'68: A Long Time Coming

Volker Schlöndorff on the famous student protests, individuals and the tides of history

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Volker Schlöndorff‬ on Germany in Autumn (Deutschland Im Herbst): "In the film there is a segment which Heinrich Böll wrote and I directed about an Antigone production …"
Volker Schlöndorff‬ on Germany in Autumn (Deutschland Im Herbst): "In the film there is a segment which Heinrich Böll wrote and I directed about an Antigone production …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

On the last day in April, after having returned from Indiana where he spoke at the 1968 in Europe and Latin America conference (held at the University of Notre Dame), Volker Schlöndorff met with me at Lincoln Center for a follow-up conversation on the topic. His 1966 film Young Törless, starring Mathieu Carrière, was also screened.

Earlier that morning he was up at Columbia discussing Antigone and May '68 in a class taught by his Return To Montauk co-screenwriter Colm Tóibín. The director of the Oscar-winning Tin Drum on the 50th anniversary year of the student protests shared his memories on the legacy of '68 and the eternal return of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Max Zorn (Stellan Skarsgård) with Rebecca (Nina Hoss) in ‪Volker Schlöndorff‬'s Return To Montauk
Max Zorn (Stellan Skarsgård) with Rebecca (Nina Hoss) in ‪Volker Schlöndorff‬'s Return To Montauk

Volker, along with Alexander Kluge, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Edgar Reitz, Bernhard Sinkel, Katja Rupé, Alf Brustellin, Hans Peter Cloos, and others, directed segments for the 1978 film Germany In Autumn (Deutschland Im Herbst) that dealt with the mood in Germany after the death of kidnapped industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer in 1977 and the storm surrounding the burials of the imprisoned members of the group responsible.

Anne-Katrin Titze: It was in Stuttgart, wasn't it, where the burial controversy took place?

Volker Schlöndorff?: You're well-informed or you have a good memory.

AKT: I vaguely remember it from the film [Germany In Autumn].

VS: Which then partly was the subject of Margarethe's [von Trotta] Marianne and Juliane. So at the occasion of '68 all these old stories come up again.

AKT: I didn't remember the connection to Antigone and what the burial means.

VS: In the film there is a segment which Heinrich Böll wrote and I directed about an Antigone production that could not be aired at this point as a satire because the Greek tragedy was too close to reality. It was too contemporary to be aired.

‪Volker Schlöndorff‬'s Antigone from Germany In Autumn with Helmut Griem and Angela Winkler
‪Volker Schlöndorff‬'s Antigone from Germany In Autumn with Helmut Griem and Angela Winkler

AKT: It feels that way sometimes, the old myths and tales represent best the times we live in.

VS: These young students of course were happy to get some background firsthand. How '68 had produced that tiny minority of violence and action. But today '68 is mostly remembered for this violence, which is very unfair.

This again was the theme at the conference at Notre Dame - that what it really was, was a cultural revolution. Say, it was more than a protest and it was less than a revolution. It was just against hierarchies and authorities.

AKT: And in Germany, finally addressing properly the recent past.

VS: Yeah. In Germany but also in France. It left a change, I mean, in the relationship between, let's say, older and younger generations. Children and parents were never the same again, school between teachers and students, in general in society between men and women. The women's liberation was then the next step after '68. So it really changed society somewhat.

AKT: At the conference they were showing Young Törless?

Mathieu Carrière in ‪Volker Schlöndorff‬'s Young Törless
Mathieu Carrière in ‪Volker Schlöndorff‬'s Young Törless

VS: Yeah, but that was kind of almost unrelated. Though then some people made the connection because it was done in '66 and it was a sign that there were changes all over society. All of a sudden a new kind of filmmakers emerged, new literature emerged and all these new wave movements were kind of predecessors to what the students' movement then was.

My, how do you say, keynote speech or my paper, was actually called "'68 - A long time coming" Because I said it was with the collapse of the German middle class in 1945 that it actually started. They reconsolidated but again and again there were attempts and then finally there came the Auschwitz trials, and all that together led then to '68.

The interesting thing about this conference which was based on '68 in Latin America and Europe, not United States, was just specific to these because of the department of humanities there organising it.

AKT: You have been it touch with all kinds of Jesuits …

VS: There were no Jesuits at all! Actually it's not a Jesuit school, it's a Catholic school, a French Catholic school. Not even Irish although their team [nickname] is called The Fighting Irish. There were scholars and writers from South America, from Italy, the Netherlands, me and others.

Stellan Skarsgård with Walter (Niels Arestrup) in Return To Montauk
Stellan Skarsgård with Walter (Niels Arestrup) in Return To Montauk

We were all amazed how this '68 happened within two or three months almost all over the world. Without knowing of each other. How come it's simultaneous all of a sudden?

There's the Prague Spring with Dubcek, there's Dany Cohn-Bendit in Paris, there's Rudi Dutschke in Berlin, there's Angela Davis in Berkeley. There's students in Japan occupying the site of the new airport, there's in Chile a whole overthrow, there's in Mexico a terrible massacre of students who started their movement.

And there was no internet, there was no social media. It seems all unconnected to each other and yet it happens at the same time. So what exactly is at work within human history?

AKT: Did you come to a result?

VS: No, absolutely not. The question itself, I mean, I raised the question because everyone there was giving a detailed account of his thing. And I said, okay, for me it's a bit late to learn how it happened in Chile or this or that. I am curious how it happened everywhere almost at the same time. And that nobody has an answer to.

Don Kent's Les Années 68 opens Remembering May 1968 at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York
Don Kent's Les Années 68 opens Remembering May 1968 at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York

AKT: Zeitgeist.

VS: Exactly! That word came up all the time. But good old Claude Lévi-Strauss in the aftermath of '68 said when asked to support this or that movement - he said: I don't do that anymore because I came to the conviction that these are very long-term waves, movements within human history moving from dictatorial or populist regimes to more libertarian, democratic, even anarchic ones and then back. And he said the individual has very little influence on it. And yet these movements are made up of a lot of individual voices. So there he is wrong.

1968 in Europe and Latin America - A Working Conference at the University of Notre Dame took place on April 26 through April 29.

CinéSalon's Remembering May 1968 program at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York starts May 8 and screens on Tuesdays throughout May.

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