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Schlöndorff's Return to Montauk: Adaptation as Gender-Aware Self-Criticism

The viewer who comes to Volker Schlöndorff’s 2017 Return to Montauk having read Max Frisch's Montauk (1975) is in for a surprise. Return to Montauk is not so much an adaptation as a new work inspired by its literary predecessor. Although it takes themes, narrative situations, motifs and moral issues from Frisch's episodic achronological narrative reflections à clef, it also adds material and spins the elements of Frisch's book into a new, more tightly structured dramatic narrative, which superimposes onto the source experiences from Schlöndorff’s own life. This essay examines first the film's conflation of autobiographical elements from Frisch's and Schlöndorff’s lives. Further, it explores issues of reason, passion and moral choice as experienced by the protagonist, an intellectual who reflects on his own adulterous relations. And it demonstrates how Return to Montauk both critiques and sympathizes with a flawed, ambivalent male character as he seeks to influence but alternately is rejected by strong female counterparts. The result is a fluid, graceful narrative that culminates in a highly theatrical climactic dialogue between the film's two main characters, one that brings into focus Return to Montauk's underlying theme of guilt. Return to Montauk is a melancholy, pensive, self-critical and self-reflexive creation in its own medium-specific way.1

Frisch's Montauk pieces together fragments from a remembered romantic getaway the author had with a publisher's public relations assistant while on a book promotion in New York City. Blended with these recorded moments are pieces from Frisch's more distant past in which he recalls other people, places and incidents from his earlier life. The work's only narrative thrust involves the awareness that he has to fly back to Europe on the Tuesday after the weekend trip to Montauk, a seaside resort on the eastern tip of Long Island. Frisch achieves a succession of memories that meld into a pointillist whole. Indeed, parts of Montauk were staged in a 1974 documentary by Swiss filmmaker Richard Dindo Max Frisch, Journal I-III that included images of the places in Montauk that the couple visited.

At first glance, Montauk would seem a challenge to adapt to the screen as a conventional narrative.  Schlöndorff's solution is to use the book as a foundation on which he builds his own story-telling structure including analogies to his own past. In creating the film script he worked with Irish novelist Colm Tóibín. Schlöndorff has commented that as the project progressed they began to add more and more autobiographical elements from each of their lives ("Ich wusste").2  Unlike Frisch's book, which evokes his affair from the 1970s, Return to Montauk takes place in the present and from the protagonist's perspective has him attempt to rekindle a relationship that dates back seventeen years. Schlöndorff’s Max Zorn, played by Stellan Skarsgård, arrives in New York for a book promotional tour. Zorn is a stand-in for both Frisch and Schlöndorff. His wife Clara, played by Susanne Wolff, has been working in New York for a year. The character of Clara combines associations with Frisch's second wife Marianne and with Schlöndorff's first wife, filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. An accidental meeting of an erstwhile mentor, Walter (Niels Arestrup), provokes Zorn's desire to find an old lover, Rebecca (Nina Hoss), with whom he had spent time at Montauk Point years earlier.

Schlöndorff has noted that his screenplay provided ways to hide his own narrative behind Frisch's (Peitz, "Genau"). For example, Schlöndorff's main female character, Rebecca, combines elements of Frisch's PR assistant Lynn in the book Montauk and the Swiss writer's previous lover, Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann, with those of a former inamorata of the director himself. In Schlöndorff's autobiography Licht, Schatten und Bewegung (2008), he describes an affair he began with a woman he calls Karoline during the shooting of Death of a Salesman (1985) in New York (344 ff.) Like Rebecca, Karoline was German-born but living and working in New York. The affair contributed to Schlöndorff’s divorce from von Trotta (Schlöndorff, "Erinnerungen"). In the movie, Frisch's figure of Lynn morphs into Lindsey (Isi Laborde), a bright, efficient African-American publisher's assistant with whom Zorn does not have an affair.

