If Schroeter’s early films are both playful high camp and searching experiments in film form, the mood of his work darkens by the late 1970s as the utopian aspirations of the previous decade came to naught, and Schroeter took up narrative and politics in reaction. From a celebration of art as a means of transcendence, Schroeter began to express an urgent and pointed concern about the endangered possibilities for freedom and justice. (from Harvard film Archive- its blurb for a Schroeder retrospective in 2012).
Werner Schroeter has been described as German cinema’s best kept secret by Fassbinder but the film I saw in Moscow the other day could also be described as one of Italian cinema’s best kept secrets. The venue- yet another well-kept secret- has organized some fascinating political art exhibitions and recently invited Franco-Brazilian Marxist and Benjamin scholar Michael Lowi to speak. The Presnya Museum has managed to become one of those places in Moscow where miracles can still happen in spite of cultural spaces either succumbing to the conservative reactionary ethos of Orthodoxy and nationalists or becoming elite and overpriced spaces of the liberal few. What better space to watch Werner Schroeter’s film then – an unreconstructed Soviet museum which celebrates the history of one of the most revolutionary of Moscow’s districts in the revolutions of early twentieth century Russia.
Schroeter’s film opus was one that I wasn’t aware of until very recently and so this won’t be a very scholarly post on what is surely one of the most fascinating major minor directors of the second half of the twentieth century. Apart that the fact that there should be nothing minor about him. Interviewed by Michel Foucault, Schroeter seemed to have been both recognised by those who really counted as well as being an extremely marginalized figure in the European film world.
Watching Nel Regno di Napoli one of Schroeter’s more narratively straight-forward films- a chronicle of a family in post-war Naples, it achieves some extraordinary successes in forming an aesthetic melange of Italian neo-realism with German expressionism. It’s almost as though Schroeter was a Visconti in reverse. In Italy Schroeter was travelling back from opera and Maria Callas, from the underground and the camp to a kind of neo-realism where all these previous aspects had planted their roots but were no longer as central as in his previous films.
Schroeter’s film – a Neapolitan Communist family chronicle – was also extraordinary for being made at that very moment in Italian history in which the Christian Democratic and Communist traditions were, in many ways, being challenged from within. This was the time of the compromesso storico and the assassination of Aldo Moro and, in a way, this moment was a most opportune one for Schroeter to add his extraordinary voice and vision of post-war Italy. His was a strange, dissonant, ironic and deeply amorphous voice but even nowadays it still has much to say about an Italy where elements of the grotesque portrayed in the film have only become yet more noticeable.
Schroeter’s unique melodramatic style (uniting high and low, kitsch and inspirational music) was wrapped up in a tale in which political and social liberation was strangely and grotesquely denied. It pictured something about the present moment which seems deeply prescient. It also emphasised how repression is psycho-sexual as much as it is social, economic and political being an important element of Schroeter’s vision here. In many ways this meeting of a master of queer cinema with an explicitly revolutionary and political thematic achieved something unique. That it was shown on an April 25th (Italy’s day of liberation from fascism) had a considerable resonance in a Moscow which seems teetering on the edge of rather repressive times.