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Mondo Lux - The Visual Worlds of Werner Schroeter

MONDO LUX - THE VISUAL WORLDS OF WERNER SCHROETER (MONDO LUX - Die Bilderwelten des Werner Schroeter ) Elfi Mikesch, D 2011, 97 min

Werner Schroeter, one of the greatest directors of New German Film, finds out that he is terminally ill with cancer in 2006. He is in the midst of staging SCHÖNHEIT DER SCHATTEN, a scenic project on Robert Schumann and Heinrich Heine at Düsseldorf’s Kunsthalle. A race against time begins, determined by hope and apprehension.

Elfi Mikesch has stood behind the camera for Schroeter and many directors of the era, and she has helped shape their visual imagery. A film director herself, she is one of the great female personae of New German Film. Elfi Mikesch has long been part of Werner Schroeter’s inner circle.

In MONDO LUX she presents an intimate portrait of Werner Schroeter at work during the last four years of his life, of a man driven by his unflagging passion for the cinema, the stage and photography. We see him rehearsing for ANTIGONE/ELEKTRA, preparing for, an exhibition of his photographs, AUTREFOIS & TOUJOURS, and in the studio supervising the overdubs for his most recent film DIESE NACHT, filmed in 2008 in Portugal.

In numerous excerpts, ranging from EIKA KATAPPA to DIESE NACHT, this film presents the colourful aspects of Werner Schroeter’s cinematic output which shows how continually reinventing art and human expression has been integral to the life of this extraordinary man. Music is the common thread in this memorial. Biographical links, his enthusiasm for film, opera and the stage as well as private and professional friendships are all exposed in this remarkable film.

The life and work of this artist who was as acutely sensitive to beauty as to death, was determined by the forces of Eros and passion. Not unfamiliar with the pitfalls of life, Werner Schroeter nevertheless always remained true to himself.

MONDO LUX creates an intimate space – a space in which every day becomes precious in the face of terminal illness. Werner Schroeter died on 12 April 2010.

German theatrical release: 07. April 2011

International DVD release: 25. November 2011
(NTSC DVD with English, French and Italien subtitles)

Regisseurin Elfi Mikesch interviewed by Frieder Schlaich

How long did you know Werner Schroeter, and when did you start collaborating? How did it all begin?

I was taking photographs when Rosa did his street performances. Small happenings and self-representations with Carla Aulaulu and others. Then Rosa made the film LEIDENSCHAFTEN which featured my then husband Fritz Mi- kesch in several roles, and where Rosa and I took turns behind the Super 8 camera. That was my first movie came- ra work. Later I made my own initial film EXECUTION, which dealt with photography. It’s then that I met Werner. He had seen EXECUTION, which had starred Magdalena Montezuma in the role of Queen Elisabeth. He immediately understood its photographic aspects, and he asked me to film his ROSENKÖNIG. I was astonished. It was around Christmas time. ROSENKÖNIG was the first time I delved into 35mm technology, and its lighting possibilities. Of course light had always been important, in photography as well.

Did the work on Rosenkönig go smoothly, and how much interest did he have in photography?

We were both interested in light. How does reality appear when it’s illuminated? What will happen as faces or bo- dies come into focus? He’d known my expressive use of lighting photography and in EXECUTION. It must have made an impression, and he became curious about me. The way he trusted me was amazing, letting me photograph his film, making me feel safe with him.

Life and death are strong aspects in MONDO LUX. When did you find out, did you suspect something, or did it emerge during the editing?

Thinking about Werner always makes me aware of how involved he was in life. Everything related to vitality, even death or impending death. Werner had encountered death, through his friends Marcelo, Magdalena, Antonio and others, in different circumstances. Of course, he didn’t want to die himself. We were convinced till the end that he would live to see the film finished. He saw both forces as being integral to life. He had an incredible zest for life, which allowed him to hold on for so long and achieve so much until the very end. His last two years were tremend- ously productive, as if nothing had interfered, though there were heavy restrictions.

You accompanied Werner for four years. How has editing affected the film?

I have been extremely lucky to have Frank Brummundt do the montage. He had a more impartial approach than I did, and hence a way of noticing how things came together that I’d been unable to appreciate. It was an ideal collaboration. There was no immediate chronology; rather we dealt with it situation by situation, an approach by energetic force rather than a temporal one. The montage was associative, giving rise to an impression of a most productive final phase in Werner’s life with all its many challenges. Obviously the illness took its toll. The way Wer- ner was relentlessly working pervades the entire film. He’s making the most of what remains of his days. He’s fully aware of the limited amount of time he’s got left. And so are we. It makes you understand that you should live life to the hilt, make use of every day as if it could be your last, not taking detours. There’s something Werner once said that later became emblematic to me for the way he worked and conducted his life. In conversation with Michel Foucault he said, “I’ve been aware of the importance of having to work ever since I was a child. I knew that there were only limited opportunities for communicating, and therefore you have to use your work to express yourself.

Really, working amounts to creating something. His passionate approach and work are what determine Werner Schroeter’s oeuvre. A passionate approach which is manifested in combination with music, in language, in the poetic nature of his work, in all his other ideas. In the way he refrains from offering a logical explanation and from convention. It’s about immediate expression, rather than about categorisation. In the words of Michel Foucault talking about DER TOD DER MARIA MALIBRAN and WILLOW SPRINGS: “They express something that is not att- empting to explain what is happening, something that allows you to not even have to begin asking the question.”

Is there anything you wish the audience to take home with them from the movie?

