A Director and his Alter Ego Return to Montauk

Nina Hoss and Stellan Skarsgård star in "Return to Montauk." Photos by Franziska Strauss

For years, Volker Schlöndorff has clung onto a memory — one swirling with passion, damaged by hurt and shrouded in regret. A great love lost, one he can never forget.

It is a story he is finally ready to tell. And the new film, “Return to Montauk,” is his confession.

“The character who was supposed to be me, it was like a mirror, especially in the cutting room,” the jet-lagged German director said outside Guild Hall in East Hampton, where the film will make its United States premiere on Saturday night. “When I was watching what he was saying and what he was doing, I can’t believe it. ‘What is he doing?!’ And yet this is mostly what I did and what I said.”

Inspired by true events, the film centers on Max Zorn — a surly writer in his early 60s portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård — who travels from Europe to New York to launch his new book, a revealing novel about a great, but failed, love affair.

Unable to help himself, Max tracks down the former object of his affection, German-born Rebecca — acted by Nina Hoss — a successful attorney in the city who invites him to Montauk for a winter weekend where they were once so happy together.

“In reality, it didn’t happen here at all,” Schlöndorff said. “But I love the area and I wanted to pay tribute to it. On the other hand, it’s a very complex movie — and certainly the most personal one I ever did — trying to deal with love unfulfilled, or missed. You see how complex it is, even after the fact. I cannot really spell it out.”

Shot in just 25 days two years ago — primarily in New York, but also not far from the director’s own home in Amagansett — the film takes audiences across East Hampton Town, from the Montauk Lighthouse and the Walking Dunes to The Lobster Roll and endless white sand beaches.

It was April, Schlöndorff said, and the weather was extremely cold. “But at the same time, it was beautiful,” he noted. “I like best the off-seasons here, even when the weather is grim. It’s beautiful and sad, and you don’t miss the people.”

The locals quickly came to know him. Up until that point, Schlöndorff was “just some foreigner who bought a cabin here,” he said.

Stellan Skarsgård with director Volker Schlöndorff and Nina Hoss on the set of “Return to Montauk.”

“We became friends because they were also walking their dogs on the beach, and all of a sudden, they saw this film crew yelling and jumping around,” he said. “I think it was a nice experience for my neighbors and for myself because now they know who I am and what I do for a living.”

The directing came naturally for the 79-year-old filmmaker — arguably best known for “The Tin Drum,” which won an Oscar and the Palme d’or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival — but for the screenwriting, he called on his friend, Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, who is currently the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University.

“For a couple weeks or so, we sat opposite each other at a table, each one with his laptop, and we were yelling at each other,” he said. “I mean, trying out dialogue, but also like, ‘No! You can’t do that!’ ‘Yes, but I did!’ When you’re writing somewhat sad stories, that’s when you laugh most.”

He paused and chuckled. “The writing was the challenge,” he continued. “To find the situations and the words to deal with the things I didn’t quite understand myself, that was what was really, really difficult. The shooting was a piece of cake. It was wonderful. I have these great actors, we had rehearsals before in Berlin, every scene, and we knew what we doing when we got here, and it was a very small crew. And it was so wonderful to see these situations come alive.”

From behind the camera, he watched scenes play out that he had lived, heard words he had spoken — in frustration, in lust, in passion. He was overwhelmed by emotion, he said, transported to another time and place decades ago.

“It was a very expensive therapy. I have a better knowledge of myself now,” he said. “It happened a much longer time, in my case, between the moment I missed my chance with this lady and we met again was almost 20 years in between. But when you get older, 20 years is like nothing. It’s like a flash in time. The body remembers instantly, and only slowly then you understand you are not the same person anymore.”

“Return to Montauk” will make its United States premiere on Saturday, October 13, at 7 p.m. at Guild Hall, located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. A reception will follow at c/o The Maidstone, located at 207 Main Street in East Hampton. Tickets are $20 and $150 for the reception. Proceeds will benefit the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center. For more information, visit sagharborcinema.org.