INTERVIEW: "The Legend" of Volker Schlondorff; "Rita" Director Goes Back to Basics
by Anthony Kaufman /indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 01.31.01) —Volker Schlondorff, the legendary German New Wave director of “The Lost Honor of Katerina Blum” and “The Tin Drum,” goes back to basics with “The Legend of Rita,” an engrossing semi-historical drama about 1970s political radicals caught between East and West Germany, reminiscent of the real-life activities of the Baader-Meinhof group (Germany’s answer to The Weathermen). Since his landmark ’70s works, Schlondorff has recently done it all: feminist sci-fi (“The Handmaid’s Tale“), fatalistic drama (“Voyager“), genre thriller (“Palmetto“), last year’s unclassifiable “The Ogre” — he even spent time as head of Europe’s largest film studios, the German-based DEFA. But with “Rita,” Schlondorff goes back to the days of his politically charged, early works like his 1966 urgent debut “Young Torless.”
A student of political science in Paris before he turned to filmmaking, the 61-year-old director continues to explore the political ambiguities of his country’s history, but with a freshness equal to the young Turks coming from Germany today. indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with Schlondorff about truth, fiction, politics and losing oneself, the day after the film screened as part of a program of New German Cinema at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “The Legend of Rita” is currently in theaters with distribution from Kino International.
indieWIRE: You just had your first screening of the film in the U.S. How did it go?
Volker Schlondorff: I wasn’t sure the movie would travel, for example, whether you needed the geographical, political background, down to the nitty gritty, like which is the East Berlin airport, which is the West Berlin airport — things like that. Nobody understood which was where, but they got the picture even better. They followed the human touch in the story, which is really the way we tried to tell the story, as if it was a fiction. Because I didn’t want to deal with all the facts, the documentary part of it. Even though everything’s authentic, in as much as the episodes, it all happened more or less this way, but it happened to different characters. The protagonist is an invention, taken from different sources.
iW: You didn’t want to be concerned with the documentary details, and yet there’s definitely a documentary approach to the filmmaking?
Schlondorff: Well, it’s a drama set in reality. I’m uneasy with this word, “docu-drama.” Because either you make a documentary or you make a drama. And that’s why we didn’t put the disclaimer, “Based on a True Story,” because usually when I see that, I think it’s basically full of lies.
iW: In the ending, there’s that quote which speaks to the sort of fact and fiction hybrid. . .
Schlondorff: This is from Goethe, one of our great writers. One of his major biographical works is called “Fiction and Truth.” And basically, he says, “This is exactly how it was, more or less.” Which means basically you can’t replicate reality in a piece of fiction. The moment you use actors and put them in front of the camera, you’re making a movie. The canvas of the story, that comes from reality, and you have a number of wonderful details, like they barbacue sausages, or she gives too much money to Nicaragua, these kinds of details. We had a number of these, how shall we say, cookies on the shelf, and every once in a while, we put one into the scene there, but basically, we wrote it like a screenplay.
iW: Many of your films relate to historical moments. . .
Schlondorff: I’m interested in history, of course, and I’m interested in politics. So I have to put my passion and wrap it in chocolate somehow, so people don’t see that they are swallowing a historical pill. But of course, I think one can not understand the world without looking at historical ties. In this case, I read the newspaper when they were arrested. And one question was: Why would this Eastern, Stalinist, bureaucratic state ever go near a terrorist, these unpredictable anarchistic characters, when they were fighting for respectability so much? And the second question was: Why would these characters — these young, rebellious people — ever live in such a narrow-minded society as the one that was supposed to exist? How sad for terrorists ending up working in a factory in Dresden. Or what a shock that must have been.
iW: While watching the film, it feels much more fast-paced, with more handheld camera, than more recent films of yours?
