “what are you going to do?” with the profession of faith that led to Hitler’s Germany: “My duty.”

The general, who faces imminently approaching Allied troops, has total faith in the German state, volk and plan. After the city’s bridges, rigged with explosives, are decimated, the river Seine will be dammed and flood the city, and ruin the Louvre and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. An engineer’s description of the impending destruction goes on, the score swells, a clock ticks on a mantle and slowly, imperceptibly, the camera closes in on a mirror, where faintly one can make out the face and terrified, alert eyes of the old man.

Still just after four in the morning, an all-night confrontation between the two men unfolds at the Nazi hotel suite on Rue de Rivoli. Whether the Nazi has any independent thought and judgment and is able to see reality for what it is and whether the Swede will sanction the Nazi in some way will be resolved and this reconfiguration of history is cinematic in Volker Schlöndorff‘s hands.

The drama is deft and tightly drawn yet realistic. The interplay, as the men compare and contrast lives and values and negotiate down to the last moment as the U.S. Army tanks roll in, is involving. It’s not easy to make a movie about a moment in history as well known as this and manage to create suspense but Schlöndorff pulls it off with shadows, light and mostly the performances in faces of characters that must choose between life and death, their own and the lives of others, on a deadline that grants no mercy and demands the utmost skill. Not every line and scene rings true in Diplomacy. But the director who adapted the absurdist, surrealistic The Tin Drum focuses on what would matter most to each individual in such a negotiation. Diplomacy depicts a taut, thoughtful and extremely important encounter, sparing the West its treasures, as it might have been.


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Movie & DVD Review: The Hurt Locker

MV5BNzEwNzQ1NjczM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTk3MTE1Mg@@._V1_SX214_AL_‘War is a drug’ is the tagline for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), not an especially thought-provoking or original variation on the notion that war is hell.

But war is an intoxicating hell by most accounts and this should be re-dramatized often as the West is chronically plunged, or plundered, as the case may be, into a state of perpetual war. This perceptually-driven picture begins with a slow-motion explosion in the opening scene, which demonstrates the utter futility of an American deployment in Iraq in 2004. The movie takes place in Baghdad, a city positioned to fall into Islamic fundamentalist hands 10 years after Bush’s folly.

Time is marked by the bomb squad soldiers, or sacrificial animals, by days left in rotation. A crippled cat hobbles across the street as the viewer experiences immersion in a sensory perceptual experience of the American soldier deployed in Iraq. The viewer’s sense is a feeling of what it’s like to be in a constant state of half-paralysis for a mission to die for the sake of helping others. It is a feeling, however, not an examination of a failed war which advanced enemy aims in the aftermath of the 2001 Islamist act of war on America.

The Hurt Locker is agnostic about the long war in Iraq, which sacrificed thousands of Americans and created further chaos and confusion in the Middle East. The movie shows what it looks and feels like to lock and unlock pain in a state of chronic non-combat with unbearable tension. By slowly following the soldier’s aimless thoughts and steps, complete with tedium, the movie reduces the U.S. soldier’s deployment in today’s politically correct field operations to its mental essence: crazymaking.

For instance, the first scenes culminate in a sniper attack in more slow motion. Picture spent shells, flies on eyelashes, flies on faces and Iraqi desert dust devils. After the attack subsides, soldier Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) asks soldier Will (Jeremy Renner), upon finding a photograph of his son: “You married?”

Stoic Will has an answer and it defines the film’s thesis that blood is the only thing worth fighting for. “Well, you know, I had a girlfriend,” he tells soldier Sanborn. “She got pregnant. So we got married. Then we got divorced. But she still lives with me and she says we’re still together, so I don’t know. What does that make her? I don’t know.” Confusion and chaos on the outside stir confusion and chaos on the inside. Soon, Sanborn, who confesses that he’s not ready to have a child, bonds with Will. After they tussle, Sanborn asks Will if he thinks he’s ready to put on the bomb suit. A softer soldier (Brian Geraghty) is part of the team, making it three. The dynamic is set.

Then, it’s 16 days later in their rotation, so The Hurt Locker for its reputation of realism really only offers a selective re-creation of grave and immediate dangers faced by the bomb squad. After more bonding, specifically Will with an Arab boy, and long bits in the blinding sun, Will comes upon a gruesome scene which unlocks, or locks, more pain, an attack in Baghdad’s so-called green zone – a designated safety area for Westerners – erupts. Affected Will takes the trio on a rogue mission, raising stakes and pitting childless Sanborn against alpha family man Will.

Who’s a better soldier, who’s a better man? Does it matter? Is any value at stake? Is everyone doomed to chaos, confusion and death?

“I don’t even have a son,” submits soldier Sanborn, after an Islamic suicide bomber claiming he wants the bomb disabled because he really wants to live – because he has four children – is resolved. A second later, upon seeing a kite flying, Sanborn stutters, “I guess I don’t think about it…I don’t know why.” He finally asks Will: “Do you know why?” Will answers: “No, I don’t.” This uncertainty contaminates Will, who returns from his rotation to the U.S. alive but not necessarily living. Standing in an empty grocery store, surrounded by choices of cereal, he indiscriminately chooses a box and throws it into the grocery basket. Then, he’s cleaning gutters. He doesn’t know why he has a kid, he doesn’t know why he risks leaving the kid fatherless. The Hurt Locker‘s clock resets with a lone bomb tech walking down an Arab street. The death cycle repeats in slow, dusty neverending beige.

