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Göteborg Interview: Director Volker Schlöndorff On ‘Calm At Sea,’ His Greatest Cinematic Failure & ‘The Master’

Göteborg Interview: Director Volker Schlöndorff On ‘Calm At Sea,’ His Greatest Cinematic Failure & 'The Master'

Presenting his new film “Calm at Sea” (reviewed here) in the Bio Roy Theater during the Göteborg International Film Festival last week, director Volker Schlöndorff said, in mock-pique, “It’s so great to be in this wonderful theatre, named after Sweden’s great filmmaker Roy Andersson. I‘m still waiting for my hometown to put up a theater in my name.” And perhaps given the level of esteem in which he is held, especially in his home country, the idea of one day catching a 2.30 showing at The Volker is not so farfetched. But of course Schlöndorff’s career has hardly been plain sailing, with his towering achievement, the oddly compelling, uncanny adaptation of Günter Grass’The Tin Drum” rather overshadowing the films that came before and after, especially having been crowned with an Oscar and the Palme d’Or.

Nonetheless the director has continued to work in various genres and media, from the literary adaptation (‘Tin Drum,’ “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Swann In Love”) to documentary (“The Michael Nyman Songbook,” “Billy Wilder Speaks“) at home, across Europe and occasionally in the U.S. (most recently with the pulpy B-movie “Palmetto”). As we reported already, one of his next major projects will see him return to America, teaming with writer Colm Toibin on “Montauk,” but in the meantime, here’s a few things we learnt from our interview, which took place, appropriately for once, in a movie theater.

If there were tears during the watching of “Calm at Sea” there were tears during its writing too.
I cried when I wrote it, and it came from the documents. Not tears of sadness but I was moved by the sheer beauty of these characters — very simple characters, very plain… They were not perverted yet, and they had incredibly simple and strong belief that ultimately the revolution would create a better world. Today it seems incredibly naïve, but it was all authentic, I had the letters in my hand.

Schlöndorff went about recreating the historical story from primary sources.
I don’t think I made up a single thing! Perhaps I have no more imagination. I knew about this story when I was 17 and came to France to lean French. And my friends in class mentioned that there had been a horrible thing that had happened nearby, but they didn’t tell me any more, and anyhow we were all heading for the New Europe and why would be interested in that?

So it caught up 50 years later to me. And I started to research I found that [noted German writer] Ernst Junger had been involved in it. I found his diaries and I discovered that he had to write a report on it, so all of a sudden I had a real document. And then in the French Archives everybody had written their autobiographies; the young local undergoverner had; the young communist who shot the German officer had, so I knew the debates he had with his friends; and the gendarme had written about it, and the priest. And of course I had the letters. So I literally only had to compose a structure, find a way to tell it… At the end it felt like a novel.

This documentary approach to fiction was important for separating the myth from reality.
The finances mostly were from documentary departments in various TV stations because in [film] fiction usually you have one hero, but here you have a multitude of people. Whereas this boy in France is next to Joan of Arc — Guy Moquet, he has his own subway station, every year on the day of his death, 21st October, all schoolclasses have to read his letter. But he is a myth, he became a legend. So I tried to cut him down to a real boy who gets caught up in this.

Schlöndorff is painfully aware that he has visited WWII several times before in his films.
I’m really always on the defensive when it comes to that. My daughter was 19 when I started the project and she said, “Oh no, not again WWII.” So I’m on the defensive but I wanted to understand how could it happen. And I came to understand that this kind of tragedy could happen because it was considered an act of administration — a lot of public servants doing his duty and nobody is responsible, but every single one could have stopped the machinery, but of course that would have called for bravery. It’s about the ‘banality of obedience.’

But if he might be done with WWII, WWII is not done with him.
Each time I make a film like this I swear it will be the last time I deal with this sort of historical stuff. But a good deed never goes unpunished and the film was so popular in France that they made me an offer I can’t refuse, which is another August 1945 “Paris is burning” kind of thing. The last night of the German general there and how come, through the influence of the Swedish consul he decides not to blow up Paris. So it’s to take just this one night during the liberation of Paris with a very few characters. So I’m doing that this summer, with [actor] Niels Arestrup.

As a storytelling aficionado, Schlöndorff admires “The Master” and “The Kids are All Right” among others.
I think the counterpoison, the antidote to all these digital effects and 3D and these rollercoaster kind of movies is in the storytelling… There is no good story per se, I think a story becomes good when it is urgent to tell it. And not all the stories are always urgent to be told. But I thought that some of the strongest films in the last years were about storytelling — this year I really liked “The Master” — great storytelling! Films like “The Kids are All Right” or “American Beauty,” these are storytelling movies.

He is intrigued to watch the new version of “Michael Kolhaas” (with Mads Mikkelsen and Bruno Ganz, which we reported on way back when) because he believes his version was hardly definitive…
I’ll be most curious [to see it]. It’s the movie I always wanted to remake or to have a second chance, but you see in filmmaking, no more than in love, do you ever get a second chance. Because that was my biggest failure ever, I think. But today I know I still wouldn’t know how to do it. I read it over and over and over again, and because there is a totally irrational crazy component to the text, I still wouldn’t know how to do it. Maybe a little better than before, but I haven’t got it yet. In fact, I reread many books [I adapted] where I think I failed.

I’m still rereading [“Swann in Love” source] Proust. 

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