Werner Schroeter was an important director of the Neuer Deutscher Film (New German Cinema). He was also an influence on R W Fassbinder, who considered him an artistic equal. It is easy to see why – they both shared a background in theatre, and created stylised melodramas that consciously took on an operatic tone. More so Schroeter, who could revel on the camp by eschewing realism altogether.
Since I’m still in the process of discovering his early filmography, I’ll start with his last film, “Nuit de chien” [Eng. Title: This Night]. I had trouble categorising it in the post because here was a French film, made by a German director, produced in Portugal, and based on a novel by a Latin American (Juan Carlos Onetti – Para esta noche). In any case, from whatever I’ve seen of Schroeter, this is one of his rare straightforward narrative-driven films, a literary adaptation that even retains Spanish character names and ambient music, and therefore a good place to start in discovering his work.
Ossorio, a surgeon-turned-lieutenant, returns to Santa Maria, hoping to reunite with wife Carla, and together, leave the country. It is being invaded by an enemy and there is a Cholera pandemic, and as if war and pestilence weren’t enough, a turf war has broken out between opposing ruling factions in the city – the winners will get to join the government that the invading enemy forms. It is everyone for himself, and old friendships can no longer be trusted. He arrives to find that his wife had vanished only moments earlier – there’s a cigarette still alight on the ashtray. Have the secret police taken her? Ossario’s search for Carla takes him on a night-time odyssey of the burning city, where people he meet get tortured, killed, or both, by one or the other faction…
The novel is a political allegory written in the 1940’s, partly drawn from Greek myths, and Schroeter updates it to more modern times. Since I hadn’t read the novel (I’m about to now), I wasn’t expecting too much, but was pleasantly surprised to find it so riveting, despite the linguistic and cultural gap between the original source and the German-French reinterpretation.
The tone of the film is set, with a lingering opening shot of Titian’s final masterpiece Flaying of Marsyas, and the ambivalent brutality doesn’t abate till the end. But far from trivialising violence, Schroeter’s film attempts to provoke a human response against the senselessness of it all. However, for reasons unknown, it is not nearly as biting as it would have been from the same director a few years ago. It is still a well-made film, and should help people ease their way into Schroeter’s world. Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Amira Casar, Elsa Zylberstein, and Pascal Greggory
Amira Casar plays Irène, mistress of the ousted dictator now in hiding. She’s rounded up by a rebel commander for brutal interrogation, and is partially nude after what must have been a terrible ordeal indeed. There is accidental nudity when Agnès (Pascale Schiller) is roughed up by one of the guards. The intentional nudity takes place during a sex scene, also the lightest moment in an otherwise bleak film, between the protagonist Ossorio (Pascal Greggory) and Maria de Souza, a friend of his wife, played by Elsa Zylberstein. They’re interrupted by an indignant young girl – the former dictator’s daughter, that Ossorio is supposed to be looking after.