PRINT May 2012


Werner Schroeter, Der Tod der Maria Malibran (The Death of Maria Malibran), 1972, still from a color film in 16 mm, 104 minutes. Singer (Anette Tirier) and Maria Malibran (Magdalena Montezuma).

What Schroeter does with a face, a cheekbone, the lips, an expression of the eyes [is a] multiplying and burgeoning of the body, an exaltation.
—Michel Foucault

One must regain a sense of wonder.
—Werner Schroeter

WERNER SCHROETER’S ECSTATIC FARRAGOES OF death and transfiguration aspire to the florid corporeality of Comte de Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror (1869). The German director—who died in 2010 at the age of sixty-five, with twenty-three feature-length films and as many shorts to his credit—revered the Surrealist avant la lettre’s sextet of prose cantos, given to impulsive shifts of tone and style and swarmed by grotesque visions: adolescent flesh rent and oozing delectable gore, swine puking at first sight of the lice-infested, God-hating narrator. Schroeter’s cinema of surfeit exults in the “burgeoning of the body” via Lautréamontian excess: At the end of Deux (2002), for example, Isabelle Huppert gobbles vomit from the mouth of the twin sister she has just stabbed after a bejeweled djinn counseled her to “accept” her newly discovered sibling; in Tag der Idioten (Day of the Idiots, 1981), a patient in the snakiest of pits lets sluice a Niagara of urine—“She just never stops pissing!” cries another inmate; a crazed, blood-spattered Magdalena Montezuma clutches a crucifix, praying through broken teeth to a pitiless deity early in Eika Katappa (1969); a cat crucified and nailed to a door portends the pietà of a Caravaggesque captive, each of his wounds festooned with a bloodred bloom, carried supine through the night by his lover-murderer in the disco coda of Der Rosenkönig (The Rose King, 1986). Schroeter’s quest for the sublime—both the Romantic and the merely rhapsodic—followed Lautréamont’s attempt to make every phrase and sentence dense with disgust and overwrought beauty: He privileged each moment of his films to asphyxiating effect. Confronted with such ceaseless splendor, one can sometimes feel like Huppert’s suffocating writer in Malina (1991): “I must breathe! I must breathe!”

Lautréamont warned in Maldoror’s first canto that his “somber, poison-soaked pages” could alienate or unhinge a credulous audience. So, too, Schroeter’s fragmented epics of longing and erotic anguish—legendarily absent from North American screens for more than two decades—terra both incognita and infirma for many cinephiles. (And perilous for the critic, who warily recalls Roland Barthes’s admonition with respect to music analysis: “Are we condemned to the adjective?”) The cult or coterie status to which Schroeter’s films have long been assigned—an obscurity abetted in North America by the persistent refusal of the New York and Toronto film festivals to show his work—infuriated his friend and champion Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who published a polemic in 1979 decrying Schroeter’s treatment as an exotic or underground artist and calling the then-vaunted Hans-Jürgen Syberberg a “merchant of plagiarism” who had plundered Schroeter’s work for his own theatrical tableaux. (Odd that Susan Sontag, who championed Syberberg, did not turn her attention to Schroeter, especially given her early connoisseurship of camp. Syberberg, for his part, generously saluted Schroeter as one of Germany’s greatest contemporary artists, and several other directors of the New German Cinema, including Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Alexander Kluge, also acknowledged his immense importance; ironically, he became the seminal marginal.) The full-scale retrospective of Schroeter’s work that arrives at the Museum of Modern Art this month—incontestably the film event of the year—serves, then, not only as a commemoration but as a historical corrective.

BORN IN A SMALL TOWN in central Germany and named after a Nazi uncle just as World War II was ending, the Thuringian dandy studied psychology and then film, but his desire to be generous, “to give [him]self to everyone,” led him to abandon school for a brief career in prostitution, selling his willowy blond body to furtive husbands and fathers. From down-home hooker to international auteur, Schroeter seemed driven by an aesthete’s avidity for giving and getting beauty and by a desire for affection. He claimed that he, incapable of loving, became a filmmaker to participate in a social act of creation—to “make friends.” (Maldoror’s quest for first love: “I was seeking a soul resembling mine, and I could not find it. I searched throughout the seven seas; my perseverance proved of no use. Yet I could not remain alone.”) Inspired first by the films of Gregory J. Markopoulos (especially Twice a Man [1963]), which he encountered at the festival for experimental cinema in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium, in 1967, and then by gay activist and filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim, with whom he later fell out over differing views on politics and the role of the homosexual artist, Schroeter from the outset treated cinema as a declaration of personal obsession.

