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Divine Rapture: The Films of Werner Schroeter

By Ulrike Sieglohr in Archive Highlight

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The sublime, intensely stylized “total cinema” of Werner Schroeter, the flamboyant dandy who was the New German cinema’s best-kept secret

Palermo oder Wolfsburg

Palermo oder Wolfsburg

Like his contemporaries Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders, the late Werner Schroeter was one of the New German Cinema’s seminal figures, if far more marginal in terms of recognition. He started out as an underground filmmaker in 1967 before making a critical impact on the international festival circuit and winning a devoted cult following. His films, shot through with a predilection for operatic excess and artifice, defy categorization, and are infuriatingly obscure for some and entrancingly poetic for others. His cinema occupies a transitional space between avant-garde and art cinema, neither quite narrative nor quite abstract. In the second half of the Eighties he became widely known as a theater and opera director, staging a range of hyperstylized productions in Germany and abroad that outstripped even his films in their ability to provoke both intense admiration and hostility. His flamboyance and reputation for refusing to compromise with the mainstream attracted outstanding talents willing to work for little or no money, some of whom became his regular collaborators. Foremost among the performers was Magdalena Montezuma, the splendid German underground star and Schroeter’s muse until her death in 1985. Subsequently French stars such as Bulle Ogier, Carole Bouquet, and Isabelle Huppert gave him an additional art-house aura. Throughout his career and thanks to major retrospectives, including events in London, Paris, and Rome, Schroeter’s films kept garnering new, if select, audiences.

Schroeter’s stylized, performance-centered aesthetic draws on opera, pop music, stage melodrama, contemporary dance theater, and cabaret. His films consist of overt allegories and fables driven by the Romantic impulse, distilling moments of desire, loss, and death in all-consuming emotion. The central figure in Schroeter’s films is always the outsider—the mad person, the foreigner—and his major theme is ineffable longing for passionate love and artistic creativity. Although Schroeter was gay, homosexuality is rarely an explicit topic, though arguably the female protagonists who are foregrounded in his films become vessels for the displaced expression of gay subjectivity. Visually the characters are framed in sumptuous tableau compositions underscored by a highly manipulated post-synchronized soundtrack. Music is crucial to all of Schroeter’s films but more for the content than for the mood: it offers commentary and counterpoint, and one of his major strategies was the juxtaposition of classical and popular music. For example, he often puts the opera diva Maria Callas side by side with Caterina Valente, the German popular singer, blurring the hierarchical distinction between high and low culture, art and kitsch. 

The Bomber Pilot

After attending the 4th experi-mental Film Festival at Knokke, Belgium, in 1967, the 22-year-old Schroeter started to make his first 8mm films, most notably Maria Callas Portrait (68), in which he animated stills of Maria Callas and overlaid them with a soundtrack of her singing. The figure of the diva, personified and immortalized by the voice and fate of Callas, became for Schroeter the embodiment of artistic creativity and intensity in his quest for the representation of emotions. In these early nonnarrative films, images, music, and sound are not synchronized; and their live performers mime to the lyrics or spoken words on the soundtrack in an exaggerated fashion. 

Schroeter’s first feature, Eika Katappa (69), a radical 147-minute camp appropriation of opera, is arguably as spectacular as a Hollywood epic and features more musical climaxes than even a 19th-century Italian bel canto opera. Schroeter paraphrases the climaxes from such operas as Puccini’s Tosca and Verdi’s La Traviata, alongside pop songs and orchestral music. The various episodes are driven mainly by the lyrics and sometimes by tableaux such as St. Sebastian’s ecstatic death. The film exemplifies the tendency in Schroeter’s early period toward incorporating explicitly dilettantish performances of the Western cultural repertoire, staging them in makeshift sets, and linking scenes through complex montage (for example, there is a kaleidoscopic replaying of previous scenes from the film in the final section). 