Schlöndorff unquestionably presents Zorn as a version of himself. In an interview, Hans Christoph von Bock of Deutsche Welle Radio asked the filmmaker what we learn about him in the character of Zorn in Return to Montauk. Schlöndorff replied:


Yes, the story itself is almost retold point by point. 30 years ago, I lived in New York . . . and there became acquainted with an amazing woman with whom I fell in love so deeply that it haunts me to this day. Then I met her again 13 or 15 years later and I — or both of us — asked myself the question: 'Can we give it another try?' And then a very, very tense weekend is enough to put it all to the test. ("Jede Generation")


And when Zorn is engaging in a radio interview, the interviewer describes him as a former sympathizer with leftist radicals, then a supporter of Angela Merkel, thereby tracing some of Schlöndorff’s own evolving political affiliations. The filmmaker in his autobiography describes his love-making with Karoline ". . . we had drunk a lot, danced 'like world champions' and had loved likewise" (Licht 346). This observation is echoed in Return to Montauk in the line of dialogue that occurs the morning after Zorn and Rebecca have made love: "You used to say that we were world champions." The world of Return to Montauk, a world of globetrotting trans-nationals, is clearly the world of both Frisch and Schlöndorff. Indeed, there are parallels in their quests for cultural cosmopolitanism and sexual variety.

The title, Return to Montauk, can be seen as both a physical return and a return in thoughts to an idealized past, an attempt to recapture the passion and stimulation of previous experiences. As with Schlöndorff's Marcel Proust adaptation Swann in Love (1983), Return to Montauk is an envisioning of responses of loss and guilt triggered by memories of the past. 

Subjective, yet Self-Reflexive Confessional Cinema

The film in effect becomes an example of confessional cinema, one rooted in the literary tradition of intellectual self-examination. Frisch, for his part, was probably encouraged to enter into his self-portrayal by a German cultural trend — as a reaction to the politically committed orientation of the 1960s — that in the early 1970s turned toward a more subjective creativity, one that, nonetheless, insisted on authenticity ("Neue Subjektivität"). Citing more than a dozen such publications, literary historian Otto F. Best in a survey of the period notes: "For that matter, during the 1970s, the number of autobiographically inspired works, including documented ones, its extraordinarily high" (490). Such subjective disclosure represents a logical progression, then, to Schlöndorff's reality-based storytelling.

The filmmaker's reality-based approach here avails itself of an important facet of an earlier phase of his career, that of self-referentiality. This self-reflexivity is a significant aspect of Return to Montauk. In his film, Schlöndorff constantly, yet indirectly, alludes to his chosen literary text — this is not just an homage. The film also cites aspects of Frisch's life. This approach defamiliarizes both the Frisch text and the film, the new context into which it is placed. Repetition and variation of Frisch's central motif, as well as his themes and scenes encourage reflection and analysis on the part of the film's viewers. Zorn's present at times parallels and incorporates Frisch's and Schlöndorff's pasts. By superimposing his own semi-autobiography on Frisch’s, Schlöndorff mirrors his own condition in the Swiss writer’s, thereby “researching" his own life, loves and career and becoming critical of the way he conducted himself in the face of life’s challenges. It is in this sense that the director can admit, in an interview, “I still haven’t understood women but at least I caught on to the fact that men come across as rather ridiculous figures." He continues:


All that dawned on me quite clearly once again in the cutting room. I wondered: Doesn't the man realize how much he's hurting these women? It's only in women's eyes that we seem so ridiculous; back then I didn't perceive myself that way. But I do today when I see on a photograph next to the beautiful, tall Nina Hoss that little baldy and I think: that guy is just like Groucho Marx . . . ("Verstehen," Cf. "Ich wusste. ")


Rather than simply producing a piece of emotional navel-gazing, Schlöndorff adds a level of critical analysis to his semi-self-portrait. In addition, the film opens with hints of grave issues, although whether the solemnity is authentic or not is open to question. In the first full scene, we observe Zorn's talking head. He relates how his father, a philosophy teacher, had a copy by his deathbed of Derek Parfit's On What Matters in which the British philosopher argues that there are two kinds of moral decisions that matter:  those things that a person does and should not have done and those things that a person fails to do and should have done. We learn later this is actually a reading from one of Zorn's writings. Schlöndorff has stated that the text was one written by Tóibín for an altogether different work, but he was so taken by it that he integrated it in the film ("Re: Montauk"). In the presentation of Zorn's relations with Clara and Rebecca we see an embodiment of each of these mistakes respectively. Like a good essayist, Schlöndorff has previewed his thesis.