Werner Schroeter, Salome, 1971, still from a color film in 16 mm, 81 minutes. Foreground: Salome (Mascha Elm-Rabben). Background: Herod (Magdalena Montezuma) and Herodias (Ellen Umlauf).

In an account of the “key dates” in his life, Schroeter listed 1962 as the year of teen epiphany, when he first heard Maria Callas, in a performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Munich Opera. The Greek diva immediately became the smitten youth’s “guiding star”—one with the ability to immobilize and transcend time. (He later described the death of his mother, who had filled him with a love of art and make-believe as a child, as a “monumental . . . powerful experience,” followed the year after—in 1977, that is—by Callas’s expiry: “And then my spiritual, artistic mother died.”) In 1968, the fledgling filmmaker shot no fewer than five primitive 8-mm film portraits of the singer (running from three to thirty-five minutes long) that feel like a passionate fan’s scrapbooks set in erratic motion. Schroeter fixates on Callas’s face, gestures, and voice, animating still photographs of her in Lucia di Lammermoor or Tosca with rapid-fire montage accompanied by scratchy recordings of her arias. Aiming at visual variety even within the constricted range of a few still images, Schroeter lovingly masks or irises photos of Callas, alternating between color and black-and-white, the singer offstage and on-, being kissed by an admirer or in full, cheekbone-baring cry. A companion film from the period, Verona (1967), dotes on religious statuary, thereby establishing the twin devotional poles of Schroeter’s future cinema: Callas and Catholicism.

Schroeter’s debt to the American underground—especially to such figures as Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, and Kenneth Anger—became readily apparent once he “graduated” to the 16-mm format with Neurasia (1968) and Argila (1969), the latter a stunning split-screen short dealing with what Schroeter called “archaic, fundamental themes” of love and mourning. Juxtaposing a black-and-white, silent image with a color, sound one of the same person or scene, slightly staggering the second image until it becomes a “memory of the other,” Argila recalls Warhol’s twin-projector opus Chelsea Girls (1966), though it is unlikely Schroeter would have been aware of that film at the time. In Argila, we encounter the “three women” configuration of many of his later films, as well as some defining aspects of his aesthetic: the asynchronous use of music—his actresses never really “lip-synch” the kitsch songs and opera arias he loads on the sound track, as their busy lips rarely match the music they appear to emit; extremities of emotion, from catatonia to rapture, expressed in embellished gestures lifted from opera, antique theater, and silent cinema; a tableaux structure, in which disconnected fragments are repeated like haphazard musical motifs, until a final reprise subsumes them into something like coherence; and a magpie music track of high and low, opera and pop, the transcendent and the preposterous. In Argila, Verdi, Liszt, Beethoven, Bruch, Vivaldi, Donizetti, and Stravinsky are conjoined with the tearstained lyrics of Brook Benton’s “Hotel Happiness.” For Schroeter, the slurpy sentiment of leaving teardrops in the old, forlorn rooms of Hotel Loneliness has the heart-bruising grandeur of any Puccini aria. The director’s Napster aesthetic would later lead him to deploy Verdi and Elvis, Wagner and Percy Sledge, Saint-Saëns and the Andrew Sisters, segueing recklessly from Viennese waltzes to rockabilly, gospel, and the Doobie Brothers. Schroeter’s omnivorous jukebox includes Bizet’s Carmen—his recurrent use of “La mort! La mort! Encore la mort!” from act 3 reflects his obsession with death and his own frequent refrain of “Tod, Tod, Tod”—as well as Marty Robbins’s low-rent rendition: “Tonight there’ll be no room for tears in my bedroom / Tonight Carmen’s coming back home!” On Schroeter’s map, Bizet’s tragic Spanish arena borders Robbins’s country-and-western homestead, romantic passion and the imminence of dissolution connecting their disparate worlds.