Eika Katappa, which was self-financed, won the Josef von Sternberg prize (for “the most idiosyncratic film”) at the 1969 Mannheim Film Festival and enabled Schroeter to break into television. Ironically, his “total cinema” films, which work more through spectacle than narrative, were almost exclusively produced by Das kleine Fernsehspiel (“The Little Television Play”), a small experimental department of the German public-service station ZDF. During this period, Das kleine Fernsehspiel supported some of Schroeter’s highly controversial projects, beginning with The Bomber Pilot (70), a grotesque parody of Fascist revue shows, which was probably the first German film to engage with the “cultural myth” of Nazism. Similarly, Salome (71), Macbeth (71), and Goldflocken (Flocons d’or, 76) provoked strong and contradictory reactions: critic Eckhard Schmidt called Schroeter “one of the most talented young filmmakers,” while others dismissed his films as trivial ritualistic exercises in appropriation.

The Death of Maria Malibran

Sublime and bizarre, The Death of Maria Malibran (71) is considered by many, including Michel Foucault and Schroeter himself, to be one of his best films, but it’s also one of the most difficult. The tragic life of the eponymous 19th-century opera diva is merely a starting point for a dense network of references and allusions centered around the idea that artistic perfection is only attainable in death. The fragmentary and opaque narrative is conveyed through the intense stylization of gestures, poses, tableaux, and music. Malibran’s life is condensed into metaphorical and imaginary situations that reflect on an artist’s existence beyond the boundaries of a historical reality and gender identity. The life, or rather the death, of the singer is audiovisually refracted through prerecorded operatic arias, pop songs, literary citations, and romantic platitudes (ranging from Goethe and Lautréamont to Elvis Presley). Highlights include the passionate suicide of two female lovers, pastoral musical interludes, and performances expressing ineffable longing, despair, and madness. 

With Kingdom of Naples (78) Schroeter shifted toward more plot-driven art cinema, maintaining his hallmarks of pathos and melodrama but with more obvious narrative and political intent. Schroeter commented about this change “that it is much more radical to play with the content than with the aesthetics of the image. The era of independence is over. Our society has not fulfilled the promises hoped for around ’68-’70.” Greeted with an unaccustomed consensus of critical acclaim, Kingdom won many prizes in Germany and internationally, and became his first commercial release. Shot on location by Aguirre, Wrath of God DP Thomas Mauch with several nonprofessional actors and using local dialects, the film is reminiscent of Italian neorealism in its approach, and on first viewing, its chronicle of a poor Neapolitan family and their community, spanning between 1944 to 1977, appears to be grounded in conventional melodrama. Yet it is highly stylized and constructed in the manner of a 19th-century serial opera with music being used not only for its emotional power but as a form of critical commentary. 

Schroeter was a great globe-trotter who took advantage of invitations to film festivals or Goethe Institut presentations of his work to make films. Many who regarded him as a maker of fantastic fables were surprised at the politically hard-hitting if still associative and nonlinear documentaries that resulted. Smiling Star (83) is an extraordinary collage documentary on Marcos’s corrupt regime in the Philippines, shot clandestinely while Schroeter was a guest of the Manila International Film Festival, while For Example, Argentina (83-85) is a denunciation of Galtieri’s military dictatorship: “First we kill the subversive elements, then the sympathizers, then their henchmen, and last of all the weak.”

Rose King

The Rose King

Schroeter’s gay sensibility is expressed as an aesthetic that could be described as high camp, since he insists on a Romantic and operatic vision of homosexuality. In The Rose King (86), an excessive and entrancing hallucinatory fable of perfect but doomed love, and his most explicitly gay film, the symbol of the rose is employed to signify love, passion, and perfection at the moment of death. The titular Rose King merges the ideal of the perfect rose with the body of his lover and at the sexually climatic moment grafts multiple roses onto him. This visceral scene of ecstatic mutilation, heightened by the rhythm of a Viennese waltz, is intercut with shots of fire, ink, water, and the sea washing over a nude male body. The juxtaposition of images and sounds is as horrific as it is beautiful.

