At 5pm on 16 February, 2010, the old East Berlin cinematic showcase, Kino International, was the venue for the premiere of a documentary dedicated to Daniel Schmid. This director and early Fassbinder associate dealt in mannered set pieces of heightened emotion which made little concession to naturalism, exhibiting a preoccupation with Italian opera. While his oeuvre was long undervalued, he received belated recognition while battling cancer.
Now take that paragraph and substitute “2010” for “2011” and “Daniel Schmid” for “Werner Schroeter” and that’s exactly what happened yesterday. German director Schroeter, who died less than a year ago, is the subject of Mondo Lux, a documentary overview of his career which follows him up to his last days. Elfi Mikesch, responsible for photography on many of Schroeter’s films, turns her camera round to face the director, and she establishes a physical and psychological intimacy which is clearly a product of trust built over decades. Her camera is unflinching, even when Schroeter is ravaged by illness. I know anyone dealing with disease in the public eye is automatically described as “brave”, but it’s difficult to think of a better word to describe Schroeter’s drive to create and express in the face of impending death.
After a series of short films which served largely to work through his fixation on Maria Callas, Schroeter released his first feature, Eika Katappa, in 1969. It was a revelation. In Mondo Lux, Wim Wenders describes the profound impact of this morbid, arch, disjointed work, the flowering of a fully realised vision owing more to Lautréamont than to his filmmaking contemporaries. It was also the first of numerous Schroeter films to star Magdalena Montezuma, whose face was at least as singular as her name. Their last film together was 1984’s Der Rosenkönig, made when Montezuma was dying of the same strain of cancer which would claim Schroeter.
Montezuma appears alongside other Schroeter associates in a photography exhibition staged shortly before the director’s death. It was this project which triggered Mondo Lux and hanging his portraits gives Schroeter an opportunity to reflect on the people who passed through his life. They, in turn, describe their collaborations; Isabelle Huppert, for instance, evokes the world of magic and artifice in which Schroeter dwelt, a world which she only visited for work.
Elsewhere we see Schroeter swapping affectionate barbs with director Rosa von Praunheim, his one-time lover, and rehearsing his last stage production, tragedy mash-up Antigone/Elektra for Berlin’s Volksbühne. Schroeter tirelessly guides his performers to achieve what he wants; even in a dubbing session he works meticulously to tease nuances from the text (and if you’ve experienced bad dubbing – in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, to pick an example at random – you’ll realise how important this is).
Watching Mondo Lux a year to the minute after Le chat qui pense, and in the same venue, it was impossible to ignore the parallels between Werner Schroeter’s and Daniel Schmid’s respective careers. Both directors left an unsympathetic Germany to work elsewhere in Europe, both worked repeatedly with actress Ingrid Caven, and both made documentaries about aging opera singers. They also both filmed performances by Kazuo Ohno; in Schroeter’s case, in the 1980 film Die Generalprobe, which featured the Butoh legend alongside Pina Bausch (whose work is currently celebrated in a 3D documentary by Wim Wenders).
But the documentaries dedicated to these two directors differ sharply. Le Chat qui pense is a far more enveloping, uplifting work, an elegiac tribute which maintains a slight distance from Schmid (who died before filming started), but which makes a greater pull on the emotions. Mikesch’s approach is more direct, as befits her subject. Schroeter never seeks our pity and his plain-spoken insights prevent Mondo Lux becoming a mere obituary. Schroeter talks at length about his career, generally offering the most perceptive commentary on his own work.
However the repetition of names and themes throughout this review is indicative of one of the main problems with Mondo Lux. It’s a closed circuit, a self-referential loop, in other words a film festival documentary referencing works rarely seen outside the film festival circuit. Watching the director with her cast and crew on stage afterwards was a little like witnessing a reunion in a school you never attended. Thankfully actor/director Peter Kern introduced a dose of reality, while also explaining why Schroeter is not more widely recognised. The problem, as usual, was money; for years Schroeter couldn’t get his film projects financed. Sponsorship, though welcome, simply came too late.
Not that Schroeter himself dwelt on such concerns. He pursued a career in which mass-market approval was neither sought nor granted, and when the money wasn’t there for films, he worked on theatre, on opera, on photography, exploring his obsessions to the very end, using every moment. The last line of Eika Katappa, issued on a deathbed, echoes Schroeter’s sentiments best of all: “Life is very precious, even right now”.
Here’s the trailer: