Schroeter’s Salomés

German director Werner Schroeter was born on this day in 1945. His undisputed muse was Maria Callas, whose voice and myth feature in several of Schroeter’s mannered, idiosyncratic films and who presided as a guiding spirit over much of the rest. But dancing through his work is another familiar figure who appears over a decade-and-a-half period in two films, a stage play and an opera production (and there would have been another opera production were it not for a thuggish reactionary cabal…but more of that later).

New York’s MoMA is mounting a month-long Werner Schroeter retrospective starting 11 May. Programme details are not yet available but if it is indeed a comprehensive survey it should include his version of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, which was shot for German television in 1971. Schroeter was eager to move away from what he termed the “kitsch” of Aubrey Beardsley’s famous illustrations for the play which had influenced later productions (this being the early 1970s, you can imagine there would have been few student walls not papered with Beardsley reproductions). He instead gave it a setting that was at once more overtly theatrical, more restrained and closer to the biblical roots of the piece than just about any other adaptation.

It was in the antique ruins of Lebanon that Schroeter found his set, as he relates in his posthumously published autobiography. “In the Bacchus Temple in Baalbek we found a beautiful, wide flight of steps in front of a monumental wall. With minimal means, just a pair of torches and candlesticks and the thrones for the rulers, it became our fabulously plausible abstract set.”

Both his Salomé (Mascha Rabben) and Herodias (Ellen Umlauf) were best known from soft porn films and the extraordinary looking Magdalena Montezuma, a constant presence in Schroeter’s early films, played Herod with her head shaved, looking like a more refined off-duty Leigh Bowery. Elfi Mikesch, who was behind the camera on numerous later Schroeter films and made Mondo Lux, a film portrait of the director, was in charge of costumes and the mask-like make-up.

Shooting took place in January, and the freezing cold 18 hour shooting days started, for Schroeter, with a slug of cognac; cast and crew availed themselves of the apparently excellent local hash. This may have helped with Schroeter’s conception of Salomé’s veil dance, which was accompanied by local musicians, as “a kind of cold striptease, extremely slow and marionette-like.” (This extract contains nudity.)

In 1973 Schroeter produced the play onstage in the German city of Bochum, again with Montezuma (once more in a trouser role, but this time as Jokanaan), with the sublime Ingrid Caven as Herodias and Christine Kaufmann, who later appeared in Playboy as “Germany’s hottest grandmother”, playing the title role. The set was once again dominated by a staircase, this time in a kind of glowing, mother-of-pearl finish, which would be awash with blood later in the piece. Schroeter was overruled in his original plan of using pigs’ blood. During the production he had to chase away tabloid photographers trying to get photographs of Christine Kaufmann – whose marriage to Tony Curtis made her a celebrity in Germany – in a see-through dress.

Magdalena Montezuma with Gustave Moreau’s Salomé (Schroeter)

Opera had always been a key component of Schroeter’s film work but it was not until 1979, 10 years after his first feature film, that he was engaged to direct an opera on stage (Wagner’s Lohengrin, no less). The following year, Schroeter was scheduled to direct Richard Strauss’s opera of Salomé in the Bavarian city of Augsburg. However before production began Schroeter gave an interview in which he made an evidently satirical allusion to the possibility of poisoning Bavaria’s abrasive, conservative Minister President Franz Josef Strauss by means of a poisoned sausage. The scheisse well and truly hit the fan, right-wing commentators and politicians lining up to defame Schroeter, never missing an opportunity to connect his confrontational work with his sexuality. One official of the ruling CSU party even referred to Schroeter’s work with the radioactive phrase “entartete Kunst” (degenerate art), which of course the Nazis had applied to any artistic expression which didn’t meet their heroic-sentimental aesthetic ideal. The dismal spectacle of Bavaria’s elected officials forming a pack of gay bashers played out in the media and by the time that Richard Strauss’s grandson muscled in, Schroeter’s production was toast.

It may have been this experience which drove him to adapt a late 19th century play Das Liebeskonzil whose author, Oskar Panizza, was convicted of no less than 93 counts of blasphemy and jailed for one year. The play explores the origin of syphilis 400 years earlier, suggesting that Salome (in Hell, naturally) and the Devil produced a woman born with the disease who, sent to Earth, passes it on to the entire Catholic hierarchy up to Borgia Pope Alexander VI. Schroeter’s 1982 film version was banned in Austria.

Schroeter finally got to stage Strauss’s opera in Mexico City in 1986, with Herod’s palace represented by a glass box instead of his original conception, a desert scene dominated by an “Art Deco style cheese cover”.

For a comprehensive survey of Salome/Salomé-related lore, head to { feuilleton }.

Update: Salomé is screening at MoMA on 23 and 28 May with a short film dating from 1968, which offers “a burlesque of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils” (!) by Carla Aulaulu, who later married Rosa von Praunheim, also a lover of Schroeter’s. Those were, as Lou Reed so rightly said, different times.


  1. She DOES resemble Leigh Bowery

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  4. Pingback: Werner Schroeter’s 1971 German TV adaptation of Salomé « Salome

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