TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 1982

SCATTERED PICTURES: THE MOVIES OF WERNER SCHROETER

Life is very precious, even right now.
—Werner Schroeter, Eika Katappa

THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE LAST two decades, vanguard cinema was generally regarded as an amalgam of styles and procedures derived from the “French New Wave,” “New American Cinema,” and from numerous nonaligned filmmakers who emerged in the ’60s both inside and outside the commercial mainstream. The influence of Jean-Luc Godard was felt everywhere from Andy Warhol to Pier Paolo Pasolini. Godard had begun with narrative films that incorporated broad references to film history and drew conspicuous attention to the act of watching a film. By the ’70s, his films had become self-consuming artifacts that prescribed their own interpretation through voice-overs, words written across images, image freezes, and other Brechtian devices. Godard’s later works engendered, among other things, an experimental cinema practice in which the phenomenological fact of film became the primary subject of film as well, a prescriptive, didactic tendency that, like much other self-referential work, eventually leads to a dead end.

Simultaneous developments in German cinema, while not entirely unknown, were obscured until the mid ’70s, when a receptive atmosphere and therefore improved distribution made a wide sampling of films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Volker Schlöndorff available internationally. The immediate appeal of these films had much to do with a successful integration of Godardian formal innovation with linear narrative structures, and similarly ironic deployment of genre. At first the differences among the German directors were ignored; what seemed important was their similar, welcome concern with storytelling and entertainment. Not surprisingly, the most accessible directors were the ones most readily “discovered” in America.

The radical aspect of the “New German Cinema”—the breaching of social-historical taboos established because of the Nazi period—was initially overlooked. From this perspective, Fassbinder was perceived as a realist director treating the moral atmosphere of German society (under and after the Reich) in terms of Sirkian melodrama, in contrast to a filmmaker like Herzog, who reappropriates, in illusionist style, the allegorical-irrational elements of German romanticism that Germans have eagerly suppressed since Hitler’s enraptured visits to Bayreuth.

The attempt to reestablish historical continuity, to show and reclaim German history in an intelligible, “logical” way, connects vitally with the effort to deal with the history of Western culture without renouncing the obvious achievements of Modernism. The synthesis of this endeavor can be found in the films of Werner Schroeter. Schroeter’s ambitious modern strategy for confronting and dispersing the imperatives of the Modernist enterprise involves the recycling of cultural history in fragments, as pastiche. His appropriation of the German past is acquisitive, cooptative. His films push beyond the “historicity” of film-in-relation-to-film, to film as a development in the history of Modern culture—in ironic relation to it. Schroeter invokes 19th and 20th century Western cultural mythology in redigested form, blatantly, phonily portraying an inconography that electrically connects the skepticism and anxiety of the present with the decors of the supposedly heroic past. His desire is to consume myth, to exhaust it, to desecrate it.

Like Godard, Schroeter practices an art of quotation, but Schroeter’s films are radically dissimilar in purpose and content. Godard’s audacious plunderings of the cultural flea market came wrapped in quotation marks from the history of cinema. Every Godard film advances a theory of its own means; the warp of its exposition is that it’s fraught with calculation. Godard exemplifies the sensual pedagogy of French rationalism, the artist-as-philosopher whose ancestral line runs back to Diderot and Voltaire. Consistent with one version of the modernist case, Godard’s central argument is with cinema and its ideological behavior in society. Schroeter’s use of pastiche is no less ambitious and just as destructive of received notions of form. In this sense, he is the most “Godardian” filmmaker of the “New German Cinema.” But Schroeter’s referents seldom point only to the fact of other films, and one finds in his work no didactic argument. Owing precisely to the different cultural legacies involved, Schroeter’s ingenious expropriation of motifs and cliches from established genres seems less willful, less purposeful, in fact more “naive” than Godard’s. Godard approached film from philosophy and criticism, Schroeter by way of an avid consumption of opera and theater. Schroeter’s work is surreal, estheticizing, mythographic. It celebrates (and parodies) the mystical idealization of Emotion (not Expression)—particularly fate-bound, apocalyptic emotion—embedded in Baroque opera and woven throughout German art of the 19th and early 20th centuries. To draw on this (largely Romanticist) canon at all is an audacious, quixotic move, considering its implications in Germany after 1920. Schroeter’s flaunting use of Wagnerian bombast and the species of kitsch most readily identified as fascist food has the peculiar virtue of tapping a tradition that is, in Germany, simultaneously sacrosanct and shameful. In Germany (and even elsewhere), every Schroeter film is a fresh provocation. The narrative elements have the immanence and unexpectedness of dream episodes, or segments of a Chinese comic book. Scenes recur in mutated forms. Characters sleepwalk into Tosca dressed up for Parsifal. Events fall outside causality, obeying mysterious psychic laws. Werner Schroeter is, simply, the most interesting, irritating, civilizing filmmaker since Godard.

So far, his films have been containers for several perennial obsessions: opera, specifically French and Italian opera buffa contrasted with German epic opera, used as sound track and visually parodied in costumes and sets. Visual references to one opera are combined with the score of a different one, or with pop music. Modern scenic elements (clothing, landscape) are juxtaposed with symphonic music. Heroic, tragic, and erotic sentiments; sublime love; madness; preleather homosexuality; Italy, Southernness, the sensuality of Mediterranean life, favorably contrasted with the unfeeling North, Germany, and Nordic mythology; and innocence and criminality as aspects of the creative temperament are stuffed into every Schroeter film.

Schroeter juxtaposes borrowings from both elitist and pop culture: Wagner and Elvis, Maria Callas and Caterina Valente. Improbable marriages of styles and tastes appear in his earliest work with amateurish bluntness. His earliest films, in 8mm, long consigned to archival obscurity, display several unflagging preoccupations, chiefly a passionate (career-long) infatuation with Maria Callas. (In fact, these films are really still photographs of Callas “animated” by montage and set to opera music.) The very first film, Verona, 1967, contains dozens of shots of religious statuary, prefiguring an esthetic interest in Catholic imagery which sporadically crops up in his work. Neurasia, 1968, completes a cycle of works serving mainly as training films in which Schroeter developed his notable techniques of lighting and cinematography (he usually does his own) and learned how to direct actors.

The ideas in Neurasia—four actors in a room miming songs, striking various poses, and performing ritualistically slow movements while the camera eventually pulls back to reveal the surrounding theater—as well as its intentional clumsiness, bear out the influence of American filmmakers like Gregory Markopoulos and Kenneth Anger, whose films Schroeter had seen at a festival in Knokke-le-Heist, Belgium. Psychological montage, provided by musical changes on the sound track (“Button Up Your Overcoat,” Percy Sledge, Dajos Belos and His Orchestra), builds gradually that sense of pathos and extreme anxiety. This unembellished model for Schroeter’s subsequent tableaux movies projects the romantic longings of an adolescent. In later films, Schroeter filters this longing through a thick mesh of references and allusions, but it is always there. Romantic suffering bleeds through all Schroeter’s work, conjoined with esthetic rapture and sexual ecstasy. These ideal, extreme modes of consciousness resemble the epiphanies of Baroque composers, who expunged recitative and constructed their operas exclusively from arias. The dire, consuming emotionalism Schroeter displays later enters Neurasia via the soundtrack to infect the deadpan listlessness of the actors onscreen. One detects a blossoming fondness for irony which delineates a contemporary modernist sensibility that embraces rhapsodic, naive feelings and recognizes their absurdity.

Neurasia feels long for a 41-minute film, but many of Schroeter’s works finish in jarring, ripostelike conclusions. Reprise endings are also typical: images pulled from earlier contexts set against some “totalizing” piece of music. This is the pictorial equivalent of da capo aria, morganatically related to Godard’s “dialectical” cutting in Weekend and other films of the late ’60s. In films like The Death of Maria Malibran, 1971, staccato cutting flips back and forth between several stories, several settings, several moods. Oneiric logic dictates the order and length of shots. What may seem initially obscure (and irritating) in these films, besides their extreme theatricality, is their musical structure which, among other difficulties, frustrates habitual expectations of rhythm and durée.

Schroeter’s use of opera is metaphoric and comically grandiose. He extracts scenes from overworked masterpieces as media for a richly allusive mental theater, runs bits and pieces together, jumbles the sublime and the ridiculous to the point of indissolubility, with the result that classical opera regains a bizarre vitality in this shredded, irreverent form. As it appears in Schroeter’s first feature films, opera evokes not only a canon of musical works but also the modern perception of the operatic mentality as a species of camp.

