When German filmmaker Eckhart Schmidt’s 1982 romantic shock thriller “The Fan” plays the prestigious Thessaloniki Festival this year, it’s a culmination of the film’s long multi-decade road back from critical disdain and commercial obscurity as well as a sweet vindication for the obstreperous octogenarian film artist and critic.
The Munich-based Schmidt’s iconoclastic career has taken him down a long and winding road from his first feature films in the ’60s, through a long stint as an outspoken film critic and successful television producer, entertainment arts documentarian, Bavarian film funds executive and back again to his first love as narrative filmmaker. In the past few years, he has directed nearly a dozen feature films. He was first noted in Variety in 1967 when his feature film directing debut, “Jet Generation,” was about to premiere in Germany.
When “Jet Generation” premiered, it was the height of the Swinging ‘60s in Europe. Were you in synch with that scene?
It was set in the world of fashion photography and it was modeled after an amazing photographer that I knew. His name was Khan von Ludwig and he was famous because he discovered a new way to photograph fur. Fashion designers came from all over the world to Munich to have him photograph their furs.
Was the film influenced by Antonioni’s “Blow-Up?”
Actually, I started shooting my film in 1965, but we came out after “Blow-Up.” But Khan von Ludwig was a wild genius. He became famous for his temper. He threw one of his visitors down the stairs of his villa. So I was inspired and made this film about an American girl who comes to find her brother’s killer and meets the fashion photographer who killed him. And she falls in love with him.
You were at the beginning of the film school generation of filmmakers. Did film school in Germany have an impact on your work?
At film school I met an American filmmaker who inspired my whole life: Stan Brakhage. He showed us “Sirius Remembered” and I saw how a filmmaker could take the death of his dog and the dog’s corpse and make him reborn — bring him back to life. I saw cinema as the creation of life, and it reached me emotionally and it stayed with me forever. I told Brakhage this 40 years later and he smiled and said, “Well it was a masterpiece.”
In just a few years in the ’60s you directed two features and wrote a third, but then you didn’t make another full-length film until “The Fan” in 1982. What were you doing in the ’70s?
I honestly don’t understand why I didn’t push harder to make films, but I did keep busy as a film critic and I worked on a TV talk show with presenter Blackie Fuchsberger for years. We had tremendous guests like Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, Schwarzenegger. Everyone who needed to promote their films in Germany turned up on our show.
Did working with Hollywood stars on that show have any impact on your return to directing?
It encouraged the attitude I already had, which was “Be yourself. Stick to what you believe. Don’t let anyone talk you out of what you already know.” I remember that was how Sylvester Stallone operated: “Be unique. Be specific.”
Did anyone else embody that philosophy?
Streisand knew exactly what she wanted and how to photograph her. She said, “I want this light off, I want that light on. I need a monitor.” All the technicians were confused, but I said, “Look she knows exactly how to do this. Just listen to her and do it the way she wants.” I guess I learned that most of the big stars are also total professionals.
That was 40 years ago. Do you think that’s still true?
What has changed is the openness. None of the guests wanted to know the questions in advance. They wanted it to be honest and spontaneous. Now everyone seems to be terrified and everything must be preapproved. There’s a lot more fear.
Speaking of change, “The Fan” had few fans among the critics — and now you’re playing Thessaloniki.
When I started, German cinema was in a period when the New German Cinema controlled everything and you had to be really ugly. If you weren’t digging deep into the mud, you didn’t have a chance. “Jet Generation” is very beautiful, and even though the message was anarchistic, it was full of beauty, wonderful locations, beautiful girls. They all hated the beauty.
But “The Fan” is more like an Italian “giallo” film of the era.
It’s not a horror movie, as many think. It’s like all of my films; it’s a love story.
(Spoiler alert) With cannibalism.
Hate to turns to love. She loves him and he betrays her, so she kills him. But eating him is the ultimate act of love. And I think the story is relevant today. Even more so with social media. It’s very clear that fans love their stars, but one false move and that love turns to hate.