General 4-19-2005

I Don’t Believe Much in Innocence

An Interview with director Volker Schlöndorff


Volker Schlöndorff, director of the The Ogre, The Legend of Rita, Palmetto, The Handmaid’s Tale and Palme d’Or winner The Tin Drum, was born in Germany in 1939. As a young man, he attended a French boarding school, then stayed to apprentice with the legendary filmmakers of the New Wave, working with Jean-Pierre Melville, Louis Malle, Alain Resnais and others. But Resnais, in particular, affected Schlöndorff long before the two met. After watching the French director’s Night and Fog in class, Schlöndorff, as the only German, was called upon to answer for the Holocaust in a way that none of his classmates felt compelled to. The young man took the challenge seriously, and he and his colleagues sought to reshape German cinema to meet the demands of those tough questions; Schlöndorff has spent his career making brilliantly dark but accessible films about the human potential for evil. The result is a thrilling and singular oeuvre. Criterion Collection is releasing Schlöndorff’s debut feature, Young Törless (1968), for the first time on DVD. Young Törless is adapted from the novel The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil: a story of an Austrian adolescent who observes the hazing and psychological torture of a classmate, and who must confront the evil in his own nature. We spoke with the pioneering director and professor about learned innocence, German cinema in the ’60s , the legacy of World War II and the future of the digital revolution in filmmaking.

Collier White: Young Törless seems to establish one of the recurring features of your greatest films, like The Ogre and The Tin Drum—childhood and innocence. Why is childhood such a consistent theme in your films?

Volker Schlöndorff: Well I certainly didn’t know then! [laughs] I was very young. I didn’t have much experience of life. I had been very ambitious—from boarding school I went straight to work in film, so I didn’t have any other wonderful passions to tell about myself, except for the passions of cinema. [Laughing] So the true experience inside childhood really had been those years I had spent in France in a Jesuit boarding school, which I loved. It wasn’t a punishment to be there; I really had fantastic teachers and they encouraged me to be a filmmaker. But I also witnessed the incredible juvenile rigor of 15-year-olds: the search for moral values, the desire to try out power and keep power over one another. In every class there would be a small group or maybe an individual ruling the class, and there would be an opponent. And there would be a mass of people coming along with them. On the other hand, there was solitude.

I wouldn’t call youth innocent, because I don’t believe much in innocence. I do believe in the discovery of evil, and how difficult it is to know beforehand what’s good and what’s bad. You find out after the fact where the good is and where the evil is; and there is no line that you can see clearly when you cross from good to bad. Everybody is just ambiguous, both good and evil. When you are 15 years old, you look for specific criteria to measure good and evil. How can I do the wise thing? How can I even find out what the wise thing is? I didn’t know this was the very theme that was going to keep me busy for the rest of my life! At the time it was the just the main thing I was truly preoccupied with, that I could seek answers to from experience.

CW: So you don’t think of childhood as innocent? That’s a real break from convention in film, isn’t it?

VS: Yeah, but Lord of the Flies is a bit that way, too. I recall a lot my own childhood, actually. It’s your own experience that feeds your work, even if you don’t tell autobiographical stories. So in this there is a lot of myself, and personally, I recall that we did pretty bad things, actually knowing they were bad. You spend part of your childhood trying things out: trying out violence, experimenting with inflicting pain on others, as well as trying to be good to others. I don’t see much innocence in childhood; maybe ethical innocence is something we acquire through life.

CW: Do you see in the children of the story the possibility for the horrors of German history, for the Holocaust?

VS: Well, we’ve got to approach that slowly. The Holocaust, and killing on an administrative scale—I think that is something only grownups could come up with. Children will occasionally commit individual atrocities, but they wouldn’t conceive of a well-managed, administrative genocide. That takes grown-ups. But to come back to Young Törless, the movie could not foresee, ever, something like the Holocaust. Yet there is a kind of foreboding of it on several levels. First of all, that the little group of guys who are ruling the school class need an enemy, or a victim. And they pick one that has an Italian name, in this case: Basini. He could just as easily have been Jewish. All that is necessary is to come to the decision that somebody is the Other, and that the Other is below us. Once he’s below us, it’s easy to decide that his life isn’t worth much. That’s what I was fascinated by in the novel. I thought, “My God, that’s exactly the way it works.” And the other thing is: what does the Intellectual do? Well, like Törless, he’s witnessing the events; he’s curious and wants to see what’s going on—but he doesn’t interfere right away. He just says, “What do I care what others do? I’ll just watch them to see how human beings work.” And when he realizes the suffering of the Other and finally develops some compassion and is ready to interfere on his behalf—well, he’s already an accomplice. That, again, is pretty much what happened to the German middle-class during the Nazi period. They sat by and watched Hitler, and said, “It won’t last anyhow.” And by the time they wanted to intervene, he had such a grip on power and they were so compromised already, that they didn’t dare to interfere.

This period picture about the microcosm of boys in school was a way for me to deal with that eternal question of the Holocaust: how was it possible? That, of course, for me was an existential question as well. I was ten years old, and I came to France for boarding school. I think it was in the first semester I was there that we were shown Alain Resnais’ picture, Night and Fog. I was the only German in the audience, and everybody turned to me and said, “How is that possible?” And all I can say is, “I wish I knew.” It’s a question that has simply been part of my life forever. Unfortunately, we can’t just erase the experience, so the novel Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless [The Confusions of Young Törless] gave me the chance to show young men, boys I could say I related to, that felt familiar to me from my own experiences in boarding school. At the same time, I could address this human question: how was such a thing possible?

To finish reading this interview, visit Ruminator’s web site