Is The Hurt Locker a lesson in bloodlust? Does war make man lust for blood or does man make war into bloodlust? In few words (for clarity, watch with the subtitles on) and a spate of slow-moving pictures of man mired in the inaction and indecision of today’s mindless war, which means waiting to be blown apart for the sake of nothing, The Hurt Locker approximates the approximated, unending war of our times.

DVD Notes

Bigelow says on the extras that she hopes to replicate the chaos of war, though it’s worth noting that the picture’s close-ups and slow-motion scenes – crew refer to ninja cameras – do not really re-create reality as much as slow it down selectively to make the engagements and non-engagements seem hyper-realistic. It’s a 12 minute feature, so if you experienced the war in Iraq or want to see and study The Hurt Locker, don’t expect much from the bonus bits. An audio commentary in which Bigelow comes across as somewhat pretentious at least does disclose that the film’s military scenes are not accurate. The movie won the Oscar for 2008’s Best Picture.

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TV Review: The Nance with Nathan Lane

TheNanceEpMain Nathan Lane (The Birdcage, Modern Family) is the main reason to watch Douglas Carter Beane’s Tony Award-nominated play The Nance, produced by Lincoln Center Theater, in the version airing this Friday night (9-11 pm ET, Oct. 10, check local listings) for the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center.

Lane is as expressive and entertaining as ever when the material permits as flamboyant homosexual Chauncey Miles, a headline nance (a theater term for a parody of a gay man and shortened version of “nancy boy” which was code for homosexual) during New York City’s 1930s burlesque era. Alternating composer Glen Kelly’s songs with sketches and monologues involving a younger man with whom Lane’s character becomes romantically partnered, the 2-hour televised play is, in turns, historically intriguing, enjoyable and maudlin. The depiction of this type of closeted gay performer’s life and work – the nance was typically portrayed by a heterosexual man – who is inherently suppressed and practically forced into dark, shadowy promiscuity is bound to become sobering and The Nance does.

No problem there, though the somber moments stop the show and highlight the play’s weak transitions and naturalistic theme, which amounts to a sad but interesting slice of gay life in Depression-era Manhattan. The Nance Starring Nathan Lane, part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival, is likely to enlighten and entertain, especially with such a talented actor in the demanding title role, as it showcases tacky routines that brought laughter to burlesque houses downtown while Mayor Fiorello La Guardia pledged to clean up the city in anticipation of the World’s Fair by pushing people like the nance (who is, incidentally, a Republican), off stage. Police brutality and other topical issues come to the forefront as half-naked dames and various show people stake a claim and make an exit. But The Nance, driven by Lane and a heartbreaking performance by Jonny Orsini as the man who tries to love him, leaves the audience feeling less empathetic than it should.

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Movie Review: St. Vincent

StVincentposterComedians Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy shine in writer and director Theodore Melfi’s sentimental Catholic character drama, St. Vincent, which touts itself as an ode to sainthood but redefines what it means.

Everyone’s broke in this contrived, enjoyable movie, from Murray’s alcoholic to McCarthy’s divorced mom. Her kid, named Oliver and well played by Jaeden Lieberher, has to put up with his hospital worker mother’s deficiencies, which chiefly include hiring Murray’s drunken war veteran Vincent to babysit. Vincent takes Oliver into the seedy world he’s inhabited since his life went bad, which, judging by his entrenched habits, was long ago. That he also teaches the kid is the movie’s hook and it’s too obvious, pat and abbreviated but it plays well into a sweeping scene that cashes in humor and pathos like Little Miss Sunshine meets Mr. Holland’s Opus.

St. Vincent, finding the good in a hard-knock life and the virtuous in man, is powered by charming performances based on solid characterizations and a script that seeks to deliver us from cynicism. With nerdy, intelligent Oliver enrolled in one of those city Catholic schools where kids are apparently sent in lieu of reformatory school, and adults in his life falling apart all around him, the stage is set for a confluence of redemption and contrition within a distinctly Catholic context. This allows for lots of liberties taken with icons, rituals and religious myths. A pregnant Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts, overdoing it a tad), a loan shark (Terrence Howard) and a vacant patient in a nursing home enhance what adds up to an almost palliative effect.

The mutual interest money exchanged between McCarthy’s angry, wronged woman and Murray’s embittered, old man climaxes in a conflict that tests everyone’s character to the max.

The film’s theme that life is a maze and one’s purpose is to pursue one’s values with kindness, not contempt, largely works well. This is due to Catholic school-educated Bill Murray’s strengths in playing himself, again, as he’s done since the beginning of his career. His Vincent is as goofy and crude as his characters in Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters and not much better or worse, really, so don’t look for profound lessons beyond what’s here.

What’s here is good and decent and exceedingly well done, with warm and rewarding scenes and touches. Oliver grows and learns and so does everyone else, though not beyond their capacity to change. The humor is seeded in the conflict and irony of trying to invoke, instill and inspire the good, and St. Vincent is often very funny in service of being very human. That the best type of man—a saint by this movie’s terminology—is a trader is not lost on the way. The most rewarding, and also most moving, part of the picture is when all of this is cleaned up with life’s mess placed in perspective, accentuating the positive, as happens sometimes in real life. Melfi figured out how to put Murray’s depressed, grumpy clown act in a story that dramatizes discovering the good in somebody too damaged to love.

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