Nationality: German. Born: Wiesbaden, 31 March 1939. Education: Lycée Henri IV, Paris; studied political science and economics; studied film directing at IDHEC, Paris. Family: Married filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta, 1969 (divorced). Career: Assistant to various French directors, 1960–64; returned to Germany, 1965; formed Hallelujah-Film with Peter Fleischmann, went into partnership with German TV stations, 1969; formed Bioskop-Film with Reinhard Hauff, 1973; opera director, from 1974. Awards: FIPRESCT Prize, Cannes Festival, for Young Törless , 1966; Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, and Best Film, Cannes Festival (ex aequo) , for The Tin Drum , 1979.
Wen kümmert's . . . ( Who Cares . . . ) (short, unreleased)
Der junge Törless ( Young Törless ) (+ sc)
Mord und Totschlag ( A Degree of Murder ) (+ co-sc)
Michael Kohlhaas—Der Rebell ( Michael Kohlhaas—The Rebel ) (+ co-sc)
Baal (for TV) (+ sc); Ein unheimlicher Moment ( An Uneasy Moment ) (short; originally episode of uncompleted feature Paukenspieler , filmed 1967); Der plötzlicher Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach ( The Sudden Fortune of the Poor People of Kombach ) (+ co-sc)
Die Moral der Ruth Halbfass ( The Moral of Ruth Halbfass ) (+ co-sc); Strohfeuer ( A Free Woman ; Strawfire ; Summer Lightning (+ co-sc)
Übernachtung in Tirol ( Overnight Stay in the Tyrol ) (for TV) (+ co-sc)
Georginas Grunde ( Georgina's Reasons ) (for TV); Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum ( The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum ) (co-d, co-sc)
Der Fangschuss ( Coup de grâce )
Nur zum Spass—Nur zum Spiel ( Only for Fun—Only for Play ), Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert ( Kaleidoscope Valeska Gert ) (doc) (+ sc)
Deutschland im Herbst ( Germany in Autumn ) (co-d)
Die Blechtrommel ( The Tin Drum ) (+ co-sc)
Der Kandidat ( The Candidate ) (doc) (+ co-sc)
Die Fälschung ( The Forgery ) (+ sc); Circle of Deceit
Krieg und Frieden ( War and Peace ) (doc)
Swann in Love ( Un Amour de Swann )
Death of a Salesman
Vermischte Nachrichten ( Odds and Ends ) (co-d); A Gathering of Old Men (for TV)
The Handmaid's Tale
Last Call from Passenger Faber ( Voyager ) (+ co-sc)
Billy Wilder, wie haben Sie's gemacht? ( Billy How Did You Do It? ) (series for TV); The Michael Nyman Songbook
Der Unhold ( The Ogre ) (+ co-sc)
Palmetto ( Dumme sterben nicht aus )
Die Stille nach dem Schuß ( Rita's Legends ) (+ co-sc)
Die Blechtrommel als Film , Frankfurt, 1979.
"Volker Schloendorff: The Rebel," interview with Rui Nogueira and Nicoletta Zalaffi, in Film (London), Summer 1969.
"Feu de paille," interview with M. Martin, in Ecran (Paris), February 1973.
"Melville und der Befreiungskampf in Baltikum," interview with H. Wiedemann, in Film und Ton (Munich), December 1976.
" Die Blechtrommel ," in Film und Ton (Munich), June 1979.
"The Tin Drum: Volker Schlöndorff's 'Dream of Childhood', interview with J. Hughes, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1981.
"The Limits of Journalism," an interview with A. Auster and L. Quart in Cineaste (New York), vol. 12, no. 2, 1982.
Interview with B. Steinborn in Filmfaust (Frankfurt), February/March 1983.
"Director's Chair," an interview with D. DeNicolo in Interview (New York), March 1990.
"The Last Days of Max Frisch," in New York Times Book Review , April 1992.
"Travelling Man," an interview with Brian Case, in Time Out (London), 15 April 1992.
"Schloendorff z Babelsbergu," an interview with W. Wertenstein, in Kino (Warsaw), May 1993.
Lewandowski, Rainer, Die Filme von Volker Schlöndorff , Hildesheim, 1981.
Franklin, James, New German Cinema: From Oberhausen to Hamburg , Boston, 1983.
Phillips, Klaus, editor, New German Filmmakers: From Oberhausen through the 1970s , New York, 1984.
Elsaesser, Thomas, New German Cinema: A History , London, 1989.
" Le Coup de grâce Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 February 1977.
Eichenlaub, H.M., "Den deutschen Film international machen: Volker Schlöndorff und Die Blechtrommel ," in Cinema (Zurich), no. 2, 1979.
Holloway, Ronald, "Volker Schlöndorff," in International Film Guide 1982 , London, 1981.
Rickey, C., "The War Lovers," in American Film (Washington D.C.), January/February 1982.
" Un Amour de Swann Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), no. 321/322, 1984.
Horton, Andrew, "Black like Mich," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1987.
Van Gelder, L., "At the Movies," in New York Times , 16 March 1990.
Strauss, F., article in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1991.
Lally, K., article in Film Journal , December 1991.
Tagliabue, J., "A Director Who Pursues His Inner Demons," in New York Times , 26 January 1992.
