Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Writer: Rudy Wurlitzer; Homo Faber by Max Frisch
Cinematographer: Giorgos Arvanitis; Pierre Lhomme
Producer: Eberhard Junkersdorf
by Jon Cvack
Honestly, until I put this in my queue I didn’t even know Volker Schlöndorff had even made an English film, let alone one with Judi Delphi and Sam Shepard. Nearly all the films I’ve seen of his involve politics in some or another, I knew this involved traveling, so I was hoping for some type of global political thriller. I was pretty off, as this his most cerebral - and bizarre - film.
The story involves engineer and self-proclaimed technologist Walter Faber after he crash lands an airplane in one of the most awful crash scenes I think I’ve ever seen in my life. While stranded, he learns that a fellow passenger is the brother of his old friend, Joachim (August Zirner), who just so happened to have married Walter’s ex-girlfriend Hannah (Barbara Sukowa). He learns that Hannah had gotten pregnant when her and Joachim got together. Joachim then proposed to her and she refused, threatening to get an abortion. Walter decides to visit Joachim over in Mexico City where he owns a tobacco farm and discovers Joachim had hanged himself. Walter heads home, where his recently dumped girlfriend Ivy waits for him with dinner prepared. He doesn’t want her there, and decides to head back to Paris for a business conference.
He takes a ship, where he meets a bunch of beatniks and intellectuals, including Elisabeth Piper (Julie Delphy), whose only nineteen years old. Given that I just watched Claire’s Knee as it was randomly next in my list (I never read what either movie was about), I’m noticing a strange coincidence here. Walter has a brief and interesting argument with the group about how the only art in the world worth anything is engineering, as it’s the one thing that’s allowing them to all be on that exact ship to begin with and debate the matter at all. He’s unable to see what creativity offers that engineering cannot. Later he ends up hooking up with Elisabeth.
The two begin to drive across France, with Elisabeth determined to see every bit of art each city has to offer, while Walter reads his newspaper, disinterested. They talk in a graveyard while Walter peels an apple. After Elisabeth goes swimming, she naps by a tree and gets bitten by a snake. We start to notice some symbols and then find out that Elisabeth is the daughter of his ex-girlfriend Hannah, who returns to town; that Joachim didn’t get Hannah pregnant, but rather Walter.. Walter nonetheless confesses his love for Elisabeth. They then have sex in Hannah’s house and Elizabeth dies from the bite.
Reading additional material, I came across the New York Times article on the director, which said:
"What's German about the film is the whole mentality of the piece," the director [Schlöndorff] continues. "It's not a question of language. You know, culture goes more insidious ways."
While some may see the film as a story of a man who entraps himself unknowingly with his daughter, Mr. Schlöndorff says the film is really "a very private story, telling you that you cannot, say, at 50, pick up your emotional life where you left it at 25.
"You may say it's too bad she happens to be his daughter, otherwise they'd be a happy couple forever after. But the story would not work even if it were not incest. The point is that he is denying his age, denying his experience. He is denying the fact that, as Max Frisch put it, that life is a curve. It's not a vector that goes on and on in a straight line."
Roger Ebert said it in that the end doesn’t really leave us with much. I agree. The NYT goes on to say it’s a modern day Oedipus story, and while I guess I agree, I still don’t really know what the point of any of it is. Oedipus Rex spans far beyond incest, but this story is about that taboo specifically. I actually figured that this movie might be pretty good if it just ended with Walter having to say goodbye upon learning the news, discovering his carnal desire for someone half his age panned out poorly (in that she died); rather than having to discover it was his daughter. Instead, the ending creates an uncomfortable vibe that pulls the entire film down. If you like Schlöndorff it’s worth checking out. If you know don’t know who he is, I don’t recommend starting with it.
BELOW: Nothing on YouTube, so here's Volker Schlöndorff's Criteron picks interview
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