Cinematic material

Volker Schlöndorff on life, literature and Return To Montauk.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Return To Montauk set at Lincoln Center
Return To Montauk set at Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

While filming Return To Montauk (Rückkehr Nach Montauk) in New York last spring, Volker Schlöndorff spoke to me on the set. His film will have its world premiere at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival in a couple of weeks. We discussed shooting in Berlin with Niels Arestrup and Stellan Skarsgård, connecting Sam Shepard to Max Frisch, Brooklyn author Colm Tóibín's Henry James in his novel The Master, Proust beyond Jeremy Irons in Swann In Love, shopping for clothes, Nina Hoss and Bronagh Gallagher at Lincoln Center, and what's in an affair.

Stellan Skarsgård, Mathias Sanders, Isioma Laborde-Edozien and Colm Tóibín - New York Public Library
Stellan Skarsgård, Mathias Sanders, Isioma Laborde-Edozien and Colm Tóibín - New York Public Library Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Return To Montauk, co-written by Tóibín, is the story of a writer, called Max Zorn (Skarsgård), who is married to Clara (Susanne Wolff). He comes to New York to promote his book and meets again, Rebecca, the woman (Hoss) who inspired the novel he is presenting and whom he had an affair with 17 years ago. Was she perhaps the love of his life? Can they begin again where it ended, in stormy Montauk, many moons ago? Based on real-life occurrences and people from, as I was told by Volker, his and Colm Tóibín's life, Max is an amalgam in search of love regained.

Anne-Katrin Titze: When I spoke to Colm [Tóibín], I brought up "W", Max Frisch's old childhood friend, mentioned in Montauk.

Volker Schlöndorff: We almost lifted him verbatim from Frisch into our story!

AKT: That's wonderful. He is Walter now?

VS: He is Walter. As Faber was Walter. You know, Sam Shepard [in Volker's film Voyager] was Walter.

AKT: Colm said you made him French?

VS: Well, our characters are all kind of European cosmopolitans. Max, Stellan, is a bit Scandinavian, a bit German and living in Berlin. He lived with his friend while they studied together in Switzerland. He lives now in Lausanne - he is not French, he would be Swiss.

Max Zorn (Stellan Skarsgård) with Rebecca (Nina Hoss) in Return To Montauk
Max Zorn (Stellan Skarsgård) with Rebecca (Nina Hoss) in Return To Montauk

AKT: Is that Niels Arestrup?

VS: Given that it's Niels Arestrup, he may be Danish. So it's two Scandinavian friends, maybe they did study in Copenhagen together. We don't know about that.

AKT: It's great to have him back after Diplomacy.

VS: I can't wait to see the two of them in one room because they are both such powerful personalities.

AKT: Have they met?

VS: Not yet.

AKT: You will be filming them in Berlin?

VS: Yes, it's part of all the interiors which we will do in Berlin.

AKT: These scenes are not flashback either?

Nina Hoss looks over Bronagh Gallagher's shoulder
Nina Hoss looks over Bronagh Gallagher's shoulder Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

VS: No, no, it's in the present. They meet as by chance. But again, there is no chance or coincidence. Clara [Susanne Wolff], his current wife, comes with him to visit Walter and his art collection. She gets into a fight with Walter because he is - not neglecting his collection, but on purpose, exposing it to the sun so it may fade before he fades away. And she is very upset about this because art belongs not to one person but to everybody. And he says, no, I own it, I bought it and I can destroy it.

AKT: That's exactly how he is described in the novel. I have hardly ever read a description of a friendship between two men that was so intriguing. It's fascinating.

VS: Also, Max buys some new clothes in New York with the help of his young publicist [Lindsey, played by Isi Laborde-Edozien] - whom he has absolutely no affair with. She is very young and more like an intern who is taking him from one interview to the other. He thinks he wants to change persona and wants to get rid of his tweed jacket.

It's so much the caricature of the European writer. So she takes him to a very hip store in the Meatpacking District and Max is trying on clothes. They don't quite fit, you know, the trousers or the arms, so the young publicist helps him to mend them and that reminds him of his mother, shortening or extending the clothes of his friend he always had to wear.

