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Volker Schlöndorff and Europe

I like many of the movies of the German director Volker Schlöndorff, whose first film I saw as a grad student a long time. It was called Young Törless and was an impressive adaptation of a book by Robert Musil, catching the sadness and confusion of adolescence and longing, and its attraction. Looking at his filmography, I realize now that what he’s really good at is movies that come from good books: The Tin Drum, for example, and Swann in Love, which I took to watching for inspiration and momentum when I mired down in the early part of Proust vol 1. It got me through to the end of that volume. As you can see, he’s got a very European sensibility.

I mention this because the other night I rented Voyager, the English marketing name for a 1991 movie that in German was called Homo Faber, from a 1957 book of that title by Max Frisch. The movie stars an oh-so-young-and-beautiful Julie Delpy, with Sam Shepard as cold Mr Faber, and in a smaller role, Barbara Sukowa. It’s a strange and implausible story of coincidence and destiny, but it hangs together, ending in Athens in Greek tragedic fashion. I won’t give the ending away, which I knew in advance from the book.

It’s set in 1957 and beautifully filmed. The story is ultimately melodramatic, but it confronts what could be melodrama so flatly and matter-of-factly that it moves along like a fable and doesn’t make one question the plausibility, part fable but somehow real.

There are clashings of opposites in the movie, but the opposites clash interestingly with each other:

  • rationality vs. emotion
  • planning vs fate
  • Sam Shepard as technocratic cold America vs. Julie Delpy as cultured sophisticated Europe.
  • From a Henry James point of view you would think America would be young and innocent and Europe old and corrupt, but here Julie/Europe is young and Sam/America is old.

In their own way, they’re both innocent.

I note that Sam Shepard plays a frozen man so bluntly, unremittingly and convincingly that it’s hard to understand what Julie Delpy sees in him. But I’m not a woman.

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