Return to Montauk explores non-monogamous, open relationships alongside questions of the hero's ethics. It is not just Zorn who allows himself outside relationships. Similarly, Schlöndorff presents Clara as involved with another writer named Roderick without criticizing her. The film makes transparent that Clara has been having an affair with Roderick in New York while apart from Zorn.  When Zorn completes his public reading from his new novel which has displayed his affections for another woman, Roderick accuses Zorn of tactlessness. Clara responds to Zorn with "Tact is boring." When she proceeds to flirt with Roderick at the nightclub party that follows the reading, Zorn apparently becomes all the more motivated to seek out Rebecca.

At various times in the film, Zorn says he has no desire to hurt anybody, even though his actions contradict his assertion. The film's imagery occasionally cues the audience to an awareness of the possibility of conjugal domestic happiness, even while such bliss seems out of reach. When Max leaves the party and goes to Rebecca's apartment, he finds a lavishly spacious home, but one that is cold and forbidding. Rebecca clearly makes a huge salary as an attorney for the very wealthy, yet only her three cats (playfully named Crosby, Stills and Nash) give her dwelling place any sense of warmth or domesticity. She dismissively sends Zorn back to his hotel; the next day, however, she mysteriously leaves him a telephone message to join her on Saturday morning on a trip out to Montauk. Lindsey becomes complicit in this meeting by lying to Clara that Zorn will be on a literary panel there. The trip to Long Island turns out to involve Rebecca's looking at a property that is angular, sterile and unornamented, much like her apartment (see Figure 1). The potential home is there but it is sparsely furnished in the Bauhaus style. The house becomes a metaphor for the life that Rebecca and Zorn might have together. He indicates that he could sit there on the couch forever. She expresses misgivings, wondering whether the location is too isolated. Earlier she had spoken of having had another home in Maine which she'd sold because she didn't use it enough, only to regret giving it up. Rebecca says if she buys the Montauk house, it's going to be forever. We are thus not surprised when Rebecca turns Zorn down after he offers to leave Clara for her. She recognizes that there may not be a forever for the two of them.

Schlöndorff's Return to Montauk: Adaptation as Gender-Aware Self-Criticism, Moeller, Lellis, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1:  Rebecca and Zorn visit the angular, modernist real estate property in Montauk.

As artists, Frisch, Schlöndorff and Zorn all engage in the process of turning ethical dilemmas into artistic expression. The character of Walter conveys much of the movie's discourse about the nature of art. When Walter speaks, he switches back and forth between French and English, which may be a nod on Schlöndorff’s part to the strong influence of French culture on the filmmaker's aesthetic. In the film's penultimate scene, Zorn and Clara visit Walter, who has been planning to give him an original Paul Klee painting. The trio enters into a discussion of Walter's carelessness in preserving his extensive and valuable art collection. As an aside, we note that this scene parallels one in the literary Montauk. There, "W.," Walter's model, Frisch's real-life former Gymnasium classmate and sponsor of his architectural studies, Ingeborg Bachmann and the Swiss author discuss art treasures (Frisch 49-50). Clara is shocked that Walter has allowed certain works to fade because they have not been protected from sunlight. Walter responds spitefully that he bought the works, he owns them, and he is free to destroy them. Zorn ultimately refuses the gift, but the scene has made a statement about the transience of art and the ease at which it lends itself to commodification. It also draws, as Thomas Sotinel has observed, a parallel between Walter’s collection of art and Zorn’s “collection” of women. This correspondence draws to mind the ending of Swann in Love in which Jeremy Irons as Swann describes his memories as a collection:  “One by one, I look at all my loves.”  Just before this scene, we see Max writing in his diary, or at least making marks on paper. The implication is that Zorn may already be converting his lived experience into literature.

