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September 02, 2006

Two War-time films by Volker Schlondorff

coupdegrace.jpg

Coup de Grace/Der Fangschuss
Volker Schlondorff - 1976
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

ogre.jpg

The Ogre/Der Unhold
Volker Schlondorff - 1996
Kino Films Region 1 DVD

I've been thinking about a couple of Volker Schlondorff's earlier films because of recent events. The news about Gunter Grass admitting to Nazi activity in World War II probably sent some film scholars scrambling to re-examine Schlondorff's film of The Tin Drum. The recent war in Lebanon made me think of Circle of Deceit, Schlondorff's film shot in civil war torn Beirut in 1980. The two films I saw, Coup de Grace and The Ogre are in some ways complimentary, if reversed stories about Germans in war. Coup de Grace is about a German woman living in one of the Baltic states in 1920, an outsider in a country experiencing civil war between nationalists and German settlers against Bolsheviks right after World War I. The Ogre is about an outsider, a French prisoner of war, who temporarily identifies with his German captors. Again Schlondorff looks at the theme of identity and morality during wartime, particularly what it means to be a German.

Schlondorff dedicated his films to this mentors. Coup de Grace is dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville, while Louis Malle is honored at the end of The Ogre. The connection to Melville is made clearer in the DVD interview where Schlondorff discusses working with minimal materials, although there is also a hazy thematic connection in the examination of the characters' conflicting codes of morality and loyalty. The Ogre has ties most clearly with Au Revoir, les Enfants, with its boys' school setting, and Lacombe Lucien in having the protagonist be a young French man who works on behalf of the Nazis for his own personal gain, but is otherwise apolitical.

The image above of Margarethe von Trotta kicking back against the table in Coup de Grace made me think of the somewhat similar image of Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine. Was Schlondorff thinking of John Ford at the time? Maybe I'm pushing a point here, but Schlondorff also worked with Ford actors Woody Strode and Richard Widmark in A Gathering of Old Men. There is a distant similarity in Ford and Schlondorff's themes, using historical events as backdrops to their films, and the exploration of national identity.

In The Ogre, John Malkovich has taken the role of Pied Piper, leading young German boys to dedicate their lives to Hitler. A scene of athletic events is unmistakably shot in the style of Olympia with images of boys defying gravity. The scene is neither an outright homage, nor is it fair to call it a parody of Riefenstahl. Perhaps Schlondorff hoped to at least partially remake Olympia as a critique of Nazi ideals, twisting Riefenstahl's original intent. This would be consistent with the filmmaker who made it his mission to reclaim German cinema by shooting his first feature in the style of Fritz Lang, and rebuild the Babelsberg Studio. For Volker Schlondorff, the history of Germany and German film are closely intertwined.

In discussing filmmaking in general, Schlondorff stated: "I don't really know whether films can change society. But I feel we need those films with a conscience to enrich our lives, that movies can do. To put things into perspective, and to all of a sudden see that in other places and in other times people had similar struggles as we have right now, is enlightening, is enriching and is encouraging. So we simply need that. I think art in general is a great help for us to survive."

Posted by peter at September 2, 2006 08:41 PM

Comments

Peter,

How serendipitous a post. I just finished watching COUP DE GRACE, jotted down my viewing of it in my film journal on my desk, and wrapped up the DVD to send back to GreenCine in exchange for the next film in my queue, when I went to the GreenCine blog and saw the link to your commentary.

COUP DE GRACE is a film I have to sit w/ for a while, so I can't really comment on your comments outside of just how nice it is to have those finds of alignment in the digital universe.

The score for the film was lovely. I'm unsure if the score is original to the film. Guess I could research that online, but my stomach is growling, letting me know I have needs to attend to that will push desires and interests aside for now.

Adam

Posted by: Adam at September 4, 2006 05:18 PM

The British composer Stanley Myers wrote the original score. Myers wrote the music for other Schlondorff films and notably worked several times with Nic Roeg and Stephen Frears.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at September 4, 2006 05:51 PM