Two of the actresses in Argila came to define Schroeter’s early cinema: a glamorous blonde with the curiously ululating name of Carla Aulaulu, who gamely shimmies her way through plenty of cabaret and unsynced opera in his films, and her dusky opposite, Magdalena Montezuma, the director’s ur-star, muse, and alter ego until her death at age forty-one in 1984. (Schroeter later noted, as if to stress their mystical bond, that the cancer that killed her was the same type he would eventually die from.) Montezuma appeared in nearly all of Schroeter’s subsequent features through The Rose King. One might situate her as Dietrich to Schroeter’s Sternberg were her imposing presence more alluring than alarming. Her wide eyes slightly awry so that their pupils just missed symmetry, resulting in a poleax stare; her broad jaw and gnarled overbite contributing to a pronounced lisp; her cheekbones as high and raw as Callas’s when provoked; and her eyebrows tortured into scintilla-thin arcs, Montezuma donned a Kabuki-like mask that maintained its androgynous ferocity throughout many alterations. “She transformed herself like a chameleon,” Schroeter fondly recalled of his star, but his compliment hardly captures Montezuma’s drastic capacity for self-transformation. Playing gorgons, Valkyries, or heavy-lidded divas, a bald, android-looking Herod in Schroeter’s hieratic 1971 version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (filmed among Roman ruins in Lebanon) or an outback California murderess enrobed in a sparkly snood in Willow Springs (1973), Montezuma shed her former self—Erika Kluge, a twenty-two-year-old bar waitress when Schroeter “discovered” her—to become the majestic embodiment of the director’s fever dreams on stage and screen.

Werner Schroeter, Argila, 1969, still from a dual-projection color and black-and-white film in 16 mm, 36 minutes. Gisela Trowe and Sigurd Salto.

In Eika Katappa, Schroeter’s prizewinning first feature, a 144-minute omnium-gatherum of his obsessions—opera and death, German Romanticism and Pre-Raphaelite art, religious suffering, homosexual passion, and the sensual attraction of the South—Montezuma capers through several roles, striking grandiose poses as a man dancing a fandango with a shoulder-shrugging blonde; as the doomed Tosca in a blue dirndl; as hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto threatening a young couple; and, accoutred with twin Goldilocks braids heavier than bell ropes, as Kriemhild from the Nibelung saga descending the stairs of the outdoor stage in Heidelberg. (Schroeter treats such descents as arrivals from the empyrean.)

Eika Katappa—its title taken up by Schroeter under the misapprehension that these nonsense words were ancient Greek for “scattered pictures”—revels in heightened triviality and pastiche: A montage of street-side agonies set to the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” follows a close-up of a Baroque sculpture of the Virgin haloed by two flares of golden light, the pious sublime chased by intentional travesty. “The first time I watched Eika Katappa,” Wenders recently recalled, “I thought, ‘What’s this? It’s somehow Nosferatu and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but it’s also Rebel Without a Cause and Hit Parade and Pasolini, or Breathless by Godard.’” Ransacking and reconsecrating, through affectionate parody and outright reverence, forms of German culture that had been stigmatized by their association with Nazi ideology—Wagnerian spectacle in particular—Schroeter proved himself the heir of Caspar David Friedrich in his taste for picturesque ruins and twilight skies, overgrown architraves and crumbling amphitheaters, for echt Deutsch landscapes suffused with the yearning of the lone traveler: die romantische Stimmungslandschaft. More blatant (and mocking) in his religious imagery than the mystical Friedrich, Schroeter stages a bucolic Crucifixion in which the lanky, loinclothed Christ can’t seem to decide whether he isn’t also Saint Sebastian (a frequent confusion/conflation in Schroeter’s many passion plays), while Montezuma histrionically switch-hits as a grieving Mary and a Bavarian nun. In this “world of terror and dangerous paths,” of botched duels and sudden resurrections, Aulaulu repeatedly staggers down a rain-pocked rural road, expiring into the mud as she drawls in heavily accented English, “Life is very precious, even right now.” As if to prove her point, the sound track soars from Frankie Laine to Callas, from Strauss’s last songs to a Mozart piano concerto, the film abruptly transiting to Naples, where it chronicles the tragic romance of two young men: Foreshadowing the Eros-Thanatos finale of The Rose King, handsome young Mario struggles up a hill on the isle of Capri carrying his beautiful dead lover—one of the director’s many Pasolinian objects of desire. (Schroeter includes shots of himself, clad in black, directing the action.)