Gender Issues

Return to Montauk is driven by a fundamental tension: it is both sympathetic to and critical of the central character, Zorn, and, by implication, of its director himself. This bi-level perspective recalls the feminist orientation in Schlöndorff's work from the 1970s of movies like A Free Woman (1972), Georgina's Reasons (1974), The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) and Coup de Grâce (1976). Schlöndorff has been enough of a feminist that he can recognize his own porcine male nature, a weakness he freely acknowledges. In Zorn's radio interview he talks about the pattern in European culture of weak male heroes: "Self-deprecation is our first gear." The audience is thus asked to feel for Zorn while, at the same time, participating in his own self-criticism. There is a comic sequence in which Lindsey takes him to a warehouse-style boutique because he wants to buy a new outfit for his meeting with Rebecca. The sales clerk reassures him that he has excellent shoulders for wearing clothes and even borrows a scarf from Lindsey for Zorn to wear as a foulard (see Figure 2).  Zorn is the kind of man who wears his shirts untucked under his suit jacket to look trendy, even though it shortens his legs and makes him look dumpy.

Schlöndorff's Return to Montauk: Adaptation as Gender-Aware Self-Criticism, Moeller, Lellis, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2:  A somewhat vain Zorn tries on trendy clothing.

Additionally emphasizing Zorn's negatives, the three women who surround him all come off as stronger than he. Clara exudes happiness and confidence in her first scenes with Zorn; actress Susanne Wolff's high cheekbones and broad, enthusiastically flashed smile further this image. Clara declares her love for Zorn but is also unapologetic for her other sexual interests. In her way, Lindsey is equally appealing and equally strong. After the scene where she lies to Clara, she tells Zorn decisively that she will not lie for him again. She even says in a direct but good-natured way that if a man deceived her like that she would cut his balls off. That does not stop Zorn from later boastfully describing to Lindsey, like a self-satisfied adolescent, some of his sexual adventures.

Indirectly, Schlöndorff again exercises self-criticism and later in the movie he reveals something of the price women, in a male-oriented society, pay for their independence. When Lindsey takes Zorn to her apartment to hem up his newly purchased pants, we see dark, cramped, dingy quarters which she claims have been broken into repeatedly. Similarly, when Zorn goes uninvited to Clara's flat at the end of the movie, her space appears even seedier and dirtier, and Zorn complains about the smell from the kebab restaurant over which she lives. Both stand in contrast to Rebecca’s domestic environments. Only in these two settings do we get a sense of what the economic realities might be for most New Yorkers, especially women in underpaid positions. This latter setting makes it all the more meaningful that Clara does not return to Europe with Zorn, even though he asks her. At the end of a series of demeaning subservient pledges that an imperious Zorn tries to get her to make to him, she eventually says "No." She would rather tough it out in semi-poverty on her own terms (see Figure 3). To his credit, Zorn, like Frisch, seems to admire strong women.

Schlöndorff's Return to Montauk: Adaptation as Gender-Aware Self-Criticism, Moeller, Lellis, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3:  Zorn visits Clara in her downscale living quarters.

Rebecca may be the strongest of the three. She has clearly achieved wealth and prestige as a lawyer. She is unafraid to tell Zorn when he comes uninvited to her home that his actions are inappropriate, by noting that her cats “don’t like me letting in unannounced gentleman callers at night." Unlike the people-pleasing smiles of Clara and Lindsey, she maintains a dour but confident expression through much of the film reminiscent of that often projected by Jeanne Moreau. Near the end of the film, when she rejects Zorn's suggestion that they get back together permanently, she indirectly puts him down by telling him of the love of her life, a certain Marcus with whom she was happy until he suddenly died. Zorn is unable to compete even with a dead man. Although she has apparently enjoyed their romantic night together, and she may even have engineered it by getting the car stuck in sand, she is decisive and unambivalent in her rejection. She subsequently belittles Zorn for having not made the effort earlier to continue their relationship.  She refers to a period when she wanted him to come back to New York but he was travelling in Italy, perhaps experiencing the sexual escapades that he had previously related to Lindsey.

