Although he is today recognized as one of the great directors of post-1968 European cinema, the extraordinary oeuvre of Werner Schroeter (1945-2010) has remained surprisingly unknown to the larger filmgoing public in Europe and abroad. An important creative force within the New German Cinema of the 1970s, Schroeter nonetheless remained marginalized within this cinema, sharing the fate of fellow queer filmmakers Rosa von Praunheim and Ulrike Ottinger, whose work failed to garner the kind of attention that was accorded the New German Cinema’s stars (and Schroeter’s personal friends) Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders in Germany and particularly in the United States. Yet, Schroeter’s twenty-two features and many shorts are an impressive testimony of a cinema uniquely positioned at the intersection of art cinema and the avant-garde, illuminated throughout by the contributions of a coterie of highly illustrious collaborators from several countries and various artistic domains.
Born in 1945 in the Eastern German province of Thuringia, Schroeter’s family relocated to West Germany in the early 1950s to escape communism. After finishing high school, Schroeter studied psychology for three semesters before being admitted to Munich’s prestigious film school, which he left bored and indifferent after a few weeks, to continue to make his own private 8mm films, one of which he brought to the legendary 1967 avant-garde Film Festival at Knokke Le Zoute in Belgium, a watershed experience for him in several ways. Exposing him to the works of Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos and D.A. Pennebaker, the Belgium festival helped shape Schroeter’s unique blend of avant-garde and documentary aesthetics. During the festival, he also met Rosa von Praunheim, who not only was his first love but also became an early artistic mentor.
In the wake of Knokke, Schroeter began making films in quick succession. Though his second attempt to go to film school, this time in Berlin, ended with a rejection letter (ironically, Schroeter and fellow rejects Fassbinder and von Praunheim would later hold seminars at that same school), Schroeter made 20 8mm films in 1968 alone before switching to 16mm, a format that brought him his first recognition with such medium-length films as Neurasia and Argila and then with Eika Katappa, Schroeter’s feature-length breakthrough film for which he received the Josef von Sternberg Award at the 1969 Mannheim film festival and which garnered him an invitation to Cannes the following year. By the early 1970s, Schroeter had built two artistic support groups, one in Germany – where he quickly became highly regarded by such fellow filmmakers as Wenders, Fassbinder, and Ottinger – and the other in France, where he met his later friend and life-long champion Henri Langlois and received recognition at festivals in Nancy, Avignon, and Hyères, followed by his first retrospective in Paris in 1973.
When funding from German television helped stabilize Schroeter’s artistic output in the 1970s, the full spectrum of his creative impulses and thematic concerns began to emerge. His wide-ranging interests produced idiosyncratic adaptations of stage dramas as diverse as Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Oskar Paniza’s Das Liebeskonzil (The Council of Love), as well as of contemporary novels like Malina, written by Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek. In between, Schroeter frequently turned to non-fiction filmmaking but clearly preferred the hybrid essay format to straightforward documentaries. Films such as Generalprobe (Dress Rehearsal – about the Nancy theater festival) and Auf der Suche nach der Sonne (In Search of the Sun – about Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre de soleil) showed his great passion for avant-garde theater, while Der Schwarze Engel (The Dark Angel), filmed in Mexico, and Der Lachende Stern (The Smiling Star), filmed in the Philippines, displayed his keen interest in philosophy, politics, and in particular questions of post-colonialism.
If Schroeter’s early films are both playful high camp and searching experiments in film form, the mood of his work darkens by the late 1970s as the utopian aspirations of the previous decade came to naught, and Schroeter took up narrative and politics in reaction. From a celebration of art as a means of transcendence, Schroeter began to express an urgent and pointed concern about the endangered possibilities for freedom and justice. His last film, finished shortly before his 2010 death of cancer, proved that Schroeter never stopped engaging and interrogating his passions.
The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to present a number of Schroeter’s films from restored copies by the Munich Film Museum. The retrospective takes place in conjunction with the conference “Cinema, Opera, Art – The Passion of Werner Schroeter,” organized by Boston University and hosted by the Goethe-Institute, Boston, September 27-29.
