“Statistically there is no such thing as momentum in a game of chance. Each act has no past. Nevertheless, one can speculate on the odds, in this case…”
As an engineer Walter Faber represents that kind of person that doesn’t want to have anything to do with fate. He is a calculating rationalist, only obedient to the sciences. Yet it will be revealed that his secluded life too is conducted by a goddess of fortune. At the last minute Faber catches his plane to Caracas, which however has to make a dangerous emergency landing in the desert. Meanwhile, he makes the acquaintance of Herbert Hencke, one of the passengers, the brother of his boyhood friend Joachim, who now lives in Guatemala. After a long odyssey to his friend’s plantation, Faber, who again and again obsessively tries to capture the reality with his hand-held camera, finds out that his friend has committed suicide.
“Over and over again slamming doors. Certain things simply don’t work any longer. Time has run out. The illusion of constancy is Faber’s error.” (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 409).
After this experience Faber turns his back on the American continent, continues his journey and has his next fateful encounter in Europe, which will completely change his life and his philosophy of life: in the glistening sun of Greece Faber suddenly emerges – one short word, which however means coincidence, the unplanned, incontrollable, which had been foreign to the engineer since the start of his journey – as a descendent of those tragic heroes who originated from the Greek mythology. A modern Oedipus, blinded by his own philosophy of life, in which higher powers have long ago cut huge notches. In the end the aging man sits, finally overtaken by his past, once again in the waiting hall of an airport, which has effectively become a symbol of his life.
“I sit in the departure hall. I do not want to be there, or anywhere.”
“Why can’t it be April again? And everything else a hallucination of mine?”
With HOMO FABER (Voyager) Schlöndorff once again worked on a literary adaptation that is based on the bestseller novel Homo faber – Ein Bericht (Homo faber – A report) by Max Frisch from 1957. As with the BLECHTROMMEL (The Tin Drum) Schlöndorff again shaped the novel into a chronological narrative in form of a big cutback by integrating a lot of leaps in time, diary entries and reports, bundling and tightening his story that way. In contrast to the literary figure of Walter Faber as a Swiss who travels the world as a cosmopolitan engineer living in New York, Schlöndorff switched the places of actual and chosen home country for the sake of the internationality of the material: here the filmic Faber is an American, who once studied in Zurich – the town whose […] memories and encounters will strike him years later on.
“Why was there so much missed in life? That’s the question that remains.” (Schlöndorff, 2011, p. 408)
Preliminary work / Research
In 1977 Schlöndorff already received an offer from Paramount Studios for a film adaptation of the novel, which he, however, initially declined. 10 years later, right after the publishing rights went back to Frisch, a meeting was promptly arranged, and Schlöndorff visited the author on the 10th of January 1988 in Zurich. It had been the first talk between the two about their joint project for the literary adaption. Another meeting took place in July, to which Schlöndorff already brought along the first rough draft of the script. Frisch found it “useable” (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 411), a first framework at least. After the contract work The Handmaid’s Tale (USA/ BRD 1989/90) was finally done Schlöndorff met again with Frisch, now with the finished script which he had worked on together with the co-author Rudy Wurlitzer. There were thoughts about an international production as for a German production, the shoot, due to the numerous settings in America, Europe and the Mediterranean Sea, would be too expensive. But Faber as an American? “Frisch thought the idea not impossible: for me he is a Swiss, because I am one.” (ibid., p. 412) The only downer would be the fact that he would not be able to cooperate on the English dialogues.
“H.F sees the life linear: everything adds up to one sum. He does not see that it is a curve whose highpoint he has already reached and passed.” (Schlöndorff about his main character)
Anyhow, Frisch didn’t want to miss out on the journeys to the settings, especially to Mexico – until the moment he and the whole film team had to face really bad news: Frisch had terminal cancer. “Between us: the story continues. Hora incerta est. I was told that I might be able to still watch your film.”
Although he was quite weak, but never too tired to attend the meetings about the production progress, Frisch, despite his illness, was completely involved in the shooting process – up to the point where he even underwent the first visual inspection of the raw version and finally also saw the final cut. His judgement: “It is not only nice, it is strong. If I had to speak to a ‘World Authority for Film Evaluation (lit.)’ I would say: There is nothing that bothers me, nothing flicks-like or melodramatic, but a lot that can be improved.” (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 418f.)
On November 17 the final version is ready to be discussed, Frisch is dissatisfied in particular with the ending of the story. After various hours of work on the dialog of the German version, where Frisch finally could introduce his very own language, the project was concluded. To show his thanks Max Frisch gave Volker Schlöndorff his Jaguar: “There where I am going I will no longer need it.”
