A MoMA retrospective brings the rare catalog of diva-obsessed filmmaker Werner Schroeter to New York

Werner Schroeter on the set of 'Tonight' (2008) (Courtesy Thomas Plenert)
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For someone who died in 1977, Maria Callas has been making herself awfully hard to ignore these days.

Earlier this year, Great Performers presented an anthology of the New York-born soprano’s televised interviews and performances, and Prima Donna, Rufus Wainwright’s Callas-inspired opera, had its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Callas’ only feature film, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969), is now available in all its gnarly glory on DVD and Blu-ray. And EMI goes on splicing, dicing, and repackaging her recordings, prompting one wag to quip that the firm “has succeeded in making people think she is still alive.”

Over the next month, New Yorkers will have the chance to become acquainted with a riveting but less familiar body of work that pays homage to Callas and other divas: the cinema of Werner Schroeter (1945–2010). Between May 11 and June 11, the Museum of Modern Art will present the first comprehensive North American retrospective of films by the queer movie, theater, and opera director, encompassing some 40 films and rare early shorts.

Much admired in Europe (especially France), Schroeter worked largely outside of the institutional film industry, which is one reason why so much of his work was never distributed in the United States and remains hard or impossible to find on DVD. In their themes and techniques, his films vary wildly: some depict political and social realities in a fairly straightforward manner, while others are opaque and arty in the extreme, unfolding with the spellbinding unreason of freak shows or nightmares.

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Schroeter was born in Georgenthal in central Germany near the end of World War II, and he worked as a journalist before taking up filmmaking. As a teen, he was thunderstruck upon hearing Callas’s voice on the radio. Years later, he wrote that the extravagant intensity of feeling she conveyed could breach “the finitude of human desire” and halt time, even to the point of quelling the fear of death. She was his first and most beloved diva: a larger-than-life “goddess” of song and art who scaled the heights and plumbed the depths of passion (a word that connotes both pleasure and suffering, as Schroeter’s admirer Michel Foucault observed). Callas inspired some of the director’s earliest work: 8mm experimental films from the late 1960s that depict her by means of montages of found images and mash up her voice with songs by Caterina Valente, a Schlagermusik diva.

Joshua Siegel, an associate film curator at MoMA and an organizer of the retrospective, highlighted the director’s love of kitsch as a possible point of entry for those unfamiliar with his work.

“Many of Schroeter’s contemporaries—including Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jack Smith—share an affection for low as well as high culture,” he said, reached by phone for an interview. “If you approach these films with playfulness and abandon and appreciate their provocative juxtapositions of images, sounds, musical quotations—ranging from the Andrews Sisters to Wagner—and you come back to watch them chronologically in a way that has not been possible before in the U.S., certain themes and stylistic traits arise that make things more comprehensible.”

Schroeter’s films can be challenging. Many “resist narrative re-telling,” as one critic put it, and unfold rhythmically, according to music’s logic, deploying asynchronous sound, repetition, and fragmentary, dreamlike, sometimes eerie layers of imagery.

One such film is the dark, beautiful The Death of Maria Malibran (1972; pictured above). Malibran was an idolized operatic diva of the Romantic era, lately championed by Cecilia Bartoli. She burned white-hot, cramming several lifetimes’ worth of exploits into her 28 years. Schroeter dedicated the film to Janis Joplin, another goddess untimely silenced, and also mentioned Jimi Hendrix as an inspiration, but Malibran inevitably recalls Callas, who sang many of her predecessor’s roles and also burned out young. (One of the film’s players, the transsexual Candy Darling, was a muse to Andy Warhol, another Callas-besotted artist.)

Siegel sees the Malibran film as one of Schroeter’s most accessible works.

“Although it diverges from classical narrative and hagiographic biography, there’s an immense pleasure in the use of opera and ‘low’ music, and the kinds of connections he makes between the cult that surrounded Malibran and the cults that surround contemporary artists, Joplin in particular,” he said.

As a Schroeter primer, Siegel also recommends Dress Rehearsal (1980), an exploration of the creative process featuring choreographer Pina Bausch, and the director’s own favorite among his films; Willow Springs (1973), set in the California desert and recalling Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Robert Altman’s 3 Women; and especially his over-the-top stagings of Macbeth (grafting Verdi’s music onto the rhythms of tangos and other popular forms; pictured at right) and Oscar Wilde’s Salome (both from 1971), which Siegel calls “revelations.”