Schlondorff: I think it has to do with economics on the one side — this is a low-budget picture. In a filmmaker’s career, you get to make bigger and bigger films; somehow, they entrust you with more and more stuff. And then in the end, things get stiffer and stiffer. The apparatus takes over. Since nobody but me wanted to make this movie, and I only had little money, I could liberate myself. But then my condition was also, let’s not talk big actors into doing it for scale, but let me do with it unknown faces. And then, it wasn’t planned that it would be handheld; that happened on the set as we moved on, to get closer to the characters. It’s like what Dogme does with the digital camera, but you can still do that with an old film camera. For me, it’s like a feeling of starting over, or coming back to do things you were once good at. It was easy to make, because everybody worked for the same thing, and the actors had plenty of time for rehearsal — three weeks before we even started — because they were all unemployed young actors. This was all very alien to them: young people who would sacrifice everything for a political idea doesn’t happen that much now.
iW: After this experience, do you see yourself making another film in this sort of back-to-basics style?
Schlondorff: I felt encouraged so much, already, while we were making it — so much so, that I proposed to the cameramen, as soon as we finished shooting, literally three weeks later, we started a documentary, because I don’t want to stay idle, and wait on a script. And while I’m in the cutting room, we can go out, so we started a documentary on the Berlin soccer team and on its fans — and through the fans, and by following the people in the stadium, we can make a portrait of the city. I want to be in this more immediate touch with reality. It’s also a nice way to re-start your batteries. We also started working on a number of screenplays based on ordinary stories of life in Berlin, so I hope to do a few more of these.
iW: So you’re collaborating with someone?
Schlondorff: I’m collaborating with the same screenwriter of “Rita.” I also have two young novelists playing around with some ideas. So nothing is really set as far as what the next project will be, but this is the general direction.
iW: What was your experience working on “Palmetto,” and working within the U.S. system?
Schlondorff: I shouldn’t say so, but it was great. I had been working in New York and elsewhere, so it wasn’t the first time. . . . But it was almost a studio movie. It was produced in a very independent way and the studio took it over, but I’m not ashamed to say that I had great fun, maybe I never had more fun. We were all staying in houses on the beach in Florida. I liked the characters in the movie, but I realized, maybe too late, that the basic premise of this old chase novel was just so dated, was just so weak, so whatever way we had to beef up the scenes and make them fun, the whole thing didn’t have a story to tell. We were working to get there, too; it was not done left-handed, but there was no story. And I don’t know if anybody else could have pulled it off, so I don’t really blame myself that this was a major failure. Nevertheless, others can do that better. It was fun to do, once, and I always wanted to try it. I had tried twice in Europe — I had done two detective movies — and it didn’t work either. So I’m not in for another “Palmetto,” even with a better story to tell. I don’t exclude making another English-language movie again, maybe over here, because I like it here and I like the actors, but for the moment, I’m focusing on what is closest to me, and not over-ambitious in any ways, just human stories to tell. Because now you have make to a choice of whether it’s mainstream — and that’s not for me — or if it’s art-house. And if it’s art-house, it might as well be radical art-house, rather than the kind of pseudo art-house that you’re hoping will crossover into the mainstream.
iW: Would you say that “The Ogre” was sort of like the latter?
Schlondorff: Yes, “Ogre” was, in that sense. It was hugely expensive, and therefore it should have been [a cross-over]. It was conceptually wrong on the production level. I like it, as a movie, not entirely. But this was lunacy. It was only because I was at the studio to greenlight myself a picture and I did, and it was probably the wrong one. Between “The Ogre” and “Palmetto,” and four years before that without making a movie — because I had taken this manager job — I simply had this feeling I was losing myself. So I really fought to make this movie [“Rita”] a comeback to the point of departure.
iW: Do you feel like what you and others were doing in the 1970s is having any sort of effect on what’s happening now in German cinema?
Schlondorff: It doesn’t have an effect. Every new generation reinvents things on their own. Most of the films now are by young filmmakers, and I can certify that they’ve never seen my movies, except for maybe “The Tin Drum,” nor any from my contemporaries, but they are reinventing things like the way we did when we started. I really like Tom Tykwer as a guy, he’s looking, he may become a Wenders, but there is a lot of others like him. . . . They’re reinventing the author film, and it’s happening in other countries as well. I’m not gloomy about the future. Film will go on. There were be a more and more distinct separation between these big roller coaster movies and independent films, but maybe art-house will be a steady portion of the market, like literature. You have best-sellers on the one hand and Philip Roth on the other. And they have their audiences that don’t mix.