The devil’s in the details, the saying goes, and in the case of Mondo Lux, the documentary by Elfi Mikesch, this is certainly the case. How else to encapsulate the creative lifespan of an artist as prolific and prodigious as German filmmaker Werner Schroeter? Some biopics weigh us down, delivering the generic equivalent of graveside eulogies, mixed in with anecdotes that may be touching to friends but not always for the viewers. Mercifully, these are absent in Mondo Lux, which opens with Isabelle Huppert, one of Schroeter’s muses and close friends, discussing a photograph he had taken of her. In the photo, her hair covers her face as golden flakes swarm around her—an image of incantatory beauty, almost a love poem. The film proceeds framing Schroeter’s life and work around specific projects and collaborations, returning to the photo images as a leitmotif.
The photographs, which had been taken by Schroeter and, at the time of Schroeter’s death in 2010, were being prepared for a photo exhibition by art dealer and friend Christian Holzfuss, play an important part in the documentary—more and more touching as we realize that most of the portraits are of friends and actors, now gone. In this hall of mirrors, each face reflecting a period in his life, there’s Schroeter himself: clad in iconic black, with a small cross pendant and large stone signets crowding his fingers (I counted up to four on one hand), a neatly trimmed moustache and a goatee à la the Count of Monte Cristo, and an inseparable black hat—a mix of the priestly and the flamboyant. Even before his illness (Schroeter had cancer of the larynx), the filmmaker was slim and elfin-like. In the film, he describes being ostracized when young, his creativity and homosexuality vastly misunderstood in his provincial hometown. The pattern would be repeated as Schroeter, feeling underappreciated in Germany, would realize some of his films in France.
At 13, Schroeter discovered Maria Callas. She would remain the love of his life, as music became an integral part of his work, his unorthodox style marked by a mix of tragicomedy and camp, a refined sense of color and musical sensibility, and a lifetime preoccupation with death. While death is certainly one of the all-time themes in the arts, and across genres, Schroeter dealt with it on a very personal level: There was the suicide of his grandmother, who he says “didn’t realize how much I loved her”; the brave death of one of his greatest muses and friends, actress Magdalena Montezuma, who refused to take morphine as she fought and succumbed to cancer of the uterus; and the loss of friends and lovers to AIDS. In this context, “the death gesture,” which Schroeter’s collaborators say he staged again and again, takes on a poignant meaning.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the numerous clips from Schroeter’s films—out of which 40 are being shown in the current MoMA retrospective, including shorts and documentaries—is Schroeter’s work in the theater. It’s a rare pleasure to observe Schroeter, both cerebral and intuitive, in the role of director. In one shot, he says confidently to an actress, after watching her struggle in a particularly challenging scene, that having seen exactly what doesn’t work, he will “liberate her from it.” It’s a shamanistic gesture, one that requires absolute trust. Trust is a recurring theme in the film: Huppert remarks how Schroeter, during the filming of Golden Flakes, convinced her that she could walk on fire, by doing it himself. “I trusted him completely,” Huppert says, describing Schroeter as “an aesthete, but with a sense of irony and humor.”
Schroeter, whose magic word seems to have been “energy” (he used it to describe his creative process, his acceptance of his illness, and in his conversations with actors about method), incorporated it into his own preparation for death. We all have our mythologies when it comes to what death might mean to us. Ingmar Bergman’s was certainly striking, in the sense that he didn’t believe in heaven and yet, toward the end of his life, spoke of being certain he would meet his last wife, Ingrid, again. Schroeter’s was not so much a breach, or a revision of his earlier beliefs, as a continuation. As he said himself, “It’s all about the journey.”
The Werner Schroeter retrospective runs at MoMA through June 11. For a complete schedule, click here.