Eika Katappa, 1969, with respect to the themes and devices already enumerated, is copious to the point of bursting. This, Schroeter’s first full-scale costume spectacle, intercuts several elliptical stories conveyed in mime, music, and architectural vignette: a religious melodrama featuring St. Sebastian and Therese von Konnersreuth (the Bavarian nun who supposedly experienced stigmata in the 1950s); the romance of Siegfried and Kriemhild, with a parody of Siegfried’s murder by Hagen and Brunhild; nightclub and railroad episodes from the life of a fated prima donna; most of Rigoletto; glimpses of an Italian meteorological catastrophe precipitated by “the secret and forbidden castle of the Venusian government in Rome”;1 sections of Tosca and La Traviata; the romance of Mario and Carlo, two young men of Naples; and finally, a flashback of everything, in discolored outtakes.

Eika Katappa is a compilation of ravishing images of factory steam curling around smokestacks, of car lights sending red and white flashes across the base of the disturbingly monochrome monument to King Vittorio Emmanuele II in Rome, of a comely youth on the deck of the Naples-Capri ferry who gazes into the camera as the boat’s wake churns into the choppy sea behind him. (Fassbinder was so moved by the latter image that he reproduced it in Beware of a Holy Whore.) The actors appear luminously beautiful; the camera plays over their faces, bodies, hands, and feet with erotic languor, cruising them, inviting the viewer to do so, too.

Except for the Neopolitan sequence, everything in Eika Katappa looks wildly artificial. Interiors show a plush, candlelit desuetude, heavy on theatrical velvet and faded period furniture. Exteriors are either monumental (ruins, balustrades, colonnades, the vertiginous steps of the Heidelberg outdoor theater) or bucolic (forests, country roads, Capri). The costumes grossly overdefine the characters (Sebastian’s pendulous loincloth, Kriemhild’s massive goldilocks) who push theatricality right into narcissistic posturing.

The ubiquitous appearance of Magdalena Montezuma, who performs in all Schroeter’s films except Regno di Napoli, 1978, is a constant visual astonishment in Eika Katappa. (She is the greatest European actress since Anna Magnani.) Moon-faced, sublimely versatile, incarnated variously as Tosca, Kriemhild, and the hunchback Rigoletto, she personifies the erotic schizophrenia that crackles like static through Schroeter’s films—the longing to be both male and female. Significantly, Montezuma and other women carry the lion’s share of dramatic business in most of Schroeter’s movies, while the men serve chiefly as passive ornaments, objects of the longing gaze.

The lush sensuality of Eika Katappa, which never spills into explicit physicality, camouflages, but like a scrim, its intrinsic stereotypic and historical homosexual subtext. Swooning, histrionic divas, whose transports of ecstasy and elaborate double suicides, duels, and miraculous resurrections comprise most of Eika Katappa, portray a capacity for the kind of love that must be “impossible” in order to be fatal and fatal in order to be interesting. Like Jean Genet, Schroeter insists on the Romantic version of homosexuality as grist for the tragedy that is the ultimate debt to pleasure. Genet’s subjects and the aleatory techniques of his prose correspond to Schroeter’s fixations and his method of exalting them; Schroeter blurs dreams, hallucinations, and ostensible reality in ways that recall Genet’s only film, Un chant d’amour.

Schroeter’s tact on the subject of homosexuality may seem like reticence, but it is really designed to sidestep the limitations of the subject as subject. The Neapolitan segment with Mario and Carlo is the only flagrantly homosexual spectacle. The famous photograph of two chained, praying hands holding a red rose, which adorned the American edition of Genet’s Miracle of the Rose, laces this section of the drama. It appears as a symbol of broken love during terse moments in the musical score (Carmen, Mozart). Indescribing this love affair, Schroeter dispenses with the manic sublimative camp of the earlier scenes. Significantly, the conclusion to this semi-naturalist drama is as inflatedly tragic as those of the more ludicrous opera scenes—love is invoked, then the perfect happiness is marred by Carlo’s censorious father, and Carlo abruptly dies, mysteriously, on the sidewalk.

