Volker Schlondorff is one of the major directors of the New German Cinema, the group of filmmakers who, in the late 1960s and early 70s, revitalized a moribund German film culture. He studied at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques in Paris in the late 1950s and, between 1960 and 1964, worked as an assistant to directors including Louis Malle, Alain Resnais and Jean-Pierre Melville.
Schlondorff’s first feature, “Young Torless” (1966), based on a classic novel by Robert Musil about coming of age in an elite Austrian military academy, is considered a milestone of the New German cinema. Greeted with critical acclaim at a number of international film festivals, it also gained a small but devoted popular following at home. It was the first of many literary adaptations by the director, evincing a continuing predilection for highly structured narrative films with a leftist political perspective, directed at a mass audience.
Schlondorff’s next two films, “A Degree of Murder” (1967), starring Anita Pallenberg with a score by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, and “Michael Kohlhaas” (1969), based on a novella by Heinrich von Kleist, were both action dramas that were critical and box-office failures. His 1969 adaptation of Brecht’s “Baal” (1969), starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and “The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach” (1970), his best film since “Torless” and one of the few not adapted from a literary source, fared better with the critics. During this period, he married a young actress who had appeared in both films, Margarethe von Trotta, forming a fruitful writer-director collaboration which would last until von Trotta began directing her own films in 1977.
The von Trotta-Schlondorff collaboration produced the director’s best films of the early and mid-1970s: “A Free Woman” (1972), an ironic feminist commentary on divorce; “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” (1975), adapted from Heinrich Boll’s bestseller about a woman falsely accused of terrorism; and “Coup de Grace” (1976), based upon a 1936 Marguerite Yourcenar novel concerning the radicalization of a young aristocratic woman during the revolutionary period following WWII.
Schlondorff’s best known, and most successful, work to date is his 1979 adaptation of Gunter Grass’s “The Tin Drum,” a rollicking account of the rise of fascism as seen through the eyes of a boy who literally and figuratively refuses to grow up. “Katharina Blum” and “Tin Drum” became two of the most financially successful German films ever made, with the latter winning the Academy Award for best foreign film.
Although Schlondorff lacks the innovative skill or visionary power of such colleagues as Fassbinder, Kluge, Wenders and Herzog, he has, unlike them, adapted well to the international film market and to working in the US. His 1985 adaptation for American TV of “Death of a Salesman” (CBS), starring Dustin Hoffman, was well-received and earned the director an Emmy nomination. His adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s futurist/feminist parable, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990), featured an all-star cast and a screenplay by Harold Pinter, but failed to find an audience.
Schlondorff returned to Berlin in the early 90s and concentrated his efforts on the renovation and restoration of the city’s fabled Babelsburg Studio (where “Metropolis” and “The Blue Angel” were filmed). After helming the unsuccessful “The Ogre” at Babelsburg, the director returned to the USA. In part, he was developing the noirish “Palmetto” (1998) but there were concerns over a case in Oklahoma City involving “The Tin Drum”. Because of stringent local child pornography ordinances, video copies of the Oscar-winning film were seized because of one scene of simulated oral sex involving its protagonist. The matter remains before the courts.