While in the car, Rebecca, at one point, complains about the men she dated while she was a student at Yale: "They only talked about themselves." When Zorn asks her if she had sex with them, she answers, "Sure." This serves as a preview to the casual sex that she has with Zorn at Montauk, which he takes much more seriously than she does. Indeed, Zorn appears much more attached to Rebecca and cares about her more than his counterpart in Frisch’s novel ever does for Lynn, this despite the real-life Frisch’s eventual 1980-83 domestic partnership with the real-life Lynn, whose proper name was Alice Locke-Carey (Kilcher 144).  This emphasis on Zorn’s passion for Rebecca will allow the filmmaker to create a far more dramatic climax to his story.

A Theatrical Climax

The sequence of scenes in which Zorn and Rebecca are together alone on Montauk forms the dramatic highpoint of Return to Montauk. It also, in the end, evinces the artist/hero's misunderstanding of the situation and his moral shortcomings. In these scenes, the two former lovers both connect and separate again, the latter after they have shared respective revelations about their lives since they had last seen each other. As they enter their separate rooms at the hotel where they had stayed previously, they discover that the connecting door between the two rooms has been left unlocked and open. It is like an omen that they will couple sexually, which they do (see Figure 4).

Schlöndorff's Return to Montauk: Adaptation as Gender-Aware Self-Criticism, Moeller, Lellis, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4:  Rebecca and Zorn discover that the doorway connecting their motel rooms has been left unlocked.

The beachfront motel at which they are apparently the only off-season guests provides the stage on which they reveal themselves to each other. The style of the writing and blocking becomes more theatrical than it is in the rest of the film. It is a climax of spoken revelations about the past, in the manner of the end of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? during which George and Martha discuss their dead child or in the way family skeletons are dragged out of the closet in Tennessee Williams's plays. The scene turns dialogue-heavy, which has drawn some objection from critics (Wendy Ide). The barrage of verbal soul baring would come, some might argue, close to the mechanisms of television soap opera (Gleiberman). The viewer who suspends disbelief may be carried on to "cathartic" pity and fear. The viewer who refuses may wince a bit. The problem may be that the two characters are telling about their feelings rather than showing or demonstrating them through action. The writing of the scene, with its extended dialogue, has a stage-like quality. Skarsgård and Hoss show skill, and the latter in particular has been praised for her performance  (Krause, Djian, Croll), but it can also be criticized for what might be perceived as a self-conscious, overly deliberate heaviness (see Figure 5).

Schlöndorff's Return to Montauk: Adaptation as Gender-Aware Self-Criticism, Moeller, Lellis, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5:  Nina Hoss as Rebecca in her climactic scene with Zorn.

All of this stands in contrast to the nimbly propelled narrative that precedes and follows. The screenwriters pique the audience's curiosity by posing questions regarding who Rebecca is, why Zorn wants to see her, and why she is so hesitant to meet with him. It is these other parts of the film that contain the real moments of deftly cinematic construction. For instance, during the scene in which Zorn is doing a reading at the New York Public Library, he describes the second time he spotted Rebecca, this time at a concert at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. Rebecca, who has been invited to the reading but has chosen not to attend, is seen at the same concert hall while Zorn's voice is heard describing how he observed her earlier in the same location. At first, the shot of Rebecca glancing back from her seat seems like a flashback, and it is linked through eyeline match to a shot of Zorn giving his reading. What looked like a flashback is merely crosscutting between two locations in the present. It is an elegant playing with space, time, and sound worthy of comparable moments in the films of Alain Resnais. In point of fact, Return to Montauk is a movie without flashbacks or voice-overs, the two techniques that immediately come to mind when a reader imagines Frisch's Montauk in cinematic form.

Equally compelling is the shot in which we first see Rebecca, one that hints at Zorn's overreaching imagination. He and Lindsey are waiting in the lobby of Rebecca's office building having been told that Rebecca "may come down." Unexpectedly, in the distance, emerging out of the semi-shadow of an LED-projection, a woman walks toward the lobby, her white shirt and blonde hair standing out specter-like against her otherwise black clothing and dark surroundings (see Figure 6). This image along with the complementary one of Rebecca exiting the scene reverberates against an inserted shot seen twice in the film of a figure walking on the beach away from the camera into a lavender-pink sunset. The first use of this shot occurs very early in the movie and is part of a flash-forward, one of the few non-chronological images. The shot recurs while the couple is at Montauk; neither time does it have a diegetic function. In each case, the image functions like an interpolated specter. In these inserts, the spectral figure moves from right to left, unlike other shots in which the clearly real Rebecca walks on the beach from left to right.

