With his competition entry “Return to Montauk,” German helmer Volker Schlöndorff returns to the works of Swiss author Max Frisch, whose “Homo Faber” the filmmaker adapted in 1991.
“Return,” which stars Stellan Skarsgard, Nina Hoss, and Susanne Wolff, follows Max, a writer who is about to publish a very personal novel about a great but failed love affair and who manages to reconnect with Rebecca, the object of his long ago affections.
Discussing the production — the first German title to unspool in competition at this year’s Berlinale — Schlöndorff, who also co-wrote and produced the film, touched on the film’s autobiographical elements. The filmmaker said he would have loved to have made the film with the late Frisch, noting that the story and experiences chronicled were based on real events and dealt with very universal and human themes, such as lost love and regret. “We always have some kinds of regret in our imagination rather than in real life. We carry our dreams within us.”
Schlöndorff described the film’s story as “poetry and truth combined,” to which he quickly added, “Not that I’m trying to compare myself with Goethe with that quote.” (The autobiography of 19th-century German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is titled “From My Life: Poetry and Truth.”)
The writer-director drew laughs when he recounted his pitch to Skarsgard: “I called Stellan; he said, ‘It won’t sell lots of popcorn but it’s just up my alley.’ I knew from his reply that I had guessed right about him.”
Turning to Hoss, Schlöndorff added, “You may not know this Nina, but when I asked Stellan who he could imagine in the role of Rebecca, he said, ‘Nina Hoss.’ I said, ‘That’s good because we have her.’ … When you’ve got someone like Nina Hoss, no one can compete.”
Speaking about her role, Hoss said Rebecca was “a bit of dream character — an invention of the man — that’s how she enters the film. And she has to liberate herself from that role. … I thought that was really interesting.”
Asked about his use of silence in the film and in his roles in general, Skarsgard explained: “I normally try to cut out as much of the dialogue as I can. I always tell my directors, ‘Don’t worry, I can express that with my eyes.’”
On the look of the film, which shot on location in Montauk, New York, Schlöndorff said that while he had never before worked with cinematographer Jérôme Alméras, “we just seemed to like the same things: Faces and light — and no additional light. Montauk is known for the beauty of its light.”
Schlöndorff also praised fellow filmmaker and star Til Schweiger, who helped back the film with some €400,000 ($422,984) – about 10% of the budget – when the producers were unable to come up with all of the necessary financing.
The project also marked the first collaboration between Schlöndorff and Regina Ziegler, one of Germany’s most prolific producers. Ziegler said the she agreed to work with Schlöndorff after an accidental meeting on Long Island and finding the story of the film inspiring. “It was fantastic teamwork. Volker is a total professional. We actually stayed within budget.”
Ziegler added that the collaboration would likely continue with another project.