After his theater and opera productions in the late Eighties Schroeter returned to filmmaking in 1990 with Malina, a relatively high-budget literary adaptation based on Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1971 novel. Scripted by Elfriede Jelinek, and featuring an original avant-garde score by Giacomo Manzoni, it stars Isabelle Huppert as an unnamed female writer caught between passion and creativity, and between her platonic love for the rational Malina (Mathieu Carrière) and her consuming desire for the sensual Ivan (Can Togay). This is represented not as a conventional ménage à trois but rather as a visual and sonic staging of (literally) burning passion and glacial voids that lead to the disintegration of the writer’s identity. On a psychoanalytic level Ivan is a projection of a desire for absolute erotic love, while Malina represents the rational male alter-ego that clashes with the female emotional ego and finally obliterates the female identity—suggesting that it is only possible to be a writer at the expense of femininity and desire. Huppert’s tour-de-force performance of exaltation and self-destructive despair is familiar from Schroeter’s repertoire, and so is the film’s nonlinear narrative with its operatic climaxes—albeit now psychologically motivated as nightmares and hallucinations. With its musical cadences and its mise en scène of ornate mirrors and consuming fires, Schroeter’s Malina transforms Bachman’s literary text into an idiosyncratic spectacle and aural feast. Despite receiving mixed reviews in Germany, the film won the German Film Award in Gold, but internationally this sumptuous but difficult film was considered too obscure to win much acclaim.

With Love’s Debris (Poussières d’amour, 96) Schroeter re-engaged with the cult of the diva—this time employing living, breathing, but aging opera divas. He invited a few of his favorite opera singers, young and old, to a 13th-century French abbey, in an effort to understand what gave rise to the emotional intensity in their vocal performance. The most affecting scene centers on the 65-year-old diva Anita Cerquetti, who gave up singing upon losing her voice at the height of her career, when she was barely 30 years old. We watch Cerquetti listening and lip-synching to an old recording of her sublime vocal performance of “Casta Diva” (“Chaste Diva”) from Bellini’s Norma. This apparent sonic synchronization becomes a hauntingly nostalgic experience through the accompanying visual mismatch: the aging body cannot anchor the youthful operatic voice. The fleeting restoration of Cerquetti’s full, rich voice is followed by her recognition of its irrecoverable loss. It is a moment of great poignancy. 

Deux

Deux

Schroeter’s penultimate film, Deux (02), was written for Huppert, and she provides another virtuoso performance playing contrasting twin sisters, separated at birth and unaware of each other’s existence. This surreal fantasy, with its dreamlike associative editing, literary citations from the Comte de Lautréamont’s 1869 verse novel Les Chants de Maldoror, gay iconography, and periodic arias is reminiscent of the director’s earlier episodic films. In its engagement with the myth of Narcissus and the German Romantic concept of the doppelgänger, Schroeter claims that the film contains autobiographical episodes that transfigure his own memories and dreams into art. The film premiered at Cannes where it received some praise, but failed to find a German distributor. Although at the core extremely subjective, Deux also contains references to European art history and literature, and this balancing act, while doubtless intriguing for dedicated Schroeter followers, is likely too opaque for the uninitiated.

Schroeter’s swan song, Tonight (Nuit de chien, 08) was shot nocturnally on location in Porto (Portugal) while the filmmaker was enduring the debilitating effects of cancer. It is a dystopian fable about the failure of a revolution and a darkly luminous nighttime odyssey across a port city and its brutalized inhabitants. Christiane Peitz’s obituary of Schroeter describes the film as “a long journey into darkness, a hymn to life in the face of brutality and terror.” And Schroeter explained in his own posthumously published autobiography: “All my films, including Tonight, bear witness to my quest for a form that communicates vitality, the pleasure of creativity and beauty, which is a gift of our profession. In beauty, in recognition of beauty resides a hope—malgré tout, despite all. It expresses a hope even though the theme of the film deals with the darkest night aspects of existence . . . Without pain and a quest for truth there is no beauty.”

The nature of Schroeter’s lifelong quest is eloquently explored in the lyrical and elegiac 2011 documentary Mondo Lux: The Visual Worlds of Werner Schroeter by Elfi Mikesch, Schroeter’s close friend and collaborator. But a much earlier tribute was paid in 1979 by his friend and rival Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who welcomed the art-house release of Kingdom of Naples as Schroeter’s emergence from the underground. Fassbinder graciously acknowledged Schroeter’s decisive influence on himself and other German filmmakers, and suggested that the director’s very underground exoticism had kept him at the margins of film culture. Perhaps this continued detachment from the commercial mainstream makes Schroeter’s films that much more precious. 

Ulrike Sieglohr is Honorary Research Fellow at Staffordshire University (Great Britain). She has published widely on New German Cinema, and her forthcoming book is a critical star study of Hanna Schygulla.

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