While sociology seldom beclouds Schroeter’s work in any conspicuous way, The Bomberpilot, 1970, does reduce several turgid cliches about Nazi Germany to their actual size. This film takes place exclusively in the sedimentary realm of kitsch. A historical “drama” in which history passes with a modicum of reality, The Bomberpilot follows the industrious, oblivious careers of three cabaret floozies through World War II to an indeterminate present. Played by Magdalena Montezuma, Mascha Elm-Rabben, and Carla Aulaulu, the women are first viewed in crimson and black lace corsets kicking up their heels in the shadow of a Nazi building, a swastika flag waving gaily behind them. Separated by the war, the girls adapt to circumstances. Mascha turns to nature worship and interpretive dance. Magdalena becomes a restorer of ecclesiastical art and a teacher of photography, illustrating her lectures with pictures of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. Carla flees to Vienna, finding work and romance in a bakery. One day, as Carla chirps “Wiener Blut, Wiener Blut”2 among the cakes and pastries, she is surprised by a gorgeous, refined young admirer—Schroeter—who gives her roses. However, he is soon killed by an automobile. Reunited in the new Federal Republic, the women form the plan to lecture in America on racial integration and their ordeals under Nazism, hoping to join the Women’s Liberation Movement. After that falls through, they return to Germany to cabaret life. Throughout the film, all three are heard reciting their memoirs off-camera in sober documentary tones.

The Gothic estrangement of these characters from the times they live in has an oblivious, solipsistic universality—like Quentin Crisp’s complaint that World War II made it impossible to find decent henna. The gaudy decoration of the actors and the dark, confining interiors suggest the sinister decadence of myriad cheap movies about the Nazi era. This is pushed so far that the cliches can become ludicrous: for example, when news of Hitler’s suicide comes over the radio, Magdalena throws herself in the nearest river. Mascha rescues her and fixes her a nice cup of tea. Then they go out to the opera.

This business-as-usual perspective is hardly surprising from Schroeter, whose supposed lack of a serious political view has often (wrongly) been cited. Superficially, of course, his art reflects the inclinations of fascist art. The celebration of monumentality, the manipulation of overpowering, irrational feelings, the seductive rendering of classical subjects in grossly simplified terms, as well as a mystical fascination with death—these can as easily be found in the films of Leni Riefenstahl as in Schroeter’s. But Schroeter’s sensibility is far too arch, too knowing, and too humane to be on the wrong side, even if it does jokingly invoke the morbid, phantasmagoric traditions of German culture so often exploited by the Nazis. While they glorified robustness and spiritual unanimity, Schroeter’s parody idealizes the sickly, aristocratic isolation of the creative artist.

A more applicable criticism would be that in its quotidian form it’s an elitist stance. (For example, compare the Baroque drawing rooms and fantastic architecture of Schroeter’s movies with the gritty proletarian milieu of early Fassbinder films. Fassbinder’s characters are embedded in their settings, stuck in the glue of social and economic determinants. Schroeter’s move through the decors of high culture like omnivorous tourists.) On the other hand, in this case the invocation of high culture and a cultural past constitutes a criticism of its abandonment, nowhere more apparent than in the frantic emulation of Hollywood that is fast dissolving the “New German Cinema.” Schroeter has yet to discard his estheticizing, overblown, idiosyncratic style for commercial purposes. His evolution toward narrative accessibility has been accompanied by fresh commercial obstacles—for Regno di Napoli, he used the obscure local dialect; for his current production of Genet’s Querrelle, he insisted on shooting in black and white.3 This insistence on the primacy of artistic values constitutes one of the most pertinent political criticisms of cinema.

The stylistic changes of Schroeter’s films closely parallel developments in his theater work. In each year that he’s made a film, Schroeter has directed at least one play. It may seem surprising that he has directed mainly works from the standard repertory of the German stage, until one looks at the titles: Macbeth, Lessing’s Emilia Galotti and Miss Sarah Sampson, Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Kliest’s Kathchen von Heilbronn, Hugo’s Lucrezia Borgia—radically expressionistic, dramatically extreme works that lend themselves readily to a hyperventilated notion of drama. One medium has fed the other: Schroeter’s film Salome, 1971, predates his stage production of the play by two years. This Salome is one of the most beautiful adaptations of the text to film ever made. Filmed at the ruins of Baalbek in Lebanon, the decadent carnality of Gustave Moreau’s painting Salome is recalled in the jeweled costumes of Herod and Herodias, in the somnolent pallor of Salome’s face, in Magdalena Montezuma’s androgynous performance as Herod. Pans and zooms within long sequences, invisible cutting, Oscar Wilde’s hypnotic text, and a densely packed sound track form a seething tapestry of contradictory cues and visual blandishments. Schroeter condenses free-associative musical excerpts into an overlapping parallel drama, replacing lines of dialogue with sections of Richard Strauss’s opera, freezing a frame for almost a minute while a Hector Berlioz aria concludes on the sound track. Baalbek looks more pointedly artificial than any theater stage, its crumbling steps and scarred columns long abandoned by actual potentates. The fusion of dramaturgy and locale with the noise of jets landing at a nearby airport and passages from Wagner, Bellini, Verdi, Gluck, Donizetti and Mozart produces a hallucinatory veracity—in fact, awe. Neither the mere record of a theatrical event nor a cinematic “opening up” of a text intended for the stage, Salome is a genuine hybrid, akin to the open air text-dramas filmed by Straub-Huillet, that compels an energetic suspension of disbelief with incredible economy. It is completely cinematic and utterly theatrical.

