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Premieres & Events

"I'm Here For Volker"

John Malkovich and Volker Schlöndorff at Monday's New York premiere of Strike (Photo: WireImage)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

The Reeler dropped by the Tribeca Grand on Monday, when filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff premiered his latest, Strike, to a cosmopolitan audience gearing up for all kinds of sexy Solidarnosc biopic splendor. The film features Katharina Thalbach as Polish shipyard worker Agnieszka, who, after witnessing the negligent death of a colleague, initiates a series of protests and a strike that contributed to the Iron Curtain-piercing Solidarnosc movement of the 1980s. Which was great and all, but the tip sheet said Faye Dunaway was coming, and I had some big questions about Fashion the Movie.

Reduced to chatting with Schlöndorff, the foreign-language Oscar winner in 1979 for his masterpiece, The Tin Drum, I congratulated him on the occasion of the premiere and Strike's opening Friday in New York. "Yeah, it's amazing," he said, waving at friends and grabbing shoulders, arms, hands -- tides of well-wishers sucking down crab cakes and wine. "It's been a long time since I've had an opening like this. I've been putting out so many films, but never with a bash here and so many of my friends showing up. John Malkovich is here!"

Indeed, Malkovich held up a wall nearby and talked with an inquisitive local filmmaker. He and Schlöndorff had worked on Death of a Salesman 20 years ago and The Ogre in 1996; they've remained close friends since. Dunaway, absentee throughout our conversation, stayed close after co-starring in The Handmaid's Tale in 1990. Thalbach, his Strike star and the beneficiary of The Tin Drum's more controversial sex acts, was Schlöndorff's first choice for the part of Agnieszka, despite her being German and the story's real-life source, Anna Walentynowicz, being Polish. "It wasn't a big deal," Schlöndorff told me. "It was obvious when I first thought about it that she was the one. That wasn't a controversy in Poland. The controversy stemmed from the fact that this lady is still as stubborn today as she used to be then, and she thinks it's the wrong movie -- the movie should start where it ends! It should show how Solidarnosc and (movement leader) Lech Walesa betrayed everything they stood for once they were in power. That's her point of view. So she's on a crusade. She had a different agenda."

Speaking of which, isn't the biopic just about over? Can we please kill the biopic?

"I'm just like you," Schlöndorff replied. "I ran away from it. I made a ballad -- this is a propaganda movie. I'm using all the means of all the classic Soviet propaganda movies with engaging music and clips from newsreels to kind of turn it around against their own ideological purpose. The working-class movie or the proletarian arts? That's what I was interested in more than a biopic."

Katharina Thalbach as the labor firebrand Agnieszka in Volker Schlöndorff's Strike (Photo: Red Envelope Entertainment)

The flow of Schlöndorff allies was too thick to stem by then, and I retreated, preparing my trenchant line of questioning for Ms. Dunaway, certain that she could supply the insight I needed to understand the passion of Jeff Espanol. I browsed my notes from earlier in the evening, when I spoke with former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke. "I'm here for Volker," said Holbrooke, another old friend of Schlöndorff's. The ambassador is involved in bridging American and German culture, having co-founded the American Academy in Berlin and aligned himself with the campaigns behind politically themed cinema like The Good Shepherd and, now, Strike. This fall, he said, the Academy will sponsor a discussion between Schlöndorff and his fellow German auteur (and Oscar winner, yay), The Lives of Others director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, at Carnegie Hall.

"The Tin Drum and The Lives of Others, though they're totally different in style and subject matter, are both intensely political films of a sort you will not find very often coming out of Hollywood," Holbrooke told me. "Now why is that? It's because the history of Europe -- particularly Germany -- is so intensely politicized in a way that Americans can't understand or experience. Of course politics is an ever-present part of our lives, but it doesn't weigh down on us the way the Hitler period and the Stasi period weighed down and created this ambiance that colors everything. I'll give you an example: You could make a film set during the Vietnam era that never mentions Vietnam, right? Or today never mentions Iraq. You can't make a film about Germany set in the '30s or '40s that is not overpowered or overshadowed by Hitler and his regime. And you can't make a film about East Germany that is not about the surveillance society. So you have these clear linkages and this overpowering sense of history -- especially in Germany. France, you can do great romantic comedies and so on. It's tougher in Germany." He paused and shrugged. "I guess its not impossible. One of the best recent German films was Good Bye Lenin!"

I was about to ask him about that.

"A wonderful film!"

But hasn't that been criticized by some for its purveyance of Ostalgie, the sentimentalizing or romanticizing of life under the Socialist GDR regime?

"I didn't think Good Bye Lenin! was Ostalgie," he said. "I thought it poked fun at it. It was a sweet film. But my point is that politics is much more present in movies set in that era -- essentially between 1933 to 1989-90. That's an enormous period of time. Sixty-five years in which everything was politicized."

I couldn't disagree, particularly when Malkovich walked up. "Hello, John!" Holbrooke boomed, gripping the actor's hand. "Nice to see you again!" That interview was over. I closed the notebook and waited for Dunaway. She never arrived. Alas, another bust.

Posted at June 13, 2007 8:55 AM

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