IN SCHROETER’S CINEMA of twins and doppelgängers, mirror images and Jungian dualities—“You don’t realize I’m double! Double!” Huppert cries in Malina, insisting she is one and the same as the man who would seem to be her husband—many of his major films pair up. Der Tod der Maria Malibran (The Death of Maria Malibran, 1972) shadows Eika Katappa in its delirious biography of the nineteenth-century mezzo-soprano whose prodigious tessitura, in Schroeter’s telling, helped to kill her at age twenty-eight: death by bel canto. (The historical Malibran died of injuries incurred falling from a horse.) Schroeter perversely defers the narrative of Malibran’s life until three-quarters of the film has elapsed, during which time Candy Darling joins the director’s customary actresses in a series of staring contests, impetuous musical performances (one of “St. Louis Blues” in blackface), and ostentatious displays of Warholian stupor or Bernini-esque ecstasy. The sculptural aggressiveness Foucault found in the film’s physicality is due in part to the low color-sensitivity of the Ektachrome stock Schroeter used to impart what he called a “fake three-dimensionality” to the close-ups: Ingrid Caven, crowned by copper ringlets, glimmers like a latter-day Simonetta Vespucci dipped in butterscotch. While the sound track samples soliloquies from Hamlet—Ophelia particularly appealed to Schroeter, who once claimed that his friends died young and his favorite writers were all suicides—beloved arias (“O mio babbino caro”), and bits of music (Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, and Dolores del Rio’s rendering of “Ramona”), its festive mayhem of genres veers from musical biopic to German fairy tale. A wax-white Montezuma with vermilion lips and ominous top hat trudges through a snowy forest whose enclave opens onto a hilltop cemetery full of religious statuary, to make good her threat: “You may eat your fill, but in return I will pluck out an eye.” (The film’s first image is of a knife poised over the face of a woman whose eye is pouring blood.)

Werner Schroeter, Eika Katappa, 1969, still from a color and black-and-white film in 16 mm, 144 minutes. Center: Magdalena Montezuma.

Der Bomberpilot (1970) anticipates by a decade Fassbinder’s “BRD Trilogy” in its tale of women surviving from the end of World War II through the Adenauer era, while its companion film, Willow Springs, made three years later, presages Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977) in its account of a female trio living in desert isolation. Shot in four days, Der Bomberpilot suggests that Schroeter undertook his artistic Trauerarbeit for Nazi-era Germany none too reverently, as its three emblematic women kick off the film in crimson-and-black lace corsets, high-stepping and Sieg heiling in front of a swastika-emblazoned flag. Outfitted with by-now-obligatory visits to a cemetery and a misty river—when Montezuma, never more alabaster, learns of Hitler’s death, she throws herself in the water, another of Schroeter’s would-be Ophelias—Bomberpilot features a cameo by the director as a ponytailed suitor who brings roses to his pastry-shop inamorata, only to be killed by a car (not the last of deadly vehicles in his cinema).