A cherished cliche of film writing has it that what works in theater never works in film, and vice versa. The audience expects a play to look theatrical, and naturalism has become so normative in movies that imagination is instantly registered as pretension unless accompanied by stupendous special effects and the explicit tag of “pure entertainment.” It is normal for a George Lucas to eschew any serious intention when launching a multimillion-dollar war epic—among other things, the disclaimer permits the audience to consume the product without examining the ideological wrapper. The triumph of fake naturalism symbolizes the development of cinema from art to industry.

Contra formula naturalism, Henri Langlois once said that the tragedy of Hollywood film is its assumption that film is always sound and image, talking pictures. A cinematic appetite formed by the Hollywood product is bound to find Schroeter indigestible but exploitable (along with Kenneth Anger, Carmelo Bene, Jack Smith, Daniel Schmid, Straub, and numerous others). The storytelling methods Schroeter uses hark back to the seminal era of silent films, of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, of The Golem, of early Fritz Lang—the first era of excellence in German cinema. Audiences have lost certain habits of attention necessary to appreciate the full majesty of silent films, or films with eccentric sound values; at best, they find them amusing. Largeness of means and violence of approach have become the prevailing criteria, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that among very young filmmakers today, the most admired directors are Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray—studio employees who commanded big budgets and made violent, epic-scale films of, questionable artistic value. Such a sensibility, if that is indeed what it is, is perfectly suited to the business of modern filmmaking. Fortunately, Europe has never completed the process of industrializing cinema. A filmmaker like Schroeter may, with difficulty, continue making films regularly in Europe, while the corresponding situation is unthinkable in America.

One of the two films Schroeter will release this year contains a film of his Rome production of The Council of Love, 1981, a play that relates even more closely in spirit to his films than any of the earlier plays he directed. The Council of Love was written at the end of the last century by Oscar Panniza, an until-now unheralded writer who became deranged when this play was banned for its blasphemous depiction of a depraved Holy Family. He spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum. The unlimited insanity of Panniza’s play spnngs from the same passion for outrageousness one finds in Schroeter’s earlier films, particularly The Death of Maria Malibran, 1971, which breaks every convention of filmmaking with reckless insouciance. Malibran, played at various moments by every actor in the film, becomes a sort of loudspeaker through which Maria Callas, Lautreamont and Hamlet permeate Baroque decors and wind-swept vine arbors. Candy Darling appears in blackface singing “St. Louis Blues.” Actors stare at each other for long minutes in transports of ecstasy, occasionally blinking. An enormous transvestite impersonates Janis Joplin. Suicides are discovered on the lawn by elegant ladies who then describe their shudders of revulsion.

The Death of Maria Malibran divides into three parts. Two are Eika Katappa-style, fragmented persiflage which bracket the central section, “Frederico Garcia,” an extended fairy tale—Garcia offers Maria food “if you will give me one of your pretty blue eyes.” “Frederico Garcia” restates the emotional politics of Schroeter’s work, a politics intimately connected with sexual identity and the psychic oppositions of male and female. What it has in common with The Council of Love, as well as Salome, is the idea of the punitive, sometimes homicidal patriarch. The male is identified with society, law, power; the female represents the creative will. Sacrifice of the latter by the former is often a metaphor in Schroeter’s seemingly frivolous imagery. It emerges more stolidly in Willow Springs, 1972, a psychodrama of three women inhabiting a stucco hacienda in the Mojave. Like the Manson family, they believe themselves emissaries of an occult intelligence that requires human sacrifice. In this film, psychic vampirism replaces the rule of law as the vehicle of male domination, and the dominator becomes a dominatrix projecting male traits. The radical change of decor—harsh desert colors, scaling paint on the stucco walls, a flyspecked Marilyn Monroe calendar, a cheap phonograph forever repeating “Rum and Coca Cola,” the pathetically useless telephone wires hovering above the house—facilitates a stripping-down of information to algebraic clarity and suffuses the film with desuetude and latent insanity.