Yes. An inspiration from his consequential work ethic and the beauty of his work. I revisited many of his films while making this one, and I discovered links that I hadn’t seen before. There is his early work, then one film in the middle, PALERMO ODER WOLFSBURG, followed by EIKA KATAPPA, and then sudden- ly there’s the extraordinary DIESE NACHT or POUSSIÈRES D’AMOUR, ABFALLPRODUKTE DER LIEBE (waste products of love); the latter being one of the Leitmotifs in his life. This is an important aspect of the film; it reveals a spectrum of various narratives and approaches that featured in, and determined Werner’s work. Then there are the many areas his work covers. He staged more than 70 operas, something I could hardly touch. I needed to focus, so I concentrated on the dubbing of DIESE NACHT, on rehearsals for ANTIGONE/ELEKTRA at Berlin’s Volksbühne, and a couple of characteristic excerpts from his films to illustrate his output.

When Werner died Christoph Schlingensief wrote in his blog that he hoped his films would become accessible to a younger audience and find their way into the film school curriculum, not merely because his films were uniquely radical, but also because they were generally unique. What makes Werner’s films unique? Perhaps something that no longer exists?

Werner always reminds you of our own limitations, and of something alien within us. His stories are deeply perso- nal. Every one of his narrations, his films, occupies a peculiar position between life, love, passion and death. They are the preoccupations that govern his work, his personal life, the way in which he seeks artistic expression, and how he investigates human yearning and aspiration. Whenever he makes a film he’s reflecting on the nature of art. Today we cannot overestimate the relevance of film as an art form. Werner Schroeter has undoubtedly created film as an artwork. Younger filmmakers today need to consider how they can make movies that include aspects related to cinematic vision and a mastery of visual and cinematic tools which can often be quite simple and all the more powerful. Werner demonstrated this, not only through his choice of exceptional actors and unusual locations where his stories and themes - often quite political ones - unravel themselves. PALERMO ODER WOLFSBURG was an amazing political work. Some of his documentary work has been very topical and will, I believe, stay relevant for at least the next ten years. It’s a reserve from which we could continue to profit. His cinematic language is rooted in his time, the post war era. It marked a new beginning. That’s how his films have become to some extent timel- ess, expressing something that is fundamentally human. His work challenges convention, and creates an acute awareness of the dangers of repetition and routine. Werner always tried to avoid or unmask these stifling forces in the radical way he narrated his stories. It’s not something that should be imitated, but constantly reinvented today. He himself insisted that the creative spirit is obliged to constantly reinvent, to challenge monotony, repetition, and hypocrisy.

MONDO LUX primarily presents Werner Herzog at work, with the exception of his operatic output, which is less personal. Was it a conscious decision to omit the private sphere? Was it Werner’s wish perhaps, or were you just not interested?

MONDO LUX reveals a lot about the very private man Werner Schroeter, as he didn’t differentiate between work and his private life. Of course there were certain priorities during these last years of his life. Our conversations mostly dealt with his work or his recent professional concerns. There wasn’t much time for anything else. We did talk about how much time there could be left, which is one of the most intimate subjects to tackle, and about the fear that comes up as you realise that your physical capacities are waning, when going to rehearsals becomes a challenge.

What triggered your decision to make this film? Was it terminal illness and not having any time left? Or did you simply wish to present a portrait of Werner Schroeter, regardless of him being ill?

It arose out of Monika Keppler calling us one day and telling us that Werner was rehearsing in Düsseldorf for the Schumann and Heine SCHÖNHEIT DER SCHATTEN piece. Asking if we should like to record that. So I took Lilly Grote along, who did the sound, and we filmed the entire week of rehearsals and witnessed the conditions which were extremely difficult. That’s when the idea came up to do a portrait. Werner had had a similar idea, and he was thrilled by the prospect of a collaboration. That’s how MONDO LUX emerged, quite organically, from these rehear- sals. It was Werner who then took the initiative, calling us whenever he felt ready for the next interview.

Every viewer will be curious to know how you could get so intimately close to the rehearsal situations.

Well, by making myself invisible. Stage rehearsals are very intimate, and the stage is an enclosed space. The way in which this gives rise to an intimate atmosphere is being reflected in those scenes in MONDO LUX. It’s also so- mething you learn when you do documentary. And I had been photographing other of his rehearsals for two years much earlier, in Bremen and in Düsseldorf. So I knew how to conduct myself discreetly amongst the actors. And I’m very grateful for the huge support I got from the actresses, if only because Werner was so keen on having a document, a document for them and for himself. Today it has become quite apparent what a gift this document has been, for the actresses. We could not have done it without the support from Monika Kettler. She organised and arranged everything. I’m convinced Werner sincerely wished to present this as a gift to them.

Werner is still fresh on everyone’s mind. What do miss most about him?

The telephone ringing and him calling to say, “It’s Werner speaking.” The door opening and Werner coming in to say, “I’ve got this great idea!” Or him on his balcony smoking a cigarette, drink in hand, and us discussing all sorts of things. We can’t do this anymore, and I just have to get used to the fact that this will never happen again. That’s why his films have become so important. They are what remains. All these waste products survive. There’s a lot to learn and experience from them. Every time I watch one, and I watched many recently, I discover something new, and surprising new threads in his oeuvre. Whether it be body language, the relation between language and mu- sic and how that relates the spoken word, to physical action or the representation of vision. The way he presents speech and music. That is incomparable, it raises your consciousness.

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