1967年末，在开始制作8mm实验电影短片后，施罗德在比利时克诺克参加了实验电影节。在那儿他能看到许多有关纽约地下铁的影片，他不仅感受到了很多实验电影在美感上的潜力，也感受到了独立电影的制作潜力，这使得他能够在商业电影业的传统制约下保持相对的自由。在克诺克，施罗德还结识了另一位德国实验电影制片人，罗萨•冯•柏汉。他们用各种才能合作了多部电影。施罗德和冯•柏汉联合导演了Grotesk-Burlesk- Pittoresk（1968）。此外施罗德还参演了冯•柏汉的电影短片《革命姐妹》（Sisters of the Revolution）(1969)。1968年施罗德有了一架16mm电影摄影机，他用它拍摄了他的第一部长片Eika Katappa (1969)，该片使他在曼海姆（Manheim）国际电影节上获得了约瑟夫•冯•史登堡奖，有效地展开了他电影制作的职业生涯。20世纪90年代初，施罗德开始追随着他在戏剧和歌剧方面的热情继续发展，自此成为一名多产的，在电影、戏剧和歌剧方面均衡发展的导演。
施罗德的电影大致上能分成3个历史阶段，这三个阶段碰巧与电影拍摄方式从8mm到16mm再到35mm的转变大致吻合。第一阶段由所有在1967到 1968年间拍摄的8mm电影组成。施罗德最早拍的16mm影片如Aggressionen, Neurasia, Argila（均拍摄于1968年）显然是他之前的8mm实验电影的延续，这些影片构成了一个过渡阶段。在第一阶段，施罗德所关心的和所用的电影技术大多是微小的且具有实验性。施罗德拍摄了一系列8mm电影献给歌剧演唱家玛丽亚•卡拉斯，影片大多由她的静态照片组成。自从孩提时代施罗德的母亲将卡拉斯的音乐介绍给他之后，施罗德就一直很钦慕卡拉斯。在这些影片中，施罗德将一些静态照片图像制作成富有节奏的蒙太奇，以此表现他对卡拉斯的脸蛋及姿势的着迷。在电影Callas Walking Lucia (1968)中有一段，为了给卡拉斯戏剧性地哭泣增添生气，施罗德迅速剪辑了一系列卡拉斯在饰演Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor一角时的照片。即使在这些制作的相当粗糙的电影中，施罗德仍表现了他对歌剧、表演以及姿势的深厚兴趣，他将在他的职业生涯中一再地回到这些兴趣上去。
施罗德电影的第二阶段由他的首部剧情片Eika Katappa拉开序幕。它还包括了一些与德国第二电视台（Second German Television station ZDF）联合制作的影片。在这一阶段，施罗德不再像第一阶段那样运用大量的实验性技术，而是更为关注复杂的主题，以及完善的人物塑造，尽管影片的叙述结构特别不完整。这些影片由毫无关联的叙述片段组成，即便有所关联，也是极其微小的。Sebastian Feldmann用术语Erzählflöckchen，也称“小片叙述”（little narrative flakes’），来描述施罗德的最新一部16mm的影片Flocons d’or (1973-76)的结构。该术语恰当地描述了施罗德在此阶段所拍的大多数影片的叙述结构。这些电影的主题施罗德通常从文学、歌剧、戏剧、传说和童话中借取。它们包括再现爱情，死亡和渴望的场景。这里的渴望在德语中用Sehnsucht,一词来表达最为恰当不过，它指的是对于某事或某人的强烈渴求或渴望，这样的渴望难以捉摸，无法实现。正是这一概念，将施罗德与德国浪漫主义传统相联系。然而，简单地将施罗德贴上“新浪漫主义”的标签是不正确的。因为他将这浪漫主义解构成了零碎片段，并以20世纪末的角度来引用和阐述那些片段。在我看来，施罗德似乎并不是简单地怀旧，并回归到从前的想法和理想，他捕捉到了那些关于从前的梦想和希望的微小片段，发现它们正在无可救药地腐烂着，因而他的作品具有讽喻性。施罗德并不会将高雅艺术与大众文化明明白白地区分开来，他尝试着打破两者间的界限，使其成为一种多余。这一点与浪漫主义的理念背道而驰。以Eika Katappa 为例，施罗德在该片中安排一位老去的流行歌手死在乡村路边，这一幕同他指导一位歌剧女主唱在舞台上表演一幕伟大的死亡具有同样的戏剧性。在该阶段的另一部影片《玛丽布朗之死》（Der Tod der Maria Malibran）(1971)中，施罗德描述了19世纪的女中音玛利亚•玛丽布朗之死。饰演玛丽布朗的是施罗德的老搭档，演员Magdalena Montezuma，她用一些充满感情的姿势简洁地展现了歌手之死。然而，施罗德既不关注死亡的每个细节，也不尝试去再现它原本的样子，而是似乎想要把事件“非历史化”。为此他甚至将她的死亡地点从曼彻斯特改为柏林，并在影片中用标题字幕表明“柏林的某天晚上，与罗伯特•舒曼和弗朗兹•李斯特一起”。对施罗德来说，死亡的历史性地点并不重要，重要的是，他通过玛丽布朗向我们展示了一个被自己本身的激情所耗尽的生命，因为她原是“歌唱至死”的。观众意识到，对于施罗德来说，玛丽布朗可以死在任何地方，只要她死时是在舞台上！玛丽布朗本预示着另一种高度的激情，但在日后的一些电影中却最终成为一个必死的形象。那些电影包括Der Rosenkönig (1984-6), 玛琳娜Malina (1990)，此外还有纪录片Poussières d’amour (1996)中各种老去的歌剧女主唱。
In Der Bomberpilot (1970) Schroeter displays a similar disrespect for historical ‘truth’ in his treatment of post Second World War Germany. In this film he tells the stories of three fictional women who had performed in Nazi revues during the war. Rather than attempting an ‘authentic’ recreation of historical post-war Germany, Schroeter uses these three figures to provide the viewer with a sense of the disorder, crisis and repression that beset the German population after the war and resulted, according to Margarete and Thomas Mitscherlich in a popular forgetfulness regarding the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. (5) Schroeter does this by attributing to these women a kind of ‘false’ memory regarding the recent past and through the somewhat ‘faulty’ gestures they perform while recreating their revue show performance. The viewer is lead to question how these three somewhat clumsy individuals could possibly have conformed to the order, discipline and regularity that characterised the products of the Nazi culture industry, and we are by extension also asked to question ‘official’ versions of that history.