In Willow Springs, Schroeter’s customary delicacy evaporates in the desert heat. The “sexual awakening” that corresponds to the exercise of the creative will and fulfillment as chastely represented in Eika Katappa by swooning lovers and bursts of Puccini appears here in literal form with a voyeurist shot of the passive Ila and her would-be rescuer grinding away on a very prosaic set of box springs. This scene rips away at the intricate psychological texture of the film because it violates the established codes of visual decorum. Willow Springs marks a significant modification of technique: fewer ellipses, less musical saturation, more precise dramaturgy. One intelligible line of attention is charted for the viewer; it’s harder to lose one’s place. That it lapses into vulgarity may have something to do with the fact that it was made in California.

Culminating the series of pastiche films, Flocons d’or, 1973–6, achieves total mastery of technique and dramatic effect. It opens with Magdalena Montezuma heartily lip-synching the “Marseillaise,” a clear indication that, for Schroeter, the film is a liberation. It is. The four linked stories of Flocons d’or are deft exercises in genre that never descend to the level of explicitness. Everything proceeds by gestures, by looks, by the accretion of visual details. Parrots, wicker furniture, and monstrous vegetation, giant orchids worn behind the ears, all the morphological elements spell out what kind of story this is. Cut into it are powerful, cryptic images carrying psychic signals across the larger stretch of the film: a man constructing playing-card pyramids, a needle repeatedly guided to an unidentified arm, a woman expelling blood over the open trousers of an unknown man. The vaguely Japanese atmosphere is dense with psychic malaise. Intricate lighting effects create an apprehension of intense drama, although very little actually happens. When black and white is used it is etiolated so that strange discrepancies between foreground and background textures can occur.

Flocons d’or is obviously a dream, rendered exactly in the form of a dream. One discrete element causes the entire landscape to shift, the story to slide into something different. The viewer constructs his or her own exegesis of events, using the cryptic images to trace the logic of a mood, a tone. There is almost no dialogue, but its difference from silent movies is important. Most silent films approximate the close narrative detail that sound movies achieve effortlessly—only the talk is missing (ergo, intertitles). Schroeter’s elliptical exposition aims at the spiritual essence of a chosen reality, minus the plodding details. There is only the dream. The obscurity of Schroeter’s subjective-to-objective shot changes is practically Masonic, and it’s often impossible to assign the musical apotheosis of a scene to any particular character in it.

Since the questions of narrative/non-narrative and realism/fantasy fairly permeate current writing on cinema, it might be useful to remember that fairy tales, poems, pastoral lays, essays, and ballads are narrative forms other than the novel and have been around for some time. As Schroeter himself says, all his films are narrative films; he simply had the good fortune to have a grandmother who told him fairy tales. (This, conceivably, could be far more useful than a degree in semiotics for arriving at what certain filmmakers have been calling “new narrative,” presumably as a swaggering challenge to old narrative.)

The deceptively conventional narrative format of Schroeter’s Regno di Napoli, 1978, and Palermo oder Wolfsburg, 1979–80, has been called a change of style by some European critics. Certainly these films emphasize naturalistic elements in their documentation of organic Italian communities. But his “naturalism” squeezes into unnatural dramatic epiphanies in Regno di Napoli, and collapses into surrealism in Palermo. Regno di Napoli practically takes place on a proscenium; the major scenes are staged in a courtyard and in apartments overlooking it. The film mimics the family chronicle genre, complete with dates appearing on-screen and characters played at various ages. Schroeter avoids the hermetic illusionism typical of this genre by stacking together scenes of hysterical melodrama which an illusionist chronicler would carefully space apart. Both realistic characters and gargoyles inhabit the film, producing textural shifts between theater and reality.

