Few filmmakers in cinematic history have seemingly faded into the background as seamlessly as Werner Schroeter. The German auteur has never been a household name despite largely being cited by scholars as one of the greatest voices of the European New Wave, and a man who influenced not only other filmmakers (Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, just to name a few), but who also found an ally in no less of a philosophical luminary than Michel Foucault.
Coming to Toronto by way of a touring exhibition of his works last seen at MoMA in New York and following a somewhat underattended retrospective at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre over two decades ago, the works of this often unheralded worker make their way to the TIFF Bell Lightbox as a part of Magnificent Obsession: The Films of Werner Schroeter (running November 8th through December 9th in association with the Goethe-Institut), a retrospective touching on many of the shorts, features, and documentaries produced by the late filmmaker who passed away only two years ago.
It might not be the most accessible place to start for those wanting to learn about the man himself, but the series kicks off with one of Schroeter’s most beautiful and oddly least challenging works. The Rose King (Thursday, November 8th, 6:30pm) might be loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same name, but it’s more of an elegiac love letter to lead actress Magdelena Montezuma. Dying while she was making the film, Schroeter’s most frequent on-screen collaborator plays a woman overlooking an empire of decay while her son takes another man prisoner in his relentless pursuit of being as close to perfection as humanly possible.
While 1986’s Rose King definitely puts Schroeter’s often operatic and sometimes macabre sensibilities at the forefront, his most undistilled and unencumbered artistic leanings are on display more prominently in the almost hallucinogenic 1969 film Eika Katappa (Saturday, November 10th, 6:00pm), the insane asylum set Day of the Idiots (Thursday, November 29th, 6:30pm) from 1981, and the unabashed musical history lesson of 1972’s The Death of Maria Malibran (Sunday, November 25th, 7:00pm with an introduction from Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef). This trio of films also probably best exemplify his 16mm shooting style and his ability to craft dreamlike images that aren’t very fully removed from our own realities and fears, especially in Katappa and Day of the Idiots.
Aside from Montezuma, Schroeter’s most frequent leading lady was the now widely known Isabelle Huppert, who starred in two of the filmmaker’s most celebrated productions. In 2002’s Deux (Saturday, November 17th, 7:00pm), which might be Schroeter’s most openly Freudian film, Huppert plays twin sisters coming together in the most bizarre ways possible after separated from birth. In the more heralded Malina (Friday, November 9th, 6:30pm) from 1991, Schroeder gets a lot more personal and philosophical as Huppert plays a creatively blocked university professor torn between the domineering men in her life in quite possibly the best performance of her esteemed career.
Those interested in Schroeter’s inner workings as a fictional filmmaker would be best served by checking out the documentary Mondo Lux (Sunday, November 11th, 6:00pm), crafted by his long time cinematographer Elfi Mikesch, but the director’s own documentaries are for more intriguing, especially the incredibly off kilter look at a film festival overseen by former Filipino “first lady” Imelda Marcos in The Laughing Star (Friday, December 7th, 6:30pm) or Dress Rehearsal (Friday, November 16th, 6:30pm), which Schroeter often referred to as his personal favourite film, which simply but effectively documents a French festival celebrating experimental theatre.
His films have become increasingly harder to track down, and his own personal aversion to the use of subtitles has made accessibility a bit of an issue, but that’s never stopped his work from getting out. This, and his almost obscure nature among casual cinephiles, makes the Lightbox retrospective all the more special.