Werner Schroeter (1945-2010)


Avant-garde filmmaker Werner Schroeter died April 12 in Kassel, Germany — although his death, of complications following an operation for cancer, was only reported here yesterday in Dave Kehr’s New York Times obit.

The missing link between the New York underground and West Germany’s neue kino, Schroeter began as a maker of 8mm films and was a key member of the extraordinary generation of German filmmakers who came to international prominence in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

His early work was a significant influence on both Rainer Werner Fassbinder (appearing in Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore) and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg (although, to my knowledge, only Syberberg acknowledged it), as well as his onetime companion, gay activist filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim. Despite the early support of the Film Forum, among other institutions, and Jonas Mekas, who, writing in the Voice in 1974, called his work “entirely original and unique,” Schroeter never got his due in the U.S. A conflict on the selection committee of the Anthology Film Archives prevented his films from entering that charmed circle, and further kept him from his natural audience.

Schroeter’s most visionary movies — the low-budget opera-travesties, Eika Katappa (1969), Bomber Pilot (1970), Salome (1970), The Death of Maria Malibran (1971), and his American feature Willow Springs (1973) — were willfully crude, aggressively campy features that mixed Wagner with German pop and featured grossly amateurish performances under purposefully bad lighting; the threadbare extravagance of Schroeter’s mise-en-scene was equaled (and toughened) by a montage whose rhythmic originality can be compared to that of Stan Brakhage. Although Schroeter’s strongest period ended when he began making larger, more commercial movies in the late ’70s, including several with mainstream actresses like Carole Bouquet and Isabelle Huppert, he was capable of sudden revivals, notably two 1984 features — The Rose King, a brilliant assemblage of gothic rot and Catholic kitsch that he made in tribute to his longtime superstar Magdalena Montezuma, and The Laughing Star, his splendidly eccentric documentary of the infamous 1983 Manila International Film Festival.