A director who pursues the inner demons by Joe Tagliabue
Source: NY Times - January 26, 1992

Volker Schlondorff already had an Oscar-winning movie, "The Tin Drum" (1979), to his credit when he moved to New York, following the trail of many young German directors to the United States. But by 1987 his career had stalled, his marriage to the film maker Margarethe von Trotta was breaking up, and at the age of 47 he could perhaps identify with a man like Walter Faber.

At this point the idea came to him of filming the tale of Faber, the antihero created in 1959 by the Swiss novelist Max Frisch. The character is a Swiss engineer who inadvertently falls into a tryst with his own daughter, conceived two decades before, during a love affair with a young Jewish woman in Zurich. The film, "Voyager," opens in New York on Friday.

Movie rights to the novel "Homo Faber" had been purchased for Paramount many years before by Anthony Quinn, who was apparently intrigued by the fact that its final scenes play out on the sun-drenched Aegean shores of Zorba's Greece. (In Greek tragic dimensions, the daughter is bitten by a snake, topples over backward and dies when she strikes her head on a rock.)

For his part, Frisch wrote the novel as a kind of reflection on his country's complex but little-analyzed role in World War II. The story is laced with the thoughtlessness and casual neglect of the Swiss engineer toward the young Jewish woman, who bears the child on the eve of World War II. The character shows some resemblance to Frisch, a frustrated architect turned author.

But for Mr. Schlondorff, who ultimately obtained the movie rights, the story was less a political morality tale than a haunting chronicle of personal destruction. As a result, he felt comfortable changing the nationality of the protagonist, although most of the settings and other characters have remained European. Sam Shepard plays Faber, and the character is transformed into an American engineer.

As with many of Mr. Schlondorff's adaptations (among them Margaret Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale," the highly acclaimed television production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," starring Dustin Hoffman, and, of course, Gunter Grass's "Tin Drum"), the book's author played an intense role.

Tragically, Frisch was diagnosed with terminal cancer during production. He died last April at the age of 79, before the film was completed but not before approving significant changes and the principal actors and actresses, as Mr. Schlondorff, chatting in his Munich apartment, remembers.

One casting decision made a particular impact. Frisch seemed almost overwhelmed by the choice of the young French actress Julie Delpy to play the unwitting daughter Sabeth. "You could feel there was some emotional link" between the two, "not just that she was a fine actress. Some chord was touched."

Frisch had a very different reaction to Sam Shepard. He was initially shocked by Mr. Shepard's portrayal of Faber, says Mr. Schlondorff. "He found this man was so closed within himself. He perceived him as laconic, feelingless, like a killer. Frisch was afraid that people would hate the character.

"It showed enormous grandeur to accept this tall, lean American as his alter ego."

For Mr. Schlondorff, the choice of an actor to play Faber was crucial; he considered a number of actors, including William Hurt, but settled on Mr. Shepard, partly because of his unorthodox acting habits.

"Sam contributed a great deal to the film, not so much by writing as by his reactions," says Mr. Schlondorff. "Some actors can give you any line you write down. Others, like Sam, can only read a line when they feel it's right. And when he felt it was wrong, I didn't question his capacity as an actor. I said something must be wrong with the line; something may even be wrong with this situation."

Turning the film into an American tale, albeit played out in Europe, had its risks. "Europeans will see Sam Shepard as quintessentially American," says Mr. Schlondorff. "Quintessential Americans will probably see him as a total outsider."

There were also difficulties with the cultural officials of Germany and France who approved the financing of the $11 million project. He recalls a lengthy debate with the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, for example.

Although much of the shooting was done in German studios near Munich and some was done on location in France, Italy and Greece, scenes were also filmed in Mexico and Southern California. Mr. Schlondorff faced strenuous objections that the film was not European. The dialogue is in English.

"On paper this was a French-German co-production, I was told, so they said it had to be in French or German," Mr. Schlondorff explains. Eventually, however, the European sponsors gave in.

"What's German about the film is the whole mentality of the piece," the director 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. Schlondorff 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.