Watching it in the Museum of Modern Art retrospective, I couldn’t help thinking how Fassbinder-like Werner Schroeter’s Palermo oder Wolfsburg seemed, but in reality the arrow of influence points the other way: Schroeter influenced Fassbinder. Such are the confused anxieties of influence, particularly with overlooked geniuses less famous than their contemporaries. If Schroeter is one, his secret lies in being protean. Palermo oder Wolfsburg starts out looking occasionally like neo-realism and gives way to something far more conspicuously theatrical. On the other hand, examined closely, the artifice is there from the start, and the affinity may be more to Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha. Like Rocha, Schroeter harnesses the aesthetics of poverty to thrillingly radical ends. There’s the stagey, costumey feel to his work, and his characters that seem more like types, narrower but more vibrant than if they were verisimilar. In terms of technique, there are the discontinuities: between shots, between image and sound, subverting a logical progression to form a more disjointed but also more ample narrative, beyond the strict necessities of plot.
The plot can be summarized quickly: Nicola (Nicola Zarbo), a young Italian from an impoverished family in Palermo travels to a small town in Germany to earn a living. There he falls in love with a fickle girl, who betrays him, and drives him to take revenge on a rival. The young man faces trial, and even though he could have been acquitted, he confesses his crime instead. The summary reveals none of the film’s texture, and it’s precisely the texture that enthralls. The Palermo part alone features a delusional maestro who extols the greatness of Vincenzo Bellini by candlelight and imagines that by building an airport he can safeguard his region’s musical greatness; there’s a great number of drunks, anxious wives, ex-criminals, and ruffians of all stripes who recite poetry, or compose it, at a drop of a hat. The ruffians aren’t only lyrical, but look like they may have stepped down from a Caravaggio painting.
To say that music plays an important role in Palermo oder Wolfsburg would be an understatement: Nearly every sequence has a musical motif. From accordion tunes to funereal dirges, Schroeter deepens the story’s mythological character by using musical folklore and elevating it to high art. His Sicily seems to be a testament to a rather romantic notion that squalor breeds poetry, but it also crackles with wicked humor. When Nicola asks a priest for advice before emigrating, he’s sanctimoniously warned against “all bad company, and by that I mean especially the women.” When he arrives in Germany, the first thing he sees is a giant Volkswagen logo, and a checkpoint that guards the entrance to the carmaker’s sprawling factory. Nicola is so far removed from any realities of capitalism that he thinks he’s arrived at the East-West Germany border.
Nicola himself is a font of humor; he’s our idiot savant, with a sweet face and an oversized moustache, which makes him slightly Chaplin-like. But his good-naturedness cannot sustain the entire picture, nor can the simple narrative of innocence outraged then lost. After some picaresque adventures in the new world leading to his crime of passion, Nicola finds himself in a German courtroom that, through increasingly absurdist acting, is transformed into a travesty of justice. One might think that Schroeter is staging Camus’s The Stranger, offering us a man whose paucity of speech and disadvantageous social background have robbed him of any chance at clemency. But Schroeter’s interest lies again more in the mythic than socio-philosophical realm: Nicola suffers mysterious paroxysms, and the scenes flash, jarringly, to what looks like an amateur production of The Passion. The crucifixion of Jesus has no place in the plot, per se; instead, it serves as a symbolic framework for Nicola’s story. And regardless of whether we are willing to follow Schroeter in this allegorical leap, which can be seen as either earnest or more likely subversive, there’s no denying that enough ecstatic beauty has illuminated the screen to make us want to see what else he can do.
The Werner Schroeter retrospective runs at MoMA through June 11. For a complete schedule, click here.