By the time I was twenty-one, I had made two short films and was dead set on making a feature. I had gone to a distinguished school in Munich, where I had few friends, and which I hated so passionately that I imagined setting it on fire. There is such a thing as academic intelligence, and I didn’t have it. Intelligence is always a bundle of qualities: logical thought, articulacy, originality, memory, musicality, sensitivity, speed of association, and so on. In my case, the bundle seemed to be differently composed. I remember asking a fellow-student to write a term paper for me, which he did quite easily. In jest, he asked me what I would do for him in return, and I promised that I would make him immortal. His name was Hauke Stroszek. I gave his last name to the main character in my first film, “Signs of Life.” I called another film “Stroszek.”
But some of my studies I found utterly absorbing. For a class on medieval history, I wrote a paper on the Privilegium maius. This was a flagrant forgery, from 1358 or 1359, conceived by Rudolf IV, a scion of the Habsburgs, who wanted to define his family’s territory and install them as one of the powers of Europe. He produced a set of five clumsy documents, in the guise of royal charters, with a supplement purportedly issued by Julius Caesar. Despite being clearly fraudulent, the documents were ultimately accepted by the Holy Roman Emperor, confirming the Habsburgs’ claim to Austria. It was an early instance of fake news, and it inspired in me an obsession with questions of factuality, reality, and truth. In life, we are confronted by facts. Art draws on their power, as they have a normative force, but making purely factual films has never interested me. Truth, like history and memory, is not a fixed star but a search, an approximation. In my paper, I declared, even if it was illogical, that the Privilegium was a true account.
What seemed to me a natural approach became a method. Because I knew it would be hopeless to make a feature right away, I accepted a scholarship to go to the United States. I applied to Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, which had cameras and a film studio. I chose Pittsburgh because I had the sentimental notion that I wouldn’t be tied up with academic nonsense; I’d be in a city with real, down-to-earth people. Pittsburgh was the Steel City, and I had worked in a steel factory myself.
Around the same time, I won ten thousand marks in a competition, for the screenplay for “Signs of Life,” and a free Atlantic crossing. I took passage on the Bremen, where, a few years earlier, Siegfried and Roy had worked as stewards, diverting the passengers with magic tricks. It was on board this ship that I met my first wife, Martje. After we had reached the Irish Sea, it stormed for a week, and the dining room, for six hundred passengers, was empty. Martje was on her way to begin a literature degree in Wisconsin. The heavy seas didn’t bother her. When we sailed into New York, we passed the Statue of Liberty, neither of us interested in the view; we were engrossed in a game of shuffleboard on deck. Martje is the mother of my first son, Rudolph Amos Achmed. He bears the names of three very important people in my life. Rudolf was my grandfather, a classics professor who led enormous archeological digs, involving hundreds of laborers, on the island of Kos. Amos was Amos Vogel, a writer who fled the Nazis, co-founded the New York Film Festival, and became a mentor to me. I remember him taking me aside after three years of marriage and asking if everything was all right. Of course it was all right. “Why don’t you have any children, then?” he said. I thought, Well, indeed, why not?
Achmed was the last remaining laborer who worked with my grandfather. My first time on Kos, when I was fifteen, I went to his home and introduced myself. Achmed started to cry, then threw open all the cupboards, drawers, and windows, and said, “All this is yours.” He had a fourteen-year-old granddaughter, and suggested that I might want to marry her. It wasn’t easy to get him to drop the idea, until I promised to name my firstborn son for Rudolf and him. The island, once under Ottoman rule, eventually became Greek; Achmed remained, working in the digs. I cast him in a small sequence in “Signs of Life,” which was filmed on Kos. He had lost his wife, his daughter, and even his granddaughter; all he had left was his dog, Bondchuk. The next time I saw him, he again threw open his doors and windows, but all he said was “Bondchuk apethane”—“Bondchuk is dead.” We sat together crying for a long time and said nothing.