Bomberpilot’s women plan to travel to America and lecture on racial integration, but their plans fall through. Otherwise they might have found themselves, like the threesome in Willow Springs, sequestered in a stone hacienda in the Mojave Desert, luring men to their deaths as revenge for the rape of one of the women. Employing long-take tableaux punctuated by blackouts and mystifying cutaways (a ship plying its way at dusk) and splintering the image with a forest of Fassbinder-like mirrors, Willow Springs mocks its desultory trio by endlessly repeating the Andrew Sisters’ “Rum and Coca-Cola” on an old gramophone. Despite Montezuma’s comment to a hapless visitor that “life in the desert is very demanding, you know,” the women mostly spend their time bitching at one another and affecting ritualistic airs. (Montezuma descends stairs and hillsides with the glacial hauteur of Norma Desmond.) Their occult commune collapses when a pubescent boy who looks like a runaway from the Partridge Family hitchhikes into their midst and soft-core sex ensues. Montezuma responds to the pimply interloper by getting her gun, church bells and Saint-Saëns marauding on the sound track as she roams the dusty roads in revenge.

Completing a 16-mm trilogy with The Death of Maria Malibran and Willow Springs, Flocons d’or (Gold Flakes, 1976) elaborates a four-part narrative whose settings leap from 1949 Cuba to a railroad yard in contemporary France, and whose visual style interleaves spectral black-and-white and hazily overlit color. Part 3 opens with a French intertitle juxtaposing REALITY and DREAM, the film clearly choosing the latter in its trancelike tableaux of Leidenschaft (romantic suffering) and Tod. In this overripe rhapsody of orchids and cockatoos, the stars prevail: A zaftig, marcel-haired Andréa Ferréol gambols erotically with three dogs and recites Poe’s “The Raven”; Montezuma sports a glittery headdress to lip-synch the “Marsellaise,” a peach shantung suit and pearls to greet her long-lost sister, and inky plumage to incarnate an angel of death; Bulle Ogier loiters in slicked-back hair as “The Murderous Soul”; and Udo Kier, like Novalis’s Henry of Ofterdingen, carries a flower into the forest before (unlike Schroeter’s literary hero’s hero) repeatedly bashing his head into a rock.

The gay Neapolitan interlude at the end of Eika Katappa signaled Schroeter’s typically German predilection for finding the sensual and authentic in the South. “Graduating” to 35-mm, bigger-budget narratives, Schroeter again looked south in his twin epics Nel regno di Napoli (The Kingdom of Naples, 1978) and Palermo oder Wolfsburg (Palermo or Wolfsburg, 1980). Drawing on Italian Neorealism, of the operatic (Visconti) or “contaminated” (Pasolini) variety, both films allegorize the fates of their unfortunates: a brother and sister in postwar Naples in the first, a young peasant who travels from Sicily to Germany as a Gastarbeiter in the latter. Part family epic, like Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, part Brechtian history lesson, Kingdom begins several years before the death of Mussolini and ends just after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as the ambitious sister becomes a flight attendant; her brother, a disillusioned Communist laborer. The film’s baroque naturalism tends to the theatrical—Schroeter employs windows, courtyards, and portals as proscenia—as do many of the high-pitched performances. Folk canzoni vie with Maria Callas on the sound track while Schroeter pastiches classic Italian cinema: a black soldier from Rossellini and Alberto Lattuada, a religious statue (Michelangelo’s Pietà) flying through the air and a raucous prostitute from Fellini, and a mop-headed prole, the spitting image of Ninetto Davoli, from Pasolini. Alas, Schroeter also succumbs to the innate homophobia of leftist Italian cinema: A mama-obsessed gay lures boys to his room with a fish tank, while a murderous factory owner who plies a young girl with booze in hopes of making her a prostitute is cast as a predatory lesbian in jewels, with muddy mascara and cyclonic hair.

Werner Schroeter, Der Rosenkönig (The Rose King), 1986, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Above: Albert (Mostéfa Djadjam) and Fernando (Antonio Orlando). Below, left: Anna (Magdalena Montezuma).

The title of Palermo or Wolfsburg, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival—Schroeter was the first German director to take the prize—establishes the film’s polarities: a romanticized preindustrial Sicily (genuine, sensual, convivial) and its abhorrent opposite, materialistic Germany (chilly, sterile, hostile). A shock-headed young Sicilian, Nicola, travels north to find work and, rejected by the blond Fräulein he thought was his girlfriend, murders two racist tormentors. Schroeter assigns a different style to the three movements of this grimly ambitious three-hour film: operatic neorealism for Sicily, Fassbinderian naturalism for Wolfsburg, and, for the bizarre court case that forms the film’s long finale, what can only be called spasmodic surrealism. A catatonic Nicola rolls his eyes into his head, like Cocteau’s poet, and remains mute. His lawyer (Montezuma) plops herself on the prosecutor’s lap, intent on making out. The erstwhile girlfriend’s mother showboats in garish makeup and a bonfire of dyed red hair. Kiss fests, judicial misconduct, and frequent interjections of footage from Sicilian religious rituals render the court proceedings ever more outlandish, until the camera escapes the claustral insanity by floating, in its final shot, toward an open window.

THOUGH OFTEN CRITICIZED for being apolitical or ambiguous, Schroeter’s films often declare their leftist sympathies. The bag of flour for which a mother prostitutes her young daughter in Kingdom of Naples is emblazoned usa—the lingering close-up brooks no subtlety—and Nicola’s anarchist pal in Palermo eloquently denounces slave-making capitalism. The latter film amplifies the bitter critique of Germany’s racist treatment of its Gastarbeiter in films such as Sohrab Shahid Saless’s Far from Home (1975) and Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), its occasionally naive belief in the political uses of national self-excoriation outweighed at film’s end by Nicola’s anguished cry after many days of willed silence: “I killed them and I wanted to kill them!” Moreover, Schroeter directed one of the most acidulous political documentaries ever in Der lachende Stern (The Smiling Star, 1983), his account of that year’s Manila Film Festival, presided over by Imelda Marcos. Intercutting military pageantry and religious processions; ethnographic films and Fritz Lang’s American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950); interviews with Rex Reed, an extra from Apocalypse Now, antigovernment student activists, and a cultural historian who insists that the “golden brown” of the Filipinos was “perfectly done” in an oven by a master baker, Star chronicles American and Spanish imperialism in the country, its connection to other disasters (e.g., Pinochet’s putsch in Chile, the war in El Salvador), and its culmination in Marcos’s martial law. The characteristically dense sound track features Elvis, Montgomery Clift delivering the final monologue from The Glass Menagerie, and, of course, devilish diva Imelda, who declares that “art liberates man” and then demonstrates by warbling “Feelings” to a captive audience.

In his lovely documentary about the World Theatre Festival in Nancy, France, La Répétition générale (Dress Rehearsal, 1980), Schroeter emphasizes that Sehnsucht—an intensity of longing or yearning, often for something lost and irretrievable—is crucial to his sensibility. His masterpiece, The Rose King, a requiem for Magdalena Montezuma and a summa of his cinema and obsessions, is saturated with Sehnsucht. Filmed in Portugal as Montezuma was dying from cancer—her transfixing face, which she defiles with handfuls of tar, takes on new gaunt planes—the polyglot Rose King returns to the Lautréamontian mode of Schroeter’s early cinema. (The film’s menagerie of insects and animals recalls the French poet’s grotesque bestiary.) Like ceaselessly ornamented coloratura, The Rose King never relents, its every ultra-tactile image exquisite and absolute. Working with cinematographer Elfi Mikesch for the first time, Schroeter gathers his “scattered pictures”—fingernails caressing a stone wall, the spume of surf on a nighttime beach, cobwebs backlit into iridescent latticework, a woman’s foot leaving prints in the sand, fireworks fully earning their French appellation, feux d’artifice—and organizes them into voluptuous motifs of desire and decay, Catholicism and rot: A white mouse crawls along a peeling Madonna; a moldering crucifix looks on as two men grapple below. (The film fairly parades its intense pictorialism: Montezuma offers a disquisition on Georges de La Tour; we catch a glimpse of Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard.)