Schroeter’s films in general, but particularly the films of this pivotal second phase, present a challenge to the fixed, hierarchical status of art and culture in Western society; one of his great achievements is to bring the very notion of such a hierarchy into question. This is not to say that his attitude toward ‘high’ art is dismissive, on the contrary. Ulrike Sieglohr has argued that although “Schroeter challenges certain aspects of canonical art, he does not reject ‘high’ art as such. His approach is always ambiguous, since he celebrates as much as he parodies.” (6) Indeed, ambiguity is a constant trait of Schroeter’s films, which allows for a degree of openness that tends either to engage or frustrate viewers depending on their tastes. Schroeter’s films, particularly of his second phase, require us, as viewers, to engage in a complex process of interpretation. In fact, it is upon this very notion of ambiguity that any interpretation of Schroeter’s work must hinge, for nothing in Schroeter’s cinema is simple. His work is a testament to the very possibility of the coexistence of both celebration and parody, of both ‘high’ and ‘low.’ As in Walter Benjamin’s theory of allegory, in the films of Werner Schroeter everything holds within it the possibility of referring to something else. Schroeter’s films always contain multiple levels of meaning.
In 1978, Schroeter moved into the realm of the 35mm feature film with Regno di Napoli. This third phase is comprised of two strands: one being the fiction films, and the other the collage-like documentaries, or ‘essay’ films. With the fiction films of this phase, Schroeter begins to develop much more complex narrative techniques and strategies and tends to move away from the largely episodic structures that dominate the second phase. As a result, distribution of his films becomes much more viable and his films begin to reach a much wider audience. The first of these, Regno di Napoli is constructed as a family chronicle and is played out in and around a poor neighbourhood in the southern Italian city of Naples between the years of 1943 and 1972. It focuses upon brother and sister Massimo and Vittoria who, as their names imply (meaning ‘the great’ and ‘victory) become allegorical but ironic figures in the films. Allegorical because they embody wider social phenomena such as the conflict between politics and religion within the confines of the domestic sphere. Ironic because, despite the resilience these children demonstrate as they pass through life from childhood to adulthood, they are ultimately unable to rise very far out of the misery into which they are born in post-war Italy: perhaps a comment on Italy itself. Massimo and Vittoria become the material and mortal emblems of the eternal struggle against poverty. By adopting a style clearly influenced by Italian Neo-Realism, Schroeter cleverly uses these individual stories to parallel and comment upon wider historical events as they occur in Italy over the period of the film. Schroeter makes use of a voice-over chronicler, who comments upon the wider historical context at two-yearly intervals. The chronicler begins with an authoritative and ‘objective’ attitude but, perhaps paralleling the processes of the viewer, gradually becomes involved in this family’s story and moves from recounting mere historical ‘facts’ to becoming interested in the many ‘wisps of narrative’ that make up the history of any country. For the first time in his filmmaking career, Schroeter adopts a chronological narrative structure, more easily digestible by a wider audience, but without ever abandoning his very idiosyncratic artistic vision which is displaced into the highly stylised and allegorical characterisation of minor characters such as Pupetta (doll), the particularly witch-like, heavily made-up factory owner who attempts to drive the young Vittoria into prostitution, or Palumbo the wealthy lecherous mamma’s boy and Christian Democrat who tries to lure young boys into his parlour with his giant fish tank. Schroeter won the 1979 German Film Prize for best direction for this remarkable film.
