Co-written by Schroeter and Montezuma, and featuring poetry by Edgar Allan Poe ("The Raven" as narrated by Basil Rathbone), The Rose King is a piece of unrelenting romantic death poetry that is set to a variety of ethnic and dirge-like music (including Strauss, Vangelis, Arabic pop) and a wonderfully wicked work that makes a bucket of blood seem like a beauteous bed of red roses and the violent murder of a kitty cat via shotgun and subsequent crucifying of said pussy resemble a compassionate act of sane sensitivity. In other words, no one could make misery, misanthropy, and murder seem so ravishingly refined and effortlessly elegant than the late, great Herr Schroeter, arguably post-WW2 Germany's single greatest 'filmic artist' and one of few filmmakers to expand a seemingly closed and limited, at least at that point in cinematic history, artistic medium. As can be expected by virtually every film directed by the impossibly impenetrable cosmopolitan kraut auteur, The Rose King is a carefully calculated and clandestine work that demands multiple viewings before one can properly appreciate the work, at least if one hopes to get more out of this gorgeous gut-wrenching celluloid poem than just the ostensibly high-camp imagery. The film centers around an opulent and cultivated yet mentally unstable mother and son duo – stoic yet spiritless German Anna (Magdalena Montezuma) and highly emotional yet standoffish Mediterranean Albert (Mostefa Djadjam) whose dull, if not decadent, lives – for better or worse – change drastically with the arrival of handsome young peasant Fernando (played by Antonio Orlando who – among others things – played one of the young victims in Pasolini’s celluloid adieu Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)).
Despite living under the same roof of an extravagant Portuguese estate that neither character wanders too far away from, Anna and Albert rarely speak to one another, aside from disagreeing over parabolic gardening philosophies and the overall aesthetic properties of roses, so when Fernando arrives and takes the plush yet perturbed young man’s attention away from attempting to cultivate the most pretty perennial plant, the modest melancholy mother is especially disapproving and jealous of her son’s dubious relationship with the blue-collar newcomer, so much so that she tries to buy him off so as to push him away from her sole and highly secretive progeny. Although widow Anna vows to devote herself to son Albert – whose father is deceased, and who she proclaims she does not miss one bit – the “shy” yet “aggressive” young man seems to rigorously resent his mother to the point that he refuses to even make eye contact with her or sit at the dinner table with her and break bread and drink red wine for a meal that she has prepared especially for him. While Albert is the prince of suggestive sass whose sole motivation in life is to 'crown' his "Rose King" while treating his mother as if she is already pushing up daises, Anna is an absurdly withdrawn woman who befriends a gang of young Portuguese peasant boys – who being swarthy and tan, certainly resemble her sick scion when he was a wee lad during less tumultuous times – in a feeble attempt to fill the unquenchable void that has been left by her emotionally impervious son. As Anna tells him herself, Albert is, to paraphrase, “not a gardener, but a dreamer” who has to “destroy everything that doesn’t match his ideal” and needless to say, his relationship with his mother is far from conventional, yet at the same time it fits into the cliché of the overbearing mother – who due to her failed relationship with her husband (Anna admits she does not miss Albert’s father) – has subconsciously sought a surrogate spouse in her son, thus pushing the boy to grow up to despise women and develop the insatiable need to find a “daddy,” in this case in the notably more masculine Fernando, in the form of a homosexual lover he is quite hesitant about touching. A deranged dreamer of the day and lover of the night, Albert has put his male compatriot on a pedestal that virtually guarantees that any sex act he might commit with the potent peasant would result in abject disappointment, on top of the fact that he seems rather afraid of authentic human touch, thus he opts for sacrificing the aesthetically sacred just as any good sadomasochistic gardener would in a manner not all that dissimilar from the ill-fated couple of Derek Jarman's The Garden (1990), a work more or less as personal and esoteric as Schroeter's The Rose King.
As Anna constantly reiterates throughout the film, “if two children kiss when they cannot speak, one of them will die,” or so seems the relationship of Albert and Fernando which reaches a bloody and bleak yet bewitching conclusion during the final minutes of The Rose King. Albert – a seemingly emotionally autistic young man – treats his relationship with Fernando as an arcane and sacrosanct one, first imprisoning him and then sacrificing his lover in a manner echoing both the crucifixion of Christ, but especially the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian in the vein of Guido Reni’s baroque painting of the martyr, as well as Yukio Mishima (who worshiped Reni's Saint Sebastian) who built himself the perfect body, only to sacrifice it. Although against her own will due to tragic circumstance, high-camp diva Magdalena Montezuma also ultimately made the decision to immortalize and canonize her atypical allure via The Rose King at a time that she reached her peak in grace and glamour of character and exterior body, thereupon marking an irrevocable shift in Werner Schroeter’s cinematic oeuvre and a decline in arthouse camp forever. The “Rose King” himself, Antonio Orlando – whose last film role would be as Fernando in The Rose King – would also die prematurely in 1989 and, after enduring cancer for a number of years, Schroeter would also see a similar fate to his marvelous muse dying at the age of 65 in 2010. In the documentary Mondo Lux : The Visual Universe of Werner Schroeter (2011) directed by Elfi Mikesch (who also happens to be the cinematographer of The Rose King), Schroeter stated in regard to Montezuma and Orlando, “Perhaps they live on in the pictures through the look they cast.” Personally, I cannot think of a more ‘moving’ – both literally and figuratively – perennial tribute to the memory of Montezuma and Orlando than The Rose King; a masterful cinematicwork of fleeting filmic form and forlorn body fetishism.
As for Schroeter – a ceaselessly singular and markedly meticulous modern maestro of mise-en-scène – I think German New Wave König Rainer Werner Fassbinder summed up the morbidly romantic auteur filmmaker's contribution to cinema history when he stated in an interview for the book The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes (1992): “Werner Schroeter will one day have a place in the history of film that I would describe in literature as somewhere between Novalis, Lautréamont, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline; he was an ‘underground’ director for ten years, and they didn’t want to let him slip out of this role. Werner Schroeter’s grand cinematic scheme of the world was confined, repressed, and at the same time ruthlessly exploited. His films were given the convenient label of ‘underground’, which transforms them in a flash into beautiful but exotic plants that bloomed so unusually and so far away that basically one couldn’t be bothered with them, and therefore wasn’t supposed to bother with them. And that’s precisely as wrong as it is stupid. For Werner Schroeter’s films are not far away; they’re beautiful but not exotic. On the contrary.” Indeed, few films get as personal, albeit allegorically so, than Schroeter's The Rose King; a majestic motion-picture monument of the miraculously macabre that reminds one that beauty knows no morals, as even the slow and agonizing annihilation of a man via towering fetishistic torture and terror takes on the form of terribly titillating divinity. Bringing morbid melodrama to the Oscar Wilde "art for art's sake" school of aestheticism, The Rose King lets the viewer know that even the loss of life is worth the price of a commanding work of artistry.