Schlöndorff's Return to Montauk: Adaptation as Gender-Aware Self-Criticism, Moeller, Lellis, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6:  The specter-like Rebecca appears, emerging in front of an eerie LED display.

Ghosts, Hypnotists, and Critics

An actual reference to ghosts occurs near the end of the film when Clara asks Zorn what he did at Montauk.  The dialogue is worth repeating:


Zorn:  I saw a ghost.

Clara:  Did you fuck her?

Zorn:  It wasn’t a sex thing. . . . Maybe it was.

Clara:  You can’t fuck a ghost.


Clara's direct response appears designed to draw Zorn out of the obsessive illusionary world that had held him in its grip and induced him to try to recover the past and control Rebecca.

In the brief earlier shot of Zorn's diary while he writes in it following his return from Montauk one can make out the word "ghosts." Zorn has already started mixing the world of reality with that of phantasy. Memories are ghosts and Zorn's memories have been haunting him, just as her own have been haunting Rebecca.

In addition to this ghost motif, there is also a reference to the idea of hypnosis. There is a provocative moment in Zorn and Rebecca’s extended exchange at the film's climax in which Rebecca talks about having sought counseling after the loss of Marcus. She asks if Zorn has ever been hypnotized, and proceeds to describe how, under hypnosis, she was able to experience the moment of death of her beloved and to experience what he experienced. The moment is almost a throwaway, since it is hardly developed at all.  (In addition, Nina Hoss’s distinctive accent made—at least for these two listeners—the word “hypnosis” almost unintelligible, requiring several viewings of the film, almost as if the word had been somehow repressed.)  But Rebecca highlights the way in which the experience of hypnosis allowed her to be empathetically present for a major event that she was unable to witness physically.

When viewed through the perspective of relatively recent theoretical writings about the relation between cinema and hypnosis, this cinematic moment can be seen as one of self-reflexivity, although one related to the physical effects of the film medium, rather than to Schlöndorff's previously described creative processes echoing Frisch's. Theorists such as Raymond Bellour and Mireille Berton have written extensively about the parallel between the movie viewing experience and hypnosis, specifically the physiological states in which both have the potential for opening up or even helping the subject experience otherwise subconscious thoughts and desires, the kind that may also be suggested by the belief in ghosts. Bellour notes that in the classic Hollywood narrative, hypnosis usually involves a man attempting to control a woman (387).  To be sure, Zorn tries to use his charms to control both Rebecca and Clara, but ironically his obsession with the ghost-like Rebecca is commensurately controlling.  

If we see in hypnotism the capacity to create empathy, then we might well view hypnotist Schlöndorff as inviting the trance-induced audience to empathize with Zorn. Note that during the film's opening literary reading, the director does not include any shots of the listening audience within the fiction until after Zorn is finished. The character seems to be talking as much to the movie-going audience as to the one we have not yet seen. The soft, rhythmic voice of Zorn evokes that of a hypnotist (somewhat reminiscent of Bellour's argument that the narrator in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad serves in his gentle, soothing words, as hypnotist to that film’s audience [69-70]). Just as the fictional Zorn is attempting to entrance his audience with his words, so too, using words, sounds, and images, is the filmmaker Schlöndorff.

Critical response to the film has been decidedly mixed. Although the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin reported that the Berlinale audience for the first press screening was warm and appreciative ("Rückkehr . . .auf"), Schlöndorff has expressed regret at premiering it at the Berlin Film Festival. Overall press response was cool, perhaps, he thought, because of that festival’s penchant for more politically engaged works.  ["Rückkehr. . . bereut"]. At one extreme, Eithne O’Neill of Positif has called it  “ . . . an authentic film which touches by its profound irony, the way life makes fun of us, one of the most beautiful films by Schlöndorff” (34). Most negative reactions have shown respect for its ambitions and/or admiration for the performances of Skarsgård and Hoss. For instance, Ryan Gilbey of The Guardian asserted, “Nothing really rings true in Return to Montauk until the pain breaks through and the tears start to flow. Perhaps that’s the point. The film-makers should accept, though, that not everyone will want to put up with Max for an entire movie just to see the smug smile wiped off his face at the end.” 

