An affair to remember

We return to Montauk with Volker Schlöndorff.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Volker Schlöndorff directs cast and crew on Return to Montauk set
Volker Schlöndorff directs cast and crew on Return to Montauk set Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

When Volker Schlöndorff sent me the call sheet for his Return To Montauk shoot in New York City, we arranged a schedule for me to be on set to document the goings-on as he was filming at the New York Public Library and up at Lincoln Center. The film, co-written with Colm Tóibín, stars Stellan Skarsgård and Nina Hoss with Niels Arestrup, Susanne Wolff (Dominik Graf's Dreileben 2: Don't Follow Me Around), Isioma Laborde-Edozien, Mathias Sanders and Bronagh Gallagher (Alan Parker's The Commitments).

Stellan Skarsgård as Max Zorn
Stellan Skarsgård as Max Zorn Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Volker and I met at his hotel the day after he was shooting in the Financial District, for a conversation that led us to a quote from Thoreau, connecting Sam Shepard to Max Frisch, Colm Tóibín's Henry James in his novel The Master, Proust beyond Jeremy Irons in Swann In Love, Niels Arestrup and Stellan Skarsgård meeting in Berlin, and shopping for clothes.

We begin from the beginning and Volker starts by explaining the scenes shot in New York.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Let's start with the scene on the steps you shot last week. What is going on there?

Volker Schlöndorff: The writer [Max] is in town to do publicity for his book and he has a reading at the New York Public Library.

AKT: And Colm's role is…?

Volker Schlöndorff talks to Susanne Wolff (Clara)
Volker Schlöndorff talks to Susanne Wolff (Clara) Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

VS: Colm is just hosting or monitoring the reading and introducing him. In the story, the writer says that 17 years ago he was a fellow at the New York Public Library. Upstairs, you know, very searched for, because you get paid to do nothing but reading and writing for a whole year in a little room upstairs. Colm, as well as our imaginary writer, used to have that.

So in our story, it's during that year in New York that he met young Nina Hoss [Rebecca] and they had this affair which ended badly somehow. As he says "They didn't show up too well at the end - one or the other." Which is a quote from Max Frisch. As the whole thing is always playing with the Max proposition.

AKT: It's playing with the Max Frisch connection?

VS: But this character, the love of his life he missed, does not exist in Max Frisch. But it's our centerpiece. So during that reading, he will run into her again and pursue her and convince her to come once more to Montauk with him for a weekend.

AKT: Once more, you say. So they had been to Montauk before in the past?

VS: Oh yes. They had this big affair.

Volker Schlöndorff gets a smile from Mathias Sanders as co-writer Colm Tóibín is deep in thought
Volker Schlöndorff gets a smile from Mathias Sanders as co-writer Colm Tóibín is deep in thought Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: In Montauk?

VS: In Montauk! The ocean, the wind, the waves, the moon - love.

AKT: But it is a film without flashbacks, right?

VS: No flashbacks. The flashbacks are all in the audience's mind, because he [Max] is reading from his book where he describes this affair. The picture opens on a long reading. A few pages from a book in a closeup. And then at the Public Library he has another reading and the person in question is somehow in the room.

AKT: And also his present relationship?

VS: His present relationship, called Clara, is there, played by Susanne Wolff. She preceded him in New York by a few months to do an internship at a publishing house to learn about e-booking. And he suspects her to have an affair with one of the publishers.

AKT: But not the one we see walking up the steps?

VS: No, another one. But that may be in his mind only.

AKT: As an excuse to indulge in his past?

VS: As an excuse to indulge and to try to win her back.

Extras in costume
Extras in costume Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: So to make it very clear - Max Frisch's Montauk is hovering over the project. It is clearly not an adaptation.

VS: It's an homage. With the consent of the Max Frisch estate. We just took this basic situation. A writer comes to New York for a week and has an affair in Montauk during the weekend. That is the general proposition. But all the characters are different. They are not taken from Max Frisch's life because his book was completely autobiographical. I mean, not even a key novel but simply he named all the names. Kind of a sad sincerity.

AKT: Sad sincerity?

VS: Well, that's a quote from Thoreau. But in our case, it's no fiction either because every character and every relationship in the movie comes either from my life or from Colm Tóibín's life. We tried to base it entirely on life lived, as Max Frisch did. But life lived by others.

AKT: There is a lovely little detail in Frisch's Montauk, where he marvels about the Mayans and their presumed tradition of breaking all the dishes once in a while to start anew. Your film does something like that. New dishes, same concept?

VS: Yes. Of course, I had discussions with Max Frisch - we were very close in the last two years of his life. I am still driving his Jaguar. We discussed the possibility of turning his Montauk into a movie. And we said, no, it's not possible because it's not fiction. It's not a novel, it's a confession. So when the idea kind of came back, I discussed it with Colm. And we had the idea, why don't we do a similar thing today and make us the principals?

Return To Montauk clapboard - cinematographer Jérôme Alméras
Return To Montauk clapboard - cinematographer Jérôme Alméras Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Making it two lives, will have everybody guess whose life is what.

VS: I don't think we are such celebrities that the keys to the characters or the stories are very interesting. It's more the theme. The regret that sneaks in at a certain point in life that maybe at some point you took a wrong turn. And everything would have been different if then you had behaved in a different way. In this case, if then you had, let's say, married that person or lived with her.

That over the years, becomes like an obsession. You invent a whole novel around it. You turn the real character into a fiction - what would have been? Well, and most people do have in their lives such a story which later they regret. Here, it's a bit about - can you ever connect with it again? Could the past have a future?

AKT: Or is it forever in the past?

VS: That is a question every character would give a different answer to.

AKT: Each character in your film?

VS: In this case, both characters have a different view of that.

Stellan Skarsgård and Volker Schlöndorff at the end of the day at the New York Public Library
Stellan Skarsgård and Volker Schlöndorff at the end of the day at the New York Public Library Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The shoot out in Montauk is coming up.

VS: We started here in New York, we just finished the first week. We have two more days in the city and then we go to Montauk. In New York we only did exteriors, basically. In Montauk, we will do the whole Montauk weekend episode, the interiors as well as the exteriors. We are lucky that the weather is as it is because we wanted this to be off-season.

AKT: The temperatures now are as off as it gets. [rainy low 50s Fahrenheit in early May]

VS: Everything is closed. It's sad. But you can still have those long walks on the beach. It's not the blue sky, nor Montauk, the surfer paradise. It's the Montauk in winter.

Coming up - Shooting in Berlin with Niels Arestrup and Stellan Skarsgård, connecting Sam Shepard to Max Frisch, Colm Tóibín's Henry James in his novel The Master, Proust beyond Jeremy Irons in Swann in Love, shopping for clothes, Nina Hoss at Lincoln Center and what's in an affair.

Read Brooklyn author Colm Tóibín in conversation on his Return To Montauk collaboration with Volker Schlöndorff.

Margarethe von Trotta and Pam Katz on the set of Return To Montauk.

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