Volker Schlöndorff

Volker Schlöndorff, Professor of Film and Literature at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Volker Schlöndorff (b. 1939) is an acclaimed movie director based in Berlin and, since 2001, a professor of film and literature at The European Graduate School / EGS in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. He grew up in Schlangenbad and attended high school near his birthplace located in the low mountain range region of Taunus, in the state of Hesse. In 1955, he started his studies in France, first going to a liberal, Jesuit boarding school in Morbihan in the region of Brittany, and then to study in Paris at the elite school “Lycée Henri IV” in the Latin Quarter where he got his Baccalauréat (high school diploma). He then attended the Sorbonne, where he studied political science and economics. However, at that time, he used to go—as often as three times a day—to the Cinémathèque française (a reputable French film library), which makes available one of the largest archives in the world of films, movie documents, and documentaries. There he had the opportunity to meet many of the Nouvelle Vague directors (French New Wave)—famous for rejecting traditional forms of cinema and doing so with a youthful, critical look.

As a native German, Volker Schlöndorff initially rebelled against his cultural origins and sought his identity in American and French culture. He worked for ten years in France as an assistant to several French directors, including Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Alain Resnais—though he eventually realized that it was too artificial for him, as a German, to try to be a director in France. This led him back to Germany where he directed his first literary adaptation, Young Törless (1966), which carved out a style that would remain particular to him throughout his career. His most famous film, The Tin Drum (1979), which was also his international breakthrough, is based on the novel of the same name by Günter Grass. For this movie, Schlöndorff won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Palme d'Or, the highest prize awarded to competing films at the French Film Festival in Cannes.

In 1962, after a year of preparation for the entrance examination to study at the highly regarded Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) and being received as number 11 out of 300, he dropped out after only a being there for a couple of years. Preferring, in place of the perhaps more theoretical approaches to films, to work on his first film Zazie dans le Métro (Zazie in the Metro) as an assistant director to the already critically acclaimed French director Louis Malle. Volker Schlöndorff would end up working for years in France as an assistant director, ending around 1965.

In 1969, Schlöndorff and film director Peter Fleischmann founded the production company Hallelujah-Film. From 1971 to 1991, Volker Schlöndorff was married to the actress and director Margarethe von Trotta. At the beginning of the marriage, she worked with him as an actor, an assistant director, co-director, and co-author. In 1973, Volker Schlöndorff co-founded his own production company, which is called Bioskop Film. Additionally, Volker Schlöndorff has also directed several operas in both Germany and France. His 1975 film, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, was produced with his then-wife Margarethe von Trotta, which was a great success. In 1980, after receiving the Oscar for best foreign film for the movie entitled The Tin Drum, he moved to the US with the intention of spending the rest of his life there. However, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, his plans changed, and he moved from New York to Berlin and then Potsdam. In 1991, Schlöndorff and von Trotta divorced; Schlöndorff then married Angelika Gruber in 1992. At the age of 60, he began to run regularly to train and does one or two marathons a year. Starting in 1992 he became the chief executive of Studio Babelsberg in Germany, which is the oldest large-scale movie studio in the world.

Volker Schlöndorff is considered to be part of the German New Cinema, though his work is singular within this movement for his choice of material and his independent style. One aspect of Volker Schlöndorff's films which sets them apart is their strong literary inspiration; many of his films are adaptations of famous literary works by Arthur Miller, Günter Grass, Marcel Proust, Heinrich von Kleist, and others.

When Volker Schlöndorff was presented with the Carl Zucker medal in 2009, media scholar Thomas Koebner explained that Schlöndorff’s movies have a great sense of justice; Schlöndorff always stood for the disadvantaged, but in a subtle way. Schlöndorff has received a number of distinctions in addition to those already mentioned: in 1978, he shared the Special Recognition award at the 28th International Film Festival in Berlin for the film Germany in Autumn; in 2002, he was the recipient of the highest French order La Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor); in 2004, he received an Honorary Award at the Bavarian Film Awards; and, in 2009, he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Camerimage, which is The International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography held in a different city every year.

Due to their frequent origins in literary sources, Volker Schlöndorff's films possess a strong attention to narrative. There is a tendency in his films for exploring the meaning of a character's life struggle in relation to false cultural or institutional ideals. In his adaptation of Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman (1985), the hypocritical perfection of the American Dream is shown in its destructive consequences. His film Strike (2006) tells the story of Agnieszka Wolynicza, who was instrumental in the Solidarity Movement in Poland. History and character are nearly opposed in this film and are related to one another in an indirect or latent way. This comes across in the structure of the film, which is separated into a biopic of the character that closely follows her life as well as a section at the end that tellingly reveals the macroscopic effects of her activity in relation to the Solidarity Movement. However, this film, along with many others of Volker Schlöndorff, is told from a position of non-belief in the romanticism of historical necessity. Volker Schlöndorff has also produced many documentaries. Since January 2010, he is a member of the board of World Vision Germany—the board members bring their experience to World Vision and advise the bureau of general issues in movies.

Volker Schlöndorff has directed many films, including (in their original titles): Der junge Törleß (1966), Der Paukenspieler (1967), Mord und Totschlag (1967), Michael Kohlhaas – Der Rebell (1969), Baal (1970), Der plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach (1971), Die Moral der Ruth Halbfass (1972), Strohfeuer (1972), Übernachtung in Tirol (1974), Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann (1975), Der Fangschuß (1976), Nur zum Spaß, nur zum Spiel (1977), the segment 'Die verschobene Antigone' in Deutschland im Herbst (1978), Die Blechtrommel (1979), Der Kandidat (1980), Die Fälschung (1981), Krieg und Frieden (1982), Un amour de Swann (1984), Death of a Salesman (1984), A Gathering of Old Men (1987), The Handmaid's Tale (1990), Homo Faber (1991), The Michael Nyman Songbook (1992), Der Unhold (1996), Palmetto (1998), Die Stille nach dem Schuß (2000), Ein Produzent hat Seele oder er hat keine (2002), the segment 'The Enlightenment' in Ten Minutes Older: The Cello (2002), Der neunte Tag (2004), Enigma – Eine uneingestandene Liebe (2005), Billy Wilder Speaks (2006), Strajk – Die Heldin von Danzig (2006), and Ulzhan (2007).