Critics looking at the film from a gender-oriented ideological point of view have had to wrestle with its ambiguities. Thomas Sotinel writing in Le Monde comments that, “the film finds a very specific tone, somewhat violent—which defines nostalgia as another way to secure the empire of men over the world and its times.” Barbara Schweizerhof takes a more nuanced approach. She observes: 


Return to Montauk is Max’s story, but the film finds its impressively ambivalent balance because Schlöndorff for once finally accords the ‘objects’ of love, the women, the deserved space. Rebecca, as much as the neglected wife, Clara, is provided her perspective and her story. And thus it turns out that besides the types of remorse mentioned at the outset [of the film] there exists perhaps a third one, namely the one never to have truly perceived the others. (49)


Frisch's Montauk contains relatively less evidence of experienced guilt; for Schlöndorff, however, guilt is the essential theme and he previewed it in the film's opening. There is a moment in the film when the duo is leaving for Montauk where Rebecca, commenting on Zorn’s “hip” outfit, observes that he shouldn’t wear such an outfit to court.  When Zorn asks, “Even if I’m innocent?" she answers that all defendants are innocent until proven guilty. And of course, if the defendant confesses, as Zorn does in the course of the film, he is nonetheless still guilty. One thinks of the guilt Clara accuses Walter of sharing for neglecting his art works, to which he protests that he can do as he pleases with them. Zorn does not get off the hook so easily.  “Collected” women have minds of their own. 

While Return to Montauk may not fulfill the expectations of those viewers who prefer a politically engaged Schlöndorff, it remains true to his penchant for adaptation and for confused, self-doubting heroes. The film achieves literary and autobiographical depth by following Frisch's inspired motif of the aging writer in search of lost time and love and by also insisting on inward-looking reflections that entail questions of right and wrong. The result is that Return to Montauk involves multiple dialectics:  between male and female, reality and fiction, literature and film, urban crowdedness and seaside expansiveness, spontaneity and reflectiveness, voyeuristic expectation and fetishistic memory, financial struggle and wealth, between European self-deprecation and American opportunism.3 

Notes

1 The authors are indebted to Ziegler Film GmbH, Berlin, for providing access to a digital version of Return to Montauk, thereby allowing closer study of the film.

2 Tóibín has been closely associated, for instance, with the New York Public Library, where the film locates Zorn's reading. Cf. www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-dbslsV1QU. We will not pursue other potential elements of the Irish writer's biography since they lie beyond the scope of this essay. Cf. also www1.wdr.de/kultur/film/interview-volker-schloendorff-100.html.

3 Translations from French and German are the authors’ own.

Works Cited

Bellour, Raymond.  Le Corps du cinema:  hypnoses, émotions, animalités. Paris:  POL/Trafic, 2009.

Berton, Mireille.  “Cinéma et Hypnose.”  1895, No. 58 (2009), consulted on line at www://1895.revues.org/3971.

Best, Otto F., "Gegenwartsliteratur in der BRD, Österreich, Schweiz und in der DDR (von 1945 bis zu den 90er Jahren)." Geschichte der deutschen Literatur.  2nd. revised and expanded edition.Vol. 3.Ed. Ehrhard Bahr. Tübingen: Francke, 1998: 433-602

Croll, Ben. "Return to Montauk Review: Nina Hoss Excels Opposite Stellan Skarsgaard in Volker Schlöndorff's Chatty Romance." IndieWire. 16 Feb. 2017. www.indiewire.com/2017/02/berlinale-2017-berlin-film-festival-return-to-montauk-review-nina-hoss-1201783944/.

Dindo, Richard. Max Frisch, Journal I-III. Eine filmische Lektüre der Erzählung Montauk. An eponymous print version: Zürich: Schweizerisches Filmzentrum, 1981.

Djian, Laurent. "Retour à Montauk, émouvantes retrouvailles de deux anciens amants." L'Express. 13 June 2017. www.lexpress.fr/culture/cinema/retour-a-montauk-emouvantes-retrouvailles-de-deux-anciens-amants_1914156.html.

