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Directors in Focus – Rituals of Desire: The Films of Daniel Schmid

A major auteur in Europe but relatively unknown in the U.S., Swiss director Daniel Schmid has fashioned a unique and fanciful body of films over the last thirty years that is ripe for rediscovery. After studying at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin from 1966–1969, Schmid began his film career in association with the New German Cinema movement. Like the work of his friends Werner Schroeter and Rosa von Praunheim, Schmid’s films possessed, from the outset, an operatic sensibility. His remains a cinema of playfulness and longing, of voluptuousness and strong feeling, equal parts illusion and delusion. Unswayed by social or cinematic trends, Schmid has steadfastly produced an imaginative string of fiction films, documentaries, and opera productions—works suffused with sensuality and elements of melodrama and underscored by what critic Amy Taubin has called an "ironically modernist intelligence." As Schmid himself has stated, "I believe that people have a need for mythical forms, mysterious images, atavistic fairy tales, and magical symbols that take them back to the hidden memories of their childhood and their culture."

This series is made possible through the generous support of the Pro Helvetia Arts Council of Switzerland. We especially thank Ralph McKay for coordinating the retrospective tour and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., for program assistance.


March 17 (Friday) 7 pm
March 18 (Saturday) 7 pm

Beresina, or the Last Days of Switzerland (Beresina Oder Die Letzten Tage Der Schweiz)

Director Daniel Schmid in Person
Directed by Daniel Schmid
Switzerland 1999, 35mm, color, 108 min.
With Elena Panova, Martin Benrath, Geraldine Chaplin
German with English subtitles

In his latest film, Schmid deploys his wickedly black humor to take aim at Swiss high society. Sweetly naïve Irina, a Russian call girl enamored of a "fairy-tale" Switzerland and counting the days until she receives her promised passport, boasts among her clientele the cream of Switzerland’s elite. When she learns she is in danger of being forced out of her adopted homeland, however, she fights back with a vengeful scheme borrowed from an obscure political group. The fate of the heroine, and indeed of the whole country, begins to take an unexpected turn.

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March 17 (Friday) 9:30 pm

Tosca's Kiss (Il Bacio Di Tosca)

Directed by Daniel Schmid
Switzerland 1984, 35mm, color, 87 min.
With Sara Scuderi, Giovanni Puligheddu, Leonia Bellon
Italian with English subtitles

Schmid’s love affair with opera and its extraordinary practitioners surfaces in this film, for which he is perhaps best known in the U.S. Tosca’s Kiss is a playful and poignant documentary of Casa Verdi, the Milanese retirement home for opera stars founded in 1902 by Giuseppe Verdi and originally supported by his royalties. Not wanting to make a simple document of the world he saw there, Schmid found a form for his film in the feelings he developed for his subjects: "In Tosca’s Kiss we fell incredibly in love with all of [the residents], and those emotions were somehow communicated in the movie.

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March 18 (Saturday) 9:30 pm

Shadow of Angels (Schatten Der Engel)

Directed by Daniel Schmid
Switzerland 1976, 35mm, color, 105 min.
With Ingrid Caven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean-Claude Dreyfus
German with English subtitles

After German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play The Garbage, the City and Death was banned from performance in Germany because of its controversial subject matter, Schmid worked on a screen adaptation of the piece with the legendary director and, using actors from his repertory company (including Fassbinder), made the film himself. The story concerns a streetwalker in Frankfurt who is having trouble making ends meet until she falls into the company of a Jewish businessman who opens her eyes. "I’ve always understood it as a strange, sad fairy tale," Schmid has commented. "It’s also a movie about Germany after the Holocaust, and I think the reason Fassbinder wanted me to adapt the play for the screen was that I wasn’t German. He said he was too close to the whole thing."


March 19 (Sunday) 6 pm

La Paloma

Directed by Daniel Schmid
Switzerland 1974, 35mm, color, 110 min.
With Ingrid Caven, Peter Kern, Bulle Ogier
German with English subtitles

Set in the cabaret world of 1930s Europe, La Paloma is a portrait of a tubercular, Dietrich-like chanteuse named Viola Schlump (La Paloma), who seems destined to end her life as unhappily as she lived it. Enter Isidor, a plump and persistent admirer who pines for the sick songbird. La Paloma recovers and marries him, but treats him callously because she has stopped believing in love. Schmid deftly explores the intricacies and nuances of romantic love in La Paloma, a film as uplifting as it is bitter. As critic Gary Indiana notes, "La Paloma is a story every human person lives at least once. If I return again and again to this early film of Daniel Schmid, it’s because I have lived this story a few times, irrationally, against my better judgment."

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March 19 (Sunday) 8:15 pm

Off Season (Hors Saison)

Directed by Daniel Schmid
Switzerland 1992, 35mm, color, 95 min.
With Sami Frey, Maddelena Fellini, Geraldine Chaplin
French with English subtitles

Schmid spent the early years of his life in a grand Alpine hotel run by his mother and grandmother. Some of his most memorable childhood experiences occurred during the off season, when the hotel was closed. "There is nothing as empty as an empty hotel," the director has said. As Schmid returns to this environment for Off Season, we begin to understand why the setting had such a strong impact on the artist. The hotel in his film is a mirror of life, dreams, expectations, disappointments, and death. And it has a kinship with another modern place of dreams—the cinema. Schmid’s thoughtful film, a little reflection on life, childhood, and movies, is a cinematic gem that should not be missed.

