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Magnificent seven

Volker Schlöndorff on the films he has chosen for screening at the Kolkata International Film Festival

By Sudeshna Banerjee

  • Published 8.11.19, 10:00 PM
  • Updated 8.11.19, 10:00 PM
Volker Schlöndorff at Goethe-Institut in Calcutta
Volker Schlöndorff at Goethe-Institut in Calcutta Picture by Gautam Bose

Volker Schlöndorff, who won the Oscar and a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 for his cinematic adaptation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, says he was not keen to direct the film in the first place.

“My producer, who produced Young Törless (his debut film), felt I should do it. It was impossible... such a different style from anything I have ever done. So grotesque, specially in the language of Gunter Grass you have these cascades of sentences! But Grass said it’s very realistic and not exaggerated. He gave me the address of the suburb where his mother had a shop and said: ‘You should go where it all happened’. I made that trip and felt if he could make such a colourful universe out of this tiny little suburb maybe I can make a film too. We wrote the screenplay in French, which liberated us from the power of Gunter Grass’s language. I retranslated it from French to German, and wrote the dialogues with Gunter Grass. This way I was less intimidated.”

The film that will be shown at the Kolkata International Film Festival on Saturday was not the one that was exhibited in 1979. “I had a contract which stipulated that it should be 2 hours 15 minutes. I had to cut out half an hour of the finished film. And I was never allowed to say that because it would be like they have given the Palm and the Oscar to a truncated film. So I had to shut up for 40 years.”

Things changed when all the laboratories started closing and he got a call recently from the lab where the film was processed. “They said they still had 60,000m of negative of The Tin Drum and asked if they could destroy it. That was when I saw an opportunity to restore the original film.” That was five years back when it premiered again at the Cannes Festival but had limited theatrical release.

Schlöndorff made Circle of Deceit, a film with the Lebanese civil war as backdrop, in 1980. In the film, a German journalist travels to the city of Beirut to produce an essay on the situation. At that time, Grass wanted him to make a movie on a young schoolteacher couple who were debating whether to have a baby or not. They travel to Indonesia and India to “experience reality”. The story had a travel agency which offered a stay in a slum in Calcutta to show how the poor lived. But the film never got made and was published instead as a novel titled Headbirths because Schlöndorff left to make Circle of Deceit. “I chose Lebanon over Calcutta. It was more interesting. Circle of Deceit is not about the war in Lebanon but about the European media’s reaction to it. The next year, Peter Weir made The Year of Living Dangerously on a similar theme.”

The film was prohibited in Lebanon at the time and Schlöndorff was “asked not to come”. Recently, however, he attended a screening in Lebanon. “A lot of years have passed and they welcomed me.”

The fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris reminded him of his 2014 film Diplomacy, also on the film festival list. “When I saw Notre Dame burning, I thought this is what it would have been like if Hitler had destroyed Paris.” The film was on Hitler’s order to his fleeing troops to destroy the landmarks of Paris and how a Swedish diplomat convinces them not to. “The film is dedicated to the glory of Paris.”

He calls Voyager “the most autobiographical of the seven films”. “At 45, I was in a typical mid-life crisis. My marriage and working relationship with Margarethe von Trotta had broken. Then I remembered this book (Homo Faber by Max Frisch).” Homo faber, Latin for ‘man the maker’, is the concept that human beings are able to control their fate and their environment as a result of the use of tools. “We don’t decide our lives, the gods do. The engineer in the story is building dams. He is a maker, like we go to places and make movies. As an architect he thought he could control everything. In course of his travel, he meets a young woman and somehow they are attracted despite the age difference. They don’t know that the attraction is of a different kind as they are actually father and daughter. It’s like a Greek tragedy.”

Death of A Salesman was for him “work for hire”. “Dustin Hoffman wanted to see me and got me off with Arthur Miller (the playwright). I had a wonderful time working on the film. John Malkovich was young and starting out.” The film earned 10 Emmy nominations and four Golden Globe nominations, winning three and one, respectively.

The Ninth Day is on a priest imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp who is released for nine days to return to his native city, where an SS officer asks him to convince his bishop to cooperate with the Nazis. The priest has to decide whether to betray his Church or return to the camp. “I went to a Jesuit boarding school in France and they convinced me to follow my heart and make films. I was 18 then. Since then, I have stayed in touch with them. When I read the story I could see how they would react. They were never religious in a pompous way but they resisted the Nazis. They never had a question on their mind.” It stars Ulrich Matthes, who Schlöndorff rates as one of the finest actors he has worked with.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian society where most women have become sterile due to environmental pollution and fertile ones are assigned to leaders as handmaids. “It has more relevance today than when it was made. I picked the movie for the festival as I heard the TV series is popular here. Margaret Atwood (the novelist) likes both approaches. Last year, I showed it at a literary festival in Italy with her.”

In the novel, a wall is used by fundamentalist rulers to display the corpses of people executed as traitors. “She started writing the book in Berlin where the wall still existed and thought of a wall between the US and Canada. Maybe she had a premonition of (Donald) Trump and his Mexico wall!”

The list of films chosen for the film festival, Schlöndorff says, reads “like a road movie” on his career across time and geography. “Three in German, one in French, two in American. The seventh, Voyager, is international,” the 80-year-old polyglot filmmaker signs off with a laugh.