With his next film, Palermo oder Wolfsburg (1980) Schroeter again returns to southern Italy. This film begins in the town of Palermo, Sicily where the film’s central figure, Nicola, is a young victim of Sicily’s high rate of unemployment. He decides to leave Palermo for Wolfsburg in search of employment. He joins the many other men from places like Italy, Greece and Turkey who became Germany’s large force of Guestworkers during the 1960s and 1970s. Along with Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973) and Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Shirin’s Wedding (1976), Schroeter’s film becomes one of a handful of films to broach the subject of the difficulties foreigners faced in their attempts to integrate into German society without the support of the family and community structures they had left behind in their home countries. Like Regno di Napoli, Palermo oder Wolfsburg follows a chronological structure, but Schroeter’s innovation in this film is to divide the narrative into three distinct sections or acts, each having their own particular style. These three acts function like three episodes of a Passion play, a fact that is made more explicit by the images of a Passion play, which are inserted at various key moments throughout the film. The first episode takes place in Palermo. Nicola goes to visit various friends and relatives to tell them of his decision to go to Germany, and to receive their advice. In doing so he gathers together memories and impressions that he will take with him to Germany. This episode is shot and performed in a style reminiscent of Italian neo-realism. After the transitional interlude of his rail journey, Nicola arrives in Germany. After his arrival in Wolfsburg and following his initial disorientation, the owner of a Bar, an Italian woman, helps Nicola to find work and a place to stay. Nicola soon befriends a young German girl, but she uses him only to get back at her boyfriend. Hurt and angry at being used, Nicola stabs the boyfriend and one of his friends to death. This episode is filmed and performed with the mix of stylised realism and melodrama familiar from such films as Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Nicola’s trial comprises the entire final episode of the film, which takes on a highly theatrical and disorienting character. Nicola looks on silently as the rather bizarre courtroom antics take place. While witnesses are being questioned, the judges pull faces and slump on the bench, the mothers of the victims perform strange repetitive gestures in the gallery, first they fight and then they kiss, while an interpreter simultaneously and continuously translates the proceedings between German and Sicilian. Faster montage sequences bring a disarray of memory-images to bear upon the courtroom sequence in which the defence argues that Germany and Sicily represent vastly different worlds that cannot be judged upon the same criteria. The film ends leaving the case unresolved, but leaving us with an image of an opening window through which to reflect upon the cultural divides that separate the world at large. Palermo oder Wolfsburg won the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1980, notably the first Golden Bear ever awarded to a German director.
With Tag der Idioten (1982), Schroeter perhaps draws upon his brief studies of psychology. The film centres around a passionate woman, Carole (played by the well-known French actor Carole Bouquet) who feels alienated and repressed by the highly institutionalised public and private spheres of Western society. Unable to extract any kind of emotional response from her reserved boyfriend, Carole seeks attention by falsely denouncing her neighbours as terrorists. With this detail Schroeter briefly touches upon the panic and paranoia that was brought about by the German government crackdown on terrorism at its height during 1977 and Carole’s subsequent institutionalisation in a mental asylum can be seen as an allegory for a society wishing to suppress radical activity of any sort. In Tag der Idioten Schroeter returns to a less linear narrative structure, more reminiscent of the episodic films of his second phase. He employs numerous hallucinatory sequences in order to convey the protagonist’s state of mind. Furthermore, much of the film’s meaning is delivered through Carole’s body, facial expressions and gestures rather than through dialogue, and the film’s montage serves to create spatial and temporal disorientation. Schroeter again won the German Film Prize for best direction for this film.
Like Tag der Idioten, Der Rosenkönig is another of Schroeter’s fictional films that proceeds by way of a disjunctive array of image and sound fragments, rather than as a fully-fledged narrative. Karsten Witte has said of this film: “Instead of a story, there are fragments. Instead of a narrative, this film is a ‘camera-poem’ for three bodies, three voices.” (7) Schroeter creates a constellation of images around the central figure of Albert (Mostèfa Djadjam), a gardener who is obsessed with cultivating the perfect rose. But this obsession becomes displaced when he captures a young man (Antonio Orlando) stealing the devotional offerings from the small chapel on his property. Albert keeps the man detained in his barn and comes every day to lovingly feed and tend him, all under the watchful and disapproving eye of his mother (played by Magdalena Montezuma). The film overflows with Christian references, and towards the end of the film the young man, who comes to resemble both Christ and Saint Sebastian, becomes a potent figure of homoeroticism, as Albert carefully grafts roses onto his body, sacrificing him through the process of attempting to create the romantic ideal of the beautiful perfected individual. This is the first time that Schroeter has dealt at such length with the subject of homosexuality. This was the last film Schroeter made with his long-time collaborator Magdalena Montezuma, who died shortly after the film was completed. Her weak and failing body brings an acute sense of mortality to the film.