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March 22 (Wednesday) 8:45 pm

The Amateurs (Les Amateurs)

Directed by Daniel Schmid
Switzerland 1991, 35mm, b/w, 26 min.

A compilation of early family, tourist, and publicity films from the years 1912 through 1931, The Amateurs articulates the play of amateurs both in front of and behind the camera.

Notre-Dame de la Croisette

Directed by Daniel Schmid
France/Switzerland 1981, 16mm, color, 56 min.
With Bulle Ogier, Kira Nijinski
French with English subtitles

This little film is bound to delight anyone who has suffered the trials and tribulations of attending a major film festival for the first time. Shot discreetly amidst the festivities of the 1981 Cannes International Film Festival, Notre-Dame de la Croisette stars French actress Bulle Ogier (The Salamander, Celine and Julie Go Boating) as a lone film lover adrift in the confusion of press conferences, gala premieres, and paparazzi. While celebrating the glamour of stardom and celebrity through some marvelous archival film clips, the film is also a paean to the demure and gentle beauty of Ogier and the eccentric charm of Kira Nijinski, daughter of the legendary dancer.

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March 25 (Saturday) 7 pm

Hécate

Directed by Daniel Schmid
Switzerland 1982, 35mm, color, 105 min.
With Lauren Hutton, Bernard Giraudeau, Jean Bouise
French with English subtitles

"Hécate," says director Daniel Schmid, "is a film about projection, possession, jealousy, and logical destruction." Queen of the underworld and a god-dess of black magic, Hécate, according to Greek legend, has the power to draw men to the brink of Hell. Based on a novel by Paul Morand, who in turn based the character on his wife Hélène, Schmid’s film is set amid the European community in an unspecified North African country, a colony on the verge of nationalism. A French diplomat (Giraudeau) forms a liaison with a mysterious beauty (Hutton) and soon finds that she has gotten into his blood. Schmid’s favorite axiom, that love is a projection, has never had such a thorough airing.

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March 25 (Saturday) 9 pm

Jenatsch

Directed by Daniel Schmid
Switzerland 1987, 35mm, color, 97 min.
With Michel Voita, Christine Boisson, Vittori Mezzogiorno
French with English subtitles

Jenatsch is an example of the sort of quasi-surreal world that Daniel Schmid’s films create, in which things happen outside reality but with a clear (and often romantic) logic. In the film, Schmid takes the story of the seventeenth-century Swiss freedom fighter Georg Jenatsch as the focus of an examination of time and our ability to navigate it. The time travel is initiated by a journalist who is investigating the site of Jenatsch’s grave when he finds himself literally drawn into the life of the martyred political hero. On the relativity of time, Schmid has noted: "At home, we have letters that go back to the seventeenth century. When you study them, you discover that basic things were not that different from today. Then, as now, everything sped by."

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March 26 (Sunday) 3 pm

The Written Face

Directed by Daniel Schmid
Switzerland/Japan 1995, 35mm, color, 89 min.
With Tamasaburo Bando, Yajuro Bando, Yagoro Bando
Japanese with English subtitles

Schmid’s impassioned tribute to Kabuki theater, the time-honored Japanese art of stylized drama punctuated with singing and dancing, documents an important art form that is beginning to disappear. The film features one of Kabuki’s most respected practitioners, Tamasaburo Bando, who first appeared on stage at the age of five. One of Kabuki’s finest Onnagata—men who specialize in playing female roles—Bando is seen in four continuous acts. "The man playing the woman’s role," says Schmid, "does not imitate the woman as in the West, but tries to capture her significance, [which] he draws from his own identity."

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March 26 (Sunday) 6 pm

Tonight or Never (Heute Nacht Oder Nie)

Directed by Daniel Schmid
Switzerland 1972, 35mm, color, 90 min.
With Ingrid Caven, Voli Geiler, Peter Chatel
German with English subtitles

A rare early work, Tonight or Never initiated Schmid’s filmic investigations of time and bourgeois culture. The film is a parable, based on the traditions of the Esterhazy family from sixteenth-century Prague. Schmid himself has described the custom and his contemporary reimagining of its scenario: "On one night of the year, the night of Saint Nepomuk (May 16), [the Esterhazys] would exchange roles with their servants. Tonight or Never takes up this tradition and introduces a third group, the comedians. Paid by the masters playing servant, they come to perform a potpourri of bourgeois entertainment. They put on assorted bits from the ‘cultural scrap heap’: a section of Gone with the Wind, a scene from Tennessee Williams, the death of Madame Bovary by Flaubert, and the end of Tschaikovsky’s Swan Lake."

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March 26 (Sunday) 8 pm

Violanta

Directed by Daniel Schmid
Switzerland 1977, 35mm, color, 95 min.
With Ingrid Caven, Lucia Bosé, Maria Schneider
Italian with English subtitles

Schmid’s first Italian-language film tells the story of a woman who rules a mountain valley and refuses to loosen her grip, although she has lived a lie all her life. When everything collapses because of an incestuous relationship between two people unaware that they are brother and sister, all of her deceptions crumble as well. Schmid based the film on a nineteenth-century Swiss novella by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer which was frequently mentioned by Freud as an example of his theories on psychopathology. "Like most of my movies," Schmid has said of Violanta, "it’s also the story of a strong woman—played by a beautiful woman, because to me cinema has always meant beautiful women, too. . . . I think women are better adapted to conveying emotions via the film medium."

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