Werner Schroeter: Kitsch and Excess

by on Jun.28, 2012

I’ve been watching as much Werner Schroeter films/clips as possible recently as well as reading about him. You can read more about him on his wikipedia page here, but to put things briefly, he was a German film-maker of the same generation as Fassbinder, through he never achieved the same amount of international fame (Fassbinder apparently thought he deserved much more acclaim).

An important note for Montevidayo is that apparently the essential influence was that of Jack Smith, whose films Schroeter watched in the late 1960s. You can see the influence for example on this early film, Eika Katappa:

He shared with Smith the love of somewhat kitschy divas – but instead of Maria Montez, Schroeter made a movie dedicates to Maria Callas (he also made movies starring Candy Darling).

Here’s an excerpt from a later movie, The Rose King:

I love the black ink. (In fact my next book, Haute Surveillance, re-writes this scene and some others.)

About this film, Vincent Canby, film opinionator of the NY Times, that authority of Taste, wrote (I’m collecting the important bits):

WERNER SCHROETER’S ”Rose King,” opening today at the Film Forum 1, is one of those supposedly avant-garde films that aren’t easy to write about without cracking up, but I’ll try.

When Fernando is alone, he wanders around the church, taunting the Virgin Mary, apparently waiting for Albert to tie him up again. I say again, though this is the sort of film in which so many shots are repeated I’m not at all sure that anything happens more than once. The movie begins with an aphorism that is, possibly, intended to be funny: ”If two children kiss, without knowing each other, one of them must die.” It concludes – I’m sure I’m not giving away anything important – with a shooting and the crucifixion of a cat.

Mr. Schroeter has a formidable reputation in Europe. He composes his images as deliberately as a high-fashion photographer. The lighting is sometimes exquisite, and the soundtrack contains bits and pieces of canned classical music. The Film Forum bills Mr. Schroeter as the ”enfant terrible of the new German cinema.” At 42, he’s not an enfant.

I like this dismissive review because it seems to capture the essence of Taste: it’s a form of moderation, a form of growing up, of having the grown-up sense to say when. If you don’t have the sense to stop, to moderate, you are laughable, not even worthy of an analysis. In short, this is to repeat Daniel Tiffany’s claim that kitsch is not a lack of artistry, but “excessive beauty.” It is not that it doesn’t accomplish art, but that it does it too much, possibly repeating itself without sense of proper arc. Like “sincerity,” taste provides a kind of currency-control, and art that moves beyond, that does too much, that becomes too much, causes/is inflation, generates too much has to be dismissed as kitsch.

Also, in keeping with Kim’s comment to Lucas’s post. it seems Canby wants to laugh *at* Schroeter’s tastlessness. But I find that movies like this (and most art that interest me) is conceived in a spirit where hilarity and seriousness are not bracketed off from each other. I mean Smith’s Normal Love is both the most beautiful and hilarious movie I’ve ever seen.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Kim

    I definitely feel this moderation in terms like sincerity and a resistance to excess. What’s so wonderful about the hilarious, and possibly, on the other end, the shocking, is that something “deeper” can’t really be found/invented. Truths become blank, empty, and at the same time, inhabitable— at least for me, this makes it possible to more actively engage with art. This doesn’t prevent me from being emotionally involved with art, in awe of art, moved by art, rendered mute by art, but in terms of responding to art, or creating art, surveying the whole of, say, an artist’s lifework, or a book, the response seems limited to the same string of adjectives: good, bad, moving, brilliant, idiotic etc. That it’s instead the dislocated image or line, something funny, weird, an octopus, excessive, severed from the whole, that provides the opening, allows for obsession and mutation.

    For instance, I was reading an biographical essay-type note on Alfred Jarre and found the following quote, in its slapstick hilarity, ripe with possibilities: “Jarry, the misfit midget, creator of the monster Ubu and the android cyclists, died in abject poverty. His last request was for a toothpick.”

    We also watched, a couple of weeks back, Harominy Korine’s Mister Lonely (brilliant, I think). In which, if you haven’t seen it, all the characters are imitators of famous people, Jackson, Monroe, Chaplin etc. It seems to address two of these issues. The scene where the three stooges have to “put down” the infected cattle, or when Chaplin, sadistically, lets Monroe sleep and burn herself in the sun (not to mention the horrific rape scene), blurs (literally, in the sun-scene) the devastating and slapstick, trauma and staying in character, so that the question of what is real, what is surface and “depth”, becomes obsolete. Posting the question, what is a costume and what isn’t a costume? Why must one costume have privilage over another costume?

    The film is also intertwined with a very old-school surrealist storyline (if you can call it that) involving Werner Herzog as a priest and flying nuns, as well as long (empty?) beauty shots that threaten to become art for art’s sake, I imagine, for Canby and the guardians of taste. It is in a way juvenile, surrealism with its often very familiar images and repetition, that refuses to grow up. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most young people first making movies tend to the hilarious and excessively violent. It’s infectious, collaborative.

  2. Bill Knott

    I like that line ”If two children kiss, without knowing each other, one of them must die.”

    reminds me of one of mine: if twins gaze at each other through a keyhole one of them must masturbate

    /

  3. Johannes

    Both are excellent lines.