One of the most revered yet little-known filmmakers of the New German Cinema, Werner Schroeter had a profound impact on such compatriots as Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders with his luxurious, operatic odes to ecstasy and excess. Come discover the enthralling works of "one of the truly revolutionary artists of our age" (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg).
"There are only high points in my films." —Werner Schroeter
"Arguably the key West German filmmaker of the past two decades." —J. Hoberman, The Village Voice (1986)
"One of the truly revolutionary artists of our age." —Hans-Jürgen Syberberg
"The best kept secret of New German Cinema." —Rainer Werner Fassbinder
How is it that a director whose compatriots in the New German Cinema — Alexander Kluge, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Fassbinder and Syberberg — all paid tribute to him as a visionary and inspiration, whose work was acclaimed by such French luminaries as Michel Foucault, Henri Langlois, and Philippe Garrel, and whose stature as a genius has been burnished by countless critics and film historians, should remain so little known and appreciated in North America, long ignored by major film festivals and deemed unfit for art houses? A travelling retrospective of Werner Schroeter's films in 1988, presented in Toronto at Harbourfront, did little to alleviate this intransigent obscurity. So the major retrospective of Schroeter's work, organized by Joshua Siegel for the Museum of Modern Art and Stefan Droessler of the Munich Film Museum, now arrives here, albeit considerably abridged from its recent New York presentation at MoMA, as both commemoration — Schroeter died of cancer in 2010 — and historical corrective.
The critic faced with Schroeter's cinema of surfeit warily recalls Roland Barthes' admonition in regard to music analysis: "Are we condemned to the adjective?" Just as dreamy locution and invocations of mystery often replace analysis of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's work, describing Schroeter's ecstatic farragoes of death and transfiguration tempts one to imitative overload, to a mere accumulation of descriptors: vertiginous, operatic, histrionic, excessive, baffling, ravishing. (Schroeter, whose films reveal his profound engagement with art and music history, could never understand why the term "baroque" was so frequently applied to his films.) There is little point in disguising the challenges posed by Schroeter's works: they are not for the weak of stomach, faint of heart, or small in spirit. Indeed, the extremity of his films can incite otherwise sympathetic and incisive critics to indignation; thus, James Travers on Deux: "The film's sheer relentless grotesqueness and self-indulgence is so extreme, so unbridled, so stomach-churningly provocative, that it is hard to take any of it seriously." Mockery and exasperation are the favourite modes of Schroeter's detractors, rapture and adulation those of his champions. For those of us who consider him one of the great directors of European cinema, Schroeter's every obsession is magnificent.
"What Schroeter does with a face, a cheekbone, the lips, the expression of the eyes, is a multiplying and burgeoning of the body, an exultation," Michel Foucault famously claimed. Aspiring to the florid corporeality of Comte de Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror — an 1869 sextet of prose cantos given to impulsive shifts of tone and style and swarmed by grotesque visions — Schroeter's work exults in the "burgeoning of the body" via Lautréamontian excess. (Both French poet and German director were fond of bizarre bestiaries; the insects and animals in The Rose King and the frisky, dangerously fickle fox of Deux won't soon be forgotten.) Schroeter's quest for the sublime — both the Romantic and merely rhapsodic — followed Lautréamont's attempt to make every phrase and sentence dense with disgust and overwrought beauty, privileging each moment of his films to sometimes asphyxiating effect. Confronted with such ceaseless splendour, one can sometimes feel like Isabelle Huppert's suffocating writer in Malina: "I must breathe! I must breathe!"
Born just as World War II was ending and named after a Nazi uncle, the Thuringian dandy studied psychology and then film, but his desire "to be generous" led him to abandon school for a brief career of prostitution, selling his willowy blonde body to furtive husbands and fathers. From down-home hooker to international auteur, Schroeter seemed driven by an aesthete's avidity for giving and getting beauty, and by a desire for affection, claiming that he, incapable of loving, became a filmmaker to participate in a social act of co-creation-to "make friends." (Maldoror's quest for first love: "I was seeking a soul resembling mine, and I could not find it. I searched throughout the seven seas; my perseverance proved of no use. Yet I could not remain alone.") Inspired first by the films of Gregory Markopoulos (especially Twice a Man), which he encountered at the festival for experimental cinema at Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium, in 1967, and then by gay activist and filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim (with whom he later fell out over a fundamental disagreement about the political role of the homosexual artist), Schroeter from the outset treated cinema as a declaration of personal obsession.