Palermo oder Wolfsburg opens in formal documentary style, showing the family life of a Sicilian boy, Nicola, as he decides to become a “guest worker” in Germany. Also divided into three sections, Palermo’s first panel idealizes the bucolic, spontaneous character of life in a pre-industrial society and registers its imminent decay as the impoverished young emigrate to Northern factory jobs. Lay actors, speaking the regional dialect, establish the connectedness of village life. In the next panel, Nicola arrives in Wolfsburg, the Detroit of Germany. A huge VW emblem glowering above the Volkswagen plant is the sign under which Nicola’s tragedy plays out, a symbol of brutalized personal relationships and unanimous exploitation. The town of Wolfsburg is used like a linguistic maze. Nicola, guided by other “guest workers,” soon finds a job and a place to live. He seems innocent of the fact that he has joined a pariah class, and approaches social relationships with guileless naiveté. The girl he falls in love with is a typical product of a society that infantilizes women and conditions them to insincerity and sexual manipulation. She uses Nicola to make two other boyfriends jealous. When his rivals taunt him after a grotesque beer fest at the VW factory, Nicola stabs them.

The murder trial fills the third panel of Palermo, rendered as a Buñuelian nightmare. Witnesses offer impertinent, partisan testimony in Sicilian and German which an incessant voice simultaneously translates. A panel of judges brays, makes faces, falls asleep. The mothers of the murdered boys fight with each other in the spectator section. A replica of a Palermo church is carried into the court as “evidence,” as the rowboat was used against Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. The reciprocal incomprehension of two cultures becomes the subject of the trial. Nicola’s ultimate acquittal shows the hypocrisy of a liberal society that pardons the violence it generates and has no interest in preventing it.

Palermo is a synthetic, intellectual restatement of the oppositions in Schroeter’s films—heart versus head, Germany versus Italy. It confirms his persistent longing for a resolution which will never occur; that longing is the impetus of Schroeter’s work. Schroeter casts its contradictory elements in two modes, the celebratory and the elegiac. In The Day of the Idiots, 1981, these elements are treated as purely mental events, confined to a women’s ward in a mental hospital; and in Weisse Reise, 1980, the entire world is reduced to a series of painted backdrops reflecting geographic and thereby sensual polarities. In La Répétition Génèrale, 1980, a document of the World Theater Festival at Nancy, France, Schroeter rearranges the work of other artists into a collage reflecting his own obsessions. The project of the truly ambitious pasticheur, and Schroeter is that, is to reassemble all art, all life, into the shape of one intractable vision of the world.

That Schroeter sees himself as the La Passionaria of contemporary European culture has had the happy result of exempting him from the narrow jockeying of some of his colleagues. (When asked about Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, whose wholesale expropriation of Schroeter’s work seems to me to amount to esthetic larceny, Schroeter laughed: “No, no comment. Really, there is no comment.”) A lack of high definition in the European film industry allows Schroeter to pursue the development of his artistic interests outside the usual system of careers, whether that means staging Lohengrin for the Kassel Opera, choreographing Ingrid Caven’s cabaret act in Paris, or directing portions of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo in Brazil. Such an itinerary betrays the obstinate homelessness that has played a major role in the story of art in the 20th century. A Goethe Institute bio on Schroeter concludes with the words, “no fixed abode.” Obversely, the exaltation that defines his work owes much to the temperament that finds itself at home everywhere: a hotel room, a rain forest, the Mojave Desert. In the words of the diva who meets her death on a desolate road in Eika Katappa, “Life is very precious, even right now.” This is how Schroeter feels, and it is the overriding sentiment behind everything he does. One can be a diva anywhere. And he is.

Gary Indiana is a free-lance writer who lives in New York. His latest play, Phantoms of Louisiana, opens there this month.

Music throughout from Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi, Act II, Scene I, the Duke’s air “Dear Maid, Each Tear.”

—————————

NOTES

1. For this detail and numerous others not especially clear in the film itself, I am indebted to Daniel Schmid’s synopsis. For confirmation of some matters of fact in this essay I have relied on the recent publication, Werner Schroeter, Munich: Hanser Verlag, 1980.

2. “Wiener Blut,” for the historically minded, was also the title of a 1942 Royalist operetta confection by Willi Forst, extremely popular in Nazi Germany.

3. A quantum leap in silver prices and distributor preference for color has made it practically impossible to find backing for black and white films.