An Interview with Volker SchlĂ¶ndorff
By Jeff Reichert
Somewhat underrated in discussion of the major filmmakers of the New German Cinema, Volker SchlĂ¶ndorff created one of its most emblematic and resonant early works in Young TĂ¶rless, and one of the most widely admired imports of the late Seventiesâ€”The Tin Drum won both the Palme dâ€™Or and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Still, his career, which is based on an unusually high percentage of literary adaptations, seems somehow harder to get a handle on than that of Wenders, Herzog, or even Fassbinder, whose output almost takes on a kind of uniformity (of pushed boundaries) in comparison. His detour into the business side of the film worldâ€”which found him rebuilding classic German studio UFA from 1990-1997 and making no films during the periodâ€”probably hasnâ€™t helped his notoriety with this current generation of viewers. But in the last six years, heâ€™s turned out three films, all dealing directly with that most unfashionable of topics: politics. His latest, opening today, June 15, in New York is Strike, a sort-of biopic about the life of Agnieszka Wolynicza (a terrific, bug-eyed Katharina Thalba), who played an important, if largely unknown, role in the Polish Solidarity movement.
REVERSE SHOT: Since Strike is so fully a story about the working class I want to start out by talking a bit about labor. In this country organized labor is in pretty bad shapeâ€”demoralized, disorganized, generally besieged. I donâ€™t know what the situation is in Europe currently, but I was hoping you could talk a bit about how the state of labor in general influenced the making of this film.
VOLKER SCHLĂ–NDORFF: Well, you might want to first draw a distinction between the situation of labor in Eastern and Western Europe. In Western Europe, especially in countries like France and Germany, itâ€™s pretty well organizedâ€”almost to the point where itâ€™s considered a hindrance to the economy. The real interesting thing is that in the former â€śworkersâ€™ paradiseâ€ť in the socialist countries, they werenâ€™t really organized because that State was said to be the union. Thatâ€™s the whole backbone of this movieâ€”these shipyard workers went on strike to have what they called â€śfree unions.â€ť But the state said that it didnâ€™t make sense in socialism to have free unions because the state was there to defend the worker. It was a truly Kafkaesque situation. And when the state finally had to concede because of the strikes in the Gdansk shipyard and the eventual Solidarity strike, everyone said, â€śWell thatâ€™s the end of Communism,â€ť because the idea of Communism is that the Union, state, and worker are all one. Of course it was a big lie.
If there was no organized labor during the many years of Communism, once the Berlin Wall came down, worse happened. Turbo-capitalism was introduced, meaning kind of a pre-Manchester capitalism without any regulations whatsoeverâ€”Communism was over, and the assumption was that in Capitalism anything goes. As a result, the workers are very badly protected in all of these countries. But on the other hand, these workers are in many cases not used to work. The mentality is generally that whatever the salary, it canâ€™t be lower than wages from under Communismâ€”not even Asians would work for that. And thatâ€™s why long ago, these workers simply gave up workingâ€”the state pretended to pay them and they pretended to work. That was the deal. And all of a sudden, you ask them to perform and they canâ€™t. So these economies collapsed. But thatâ€™s the situation in a nutshellâ€”very dire. The shipyards seen in Strike may well vanish altogether. But generally, in all of the Eastern European economies, there is practically no industrial labor left. As far as Iâ€™m concerned, the situation is at least as bleak as 1848, when Karl Marx and some others wrote down a manifesto. Now that couldnâ€™t even be written; even though their analysis was right, the therapy didnâ€™t work.
RS: I feel like some sections of the left in many countries still romanticize the Communist moment to a certain degree, but Strike seems at pains to show the difficulty of daily life.
VS: Well, your question is exactly the subject of my movie. I wanted to show by using all this agitprop mass material about the heroic worker that the image that had been built of the proletarian superman was just an image. It was just a prop. The reality behind it was incredibly bleak. At least now, thereâ€™s no lie.