This program is presented in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, which will host additional screenings, free of charge, at 170 Beacon Street in Boston: Mondo Lux – Wednesday, September 26, 7pm; Der Bomberpilot – Wednesday, September 26, 9pm; Palermo oder Wolfsburg – Saturday, September 29, 3pm.
Special thanks: Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen, Karin Oehlenschläger – Goethe-Institut Boston; Stefan Droessler – Munich Filmmuseum; Roy Grundmann – Boston University; Josh Siegel – Museum of Modern Art, New York; John Gianvito. Introduction and notes by Roy Grundmann and David Pendleton.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Magdalena Montezuma, Candy Darling, Ingrid Caven
West Germany 1972, 16mm, color, 104 min. German with English subtitles
Maria Malibran was a Spanish opera singer who died in a horseback riding accident in 1836 when she was 28 and at the height of her fame. The film is no biopic; rather, it unfolds as a series of tableaux, primarily featuring pairs of performers in static, dramatic poses. While the extremely heightened emotionality hearkens back to German Romanticism, the stylized facial expressions and baroque use of light and shadow recalls expressionist silent cinema. The Death of Maria Malibran is at once a celebration of the generosity of the diva, whose life is lived for her audience; a gesture of thanks for this generosity; and an expression of the intense, even morbid emotionality of the bond between star performer and adoring fan.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Antonio Salines, Magdalena Montezuma, Kurt Raab
West Germany 1982, 35mm, color, 94 min. German with English subtitles
Oskar Panizza’s The Council of Love (1895) is a blasphemous play set in 1495, during the first recorded outbreak of syphilis, which Panizza satirically presents as the punishment from Satan for sexually active humans. As a result, Panizza was imprisoned for obscenity. Schroeter alternates scenes from the Panizza’s work with a dramatization of his trial, presenting the play as an expressionist spectacle performed by actors wearing exaggerated makeup who gesture and grimace grotesquely. The film thus forms a bridge between Schroeter’s use of tableaux in his early experiments with the political urgency of his 1980s films. On the eve of the AIDS crisis, Schroeter is presciently worried about disease as an excuse for governmental repression and the oppression of sexuality.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Anita Cerquetti, Martha Mödl,
France/West Germany 1996, 35mm, color, 130 min. French, German and Italian English subtitles
Love’s Debris unites three of the leading obsessions of Schroeter’s art: a fascination with the role of the performer, a passion for opera and an interrogation of the nature of love. Schroeter invited three of his favorite singers – Anita Cerquetti, Martha Mödl and Rita Gorr – to be interviewed (by Isabelle Huppert and Carole Bouquet) about their thoughts on performing and to sing an aria chosen by the filmmaker. Through his interventions in these interviews and the bits of staging he adds to the film, Schroeter points to his thesis: that the affective quality of the voice derives its power from its direct relationship to love, of which it is a by-product.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Gisela Trowe, Magdalena Montezuma, Sigurd Salto
West Germany 1969, digital video, b/w and color, 36 min. German with English subtitles
Argila is Schroeter’s experiment with split-screen cinema. In two images side-by-side, a love triangle plays out as two women, one older and more desperate, vie for the affection and attention of a mostly passive young man. The play between left and right, black-and-white and color, simultaneity and seriality recalls Warhol’s similar use of split-screen, as in Outer and Inner Space.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Ellen Umlauf, Magdalena Montezuma, Carlos da Muna
West Germany/Mexico 1973, digital video, color, 71 min. German, English and Spanish with English subtitles
Two women, one from Boston and one from Germany, flee their empty lives to seek fulfillment in Mexico. The Black Angel is a transitional film; on one hand, it is a companion piece to Willow Springs, featuring two Schroeter regulars as characters far from home and in extremis; on the other hand, it is a film essay about Mexico and as such a harbinger of Schroeter’s nonfiction work to come. While he clearly shares his characters’ fascination with Mexico, the filmmaker also savages touristic exoticism – the otherworldly appearances of his protagonists and their rapturous reactions to new surroundings contrast sharply with the sober perceptions of Mexican history and economics featured in the documentary segments and in the prosaic presence of a non-professional cast of locals.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Gisela Trowe, Magdalena Montezuma, Carla Aulaulau
West Germany 1969, 35mm, 143 min. In German, Italian and Spanish