To date, Schroeter has written or co-written most of his feature films. Malina is an exception, being based on the novel by the feminist Austrian author Ingeborg Bachmann and adapted for the screen by Elfriede Jelenik. Starring the well-known French actor Isabelle Huppert, the film centres upon a writer who finds herself unable to adequately express herself. Schroeter uses powerful imagery of mirrors and fire to convey the idea of an identity in disarray and crisis and creates a palpable sense of suffocation through the repetition of scenes involving the protagonist having to remind herself to breathe. “I must breath, I must breathe”, she says to herself at various points throughout the film. The novel is widely considered to be a modern classic of feminist literature. It is not surprising therefore, that reception of this film among critics was polarised. Feminists in particular complained that Schroeter had reduced a figure of feminist emancipation to a mere stereotype of an intellectual woman suffering a pathological disorder. (8) Much of this criticism fails, however, to approach the film through its cinematic elements. Through Elfriede Jelenik’s screenplay, Schroeter does not attempt to simply transpose the words on the page to the screen, but through camera, framing, editing and performance engages in a cinematic interpretation of the novel. Malina won the German Film Prize for best film in 1991.
Between 1990 and 2001, Schroeter made no feature films. During this time he made two documentaries (to be discussed shortly) but dedicated most of his time to directing theatre and opera. Deux (2001), once again featuring Isabelle Huppert in the lead role, marks Schroeter’s return to feature filmmaking. The film was premiered at the 2002 Director’s fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival and to date has received some impassioned reviews in the French press.
In addition to his feature films made during this third phase, Schroeter has made a number of documentary films. Schroeter constructs these films not as didactic or expository documentaries, but rather, as somewhat poetic collages of images and sounds around a particular event or figure. The first of these is La Répétition générale (1980), a film originally commissioned by ZDF as a short report on the World Theatre Festival in Nancy, France. Inspired by a number of the performers at the festival, the film grew into a beautiful 90-minute essay film. In particular he focuses upon the work of the German dancer Pina Bausch and her troupe from the Wuppertal Tanztheater, the Japanese butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno, and the American performance artist Pat Olesko. From the subject matter, which consists of a collage of various impressions of the festival such as rehearsals, performances, interviews, readings, conversations about love, death and theatre, and poetic interludes, Schroeter develops his very own form of the documentary film. Such films do not so much attempt to convey information about a subject, but rather collect together a vast array of fragments around a particular theme, which are meant to form constellations in the spectator’s mind. Schroeter uses strategies of image-music montage and repetition that he had developed in his films of the second phase.
All of Schroeter’s documentaries take a similar form, which he has used not only for theatrical subjects, such as Ariane Mnouchkine and her theatre troupe ‘Théâtre du Soleil’ in A la recherche du soleil. Sur Ariane Mnouchkine (1986-87), but also as an effective form of social and political critique. He achieves this with both Der lachende Stern (1983) which takes the inaugural Manila International Film Festival as a starting point for a foray into various layers of the social and political history of The Philippines, and De l’Argentine (1983-85) which similarly delves into the layers of Argentinian history, culture and politics. In the latter film, Schroeter also interleaves various fictional episodes between the various documentary layers.
Like his earliest 8mm films, which focussed upon images of the opera diva Maria Callas, with Poussières d’amour Schroeter returns once again to the cult of the diva, but this time they are living, breathing, singing and ageing divas. Schroeter takes as his point of departure for this film a question posed by Roland Barthes in a short essay entitled “The Romantic Song.” (9) The question asks: how do singers find emotion in their voices? In order to attempt to answer this question Schroeter invited some of his most admired opera singers, young and old, to a ruined 13th century abbey in France to rehearse an aria and to talk about singing, love and relationships. Schroeter comes closest to answering his opening question through the bodies of three ageing divas: Martha Mödl, Rita Gorr, and Anita Cerquetti, the latter of whom gave up singing at the height of her career. In the film, her entire body seems to listen as she mimes to some of her most famous recordings, including the “Casta Diva” aria from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma, which continues on the soundtrack long after her image has faded from the screen at the conclusion of the film. In his most recent documentary, Die Königin (2000), about the theatrical life of the veteran German actress Marianne Hoppe, Schroeter continues his engagement with the ageing performing body.
The films of Werner Schroeter form a vast and diverse body of work through which he has, fulfilling Fassbinder’s 1979 premonition, managed to secure for himself a certainly eccentric but pivotal place in the history of cinema.