Dec 16, 2012

The Death of Maria Malibran

In the documentary Daniel Schmid - Le chat qui pense (2010) directed by Pascal Hofmann and Benny Jaberg, Werner Schroeter – the royal queen of New German cinema excess and high-camp hypnotics – has the audacity to describe his friend and one-time lover Daniel Schmid (Shadow of Angels, Hécate), very possibly the greatest post-WWII Swiss filmmaker, in what is probably the one of the most blatant examples of Freudian projection as a “diva addict.” Indeed, diva fetishism is one of the many intoxicating idiosyncratic ingredients one can expect from a Werner “Mad Genius” Schroeter (as Fassbinder once called him) film with his intentionally kitschy yet equally cultivated cinematic effort Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972) aka The Death of Maria Malibran – an anti-biopic that has little to with the factual reality of the terribly tragic Spanish-French 19th-century mezzo-soprano opera singer who would go on to be a legendary historical icon after she died onstage at the age of 28 and whose whimsical life the film decadently and discordantly depicts – being one of the dapper film director’s most flagrant and flavorful examples of operatic goddess worship. Starring Schroeter’s towering yet trim Teutonic muse Magdalena Montezuma (Eika Katappa, Der Bomberpilot) in the lead role of Maria Malibran, as well as in transvestite drag as her character’s sadistic father Manuel García, The Death of Maria Malibran features the androgynous avant-garde actress at her finest and most eclectic, displaying the sort of peculiar propensity for playing diverse characters of each gender in the same film, a talent that would arguably reach its zenith in Ulrike Ottinger’s masterpiece of marvelous miscreation Freak Orlando (1981). On top of featuring Ms. Montezuma in a standout role, The Death of Maria Malibran also features Fassbinder’s ex-wife Ingrid Caven (Ludwig - Requiem for a Virgin King, In a Year with 13 Moons), Warhol Superstar Candy Darling (Flesh, Women in Revolt), Jamie Lee Curtis’ ex-stepmother Christine Kaufmann (Escape from East Berlin, Egon Schiele – Exzess und Bestrafung), and a variety of ludicrous pseudo-lesbian trannies, including an absurdly avoirdupois drag queen of extravagant grotesquery that puts John Waters’ man-muse Divine to shame in terms of terrifying character and aberrant appearance. Comprised of a number of rather random tableaux that were constructed from mostly fictionally contrived points of miserable Malibran’s short but relatively eventful life, The Death of Maria Malibran is mostly a collection of neutral-shot-style moving picture-perfect portraits and operatic solos and duos that reflect why Werner Schroeter was the closest thing to an ‘Arno Breker of camp.’ 

 For Maria Malibran fans, especially those inclined towards faithful depictions of reality, viewing The Death of Maria Malibran will probably prove to be a problematic and even perturbing task, but for people like myself, who have nil interest in the ill-starred opera singer, let alone the authenticity of anecdotal details from her life, the film makes for an extravagant experiment in campy celluloid excess and exceedingly effete eccentricity of the ethereal sort. As a man who made no lie of the fact that his personal yet puzzling cinematic poems were the artistic “byproducts” (Rosa von Praunheim, as an ex-lover and lifelong friend of the director, being one of these 'byproducts' of buggery) of past romantic relationships, I think it is safe to say that the Maria Malibran of The Death of Maria Malibran is more of an abstruse alter-ego of the filmmaker than an abiding tribute to the singer. After all, Schroeter’s perplexing penultimate film Deux (2002) aka Two is an ambiguously autobiographical piece in which the director’s life is portrayed by two different women, so it should be no surprise that The Death of Maria Malibran features a similar damning disdain for objective reality. Indeed, Magdalena Montezuma may have adopted a Mediterranean name (her real name was the notably less campy and magnificent ‘Erika Kluge’) that she utilized throughout her acting career, but I would never in a million years mistaken her for a an off-white med-frog like the character she depicts in The Death of Maria Malibran due to her bosch Nordic beauty and her rather aloof, if not exceedingly eccentric Germanic demeanor. In other words, the Maria Malibran of this exorbitant Epicurean epic of excess is indubitably more of a super surreal, superfluously stylish and self-stylized alter-ego of Schroeter living precariously through the beauty of his celluloid Madonna Magdalena Montezuma and for anyone to approach The Death of Maria Malibran from any other angle would be, at best, a misguided mistake, if not an all too common and reasonable one. Considering that Schroeter was always surrounded by death from an early age, especially those of his loved ones, including the suicide of his beloved grandmother, the Polish baroness Elsa von Rotjov, when he was only 13-years-old and the self-slaughter of his first boyhood crush around the same age and which incidentally was also around the same time he discovered his lifelong obsession Maria Callas aka La Divina – the world renowned 20th-century Greek-American soprano – it is only natural that the dismal dandy director would go on to craft a work so innocently and imaginatively tragic as The Death of Maria Malibran; a work that denies the pain of historical truth, if not purportedly based on the truth, for a sort of fantastic escapism and saturnine ecstasy.

