Werner Schroeter: Flamboyant, experimental German film director

Rainer Werner Fassbinder described his fellow director Werner Schroeter as New German Cinema's "best-kept secret", while paradoxically stressing how influential he was.

Experimental and camp, his films study the individual's relationship to "history" through performance and Germany's beloved vices of operatic excess, Wagnerian bombast and kitsch, while yoking eroticism and death ("Love is life is death, all on the same level").

At the age of five, Schroeter declared his ambition to be a film director. At 13, he heard Maria Callas on the radio; his fate was sealed. At 19, he claimed, he decided that "it would be best not to believe in any abstract feelings about so-called life or whatever. It would be best to give myself to everyone." Hence, he became a male prostitute.

University psychology studies were curtailed by journalism and a few weeks at Munich film school. In 1967 he started making 8mm films, as writer, director, cinematographer, editor and occasional actor. He also met Rosa von Praunheim and they collaborated frequently over the next few years.

Later they argued about whether gay cinema should be romantic or militant. Fassbinder defended Schroeter's romanticism, attacking Praunheim's "monopolisation" of gay culture and blaming his jealousy of a superior film-maker. Nevertheless, Schroeter appeared in Praunheim's self-dedicated 60th-birthday film, Phooey Rosa! (2002), and Praunheim responded to Schroeter's death with a public "love letter".

Fassbinder became Schroeter's most passionate defender, attacking Hans-Jurgen Syberberg as merely "an extremely capable imitator" but with better marketing, and claiming that most student films were "fundamentally experiments on Schroeter." He cast his friend in several films and admitted his debt to him on gay chamber dramas like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Querelle (1982), which was initially a Schroeter project.

Some of Schroeter's early films indulged his Callas obsession, and his first feature, Eika Katappa (1969), was in part an homage to the singer. With avant-garde fluidity, characters from The Ring re-enact Tosca, Offenbach's Olympia sings an aria from Lakmé, and actors and characters slip between each other and from gender to gender. Schroeter claimed the title came from the Greek for "scattered pictures" and, though linguists disputed that, it sums up his frequent working method, eschewing conventional narrative for fragmentary symbolic tableaux.

It caused a scandal. Several Mannheim Film Festival judges called for its expulsion, but Werner Herzog, declaring it a work of genius, forced them to recognise it as the festival's "most idiosyncratic film". Eika Katappa went on to shock Cannes audiences, too, and in 1982 Schroeter staged the opera sequences in Herzog's Fitzcarraldo.

Palermo or Wolfsberg (1980), about a Sicilian gastarbeiter, or "guest worker", won Berlin's Golden Bear and Schroeter was hailed by Henri Langlois, head of the Cinémathèque Français. But according to Fassbinder, people used Schroeter's "underground" status as a reason to ignore him.

Speaking of the funders of his two-dozen or so full-length films, including the German television station ZDF, he sardonically observed: "They used me and I used them".

Bomber Pilot (1970) kitschily mixes second-rate cabaret and pastries in Nazi Vienna, and its obvious low-budget feel may or may not be deliberate. The occasional moments of pastoral bliss seem like an escape, but are bitterly bracketed by reality. As one character says: "Memories interposed themselves between us and our future."

The Death of Maria Malibran (1972) launches a series of thoughts about, inter alia, Goethe and Janis Joplin, and finds a small role for the Warhol Factory star Candy Darling. In Schroeter's version of Malibran's life, the 19th-century diva gives herself so completely to her audience, acquiescing to endless requests for encores, that she literally sings herself to death. Schroeter described the moment: "Blood flowing softly from her mouth... a wonderful symbol of the 19th century, that tragic blow was somehow filled with hope. As opposed to the 20th century, which, in itself, is a hopeless tragedy."

Willow Springs (1973) predates Robert Altman's Three Women in looking at a female commune in the Californian desert. But in its surreality it hints that it could be the dream of a single, triple-fractured woman.

In 1978 Schroeter graduated to 35mm and embraced more traditional narrative (though still with moments of deliberate staginess) for the family chronicle The Reign of Naples. It follows the struggles of a poor family and "the basic fraudulence of modern bourgeois society" from 1943-72. Despite the higher budget, Schroeter continued his habit of building a kind of film family and involving the local inhabitants.

After filming Salome in 1971, a planned 1979 staging collapsed and Schroeter made Die Generalprobe ("Dress Rehearsal") instead, an odd, experimental quasi-documentary about, or at least set around, the Nancy world theatre festival.

Schroeter's muse, Magdalena Montezuma, died shortly after completing Der Rosenkönig (1986), a hallucinogenic gay Oedipal story that climaxes with a cat being crucified. Perhaps in part because of this, Schroeter turned increasingly to documentary through the 1980s.

His 1991 adaptation of Ingeborg Bachman's Malina starred Isabelle Huppert and she also featured in his return to fiction, Deux (2002). In the first she played a split personality: in the second, twin sisters.

In between, Schroeder made just two documentaries, including Poussières d'amour (1996) about the idea of the operatic diva. Meanwhile his equally controversial theatre and opera productions included Lucrezia Borgia, Miss Julie and Lohengrin in Hamburg, Kassel, Venice, Florence and elsewhere.

In 2008 the Venice Film Festival recognised Schroeter with a lifetime achievement award. His own assessment was that Neurasia (1969) and Willow Springs, were "very good", while The Death of Maria Malibran was "a work of genius".

Werner Schroeter, film-maker: born Georgenthal, Thuringia 7 April 1945; died Kassel, Germany 12 April 2010.

Sport
Brazilian fans watch the match for third place between Brazil and Netherlands
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: Dutch pile on the misery in third place playoff
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?