RS: Was debunking this image part of the choice to focus on this one largely unknown figure in the solidarity movement and that period in her life leading up to the beginning of Solidarity as opposed to the time immediately before and after? I expected the film to be set mostly in the late Seventies or early Eighties, but it begins much earlier.
VS: This picture doesnâ€™t really have a form. Usually Iâ€™m very strong-minded stylistically; there has to be a unity. But in this case, the film was more of a basket into which I threw everything. It started with a kind of a biopic of this character, who was unknown to me, and then I developed the Solidarity sections of the last thirty minutes of the film to show how she affected world history without evening knowing itâ€”she had no agenda. Others around her had an agenda. Looking back, I would have liked to start even earlier. Right now it begins in 1961, but Iâ€™d have liked to begin in 1945 when the Germans left. This was the time of GĂĽnter Grass and Little Oskar [the main character from The Tin Drum], and the whole new Polish population was moved into Gdansk from formerly Polish, now Soviet territories, always worried that the Germans might come back in and take over.
And for this little orphaned worker, who came from the country and found this refuge in the shipyard, it became her home and her family. And thatâ€™s why she worked so hard. She received many medals from the party, but she didnâ€™t believe much in Communism. She always told me that she worked so hard for the love of Poland. Thatâ€™s why I felt it was important to start at this moment when the utopian ideal was still alive, when you believed you could build and that the workers actually had some influence. And with tiny little things, she starts to realize that this wasnâ€™t true. Whether lunches were cold by the time anyone could get a chance to eat them, or the bathrooms were too far away, or there were no bathrooms for womenâ€”she protests against this. Not to protest against Communism, but to make it better. That leads her onwards from these tiny little things to the realization that there is no way to reform Communism.
There is nothing contemporary about Solidarity, no real reason to be interested in it nowadays, unless youâ€™re scholar, but itâ€™s a fantastic field for some kind of historical mediation. What is our activity? What are we doing? How can we influence history? Can we influence society? That reflection for me is very interesting. Now weâ€™re at a point where no one wants to hear about politics anymore or be an activist in any field, but nevertheless we feel that things canâ€™t go on the way they do.
RS: And everyone feelsâ€”especially here in the wake of the Iraq War and the inability of mass protests to influence that decisionâ€”a kind of serious disillusion.
VS: Oh, yes. For those that are wide-eyed, thereâ€™s been a great amount of disillusionment in the Eastern countries of course. They finally got rid of Communism in favor of capitalism, and then they started realizing that this had problems as well. In Western Europe, itâ€™s very much the same. Itâ€™s hard to protect labor because there is no laborâ€”no manufacturingâ€”anymore. I like that we get to celebrate these last proletariats in our movie because soon we wonâ€™t get to see these people anymoreâ€”welding, hammering, putting in screws to build this huge ship. Itâ€™s like Noahâ€™s ark being built because this kind of work wonâ€™t be done here in the future.
I was close with Arthur Miller, and one of his last plays was called The Last Yankee, and it was about the loss of manufacturing in the U.S., which started in the late Fifties. Now we certainly see itâ€™s been half a century in the coming.
RS: This move certainly benefits the powers that be. If the labor around which the unions organize leaves the country, then it only weakens the political power of the unions.
VS: Even though the unions were corrupt under Communism, I came to be a moviemaker because as a youngster I was so impressed with On the Waterfront. I thought that using this medium was a powerful way to bring some justice into the world. Thereâ€™s a quote from that film in Strike. When they put Agnieszka in jail and she canâ€™t work anymore, her coworkers say: â€śIf she donâ€™t work, we donâ€™t work.â€ť And thatâ€™s exactly what is said when Marlon Brandoâ€™s character isnâ€™t allowed to go to work. Whatever the political structures are, they will never be the recipe for justice in the world. It will remain for every single individual to see to their own dignity, their own integrity. That is really the message of Strikeâ€”we canâ€™t truly influence history with all these ideologies and political structures, but it is very important that every single human behaves in a decent way because the society as a whole becomes more decent.
RS: That sounds like a pretty valuable message for this moment especially.