Schlöndorff emphasised the importance of engaging a native speaker for the main character that represents the American Faber. He showed Frisch photographs of Sam Shepard, images of at the time 21-year-old Julie Delpy, and recommended Barbara Sukowa for the role for mother Hanna. After Max Frisch had read pieces by Shepard, he saw the US-American actor and dramatist as the right cast for the role of the engineer Walter Faber. Philippe Pilliod, ex-husband of Karin Pilliod, the future wife of Max Frisch, and author of a first script in 1982, saw in Delpy “simply Sabeth, the only possible choice, after one has seen her. She is a wonder of implicitness. […] She carries the whole emotions of the film.”
Schlöndorff worked with the British film composer Stanley Myers (*06.10.1930, +09.11.1993) on four projects: MICHAEL KOHLHAAS – DER REBELL (BRD 1969) (Man on Horseback), STROHFEUER (BRD 1972) (A Free Woman), ÜBERNACHTUNG IN TIROL (BRD 1973/74) and HOMO FABER (Voyager). Myers, who since the 1960s has composed the music for more than 130 films and TV productions, is famous for his stylistic adaptability. In his soundtracks he uses symphonic pieces, rock songs, electronic elements and world music. The sound recording of HOMO FABER (Voyager) displays this broad repertoire as well. He composed pieces in the classical symphonic style, traditional pieces with national tones and contemporary Jazz music. Also the Carl Perkins song Blue Suede Shoes, in the version from Elvis Presley, was used in the sound track. Therefore, the instrumentation is of a very broad spectrum: from duets with cello and piano up to an orchestra of 65 people is everything included. The entire sound track lasts only 30 minutes, however, it is used in such a way that it leads the audience through the plot and provides a narrative connection, also supporting the atmosphere.
Functions of the soundtrack and main motif
Just as the events in the film are told from the view of Walter Faber, the music’s main role is to support Faber’s feelings. The music has a strong expressive character. The two female protagonists are joined with a leading motif. The figure of Hanna or rather Faber’s recollections of her are accompanied by a waltz played on a piano. In the first scene were it is used, Faber stares into the distance and recollects his first encounter with her. The piano starts to play and the camera shows Hanna and Walter who are dancing to the music. Here the motif sounds blithely and dynamic, which points out the amorousness and optimism of the two. Later on this motif is heard again when Faber finds Joachim dead and therefore believes to have lost the trace to Hanna. At that point Faber remembers their fight about the pregnancy and breaking off their relationship. The piano piece is very quiet and slow, which represents the end of their relationship. Because of the slowing down of the music at this point the piece gains a feeling of melancholy and reflects Faber’s regrets of his behavior back then.
The most impressive piece is the so called Sabeth theme, representing the love of Faber for Sabeth. It sounds in the scenes in which the two are together, but especially when Faber remembers Sabeth. The song is heard for the first time when Faber tells Elisabeth that he rather likes to call her Sabeth. The Sabeth theme starts immediately at the mentioning of her name. At this point it is only played by a trumpet. In the course of the film there are variations to the theme and it is played by various instruments. In whole one can hear the piece, played with high trumpets, at the end of the film, while Faber, afflicted with repentance, thinks about his journey with Sabeth and mourns over the impossibility of their relationship.
Once again one can hear the Sabeth theme at the last images.
After one sees the photograph of Sabeth the music starts very quietly. Exactly as the question of Faber Where should I search for her? stays unanswered, one can only hear the first fragment of the theme, there is also no resolution on the musical level, leaving the audience with an open question. The figure of Walter Faber cannot be connected to any direct music. Directly in contrast to the sentimental pieces that accompany Hanna and Sabeth, the lack of a melody for Faber highlights his rationality and emotional void. Further parts of the soundtrack are jazz elements that are heard during Faber’s stay in New York as well as national sounding, traditional pieces that connect each scene to the respective country. For example, Sabeth’s and Walter’s stay in Greece is accompanied by a collage of 20 different Greek music pieces (Myers 1991).
Myers, Stanley (1991). Myers in Munich. Scoring Volker Schlöndorff’s Homo Faber. Interview by Matthias Büdinger. In: Soundtrack! The Collector’s Quarterly. Vol.10 / No. 37 /March 1991. p. 25f.
While the German press was disappointed, the film was well received by the audience: around 1.5 million viewers went to the cinemas since the premier on the 21 May 1991. Despite the cautious critique, the film gained various awards: [here] the Gilde-Filmpreis in Silber from the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Kino, the Filmpreis in Silber in 1991 from the Deutscher Filmpreis and the Beste Film im Wettbewerb in 1992 from the Bayerischer Filmpreis. Die Filmbewertungsstelle Wiesbaden (FBW) (German Film Quality Assessment Board) awards the quality label “most valuable”.