Volker Schlöndorff on Angela Merkel: What you see is what you get

The film director, a friend and confidant of the chancellor, describes her as ‘authentic’

When Angela Merkel watched anxiously for results in Sunday's federal election, one of her closest friends wasn't there to hold her hand.

Film director Volker Schlöndorff is best known as the director of the Oscar-winning film The Tin Drum and, more recently, Return to Montauk, a collaboration with Colm Tóibín that opens in Ireland on October 6th. He is also a Merkel friend and confidant of 25 years.

Rather than watch the poll results yesterday evening, however, he had tickets for a theatre premiere in Berlin starring his latest leading lady, Nina Hoss.

Still, why does he think Dr Merkel has lasted 12 years as chancellor?


"What you see is what you get with her," Mr Schlöndorff told The Irish Times. "I don't get the impression that she has built up a facade she hides behind."

The two first met in 1992 at a Sunday afternoon gathering of a mutual acquaintance, who brought together people from eastern and western Germany to swap stories of growing up.

"We had an immediate mutual curiosity for each other," he said. "I remember a long walk near her datscha [cottage], across an open field, musing how this reunification might work out."

Macho personalities

Despite her political and his film career, the two still see each other regularly and talk about politics and the macho personalities she has to deal with on the international stage.

“I find she has a very feminine charm, even if she doesn’t advertise it in public,” said Mr Schlöndorff, adding that even his gay actor friends are mad about her.

Considering the pressures as chancellor, the director is surprised his friend hasn’t changed more over the years. That, he says, is probably why she continues to succeed.

“She has a humour and skill for self-reflection, not ideological but practical,” he said. “I think the era of ideological elections has passed, it’s personality elections now.”

Although Dr Merkel, a pastor’s daughter, is pragmatic, Mr Schlöndorff still sees flashes of “Protestant morality” in her language. The most recent manifestation was in the recent refugee crisis, which he calls her “Martin Luther” moment.

Friendly face

Under pressure to close Germany's borders to arrivals from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Dr Merkel refused – and allowed more than one million asylum seekers in. In a press conference, she said that if one now had to apologise in Germany for showing people in need a friendly face, "then this is not my country".

“When she said that I said: ‘finally!’” said Mr Schlöndorff. “I no longer had to justify liking her to my friends.”

After 25 years, he says their friendship is sustained by a mutual seriousness and sense of responsibility, but not so grave that they don’t share a good sense of humour.

So would Angela Merkel would make a good film subject some day?

Probably not, says Mr Schlöndorff. Then his mind drifts back to her rise to power: shafting her mentor, Helmut Kohl, in 1999. Looking thoughtful, he adds with a laugh: "Patricide is always a good place to start."

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin