May 11-June 11 at MoMA
The cinematic movement known as the New German Cinema is a famously rich and fertile one. Running from the early 1960s into the 80s, a group of now-canonic filmmakers like Wim Wenders, Volker Schlondorf, Werner Herzog, Margarethe Von Trotta and Rainer Werner Fassbinder made films at an often breakneck speed, due, in part, to support from the recently established German Federal Film Board. There were, of course, always idiosyncratic auteurs who occupied the same film scene but didn't fit in with this model of production, and didn't promose the national cinema the same crossover potential. This cultier sect included figures like Ulrike Ottinger, Rosa von Praunheim and Werner Schroeter. Unlike the filmmakers mentioned above, whose films were predominantly structured around arthouse conventions, which were somewhat modernist in their machinations, Ottinger, Praunheim and Schroeter leaned more towards the experimental. As such, Ottinger and Praunheim have, over the years, found rich followings in the contemporary art world and in queer, academic film studies. And now, finally, it would seem that Werner Schroeter's hour has arrived, as the Museum of Modern Art finally graces us with an exhaustive career-spanning retrospective, courtesy of the Munich Film Museum.
Fassbinder famously wrote, in 1979, of his colleague's cinema:
Werner Schroeter will one day have a place in the history of film that I would describe in literature as somewhere between Novalis, Lautrémont, and Louis Ferdinanad Céline; he was an 'underground' director for ten years, and they didn't want to let him slip out of that role... His films were given the convenient label of 'underground,' which transforms them in a flash into beautiful but exotic plants that bloomed so unusually and so far away that basically one couldn't be bothered with, and therefore wasn't supposed to bother with them. And that's precisely as wrong as it is stupid. Werner Schroeter's films are not far away; they are beautiful but not exotic. On the contrary.
His early, breakthrough work defined an aesthetic that would in large part characterize Schroeter's career (the filmmaker died in 2010), which brings a contemporary, open-ended structural approach to more mannered or classically Romantic imagery, replete with languid pacing and those histrionic performance styles (a read exemplified by films like Malibran, Eika Katappa and Argila, both 1969). So, it's nice to see that the diversity of films in this program showcase Schroeter's breadth of vision, featuring more wily and often looked-over gems like Der Bomberpilot (1970, in which a trio of women move to America in order to become feminists, after their involvement in the Nazi party comes to an obvious dead end at the close of World War II) or the Southern California wasteland cult of Willow Springs (1972).
Joining Schroeter for many of his illustrious journeys, was the elegant and exceptional Magdalena Montezuma, a leading lady of the most experimental and Germanic variety. Starring in nearly all of Schroeter's films until her death of cancer at 41, Montezuma was an unrivaled muse, the filmmaker's Malibran, but also his surrogate—his King Herod, even his Macbeth (she would play the Lady role, respective of her sex, but that was for another adaptation by Schroeter's contemporary, and former lover, Rosa von Praunheim). Her final film with Schroeter, Der Rosenkonig (1984), is billed as a directorial collaboration. It was devised and shot in haste (in Hans Christian Andersen's former Portuguese estate, with the help of Pedro Costa), as the ailing Montezuma hoped to exact her desire to "die on set." Such was her ardor and so brightly does the film glow with a radiance of vision, of love and of life. Interestingly, it is also Schroeter's most explicitly homosexual affair. After the death of Montezuma (who endured another two weeks after Der Rosenkonig wrapped), the only actress who would broach this type of collaborative intensity with the director was Isabelle Huppert, who starred in two of the three features Schroeter would complete after Montezuma's death, 1991's Malina and 2002's Deux.
During the heyday of the New German Cinema, Schroeter never accepted money from the Film Board, preferring, instead to independently finance his films, in order to maintain complete artistic control. This spirit of defiance worked to alienate many who would have helped these smoldering works see the light of day. The films of Werner Schroeter are some of the most artfully minded cinematic impressions ever captured. It's no surprise that a retrospective took so long to execute. The cult of Schroeter is a rabid, zealous and, ultimately a masochistic one. Because of this singularity of vision, however, it is also no surprise that these passion plays have returned to our shores for the first time in 20 years and are revealing themselves, upon closer inspection, to be not only wild and flamboyant by design, but ultimately innately human and instinctual. As Fassbinder understood at the time of his writing, they are primal. Far, far from exotic.