At the 2001 Rotterdam film festival, I was ushered into the presence of the acerbic German filmmaker Werner Schroeter, whom I hoped to persuade to assist in my—futile, as it turned out—quest to secure the prints necessary to mount a retrospective of his work in Toronto. Clad in black and one of his signature broad-brimmed hats, Schroeter grew increasingly irritated, affecting extravagant indifference to my appeal before finally surveying me head to foot with an exaggerated glance. Amplifying his accent, he hissed: “Yesssss, vell, you do look very—professional!” He loaded what seemed like sixteen syllables into an adjective that represented much that was repugnant to his anarchic nature.
“I know I’m rather arrogant,” Schroeter admits in his memoir, Days of Twilight, Nights of Frenzy, but the witty, imperious person I encountered that evening in Rotterdam appears only intermittently in this chronological plod through the director’s life and career. Though he was the maker of such ecstatically florid farragoes as The Death of Maria Malibran (1972), Eika Katappa (1969), and The Rose King (1986), and an opera-obsessed artist whose formative influence was Les Chants de Maldoror, the Comte de Lautréamont’s surrealist sextet of grotesque prose cantos, with their “somber, poison-soaked pages,” he proves a surprisingly uninspired essayist and an obtuse raconteur. There is more twilight than frenzy in these crepuscular chapters.
Schroeter’s diffident tone and dubious phrasing emerge early as he recounts his father’s determination to move the family away from the German Democratic Republic after suffering under “another repressive regime,” which is a strange way to describe the Nazis. Born just as World War II was ending, at age six Schroeter escaped with his family, including his beloved Polish grandmother, from the resort town of Georgenthal in Thuringia to a working-class housing development in the heavily bombed West German city of Bielefeld. “I still remember the gloomy ruins,” Schroeter notes about his new home, though one assumes he means the devastation left by the war and not the nearby tower and catacombs of the thirteenth-century Sparrenburg Castle, which may have provided him with enough moody Romantic landscape to inspire his later taste for overgrown architraves and crumbling amphitheaters. In the most extreme indulgence of that attachment to relics, he shot his version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1971) in the picturesque temples of the ancient city of Baalbek, Lebanon. About the construction of a different kind of edifice, also eventually to become a ruin, Schroeter writes, “Incidentally, the building of the Berlin Wall left me cold and had no effect on the rest of our family either,” an observation both perfunctory and frivolous. (Schroeter, a connoisseur of triviality, would not consider the charge insulting.)
In a photograph included in…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.