Presiding over a ruinous château swathed in nocturnal fog, Montezuma is the gothic mama of Albert (Mostéfa Djadjam), a sullen introvert who spends his days grafting roses to “render the imperfect perfect.” The obsessed horticulturalist nabs a hunky young local named Fernando (Antonio Orlando) pilfering from the alms box—a nod to Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977), a film Fassbinder also admired—and incarcerates him in the barn, lovingly bathing his Saint Sebastian–like prisoner and hand-feeding him bread and cheese. Albert himself sups on rose petals. (“Here rises before my eyes a young man as well,” Lautréamont wrote, “whose presence made flowers sprout in his wake.”) Red always was Schroeter’s color, signifying both passion and death, the rose his version of Novalis’s blue flower: the repository of all that is romantic. Exploiting the rose’s every carnal and religious connotation, from Jean Genet’s Miracle of the Rose through saintly stigmata, The Rose King surges on a wave of Puccini, Arabic chant, Ives’s The Unanswered Question, and disco to its final apotheosis, in which flesh and flower forcibly unite, one grafted to the other in blood-drenched veneration.

Werner Schroeter, Der Rosenkönig (The Rose King), 1986, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Anna (Magdalena Montezuma) and Albert (Mostéfa Djadjam).

MONTEZUMA’S DEATH led to a half-decade hiatus from filmmaking, during which Schroeter directed several acclaimed stage and opera productions. (He later made documentary portraits of elderly theater and opera divas, his taste for ruins having run to aged bodies.) Schroeter reemerged with a new star, Isabelle Huppert, with whom he made two films preoccupied with doubles: Malina and the appropriately titled Deux. “Ordinary things can cause an explosion at any moment,” Huppert tells her young lover in Malina, and in the sense-disordering maelstrom of Schroeter’s mise-en-scène, the world does burst into conflagration, both literally—fire incinerates an apartment even as “husband” and “wife” (one assumes the former is a mere Jungian projection of the woman’s split psyche) carry on obliviously among the flames—and metaphorically: Huppert is consumed by incendiary passion. Schroeter’s hitherto antipsychological cinema—he’d mercilessly mocked the doctors who try to explain his heroine’s mental state in Day of the Idiots—here invokes Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) in its portrait of a woman disintegrating in a hostile apartment. As an authority on Wittgenstein who believes (unlike the philosopher, it should be noted) that “language is punishment,” Huppert amazes as a perpetuum mobile, picking at her skin, twirling her hair, puking into her handbag in a bar, applying lipstick even as flames lick at her feet, the nerve-flaying effect of her hysteria amplified by composer Giacomo Manzoni’s skittering pizzicati and by the film’s mounting imagery of the dead and dismembered, including a mummified baby’s head.

“And above all, Georges Bizet’s Carmen,” intones a radio announcer early in Deux, a phrase that the teenage Isabelle Huppert repeats in her treetop hideaway, the in-joke establishing the film as a rite of revisitation. Schroeter’s paroxysmal tale of sundered twins catalogues signature motifs (sailors, cemeteries, mirrors, doubles, cabaret singers, religious statuary, and stone balustrades) and moments from Schroeter’s previous cinema (the split screen of Huppert in crinoline looking back to Argila; a saintly man’s gouged, bleeding eyes, to Montezuma’s hemorrhaging gaze in Eika Katappa; the encounter in the opera house supposedly presenting Beethoven’s Leonore, to Der Bomberpilot; Huppert shooting up on a train, to Flocons d’or). Never shy of pathos or autobiography, Schroeter interpolates at the film’s midpoint a tragic love story that ends in suicide, just as, in life, the director’s first paramour, the sixteen-year-old Siegfried, hanged himself in an attic.

Schroeter, who made only one further film after Deux—2008’s Nuit de chien (Tomorrow)—might find it suitably mawkish to summon one of his most adored arias, Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, to encapsulate his career. He indeed lived for art and love, telling his close friend and fellow artificer the Swiss director Daniel Schmid that he wanted to fill every day so that when death arrived, he would not have missed anything. He need not have worried, for Schroeter could claim, as his eternal Callas sang, “Diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel, che ne ridean più belli”: “I gave my song to the stars, to heaven, which smiled with more beauty.”

Organized by Joshua Siegel of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Stefan Drößler of the Munich Film Museum, “Werner Schroeter” will be on view at MoMA from May 11 through June 11; travels to TIFF Cinematheque, Toronto; Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, MA; and further venues; dates to be announced.

James Quandt is Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto and the editor, most recently, of Robert Bresson (Revised) (Indiana University Press, 2012).