Premiering at Berlinale this year, Daniel Schmid – Le chat qui pense is a documentary dedicated to the titular director, born in Switzerland in 1941 (here’s a challenge: without Googling, name another Swiss film director).
Schmid grew up in his family’s grand hotel where he developed a rich interior life, inspired as much by the Maria Callas records on his turntable as the Alps outside his window. He gravitated to West Berlin in the early 1960s and found himself, accidentally it seems, at the centre of the city’s emerging counterculture, for a time sharing a flat with Andreas Baader of Baader-Meinhof Group/Red Army Faction infamy.
But it was an encounter with another of the era’s iconic figures, the young director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which proved fateful. The links between them are too numerous to list here, but in short: they were briefly lovers, both applied for film school at the same time (Fassbinder was rejected, Schmid accepted) and they shared a muse in the fascinating Ingrid Caven (Schmid even went along for the honeymoon when Fassbinder and Caven married).
Fassbinder was clearly the more dominant personality, and though it is never so crudely stated, it appears that Schmid’s 1974 move to Paris was an attempt to escape his shadow. Certainly the vision which Schmid subsequently developed owed little to Fassbinder.
At a time when young directors were still hung up on Godard, Maoism, and the quest for authenticity, it was the decadence of the era to which Schmid most readily responded. His films went against the grain of filmmaking in his time, wilfully referencing non-naturalistic conventions like Italian opera, German Expressionist cinema and Hollywood melodrama, seeking to make something genuinely new rather than smugly parading his appropriations. “What does truth mean in a life anyway?” Schmid asked, not unreasonably.
Among Schmid’s films is the 1983 documentary Imitation of Life about director Douglas Sirk, one of his great influences who was then in retirement in Switzerland. Le chat qui pense is, in turn, a labour of love, an homage of insight and great affection. Directors Pascal Hofmann and Benny Jaberg fill their first feature with lush landscapes and city vistas as they follow the stations of their compatriot’s career throughout the world, making the most of the big screen.
With thoughtfully curated clips from Schmid’s movies, Le chat qui pense captures his melancholic obsession with the decay of beauty and the beauty of decay. The strained coloratura of an aging soprano, an off-season hotel, ritualised death in a kabuki performance, sanatoria; “he loved things when they were dying,” as Japanese film scholar Shigehiko Hasumi notes. Schmid’s vision is so compelling not despite but because of his morbid attention to surface, artifice and elegance.
The extensive candid footage offers delightful moments, including Fassbinder and Schmid thumping out a Zarah Leander song at the piano as Caven watches, amused and bemused. From interviews with his associates Schmid himself emerges as a warm, passionate collaborator, only becoming uncharacteristically testy towards the end when undergoing treatment for cancer of the throat to which he would succumb in 2006.
Schmid never found an audience beyond the art house, and apparently he’s still a minority taste; I can’t remember the last time I attended a less-than-full Berlinale screening, as this was. But I also can’t remember the last time I was so affected by a screen portrayal of an artist’s life and work. What a rare treat this was, and how perfectly did it illustrate the power of documentary filmmaking in opening up entire worlds.
Caven was there for the screening and was afterwards reduced to tears, though she rallied for a spirited address whose topics ranged from sexual liberation, her own difficult on-set behaviour and the role of the German artist in light of the country’s terrible history.
Brilliant, funny, stirring, self-deprecating, idealistic, diva-ish – a worthy salute to Schmid, as is this outstanding documentary.