Volker Schlöndorff filming Return To Montauk in New York City
Volker Schlöndorff filming Return To Montauk in New York City Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Oh, yes, I remember, Frisch describes it as the one thing that always bothered him in the friendship - the inherited clothes.

VS: And we have a variation of that. I think anybody can understand this movie without ever having heard of Max Frisch but for those who like … Variations in culture are so important. You never quite invent anything. His jealousy is right out of Proust also.

AKT: Which ties it back to earlier. [We spoke briefly about Jeremy Irons promoting his latest film. He played Swann in Volker's Proust adaptation].

VS: If you want to look for these literary clues, you can find them. But you can also enjoy the show without looking for such things.

AKT: It's really nice to have these layers. The shopping scene - was that what you were telling me about on the set?

VS: No, we didn't shoot that yet.

AKT: Where are you going to go for that clothing store?

New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue - a location for Return To Montauk
New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue - a location for Return To Montauk Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

VS: You know, where Comme des Garçons and all that stuff is in the former Meatpacking District.

AKT: Is he going to Comme des Garçons?

VS: No, no, we don't mention it. It's a small designer shop.

AKT: A quote from the book: "I have not lived with you to become literary material." Did you ever hear that?

VS (laughing): Oh yes! I don't claim to be literary, but when I wrote my autobiography, a few people were very unhappy. Not so much for the way I put their antics into the book, but for the way I described others. The importance of one relative to another. But this is our life. Even when doing literary adaptations, as I mostly did, you still have to use your own experience, your own life experience.

A lot of characters, I don't know, Margarethe von Trotta in Coup De Grâce, or others were, of course, inspired by people who became literary material. That's what art is all about. It'd be silly to invent people. Henry James in Colm Tóibín's The Master said, "a novel needs life lived behind it."

AKT: In the beautiful foreword to Portrait of a Lady, Henry James describes how his Isabel Archer was suddenly there, she was present and he just had to put her in there.

VS: That is a bit what happened to us with some of the characters. Max is 50% Colm Tóibín and 50% myself.

Montauk Summer Ale at John Dory
Montauk Summer Ale at John Dory Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: And has the first name of Max Frisch.

VS: Yeah, we kept that name. But we call him Max Zorn.

AKT: Because of the German meaning of the word?

VS: It seemed like a good name for him. Both his wife [Clara] and his former love [Rebecca] are inspired by real people.

AKT: Tell me about the Nina Hoss scene you were shooting downtown.

VS: He finds out that she lives in New York. He didn't know. He never heard of her again. She became a total expat, doesn't want to return to Germany. She is a successful corporate lawyer. He goes to find her, almost stalking her, because she doesn't want to talk on the phone with him. Of course, he can't get past security.

AKT: Wasn't she at his reading?

VS: She was virtually but he did not see her. That's where he finds out that she is in town. She would not let him come up to her office. She comes down to the lobby and that's where they have their first meeting in 17 years among the security guards.

Volker Schlöndorff jokes with Isioma Laborde-Edozien and Stellan Skarsgård
Volker Schlöndorff jokes with Isioma Laborde-Edozien and Stellan Skarsgård Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Good place!

VS: It's a very haunting scene.

AKT: There must be an absolutely wonderful ending. Colm mentioned something. But we don't talk about that?

VS: No. Let's not. It's a very open ending.

Berlin International Film Festival screenings: Wednesday, February 15 at 7:00pm; Thursday, February 16 at 9:30am and 3:30pm; Sunday, February 19 at 9:30am -Expected to attend: Volker Schlöndorff, Nina Hoss, Stellan Skarsgård, Bronagh Gallagher, Susanne Wolff, Mathias Sanders, and Isi Laborde-Edozien.

Read how Volker Schlöndorff directs cast and crew on the Return To Montauk set.

Read co-screenwriter Colm Tóibín in conversation on his Return To Montauk collaboration with Volker Schlöndorff.

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

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