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    A Peak of European Cinema. Volker Schlöndorff’s Calm at Sea

    By Wolfgang J. Ruf | April 26, 2012

    André Jung, Harald Schrott, Ulrich Matthes in Volker Schlöndorff's Calm At Sea, courtesy Berlinale/

    André Jung, Harald Schrott, Ulrich Matthes in Volker Schlöndorff's Calm At Sea, courtesy Berlinale

    Already with his first feature film Young Törless, director Volker Schlöndorff gained international attention. His adaption of Robert Musil’s novel won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, and the young German cineaste, who had collected profound experiences as assistant director of French masters Louis Malle, Alain Resnais and Jean-Pierre Melville was immediately accepted as a head of the New German Cinema. Since then Schlöndorff has realized more than 30 films, among them 26 features. Maybe the most amazing quality of his work is the simultaneity of an always strong personal mark and the great openness about different possibilities to reflect on history and reality.

    These qualities fit very well with his inclination to focus on literature adaptions time after time, and always trying to be faithful to them. At least in Germany, there is no other film maker who adapted such a great variety of literature. In 1975 he polarized audiences, critics and politicians with his film version of Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. He filmed in 1979 Günther Grass’ novel The Tin Drum and won an Oscar as well as the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival. He brought works of Heinrich von Kleist, Marcel Proust, Bertolt Brecht (Baal with the then not yet famous R. W. Fassbinder in the lead role), Max Frisch, Nicolas Born and Margaret Atwood, Arthur Miller, Michel Tournier and Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt on the screen. But he also participated in political film projects as Germany in Autumn or covered political events as the formation of Solidarity in Poland with Strike. Obviously his films are expressing always his personal perspective on changing and evolving society. On the occasion of The Legend of Rita (2000), an outstanding film on the German unification, Anthony Oliver Scott, chief film critic of The New York Times, did praise Schlöndorff for “the politically urgent, ethically complex and clear-sighted filmmaking that marks his strongest work.”

    These words are as well accurate for Schlöndorff’s recent film. From many aspects the French-German co-production Calm at Sea can be considered as a peak of European cinema. Schlöndorff here achieved to assemble all of his skills as a filmmaker as well of his personal experiences in life to create a very moving and historically accurately told story. It confronts the audience with the complexity of a historical event, which marks one of the darkest chapters in the relations between Germany and France. When in October 1941, during the German occupation of France in World War II, a German officer was killed in the city of Nantes by young communist members of the Résistance, Hitler ordered the execution of 150 hostages in retaliation. In France this event is well known, it marks the Résistance’s reinforcement. The youngest victim of these hostages, the only 17 years old Guy Môquet, is still today an patriotic icon. In Germany however this incident remained largely unknown.

    Just a few years ago a critical report from a German point of view has been discovered and published in the meantime. Its author is the famous, but also controversially discussed writer Ernst Jünger (1895-1998), who served at that time as a captain at the Wehrmacht headquarters of Paris. In great detail he described the futile attempts to moderate the inhumane orders of Berlin which would turn even the collaborating French into enemies. In Jünger’s archive there there has been found German translations of the victim’s farewell-letters, among them also the famous one of Guy Môquet. Since 2007 – on behalf of French President Sarkozy’s request – this letter is read publicly in every high school in France at the anniversary of Môquet’s death. Jünger, who was conservative as well as francophile, seems to get more reputation in today’s France than in Germany itself. In this act of blind retaliation he absents himself from his notorious attitude as the indifferent observer.

    Based on contemporary documents including the writings of Ernst Jünger and the French journalist Pierre-Louis Basse, Schlöndorff’s film shows these terrible events at different levels and from different pesrpectives. There are cowards and heroes, but mostly human beings who are clueless caught in a net of narrow-minded views, fanatical ideas and bureaucratic interdependencies. In focus are the young Môquet, all of a sudden loosing his juvenile light-heartedness, the German officer and writer Ernst Jünger, trying to deceive himself from his own involvement, but also the young French head of administration, who selects the victims among the detainees in a camp for communists and other members of the Résistance “to avoid the execution of respectable French”, as he defends his conduct. Inspired by Heinrich Böll’s autobiographical stories, Schlöndorff added a young German soldier of the firing squad to the story, who is collapsing. So, Schlöndorff succeeds to describe the contradictional panorama of all these different motivations and attitudes – culminating in a tragic juxtaposition of blind obedience and desperate hopes on both sides – even the French collaboration is morally exposed, but without any relativism of the German invaders’ guilt.

    Calm at Sea fascinates with breathtaking authenticity, which is also the result of a convincing cast. The fresh-faced look of Léo-Paul Salmain as Guy Môquet and Ulrich Matthes’ distinctive portrait of the ambiguous Ernst Jünger stay in mind as expression of entirely different designs of living.

    Also Schlöndorff’s insistence on the bilingualism, in spite of the German TV’s aversion to subtitles, here is of importance. With all such intensive, but nonetheless careful attention, Schlöndorff avoids the hindsight bias, which so often are disturbing historical films. This is a really outstanding quality, which gives his film a deep impact. It would be ridiculous to criticize Calm at Sea as conventional or even old-fashioned. On the contrary it’s a virtue of this film that its director seems to stay in the background, just trying to serve the outrageous story at best – instead of interfering pretentiously. Of course, an important precondition of this film is Schlöndorff’s biographical familiarity with France. Already in 1956, when he was a young exchange student in the Bretagne, he got aware of this war crime incident and its significance for France’s national identity.

    A few weeks ago, Schlöndorff has even published a novel on the film’s topic in France – La Mer à l’aube: Les dernières heures de Guy Môquet (Éditions Saint-Simon, Paris). The fact that a German cinéaste has realized this film also for a French audience should not be underestimated by its cultural-political significance. Beyond every-day-politics frictions like in the current Euro crisis this film testifies to the depth of the French-German relationship which has been hardly imaginable just a few decades ago.

    “It’s just a little story,” Schlöndorff says on his film, “but of immense relevance because of the courage shown by so many involved; of its mercilessness in its curse as a Greek tragedy and almost incomprehensible in today’s Europe. Who ever is tired of Europe should remember where we come from!”

    See also: Dorothea Holloways review  “Calm at Sea” von Volker Schlöndorff. Ein Kriegsdrama

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