One loves and hates the same object at the same time and in the same respect, which is contrary to the rules of intelligibility and chronology.
– Jean-François Lyotard
“In Werner’s work, the actor’s performance always develops in a crescendo – but a crescendo which begins on an extreme emotion”. This is the testimony of Alberte Barsacq (for the French magazine Vertigo), in charge of costumes and/or production design for many of Werner Schroeter’s films and theatre pieces from the mid 1970s until his death in April 2010. The brilliant Malina (1991), on which Barsacq worked, is a prime example of this process.
Scripted by Elfriede Jelinek from Ingeborg Bachmann’s largely non-narrative 1971 novel – and well-positioned between Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) and David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) in an unwritten history of the modern “cinema of hysteria” – it portrays a character known only as “The Woman” (Isabelle Huppert) going completely to pieces, especially in relation to the mixed messages received from the two men in her life, the seemingly protective Malina (Matthieu Carrière) and the elusive dream-lover, Ivan (Can Togay).
This Woman’s swift descent into madness – as is often the case in Schroeter – is not merely a personal affliction, but also the reflection of wider social malaise. (A similar premise powers his Day of the Idiots, starring Carole Bouquet, in 1981.) The assumed, conventional realities of time, space and action shift with every edit. We can never be sure whether Ivan actually exists, or what Malina’s feelings (and intentions) toward the heroine really are. It inexorably becomes a near-mythic tale of the Female Gothic: in this lousy, patriarchal world of ours, the man whom a woman most desires may well be the one destined to murder her, a Big Bad Wolf incarnate.
Huppert spends most of the film in paroxysmic states: shouting, crying, setting things alight. So many things that, in fact, the entire final act places her and Carrière, for nearly thirty minutes, amidst real flames on an enclosed set – Schroeter refused the option of special effects. The actors visibly sweat and flinch as they handle burning papers and telephones. Yet, as Huppert relates in Elfi Mikesch’s portrait Mondo Lux: The Visual Worlds of Werner Schroeter (2011) – Mikesch was the cinematographer on Malina – the director was able to inspire total trust and loyalty in his collaborators, no matter what extremity of emotion had to be reached.
Schroeter’s early life, and the start of his artistic career in the 1960s, are the stuff of legend. A sensitive child who was regularly mistreated by his school peers, taken away frequently on trips to other countries (leading, no doubt, to the extensive cosmopolitanism and multilingualism of his later work), Schroeter went on to be a dabbler in the cultural underground. He used Super-8 film to match still photos and reproductions of paintings to opera recordings of Maria Callas – the passionate, youthful experience of which he always cited as the origin of his creative drive.
By the end of the ‘60s, having already won a cult reputation, Schroeter was fortunate to become the regular beneficiary of German television’s “little television play” policy: extremely low-budget films, such as the The Bomber Pilot (1970) and Goldflakes (1976), that developed his unique style and method. It is from this period that his early masterpieces derive: Eika Katappa (1969) and The Death of Maria Malibran (1972), both available in fine DVD restorations by Munich Film Archive and distributed by the Austrian Filmmuseum, featuring Schoeter’s very own “superstar” (in the Andy Warhol Factory mode), Magdalena Montezuma. These two non-narrative films present a dazzling series of tableaux vivants (mostly drawn from grand opera) condensing, at their peaks of emotional intensity, key scenes of loving, dying and struggling.
For the figure whom Thomas Elsaesser once called (in his 1989 New German Cinema: A History) “German cinema’s greatest marginal filmmaker”, who has been revered by fellow directors from Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Chantal Akerman to José Luis Guerin and Rita Azevedo Gomes, there is surprisingly little to read on Schroeter in the annals of English language film criticism and academic scholarship. Some scattered articles and book chapters, a sole monograph (Allegorical Images: Tableau, Time and Gesture in the Cinema of Werner Schroeter by Australian scholar Michelle Langford in 2006), and an excellent anthology edited by Roy Grundmann for the Austrian Filmmuseum/Synema in 2018 are basically all there is to show.
In French, a rather novelistic evocation by Philippe Azoury titled To Werner Schroeter, Who Was Unafraid of Death appeared a year after the director’s passing, in 2011, with a Spanish edition five years later. And Schroeter’s incomplete but ravishing autobiographical memoir (as told to Claudia Lenssen) has appeared in English: Days of Twilight, Nights of Frenzy (University of Chicago Press, 2017); it is truly his testament, and among the best books by any filmmaker.
Schroeter is, in one significant sense, very much of a filmmaker of his time – a time that no longer exists, and that increasingly becomes an object of fascinated nostalgia for (some of) today’s cinephiles. This period that can be defined between the poles of post-1968 innovation in narrative feature filmmaking (especially in Europe), and radical cinema theory (heavily influenced by poststructuralist philosophy) up to the early 1980s. Highlights of this immensely fertile era include the delirious films of Carmelo Bene in Italy (a figure sadly even less well-known than Schroeter beyond a small but fervent fan base) and Ulrike Ottinger in Germany, the early work of Fassbinder (who many times paid lavish tribute to Schroeter’s formative influence), the most experimental films of Akerman, the period of Raúl Ruiz’s discovery by European critics, and the least inhibited explorations by Jacques Rivette (Duelle  and Noroît ).
All these movies were, to a fault, baroque, florid and excessive. Some were zany “costume dramas”, although never pretending to a naturalistic recreation of times past. They sometimes inhabited – to the point of high camp – the husks of dead genres, like the “high seas” pirate adventure or the “social problem” melodrama. Lurid colour schemes, outlandishly theatrical performances, and stop-start, never entirely coherent narratives were their trademarks. Often they flaunted the presence of a classic (perhaps archaic) literary, theatrical or operatic text as their point of departure – not so much enacted as pulverised, and then palpably re-quoted, frequently out of sync with the dramatic action accompanying it.
For the more intellectually oriented fans of this cinematic trend – and bear in mind that Schroeter proudly boasted of committing a little housebreaking in Marseille with his drinking buddy, philosopher Gilles Deleuze, so it’s clear that theory and practice were never too far apart for the members of this in-crowd – something more than outrageous fun was at stake. Excess urgently mattered because what needed to be exceeded was, on the one hand, fixed meanings (such as the standard interpretations of classic texts that we learned in school) and, on the other hand, fixed identities (conservative and conformist class or gender roles). Not forgetting one-size-fits-all capitalism and religious monotheism, both of them immortally targeted, in that era, by Pierre Klossowski’s programmatic and incendiary 1970 text, Living Currency!
Schroeter’s movies were, in this regard, not only among the beachheads of a future queer filmmaking; they were also explosions of what theorists in that period hailed as a “cinema of the signifier”. They hurl the chaotic materiality of their colours, images, rhythms, sounds and gestures at us with such brute force that – as Timothy Corrigan suggested in his discussion of Schroeter’s USA-shot Willow Springs (1973) in his 1994 book New German Film: The Displaced Image – they ultimately create a place “outside the confines of history … where history is redefined finally by the excesses and possibilities that escape it”. A living currency, indeed.
The most remarkable aspect of Schroeter’s oeuvre within real history is that, well beyond the 1970s, he never gave up, or substantially compromised, his aesthetic approach. Whereas Bene returned to theatre (and TV), Akerman detoured into art galleries, Rivette took on a more classically Balzacian guise, and Fassbinder negotiated a rising curve of international, mainstream production opportunities until his death in 1982, Schroeter stuck to his intransigent path.
His wayward career did diversify – into personal documentary, beginning with his “poetic collage” of a theatre festival in Dress Rehearsal (1980); into the seeming (albeit deceptive) semi-realism of The Kingdom of Naples (1978) and Palermo or Wolfsburg (1980); and into slightly more up-market, star-driven vehicles like Malina, thanks to the opportunities offered by sympathetic producers like Paulo Branco in Portugal. As well, his work in theatre was steady and prolific from the early ‘70s to the end of his life. But the audience for his films always remained marginal, and the full extent of his work difficult to access – even now as “the earth dies streaming” (to borrow the title of A.S. Hamrah’s book).
Why this lingering resistance to a director whose films are, as Fassbinder proclaimed, “as important as [Josef von] Sternberg’s”? One can learn as much, and maybe more, from those who loathe and dismiss Schroeter’s work, as from those who devote themselves to it. For instance, when Vincent Canby reviewed the Jean Genet/Kenneth Anger-drenched The Rose King (1986) for The New York Times, eager to mock its avant-garde affectations, he inadvertently stumbled upon the key to the director’s very particular montage technique. Faced with a cascade of fragmented scenes and obsessively reiterated imagery, Canby jibed: “This is the sort of film in which so many shots are repeated I'm not at all sure that anything happens more than once”.
The narrative temporality of Schroeter’s films is indeed peculiar. At the very moment they begin, they immediately flash forward to initially inexplicable glimpses of later events and outcomes. At the very end, as in Malina and The Rose King, there is sometimes a literal conflagration, apocalyptic in its implication – as Barsacq remarks, “destruction was an integral part of the drama” for Schroeter. In between these extreme points, the story is (as Langford suggests) “caught in a state of stasis”, obsessively repeating certain performative gestures (such as fainting, screaming, kissing, beseeching or dying) and group tableaux (recalling everything from grand opera and the Pietà to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Yukio Mishima’s ritual suicide).
Yet these repetitions never take on a predictable, systematic pattern; irregularity is everything in Schroeter’s cinema. Even on the formal plane of image and sound patterning, nothing ever neatly rhymes or “folds over” in a conventionally satisfying way; as David Ehrenstein notes of Eika Katappa in his Film: The Front Line 1984, “each new musical cue propels the film forward while keeping it from achieving definitive shape”. Above all, with that characteristically constant and undecidable slippage from reality to fantasy noted in Malina, we are plagued by a fundamental doubt worse than that which gnawed away at Canby: not the question of whether things are happening “more than once”, but whether they truly have happened even once!
Ultimately, it is a question of that hopeful space “outside the confines of history” which Corrigan flagged. As Schroeter’s faithful collaborator, Barsacq had her own view of what she called his “anachronistic time of utopia”. His films aimed to be “timeless”, in the sense that they suspended themselves between the intense, perfect, remembered passions of youth, this “lost time”, and a better future to come – perhaps in death, which is swathed in such romanticism by Schroeter.
Between the lost past and the phantom future, however, is the horror of the present, with all its political ills (laid bare in his final feature of 2009, This Night) and constraining role-play. Deleuze himself spoke, in his Cinema books, of “direct presentations of an oppressive, useless and unsummonable time which haunt the characters” in Schroeter’s films.
Luckily, against these massive doses of paralysis and dysfunction induced by present-day reality, there remains the subversive force of Schroeter’s proudly discombobulated mise en scène, and his remarkable work with charismatic actors. His goal, claims Barsacq, was “to attain ecstasy, to figure passion”. And few filmmakers have gone so far in this quest.
© Adrian Martin December 2016 (with updates)