In an account of the "key dates" in his life, Schroeter listed 1962 as the year of teen epiphany, when he first heard Maria Callas perform. The Greek-American diva immediately became for the smitten youth "the most important person in my life . . . always a guiding star for me," with the ability to immobilize and transcend time. (He later described the 1976 death of his mother, who had filled him with a love of art and make-believe as a child, as a "monumental . . . powerful experience," which was painfully compounded by Callas' expiry a year later: "And then my spiritual, artistic mother died.") In his primitive early 8mm films, which feel like a passionate fan's scrapbooks set in erratic motion, Schroeter fixates on Callas' face, gestures, and voice, animating still photographs of her in Lucia di Lammermoor or Tosca with rapid-fire montage accompanied by scratchy recordings of her arias. A companion film from the period, Verona, dotes on religious statuary, thereby establishing the twin devotional poles of Schroeter's future cinema: Callas and Catholicism.
Schroeter's debt to the American underground, including Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, and Kenneth Anger, became readily apparent once he "graduated" to the 16mm format with Neurasia and Argila. In the latter we encounter the "three women" configuration of many of his later films, as well as some defining aspects of his aesthetic: the asynchronous use of music (his actresses never really "lip synch" the kitsch songs and opera arias he loads on the soundtrack, as their busy lips rarely match the music they appear to emit); extremities of emotion, from catatonia to rapture, expressed in embellished gestures lifted from opera, antique theatre, and silent cinema; a tableaux structure, in which disconnected fragments are repeated like haphazard musical motifs, until a final reprise subsumes them into something like coherence; and a magpie music track of high and low, pop and opera, the transcendent and the preposterous (in Argila, Verdi, Liszt, Beethoven, Bruch, Donizetti, Vivaldi, and Stravinsky are interspersed with the tear-stained lyrics of Brook Benton's "Hotel Happiness"). For Schroeter, the slurpy sentiment of leaving teardrops in the old forlorn rooms of Hotel Loneliness shares the heart-bruising grandeur of any Puccini aria. His Napster aesthetic would later deploy Verdi and Elvis, Wagner and Percy Sledge, Saint-Saens and the Andrews Sisters, segueing recklessly from Vienna waltzes to rockabilly and the Doobie Brothers. Schroeter's omnivorous jukebox includes Bizet's Carmen — his recurrent use of "La mort! La mort! Encore la mort!" from Act Three reflects Schroeter's obsession with death and his own frequent refrain of "tod, tod, tod" — as well as Marty Robbins' low-rent rendition: "Tonight there'll be no room for tears in my bedroom / Tonight Carmen's coming back home!" On Schroeter's map, Bizet's tragic Spanish arena borders Robbins' country-and-western homestead, romantic passion and the imminence of dissolution connecting their disparate worlds.
Argila features two actresses who came to define Schroeter's early cinema: a glamorous blonde with the curiously ululating name of Carla Aulaulu, who gamely shimmies her way through plenty of cabaret and unsynched opera in his films, and her dusky opposite, Magdalena Montezuma (formerly Erika Kluge, a twenty-two-year-old bar waitress when Schroeter "discovered" her), Schroeter's ur-star, muse, and alter ego until her death at age forty-one in 1984. (Schroeter noted, as if to stress their mystical bond, that the cancer that killed her was the same type he would eventually die from.) Following Argila, Montezuma appeared in most of the director's subsequent films through The Rose King. One might situate her as the Dietrich to Schroeter's von Sternberg, were her imposing presence more alluring than alarming. Her wide eyes slightly awry so that their pupils just missed symmetry, resulting in a poleaxe stare, her broad jaw and gnarled overbite given to a pronounced lisp, her cheekbones as high and raw as Callas' when provoked, and her eyebrows tortured into scintilla-thin arcs, Montezuma's kabuki-like mask maintained its androgynous ferocity throughout many alterations. "She transformed herself like a chameleon," Schroeter fondly recalled of his star, but his compliment hardly captures Montezuma's drastic capacity for self-transformation. Playing gorgons, Valkyries, and heavy-lidded divas, a bald, android-looking Herod in Schroeter's hieratic version of Oscar Wilde's Salome or an outback California murderess enrobed in a sparkly snood in Willow Springs, Montezuma became the majestic embodiment of the director's fever dreams on stage and screen.
Ransacking and re-consecrating, through affectionate parody and outright reverence, forms of German culture that had been stigmatized by their association with Nazi ideology — Wagnerian spectacle especially — Schroeter proved himself the heir of Caspar David Friedrich in his taste for picturesque ruins and twilit skies, overgrown architraves and crumbling amphitheatres, for echt Deutsch landscapes suffused with the yearning of the lone traveller: die romantische Stimmungslandschaft. More blatant (and mocking) in his religious imagery than the mystical Friedrich, Schroeter stages a bucolic crucifixion in Eika Katappa in which the lanky, loinclothed Christ can't seem to decide if he isn't also St. Sebastian (a frequent confusion-conflation in Schroeter's many passion plays), while Montezuma histrionically switch-hits as a grieving Mary and a Bavarian nun. In this "world of terror and dangerous paths," of botched duels and sudden resurrections, Carla Aulaulu repeatedly staggers down a rain-pocked rural road, expiring into the mud as she drawls in heavily accented English, "Life is very precious, even right now."