Frisch, Max. Montauk. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 28th edition, 2014.

Gleiberman, Owen. "Berlin Film Review: Return to Montauk." Variety. 15 Feb. 2017. http://variety.com/2017/film/reviews/return-to-/montauk-review-berlinale-2017-1201988971/. Accessed 16 Feb. 2017.

Ide, Wendy. "Return to Montauk: Berlin Review." Screendaily. 15 Feb. 2017. www.screendaily.com/reviews/return-to-montauk-berlin-reviews/5115088.article. Accessed 16 Feb. 2017.

Kilcher, Andreas B.  Max Frisch.  Berlin:  Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin, 2011.

Krause, Tilman. "Ich würde dir die Eier abschneiden." Die Welt. 9 May 2017. www.welt.de/164411810/ich-wuerde-dir-die-Eier-abschneiden.

O'Neill, Eithne. "Retour à Montauk." Positif. 676 (June 2017): 34-35.

Peitz, Christiane. "Genau so, nur anders." Der Tagesspiegel. 13 Feb. 2017. https://blendle.com/i/der-tagesspiegel/genau-so-nur-anders/bn/-tagesspiegel-20170214-0012236234?sharer=eyJ2zxJzaW9. Also: www.pressreader com/germany/der-tagesspiegel/20170214/281547995643422. Accessed 13 Feb. 2017.

---, "Volker Schlöndorff macht sein Leben zum Film." Der Tagesspiegel. 14 Feb. 2017. www.tagesspiegel.de/themen/reportage/premiere-auf-der-berlinale-volker-schloendorff-macht-sein-leben-zum-film/19386018.html.

"Rückkehr nach Montauk auf der Berlinale." Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin. 15 Feb. 2017. http://www.sueddeutsche.de/news/kultur/film-rueckkehr-nach-montauk-auf-der-berlinale-dpa.urn-newsml-dpa-com-20090101-170215-99-299340.     

Schlöndorff, Volker. "Erinnerungen an die Liebe." Interview mit Matthias Greuling. FilmClicks. 12 May 2017. www.filmclicks.at/Interviews/i-schloendorff-705280.

---."Ich wusste gar nicht, wie lächerlich ein Mann sein kann." Interview mit Wenke Husmann. Die Zeit. 11 May 2017. www.zeit.de/kultur/film/2017-05/rueckkehr-nach-Montauk-volker-schloendorff-film/komplettansicht. Cf. also Schlöndorff. "Production Notes" 6.

---. "Jede Generation braucht eigene Geschichten." Deutsche Welle. 5 May 2017. www.dw.com/de/schlöndorff-jede-generation-braucht-eigene-geschichten/a-38696502.

---. Licht Schatten und Bewegung. Munich: Carl Hanser, 2008.

---. "Production Notes." Pressbook Return to Montauk. 67th Berlin International Film Festival.Berlin. Feb. 2017: 6-8.

---. "Re: Montauk." Message to H-B. Moeller. 23 November 2017. E-Mail.

---. "Rückkehr nach Montauk: Volker Schlöndorff bereut Berlinale-Teilnahme." Interview mit Jochen Kürten. Deutsche Welle. 10 May 2017. www.dw.com/de/rückkehr-nach-montauk-volker-schlöndorff-bereut-berlinale-teilnahme/a-38765274.

---."Verstehen Sie die Frauen?" Interview mit Stefan Stosch. Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung. 5 May 2017.  Also on line: www.haz.de/Sonntag/Promi-Talk/Verstehen-Sie-die-Frauen.

Schweizerhof, Barbara. "Kritik zu Rückkehr nach Montauk." epd-film. 5 (2017): 48-49. Also: www.epd-film.de/filmkritiken/rueckkehr-nach-montauk. Accessed 21 April 2017.

Sotinel, Thomas. "Retour á Montauk: le poison de la nostalgie." Le Monde. 14 June  2017. www.lemonde.fr/cinema/article/2017/06/14/retour-a-montauk-le-poison-de-la-nostalgie_5144031_3476.html.  Also accessible via www.allocine.fr