VS: In that sense, anyone can have some influence. Agnieszka was like a grain of sand, and somehow the whole train of history derails because she was the way she was. Itâ€™s a bit like evolution. If thereâ€™s a tiny change in the DNA, all of evolution can go differently. Each of us is like a little dot on this DNA chain and if our mutation remains strong, it will stickâ€¦
RS: â€¦and show up in others.
VS: One thing leads to another, eventually. What is so interesting to me about this movie is that itâ€™s all built around these reflections on moments in her life that happen outside of the â€śofficial history;â€ť itâ€™s not just straightforward storytelling, because the story is so erratic. But all the elements of the story are true, even if theyâ€™re not organized into some kind of three-act structure.
RS: Youâ€™ve done so many literary adaptations throughout your career that I wanted to ask: What are the different challenges between adapting a life to the screen, and adapting Proust for Swann In Love?
VS: Oh, itâ€™s very different. My last few films have been based on real charactersâ€”itâ€™s been ten years since the last literary adaptation. But I would never call these films â€śtrue.â€ť As soon as I see â€śbased upon a true storyâ€ť at the beginning of a film, I always I think that it must be full of lies. The difference is not really about whether the events happened or not. Itâ€™s that in the fictions, reality is already put into a certain shape, and this structure has always appealed to me throughout my career. I found it easier to move from there into a movie rather than being confronted with the total complexity of reality. When you take this workerâ€™s story, do I start in 1945 or 1961? How much of her private life do I include, or do I spend more time in the shipyard? I eventually decided to work mostly in the shipyard so that I could create a unity of place. Then you need to decide if you want to structure it chronologically, backwards, use flashbacksâ€¦all of the decisions you make when starting a literary adaptation, someone else has thought about them already. You can follow those choices, or you can divert from them, but at least you have a guideline. On the other hand, working with a real life gives you a freedom that I never had with literary adaptations because I always wanted my adaptations to be truthful to the text.
You can work with individual episodes rather than working on the structure of the whole thing. I donâ€™t try to control reality anymore; itâ€™s probably a question of age.
RS: Itâ€™s interesting to hear you talk about biopic structure in terms of formlessness given the way biopics are being conceived in Hollywood. Ray, Walk the Lineâ€”these could almost be the same movie for all their interchangeability.
VS: Well, they try to turn a life into a well-constructed play. And thatâ€™s always a violation. Max Frisch, whose book I adapted into The Voyager said, â€śAt a certain age, looking backwards, everyone considers their life as if it were a novel where he is the hero.â€ť And thatâ€™s the way Hollywood looks at the biopic. You have to turn a life, with all of its erratic moments and angles into a logical, chronological sequence of events. As if it were fiction. If you leave thing as it were in reality, it almost doesnâ€™t seem to make a life.
RS: As I was watching Strike, I had to work to keep upâ€”jumps in time will go unnoted until well after they occur. I feel like the overall production design and the way in which costumes and interiors remain resolutely the same throughout really helped enhance this sense of peeking into a life.
VS: Thatâ€™s the Communist world. We were very careful in researching, and we found out that oftentimes poorer people might wear the same coat for twenty years. Even if the fashion had changed three times! In any decent movie, youâ€™d have to have three coats of different cuts if you stayed with a character for more than 20 years. But this was the socialist world where no one had access to anything. The same goes for the interiors. The only thing we changed over time was the model of the televisions. We shot in real locations in Gdansk, and all the apartments actually still looked the way they did under Communism. The only way we had to show the periods changing was to focus on different clips being shown on the television. Though, we did have to work to find older models of hard hats to match the look of the period.
RS: The opening of the inscription of Strike says itâ€™s a â€śballad based on historical events.â€ť Why a ballad?
VS: This may be something of an issue of translation, but a ballad is usually very elliptic, colorfulâ€”like certain Bob Dylan songs or something. I thought a ballad might be a very engaging way to tell her story because her character reminds me of Giulietta Masina in La Strada, or maybe Chaplin. We didnâ€™t want to make this a lesson of history, and her story always felt like something that could have been sung. And pre-movie and pre-television, that was the popular way of telling stories.