Coming soon: films by Werner Schroeter

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The Kingdom of Naples (1978)
  • The Kingdom of Naples (1978)
It was my paternal grandmother, a working-class child of the Depression, who got me into going to the movies—or "the show," as she called them. When she was growing up, moviegoing was habitual and movies served a variety of purposes. Some satisfied the common hunger for a good story and charismatic stars; others taught you about history or connected you to high culture. (Two of the last films we saw together were The Pianist and Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.) Through the latter type, she discovered an interest in painting (Lust for Life), theater (adaptations of Shakespeare and Odets), and ballet (The Turning Point); the radio turned her on to opera and symphonic music. One of her favorite expressions was "I've got champagne taste but only beer money."

That line's passed through my mind a lot as I've gotten acquainted with German director Werner Schroeter, the subject of a partial retrospective at Facets starting on Friday. Schroeter crammed his work with allusions to high culture, frequently scoring scenes to bits of opera and taking inspiration from performance art in his direction of actors. Yet all the films of his I've seen (which span only the first two of his four-and-a-half-decade career) are also clearly impoverished on some level. Beginning his career with low-budget experimental works (two of which, Argila and Neurasia, screen Sunday at 1 PM), Schroeter evoked a handmade quality even in his more lavish productions; the films feel like patchwork quilts, refusing to fashion the cultural, political, and personal reference points into something like a cohesive whole. For Schroeter, the cinema becomes a means of collecting different views of the world and a tool for orienting one's place within it. For this reason does Michelle Langford assert, in her biographical summary for the website Senses of Cinema, that "Schroeter's films always contain multiple layers of meaning."

Schroeter in 2008
  • Schroeter in 2008
I have to admit I've found the films challenging to watch, in part because Schroeter rarely explicates the sources he's referencing. I was often bewildered by Dress Rehearsal, his 1980 documentary about performance art, which screens on Saturday at 9 PM, since I knew almost nothing about the artists it documents; though Schroeter edits the performances and interviews in such a way that I could intuit the emotional power of their work. And much of his 1974 documentary-fiction hybrid The Black Angel, which screens on Monday at 7 PM, sailed right over my head, as I couldn't grasp the correlations between the film's harrowing imagery of contemporary Mexico and its campy dramatic vignettes.

I fared better with The Kingdom of Naples (1978), since Schroeter modeled its structure after the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht, and I'm somewhat familiar with that; also the vignettes, which all take place in a poor Neapolitan neighborhood between 1943 and 1972, are more clearly delineated than in the other films I've watched. (It's the first film to screen in the Facets retrospective, on Friday at 7 PM, which seems helpful for people planning to see multiple films.) And it's probably not coincidental that the film of his I've liked best—The Smiling Star, his 1983 documentary about the Philippines (playing Monday at 8 PM)—concerns a subject outside of Schroeter's familiar territory of opera, modern European history, and theatrical camp.

Writing about Schroeter in Cinema Scope upon his death in 2010, the German critic Olaf Moller conceded, "Few West Germans really knew what to do with him—it's quite telling that the only works of his to get some standing in his native country are the two films with an obvious social relevance, Kingdom of Naples and Palermo or Wolfsburg (1980)," another Brechtian epic about an Italian laborer's misadventures in Germany. One aspect of Schroeter's work that makes it challenging for anyone is that it draws from narrative, documentary, and experimental cinema—and in different proportion from one movie to another. This formal restlessness would suggest that Schroeter was always an experimental filmmaker at heart; and his frequent leading lady, a former bar waitress who refashioned herself into the diva Magdalena Montezuma, recalls Warhol superstars like Candy Darling and Edie Sedgwick. At the same time, he could quite didactic when he wanted to be, as evinced by the damning portrait of the Marcos regime in Smiling Star or the hard facts about Italian immigrants that run through Palermo or Wolfsburg.

Palermo or Wolfsburg
  • Palermo or Wolfsburg
Moller considers Palermo (which screens next Thursday, October 11, at 7 PM) to be "Schroeter at his most artistically complex, all-embracing, and all-encompassing." It transpires in a fascinating three-act structure, with each part done in a different style. The first hour, concerning the hero's impoverished life in Italy, mimics the 40s neorealist films of Visconti and Rossellini; the second, which depicts his arrival in Germany, recalls the stylized mid-70s films of Schroeter's contemporary (and champion) Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The film becomes a courtroom drama in its final hour, and it proceeds like opera, with exaggerated gestures and line readings aimed right at the camera.

I can't say I "enjoyed" the film. Like some of the other Schroeters I've watched, it kept making me think about how much I didn't know—namely, about German politics in the 1970s and the operas it alluded to—and what I could understand struck me as schematic. Yet I haven't been able to stop thinking about it for the past week. The movie suggests that all three of its stylistic approaches are equally valid ways of presenting this immigrant's story, and that each one shines a different light on the society under consideration. Inherent in this approach is a bracing belief in art's social utility, an insistence that it's as crucial to human development as politics or law.

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