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
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
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
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
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.