Werner Schroeter: Flamboyant, experimental German film director

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The Independent Online

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.