The gay Neapolitan interlude at the end of Eika Katappa signalled Schroeter's typisch German predilection for finding the sensual and authentic in the South. "Progressing" to 35mm, bigger-budget narratives, Schroeter again looked south in his twin epics, The Kingdom of Naples and Palermo or Wolfsburg. Drawing on Italian neorealism, of the operatic (Visconti) or "contaminated" (Pasolini) sort, both films turn the fates of their unfortunates into potent allegories of repression (sexual, economic, racial). Though criticized as apolitical or ambiguous, Schroeter's films often declare their leftist sympathies: the bag of flour for which a mother prostitutes her young daughter in The Kingdom of Naples is emblazoned "USA" (the lingering close-up brooks no subtlety), and Nicola's anarchist pal in Palermo eloquently denounces slave-making capitalism. (Schroeter also directed one of the most acidulous political documentaries ever with The Laughing Star, his account of the 1983 Manila Film Festival presided over by Imelda Marcos.)
In his lovely documentary about the Nancy theatre festival, Dress Rehearsal, Schroeter emphasizes that sehnsucht, an intensity of longing or yearning — often for something lost and irretrievable — is crucial to his sensibility. Sehnsucht veritably saturates Schroeter's masterpiece The Rose King, a requiem for Magdalena Montezuma and a summa of his cinema and obsessions. Filmed in Portugal as Montezuma was dying from cancer — her transfixing face, which she here defiles with handfuls of tar, takes on new gaunt planes — the polyglot King returns to the Lautréamontian mode of Schroeter's early cinema. Working with cinematographer Elfi Mikesch for the first time, Schroeter gathers his "scattered pictures" — red fingernails caressing a stone wall, the spume of surf on a nighttime beach, cobwebs backlit into iridescent latticework, a woman's foot leaving prints in the sand, fireworks that fully earn their French appellation feux d'artifice — and organizes them into voluptuous motifs of desire and decay, Catholicism and rot: a white mouse crawls along a peeling Madonna, a mouldering crucifix looks on as two men grapple below. (The film fairly parades its intense pictorialism: Montezuma offers a disquisition on Georges de La Tour, and we catch a glimpse of Caravaggio's Boy Bitten by a Lizard.)
Montezuma's death led to a half-decade hiatus from filmmaking, during which Schroeter directed several acclaimed stage and opera productions. (He later made documentary portraits of elderly theatre and opera divas, his taste for ruins run to aged bodies.) Schroeter re-emerged with a new star, Isabelle Huppert, with whom he made two films, Malina and the appropriately titled Deux, both preoccupied with twins and doppelgängers, mirror images and Jungian dualities: "You don't realize I am double! Double!" Huppert cries in Malina, insisting that she is her "husband" and vice versa. "Ordinary things can cause an explosion at any moment," Huppert tells her young lover in Malina, and in the sense-disordering maelstrom of Schroeter's mise en scène, the world does burst into conflagration, both metaphorically (Huppert is consumed by incendiary passion) and literally, as husband and wife carry on obliviously even as fire incinerates their apartment. Schroeter's hitherto anti-psychological cinema — he mercilessly mocks the doctors who try to explain his heroine's mental state in Day of the Idiots — here invokes Repulsion in his portrait of a woman disintegrating in a hostile, enclosed space.
Schroeter might find it suitably mawkish to summon one of his most adored arias, Puccini's "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca, to encapsulate his career. He indeed lived for art and love, telling his close friend and fellow artificer, the Swiss director Daniel Schmid, that he wanted to fill every day so that when death arrived, he would not have missed anything. He need not have worried. Schroeter could claim, as his eternal Callas sang: "I gave my song to the stars, to heaven, which smiled with more beauty."
This essay is an abbreviated and revised version of "Magnificent Obsession," which appeared in Artforum International, May 2012.
The Werner Schroeter retrospective was originally curated and organized by Joshua Siegel, Film Department, Museum of Modern Art, New York and Stefan Droessler, Munich Film Museum, and is presented in association with the Goethe-Institut.
We are most grateful to the following individuals, archives, and organizations for ensuring the loan of often rare materials for presentation in the retrospective: Monika Keppler; Marleen Labjit, Eye Film Institute, Amsterdam; Marie-Pierre Lessard, Cinémathèque québécoise; Eric Franck; Frieder Schlaich, Filmgalerie 451; Rym Hachimi, Le Petit Bureau.