As his seemingly unlikely colleague Wim Wenders – who went to film school with Werner Schroeter – explains in the documentary Mondo Lux : The Visual Universe of Werner Schroeter (2011) directed by Elfi Mikesch, “Death is the important topic in Werner’s films. “Eika Katappa”…There’s no other film where so many people die…He destroyed them, those storylines, by having people die and go on or die three times or die eternally. It’s obvious that the gesture is important for Werner. And it’s never about narration as such.” Indeed, in the same documentary, Schroeter himself admits, "I drove Rosa, Holger Mischwitzky, crazy with my tragic view of the world. I told Holger, ‘You have to accept it. My picture of the world is tragic.’ And, of course, I laughed about it.” Of course, Schroeter’s remark about his relationship with Mr. Rosa von Praunheim is characteristic of his early cinematic oeuvre, especially in regard to The Death of Maria Malibran; an audacious expression of absurdist tongue-in-tranny-cheek tragedy meets merry yet maliciously macabre camp and killer kitsch. For Schroeter, “The search is essentially for art and not the final product. There is no final product. There’s a photograph, a picture, a composition. But there is never an aspect that resolves everything. That would be even worse. It would make death obsolete. And since we’re all going that way, we’ll only find our redemption in death but not in art.” Indeed, to call his cinematic works ‘self-indulgent’ would be a fair assessment, but only so much that Schroeter put his entire being into the search for meaning and the ultimate act of aesthetic sublimity, or at least his idea of a seductive audio/visual solace every second of his films without thinking twice about alienating prospective filmgoers (i.e. the majority of filmgoers), with his oftentimes impenetrable personal idiosyncrasies. That being said, to watch a film like The Death of Maria Malibran or just about any other Werner Schroeter without understanding the filmmaker or the context of the film would be akin to attempting to fly a plane while on mescaline without a single flying lesson or attempting to read William S. Burrough’s novel Naked Lunch (1959) because you feel that you shot up enough lethally laced junk into your johnson to feel like a kultur junky.  An irrational and ravaging celluloid rendezvous of statuesque female beauties, aesthetically crude drag fags in menacing masks of unflattering make-up, Svengali drag kings, and inconspicuous shemales like Candy Darling who fit in somewhere in between, The Death of Maria Malibran is a ridiculously rhapsodic and rapturous work of keenly kaleidoscopic death worship that personifies the poetic words from the title of the popular Death in June song "Death Is The Martyr Of Beauty."  Indeed, Werner Schroeter, Magdalena Montezuma, and Candy Darling may all be tot, but their anomalous aesthetic essence lives on in the guise of The Death of Maria Malibran; a moribund musical that makes for one of the most puissant and pulchritudinous cinematic excursions of what probably can be best described as 'metaphysical necrophilia.'

-Ty E

No comments: