Werner Schroeter (1945-2010)

Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972)

The full measure of Schroeter’s influence on his German contemporaries, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Rosa von Praunheim, and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, and on Daniel Schmid, Ulrike Ottinger, Wim Wenders, and Werner Herzog, has only begun to be fully appreciated. So too his direction of actors like Isabelle Huppert, Bulle Ogier, Candy Darling, and his muse and superstar, Magdalena Montezuma, from whom he drew some of their greatest performances. Inspired, like Jack Smith, by the divas of silent-era cinema, Schroeter strove for an authenticity of feeling through extreme emotions, reaching a point, he said, of “musical and gestural excess.” He found this on the steps of an ancient Roman temple and on the streets of Manila, in a Pina Bausch dance piece, a fin-de-siècle Oscar Wilde tragedy, and a Verdi aria performed by Maria Callas. Making no distinction between kitsch and high art—travesty was for him a form of exaltation—he drew from a dazzling array of sources: Shakespeare and the Passion Play, German Romanticism and Italian neorealism, 19th-century opera and Arab pop, Jean Genet and Douglas Sirk, fashioning out of these a densely woven, ravishing, and often hallucinatory collage of images, songs, and fragmentary narratives organized around musical structures.

Fassbinder anticipated Schroeter’s belated recognition when he wrote in 1977 that “Schroeter, who will in years to come assume a place in film history similar to that of Novalis, Lautréamont, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline in literature, was for 10 years an ‘underground’ director—a role one did not wish to let him escape. The great filmic vision of Schroeter’s world was constrained, repressed, and at the same time ruthlessly exploited. His films [were rendered] in a flash as beautiful but nonetheless exotic plants, blossoming in such a strange manner that ultimately one couldn’t really deal with them…. And that is as simplistic as it is wrong and stupid. Because Werner Schroeter’s films aren’t esoteric; even if they are beautiful, that still doesn’t make them exotic. Quite the contrary." No less admiring was the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who wrote that "what Schroeter does with a face, a cheekbone, the lips, the expression of the a multiplying and burgeoning of the body, an exultation."