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Werner Schroeter: The Man Who Conquered the Unknown

Stadtkino WienCopyright: Stadtkino Wien
Werner Schroeter on the set of his last movie “This night” in 2008
(Photo: Stadtkino Wien)

15 April 2010

Germany’s auteur cinema has lost a master. With the death of Werner Schroeter, Germany lost an important director and the Goethe-Institut lost and old friend and fellow traveller.

He was always drawn overseas. “I’m fed up with Germany,” professed Werner Schroeter just a year ago in an interview in taz. “I have since taken up with Italy intensively, with Mexico and Argentina. These are also conquests. I don’t feel like coming back. Why should I?”

Yes, why should he? When the good life is so far away? The Goethe-Institut, for its part, gladly supported and accompanied the great film author in his quest for faraway places. This collaboration was particularly intense in the 1980s, for example when the Goethe-Institut organized Schroeter’s first retrospective in Munich. In addition, the filmmaker was one of the regular lecturers of the film workshops held by the Goethe-Institut in the scope of its film programme (1982-1988) in Manila, where German film greats like Schroeter taught young Philippine filmmakers about direction, camera and editing techniques. Together they produced shorts, documentaries and eventually even feature films.

The greatest success of this cooperation project was the Academy Award nomination for a Philippine short film that was made during the workshop. Schroeter himself was inspired during this time to make his film Der lachende Stern (1983), in which he captured the social circumstances in Manila under the Marcos dictatorship. Tango realidad social en Argentina was another such collaborative project, which took Schroeter in 1983 to a workshop and a screening in Buenos Aires.

Copyright: dpa/picture-alliance
Movie director Werner Schroeter
(Photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
His career had begun in the 1960s when he made his first eight-millimetre films. He taught himself the craft, as neither the Munich Film Academy nor the borders of Germany were able to hold onto Schroeter for very long. Even then, his travels often took him to Italy and South America, but also to nearby France. The film Eika Katappa (1969) was Schroeter’s breakthrough; it was followed by works such as Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972) and Palermo oder Wolfsburg (1980), which, alongside Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher, was one of the first films to deal with the theme of guest workers in Germany.

In spite of his love of foreign countries and cultures, Schroeter did always make his way back, for example to film Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina in 1991. Shortly before his passing he was working at Berlin’s Volksbühne theatre where he directed a melancholic new production of Bernard-Marie Koltè’s Quai West. “There is also beauty in despair,” he said, justifying the quite dark manner in which he approached the play. It is a description that would also suit a considerable part of his complete works. Most were dominated by darkness and hopelessness. He charted utopias only to have them fail in the harshness of reality. Nevertheless, he always portrayed this disconsolateness in aesthetic perfection – with associative montages reminiscent of Luis Buñuel and camera work in the manner of the French nouvelle vague – and ultimately this was the way that he defended the bright dreams against the greyness of reality.

Schroeter can certainly be considered one of the key figures in New German Cinema alongside Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog. His films frequently exhibit strong parallels to opera, for that is where he found his true inspiration in the music of his “goddess,” the diva Maria Callas.

The Goethe-Institut is recognizing its former companion with a special edition. At the end of the year, as part of the seasoned cooperation with the Munich Filmmuseum and the Filmmuseum Amsterdam, a double DVD will be issued from the series Edition Filmmuseum containing six of his early films. The Goethe-Institut France and the Centre Georges Pompidou will show are large-scale retrospective from December 2010 in Paris. Accompanying exhibitions will offer background information on the work of the late artist.

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