Schroeter’s first feature-length work is an exuberant outpouring of his love of music, as he presents a string of recordings, from opera to pop, and his love of cinema, as he stages a series of scenes unrelated to each other but meant to illustrate the music. The film proceeds in a kind of dialectic manner, with images sometimes serving to “act out” the music but other times independent from the soundtrack, which itself lurches from “high art” to popular culture. The juxtaposition of high and low demonstrates that both contain the same emotional expressivity and hence both can claim the status of art. Throughout it all, Schroeter’s game cast of friends – including Magdalena Montezuma as both Tosca and Rigoletto – loves, fights and dies, over and over again.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Liana Trouche, Antonio Orlando, Renata Zamengo
Italy/West Germany 1978, digital video, 130 min. Italian with English subtitles
In this intimate epic that stretches from 1943 to 1978, Schroeter tells the story of postwar Italy by watching two neighboring Neapolitan families struggle against poverty and the despair it entails. Centered on two children born at the end of the war – one who grows up attracted by the Church, the other loyal to the Communist Party – the film seems to spring in part from a love of Italian cinema: Visconti’s realist approach to history, Fellini’s picaresque feel for the vibrant life of a community, Pasolini’s experiments with fusing sprawling narrative and discursive political content. But Schroeter avowed a more surprising inspiration: Buñuel’s Los Olvidados.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Magdalena Montezuma, Mostéfa Djadjam, Antonio Orlando
Portugal/West Germany 1984, 35mm, color, 106 min. German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish with English and French subtitles
Unique among Schroeter’s films, The Rose King takes the homoeroticism that underpins much of his work and brings it to the surface as the primary force driving the narrative. An elegant middle-aged woman and her adult son live on a ramshackle farm near the sea. The son’s two passions are his roses and the handsome young man he keeps in the barn. A perverse triangle forms: the woman and the young man each have anguished private rituals, while the son alternates between ignoring his mother’s solicitousness and engaging in a baroque and increasingly sadomasochistic worship of his lover’s body. Pitched somewhere between a sigh and a scream, the film glimpses into the void left by the failure of the transcendence promised by art, religion and sexuality.
Directed by Werner Schroeter
West Germany 1983, digital video, color and b/w, 110 min. German, English, Tagalog and Spanish with German and English subtitles
Invited to attend the Manila Film Festival in 1983, Schroeter brought his camera. He was struck by the gap between the festival’s pomp and circumstance – including the prominent presences of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos – with the poverty of Manila’s inhabitants and the complexity of the Philippines’ history and culture. Out of these experiences, the film he shot, and archival footage, Schroeter fashions a wide-ranging essay that encompasses not only armed Filipino revolutionaries but also Ronald Reagan as both movie star and president, the Allende coup in Chile, sex tourism and Mrs. Marcos singing “Feelings.” Schroeter’s alchemical montage creates a surprisingly moving and elegantly delicate experience out of this requiem for defeated hopes and expression of solidarity.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Isabelle Huppert, Matthieu Carrière, Can Togay
Germany/Austria 1991, 35mm, color, 120 min. French with English subtitles
In the first of her three films with Werner Schroeter, Isabelle Huppert plays the protagonist in his adaptation of the novel by the celebrated Austrian author Ingeborg Bachmann. Huppert’s character is an unnamed writer who escapes the confines of her comfortable life with her companion and the pressures of her career by beginning an affair with another man, who is passionate but aloof. As her love becomes an obsession, Huppert’s character is haunted by visions of a violent older man, perhaps her father. Thus does Schroeter illustrate Bachmann’s investigation into the instability, if not the impossibility, of female subjectivity in a patriarchal world.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Magdalena Montezuma, Christine Kaufmann, Ila von Hasperg
West Germany 1972, digital video, color, 78 min. English and German with English intertitles
Three women live in uneasy seclusion in an isolated house in a backwater California desert town, celebrating their cult-like devotion to each other with esoteric rites. Their murderous attacks on the strangers who wander by seem designed to echo the Manson family, suggesting that the film is an allegory for the dead ends of 1960s utopianism and the American dream. All the same, Willow Springs shares with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977) a kind of surreal, dreamlike humor, and similarly uses its female protagonists as figures for a fractured or permeable subjectivity.