Pittsburgh turned out to be a bad idea. For a start, the steel industry was almost dead, and the shuttered plants were rusting away. Second, Duquesne University was an intellectually impoverished place. I had no idea that there were differences among universities. There was the film studio, but that was set up like a TV newsroom, with a desk for the anchor flanked by three heavy electronic cameras. Old-fashioned spotlights were affixed to the ceiling, and you couldn’t take them down or move them.
Quitting school would have meant losing my visa and having to leave the United States. So I kept my registration. There was a group of young writers clustered around a magazine on campus; I published my first short story there. In my memory, it all feels blurred, events piled on top of one another. Sometimes I slept on the library floor, where the cleaners would find me at six in the morning. I slept on the sofas of various acquaintances and of my original host, a professor, forty but terrified of his mother, who forbade contact with female students and perhaps with women in general. In front of his window were dark trees and chipmunks, which had something consoling about them. Also consoling were the calls of unfamiliar birds and the play of sharp sunbeams cutting through the thin twigs. Images formed inside me.
There were occasional bizarre scenes. The mother fed her son as if he were a little kid. More precisely, she made him eat green Jell-O, and she started to think of me as someone who might also benefit from it. I ate it uncomplainingly. This motif surfaced many years later, in my film “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” where the protagonist, played by Michael Shannon, is covered in Jell-O by his mother, as if it were war paint. He ends up playing the part of Orestes in a theatre production, failing to keep performance separate from reality, and killing his mother with a stage prop, a Turkish sabre.
A freak encounter changed everything. My host lived in a place called Fox Chapel, in the hills outside Pittsburgh. The bus would take me twelve miles or so, as far as Dorseyville, and from there I would hike up the road through some woods. While walking this last stretch, I was often passed by a woman in a car, the seats full of youngsters. One day, it started raining, and the car drew up beside me. The woman wound down her window. She could give me a lift, she said. It was a two-minute drive to Fox Chapel.
Where was I from? she asked. I was a Kraut, I said. Where was I staying? I explained my situation. Oh, the woman said, she knew the man, he was a weirdo, a wacko-weirdo. She said I’d do better staying with her; she had a spare room in her attic. Her place was just a quarter of a mile from his.
And so I found myself adopted by a family. The woman’s name was Evelyn Franklin. She had six children between seventeen and twenty-seven, and she said that a seventh would be good, seeing as her oldest daughter had just married and moved out. Her husband had died an alcoholic, which must have meant years of misery for Evelyn. She mentioned him only in passing, and always as Mr. Franklin. The youngest kids were twin girls, Jeannie and Joanie; then there was a brother, Billy, who was a failed rock musician; then two more brothers, one of whom—the only one!—was a bit boring and bougie, while the other, twenty-five, was a little slow and had a soft heart. As a child, he had fallen out of a moving car. Then there was a ninety-year-old grandmother and a cocker spaniel who went by Benjamin, as in Benjamin Franklin. I was put in the attic, where there was an old bed and junk. It had a pitched roof, and it was only in the middle that I could stand upright.
I straightaway became part of the daily madness. Evelyn commuted into the city, where she had a job as a secretary in an insurance company. The twins came back from high school in the afternoon, often with friends in tow. Long before that, though, from eight o’clock on, the grandmother would try to rouse Billy, who had usually been rocking in some bar until 3 a.m. She would pound on his locked door, trying to convert him from his sinful life, reading him Bible quotes. The dog, who had a kind of symbiotic relationship with Billy, lay forlornly outside the door. In the afternoon, Billy would emerge stark naked, stretching pleasurably. The grandmother would flee, and Billy would smite his chest and in Old Testament tones bewail his sinful life. Benjamin Franklin would howl an accompaniment, then kick his back paws into the air. Billy, switching to an imaginary canine language, would grab the paws and start dragging Benjamin Franklin down the stairs. At each carpeted landing, he stopped to lament his sins in dog language. Down in the living room, the twins and their squealing girlfriends fled the naked youth, who then set off in pursuit of his runaway grandmother.