For Werner Schroeter and Deux

The most dispiriting aspect of the coming decade or so for those who love cinema must surely be the acceleration of the inevitable disappearance of what might be roughly termed the ’60s generation of film-­makers, specifically the nouvelle vague and even some of the post-­nouvelle vague figures. This year has already witnessed the demise of Eric Rohmer and of William Lubtchansky, the greatest cinematographer of the past forty years, who shot most of Rivette’s films in addition to memorable collaborations with Godard, the Straubs, Garrel… Furthermore, rumour has it that Jacques Rivette himself is retiring from filmmaking due to ill health. Far from simply offering due lament to legends of a vanished era, this concern is for the ebb of a still crucially vibrant force in contemporary film.
Yet the bitterest of these recent losses is the death of Werner Schroeter, who succumbed to cancer in April at age 65. Why bitterest? Because of his lack of recognition, certainly outside of his native Germany. Because of the utter incomprehension that marked so many reviews of his last film, Nuit de chien (2008). Not just incomprehension of the film, but of Schroeter’s aesthetic, of his very particular sensibility and vision. And this rich but also heartbreakingly vulnerable vision is now irretrievable in a way that, say, Rohmer’s will never be. In the world but not of it, Schroeter’s cinema has neither entered general consciousness nor had enough dealings with ‘realism’ to be sustained by ‘reality’ in the sense that it is represented in Rohmer, whose films are reinforced every time we look out of the window. It also needs to be stated that Werner Schroeter’s hermetic, operatic, vibrantly passionate, highly artificial cinema is deeply unfashionable at present. Not a good moment for him to leave.
Part of the New German Cinema that emerged from the ’60s, he was rightly hailed by his friend Rainer Werner Fassbinder as an equal, in fact, as his only equal amongst a wave of directors that included Wenders, Herzog and Schlondorff. Setting out into life with the sole ambition of ‘learning how to love’, the globetrotting, Maria Callas­‐obsessed Schroeter began making experimental 8mm shorts in the late ’60s. Although influenced by the American Underground, these already displayed the boldly ambiguous fusion of parodic, over‐the-­top mannerism and emotionally sincere, high art melodrama that would define Schroeter’s film work. With the decades, this balance would be fine-­tuned to generate always distinctive and often stunning results, as would his emphasis on the performative, and the highly fragmented structures that he favoured.
His breakthrough films, Eika Katappa (1969) and the underground classic The Death of Maria Malibran (1972), made on 16mm with tiny budgets from television, were essentially constructed as a series of stylised tableaux, reminiscent of Warhol in their tackily impertinent and utterly gorgeous appropriation of culturally accepted spectacle. Yet whereas the chilly Warhol raided Hollywood, the flamboyant Schroeter looked to European culture, especially opera. And he had his Warholian ‘superstar’, the striking Magdelena Montezuma.
Even after his successful transition to bigger bud-get, more mainstream arthouse films with his most straightforward narratives Regno di Napoli (1978) and Palermo oder Wolfsburg (1980), Schroeter remained at his best when rejecting linear storytelling and instead weaving highly complex, poetic psychological landscapes from an overwrought collage of emotive aural and visual peaks. This was the case with two searingly intense examinations of women at odds with society, Tag der Idioten (1982) and Malina (1990), as well as with the homoerotic masterpiece Der Rosenkonig (1986).
The ’90s saw him concentrating on theatre and opera productions, along with several highly regarded documentaries. His return to fiction filmmaking, Deux (2002), reunited him with Isabelle Huppert, the star of Malina, and the film not only stars the French actress but is dedicated to her and very much a showcase for her talents. With Deux, Schroeter gave the last decade one of its four or five greatest and most ample films (along with Godard’s Eloge de l’amour, Joao Cesar Monteiro’s Come and Go, Jonas Mekas’ As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – in contrast to the ’90s, the ’00s cinema truly belonged to its senior citizens). Not many people noticed.
Perhaps more importantly, Schroeter created one of the most spiritually generous films ever made. Giddily swinging time and again through the clutches of death and despair, Deux bounces back bleeding yet possessed of an indestructible and unflinchingly hard-­earned sense of joy and painful exhilaration that is like nothing I have experienced in any other film. There are no easy answers to the existential issues animating this harsh, carnivalesque fever dream of split identity, this slippery narrative patchwork that opts for emotional modulations over linear verisimilitude. Yet, like one of Huppert’s two characters in Deux, whose reaction to the most inappropriate situations is an incredulously gleeful giggle, the vulnerability of its sublimely kitschy texture is equal to any shock, any wound love and death inflict on it. Not joy as a consequence of the absence of pain and death, but joy in a ludic acceptance of them that nevertheless resists to the bitter end.