Hickethier, Knut, in EPD Film (Frankfurt), November 1993.
Guerin, N., "Cannes 94," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), January/February 1995.
Kino (Warsaw), June 1997.
Private Conversation (doc about the making of Death of a Salesman ), Blackwood, 1985.
* * *
In discussions of the New German Cinema, Volker Schlöndorff's name generally comes up only after the mention of Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, and perhaps Straub, Syberberg, or von Trotta. Though his work certainly merits consideration alongside that of any of his countrymen, there are several reasons why he has stood apart from them.
As a teenager, Schlöndorff moved to France to study, earning academic honors and a university degree in economics and political science. He enrolled at IDHEC with an interest in film directing but chose instead to pursue an active apprenticeship within the French film industry. Eventually he served as assistant director to Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Resnais, and Louis Malle. Schlöndorff then returned to Germany and scored an immediate triumph with his first feature, Young Törless. Like his mentor Louis Malle, then, he ushered in his country's new wave of film artists, but also like Malle, Schlöndorff's eclectic range of projects has defied easy categorization, causing his work to seem less personal than that of almost any other German filmmaker. The thorough professional training received during his decade in France also set Schlöndorff apart. His time there instilled in him an appreciation for the highly-crafted, polished filmmaking that marks his style. (The quality of the photography in his work—both black and white and in color, whether by Sven Nykvist, Franz Rath, or Igor Luther—has been consistently exceptional.) While most of his contemporaries declared their antipathy toward the look and production methods of the declining German film industry of the 1960s, Schlöndorff endeavored successfully to make larger-scaled features. Toward this end he helped form and continues to operate two production companies—Hallelujah-Film and Bioskop-Film—and has regularly obtained financing from German television and a variety of international producers. Yet he has met shooting schedules of just three weeks, and his wide career includes shorts, documentaries, and television films (one is a production of Brecht's Baal with Fassbinder in the title role). In the mid-1970s he even turned to directing opera: Janaček's Katya Kabanova and a work by Hans Werner Henze.
Intellectual, literate, and fluent in several languages, Schlöndorff has chiefly been attracted to the adaption of literary works—a practice which has yielded mixed results: Young Törless , from Robert Musil, remains one of his best films, and there is much to praise in The Tin Drum , the New German Cinema's foremost commercial success, which Günter Grass helped to adapt from his novel. Despite strengths in each, though, the director's adaptations of Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas and Marguerite Yourcenar's Coup de grace turned out unevenly for quite different reasons. The admirable Lost Honor of Katharina Blum comes from a Heinrich Böll story, while the problematic Circle of Deceit was based on the novel by Nicolas Born.
Among "original" projects, on the other hand, are A Degree of Murder , a failure by all accounts; the fine A Free Woman ; and the excellent Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach. Despite the variety of his subjects, Schlöndorff is almost invariably drawn to material that allows him expression as social critic. All the films cited above share this characteristic. Some of his projects have been courageously political: Katharina Blum is an undisguised attack on Germany's powerful right-wing, scandal-mongering press, which serves large-scale social repression. As notable are his leading contributions to three collaborative documentaries: Germany in Autumn , a response to the authoritarian climate in the country in the wake of the Baader-Meinhof affair; The Candidate , a work shot during the election campaign that examines the career of ultra-conservative Christian Social Unionist Franz Josef Strauss; and War and Peace , an agit-prop film essay on the deployment of new American nuclear missiles in the Federal Republic.
Schlöndorff's major theme is the temptation toward moral and political equivocation within an ambiguous or malignant social order, and his films are wryly or skeptically realistic about any hoped-for solutions, even courting controversy. A Free Woman chastens unbridled feminist idealism; Circle of Deceit (made prior to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon) refuses to take sides in the Lebanese conflict.
Margarethe von Trotta, to whom Schlöndorff is married, has performed in a number of her husband's films and is a frequent collaborator on his scripts; interestingly, her own work as director is characterized not only by a polish equal to Schlöndorff's and similar political inspiration but also by a compelling intelligence and power of evocation.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Schlöndorff has continued directing films based on fine literature. They feature characters in moral conflict who are spooked by their pasts, uncertain of their futures, and unable to control their impulses and their fates.
Swann in Love , based on Marcel Proust's Remembrances of Things Past, is the elegantly sensual story of a wealthy gentleman (Jeremy Irons) who thrives in the finest circles of high society but risks everything over his erotic obsession with a courtesan. Death of a Salesman , superbly adapted from the 1984 Broadway revival of the Arthur Miller play, is the saga of Willy Loman (Dustin Hoffman), the tragic, desperate travelling salesman to whom "attention must be paid." The Handmaid's Tale , scripted by Harold Pinter from Margaret Atwood's bestseller, is an intriguing science-fiction chiller told from a woman's point of view. It is set in the future, when white women are coerced into birthing babies who will make up a new, "pure" generation. The story focuses on one such female (Natasha Richardson) who must contend with the advances of the powerful "commander" (Robert Duvall). Finally, Voyager , based on the Max Frisch book Homo Faber , is a pensive drama about two very different romances—one in the past, the other in the present—experienced by Walter Faber (Sam Shepard), a repressed American traveler.
—Herbert Reynolds, updated by Rob Edelman