Queerness, understood as a rejection of gender and sexual binaries and other cultural norms, informed Schroeter’s life and work. When his friend and sometime lover Rosa von Praunheim (born Holger Mitschwitzki) pressed him to sign a petition condemning gay oppression, Schroeter refused—because, he told Michel Foucault, “if there is one thing in my life that has never caused me to suffer, it is homosexuality.”

His love for divas was a mark of his queerness. In The Queen’s Throat, his magnificent study of the ties that bind opera and homosexuality, Wayne Koestenbaum argued that gay men identify with wrathful and willful divas “because such behavior so wholeheartedly exceeds the bounds of acceptable gender behavior.” Schroeter himself wrote that divas’ grandeur and lack of restraint defied mainstream canons of beauty that he saw as enforcing “assimilation” and “adaptation.”

Though one scholar claims that “all of Schroeter’s female figures are versions of her,” Callas was not the only diva whom Schroeter worshipped.

He had hoped to make the film that became Love’s Debris (1996), a discussion of art and aging, with Callas, but instead gathered three other opera singers he loved at the atmospheric Abbey of Royaumont: Anita Cerquetti, Rita Gorr, and Martha Mödl.

The Queen (2000) showcases the indomitable German actress Marianne Hoppe (1909–2002), a survivor whose artistic life spanned the Weimar era, the Third Reich, and work with avant-garde director Robert Wilson.

According to Siegel, the actor Isabelle Huppert (pictured, at left, in Mondo Lux) considers her work with Schroeter to be the finest of her career. She stars in Malina (1991), based on the novel by Ingeborg Bachmann, an adaptation that aroused indignation among feminist critics, who charged that Schroeter had shown a strong female protagonist as a caricature of an accomplished woman coming undone. In Malina, Huppert’s words and even her breath are often out of synch with her body; in Two (2002), the film that opens the MoMA retrospective, her identity splits even more pointedly as she portrays twin sisters separated at birth who abruptly become aware of each other.

Along with Callas, Schroeter’s abiding muse was Magdalena Montezuma (1943–1984). An actor with a strong jaw and aquiline features, Montezuma was also a director and a visual artist. She was present, in the flesh, as a collaborator, or by implication, in more than a dozen of Schroeter’s films, including Malibran, Salome, Macbeth, and Argila (1969). This last layers two versions of the same film, one in color and with sound and the other silent and in black and white, setting its players and viewers adrift in an otherworldly visual and temporal haze. The sisters in Two are named Magdalena and Maria in homage to Montezuma and Callas, and the gravely ill Montezuma reportedly hoped to die on the set of The Rose King (1986), her readiness to “die for art” recalling the reckless splendor of Callas and Malibran’s brief lives.

Despite his queer aesthetic and long mistrust of the institutional film industry, Schroeter apparently considered making a well-funded studio film in the last years of his life. (Some of his films were made on little or no money, with actors and other participants going unpaid.) Along with the radical critique of mainstream values in his more against-the-grain work, Schroeter explored social themes in more conventional films. Palermo or Wolfsburg (1980) interweaves the saga of a Sicilian guest worker at a West German Volkswagen plant with a passion play, though even this largely naturalistic film has its florid aspects (including music by the Sicilian Vincenzo Bellini, who wrote for Malibran and was Callas’ favorite composer). Like so many Germans, Schroeter had a boundless love for Italy, shown in the early Verona (1967), a travelogue focusing on cities strongly associated with Callas; and The Kingdom of Naples (1978), a chronicle of poverty and working-class life with nods to Italian neorealist films.

The MoMA series also includes the U.S. premiere of Mondo Lux, a 2011 documentary by Elfi Mikesch in which the terminally ill Schroeter and longtime collaborators, including Huppert, Montezuma, and von Praunheim, reflect on his work. According to Variety, Mondo Lux (not available for prescreening) shows Schroeter expressing anger at having been pigeon-holed in Germany as an oddball, “fringe” director. Here’s hoping that Schroeter’s challenging and unpredictable films find a more receptive home in New York thanks to MoMA’s month-long retrospective.

MoMA's 'Werner Schroeter' series is on from May 11 to June 11. More information is available at 212-708-9400.