Directed by Werner Schroeter
West Germany 1980, digital video, color, 89 min. German, French, Italian and Portuguese with German and English subtitles
The first of Schroeter’s series of documentaries about theatrical performers, Dress Rehearsal began as a commission by German television for a short report on the 1980 edition of the World Theatre Festival in Nancy, France. Inspired by a number of the performers at the festival, Schroeter created instead a feature-length film essay. In particular, he focuses on Pina Bausch and her troupe from the Wuppertal Tanztheater, the Japanese butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno and the American performance artist Pat Olesko. Out of an engrossing and entertaining collage of various impressions from the festival, including rehearsals, performances, interviews, readings and encounters onstage and off, Schroeter develops a meditation on the relationship between art and politics and presents an early formulation of his ideas about performance as a form of love.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Bulle Ogier, Magdalena Montezuma, Udo Kier
France/West Germany 1976, digital video, color, 160 min. French, Spanish and German with English intertitles
Reportedly Schroeter’s own favorite among his own films, Flocons d’or is the apotheosis of his earliest, most experimental phase. It occupies a place at the heart of Schroeter’s oeuvre as the sprawling work that contains all the elements that appear separately in the individual films. He weaves together four stories about erotic obsession into an avant-garde epic, adding Bulle Ogier – to whom the film is dedicated – to his growing ensemble of actors. Each story utilizes a different visual and narrative style: nostalgic period piece, poetic realism, Deren-esque “trance film” and lower-depths melodrama. Framed by opening and closing sections that quote from Bizet’s Carmen, the stories suggest that all erotic obsession leads to death. Thus the film illustrates the darkening of Schroeter’s work in the 1970s. Eros and Thanatos are inseparably linked in his films, but here Thanatos begins to gain the upper hand.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Mascha Elm-Rabben, Magdalena Montezuma, Ellen Umlauf
West Germany 1970, digital video, color, 80 min. In German with English subtitles
Two years before Carmelo Bene’s over-the-top version, Schroeter made his own film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play. He staged it in an ancient amphitheater in Lebanon, using the German translation by Hedwig Lachmann that Richard Strauss also used as the libretto for his famous opera. The film itself is a straightforward documentation, as if the camera were in the audience, watching the actors on stage. The staging is elegantly simple, as if the play were a Greek tragedy: there are no sets or furniture, and the costumes are flowing garments in muted colors. Nevertheless, the riveting performances by key members from Schroeter’s stock company bring to flaming life Wilde’s parable of innocent decadence becoming corrupt experience.
Directed by Werner Schroeter. With Annette Tirier, Susi,
Stefan van Haugk
West Germany 1970, digital video, color, 60 min. In German and Italian
Schroeter adapted Shakespeare’s tragedy for German television, ruthlessly abridging the text to an hour’s length and staging everything on one highly theatrical set. He also took snippets from Verdi’s operatic version and used them to replace some of the missing scenes. After alternating between theater and opera, Schroeter finally fuses the two near the end, when his actors sing Verdi’s score, with untrained voices, to the accompaniment of a tango band. The broadcast received a chilly reception, but Schroeter was unrepentant: “I do not differentiate between kitsch and culture.”