Feb 3, 2013

Eika Katappa

An aesthetically audacious and asynchronous cinematic symphony of the positively plush and perversely prestigious sort, Eika Katappa (1969) directed by dandy auteur Werner Schroeter (Der Bomberpilot, Malina) is indubitably one of the landmark works of New German Cinema. An innately and intentionally anachronistic and allegorical work combining high camp and cleverly concocted kitsch with seemingly discordant opera and pop rock music, as well as thematically schizophrenic audio-visual synchronization, including a superlatively monomaniacal and somewhat mystical tribute to world renowned opera singer Maria Callas and delightfully degenerate takes on Norse mythology, Eika Katappa would ultimately win the decidedly dapper director the Joseph von Sternberg prize for “the most idiosyncratic film” at the 1969 Mannheim Film Festival, which is no small achievement considering it was Schroeter’s first feature-length film. At 144 minutes in length, Eika Katappa  is also a work of eccentrically epic proportions. A terribly torrid, tragic, trying, and sometimes even titillating collection of theatrical tableaux without any stages but the ruins of Europa as a border-less coliseum of effete excess and campy cultural decay, Eika Katappa, like most great cinematic art pieces, is indubitably a strikingly and singularly self-indulgent work by a true auteur filmmaker who clearly cares more about his own ostentatious obsessions than whether or not the viewer can catch up with him. Virtually impossible to see outside of Germany until relatively recently when it was thankfully restored and released by Filmmuseum München (who owned the only copies of the film on 16mm, which were screened only sporadically over the past couple decades in various obscure cinémathèques) in late 2010 with the imperative help of director Werner Schroeter (who passed away shortly before the actual release of the dvd), Eika Katappa is a rare work that managed to redefine and reinvent the artistic medium of cinema in a way not seen since the days of F.W. Murnau and Carl Th. Dreyer. Described by German New Wave master of melodrama Rainer Werner Fassbinder as a film he would have liked to have made in an interview with the German edition of Playboy magazine (April 1978, 53-68), as well as one of “the most beautiful” films of its post-WWII Teutonic zeitgeist, Eika Katappa would also inspire Schroeter’s film director friend to borrow his aesthetic and his muse Magdalena Montezuma for The Niklashausen Journey (1970), albeit with a patently political twist (Schroeter, like his friend/ex-lover Daniel Schmid and unlike most filmmakers of his era, rejected politics and escaped in aestheticism). Of course, as Fassbinder soon learned, it is most impossible to imitate Schroeter’s somber and supremely sagacious cinematic soul. A poesy pictorial of Schroeter’s inner pandemonium of lingering lost loves, nagging ghosts, and nauseating and sometimes nefarious nostalgia, Eika Katappa – a cinematic work not without its fair share of humorous haunts and hypnotic hells – is the closest thing to a celluloid dirge saga because it not only reminiscences over the byproducts of the director’s failed romantic affairs, but also classical European kultur of yesteryear, if only in an aggressively aestheticist fashion of taking a couple ingredients and sacrificing the rest for the best.

If any cinematic artist found his own metaphysical spiritual icon in Saint Sebastian, especially Guido Reni’s quasi-homoerotic high-baroque painting of the camp/Christian martyr, more than gentleman Jarman and far-right Japanese nationalist novelist Yukio Mishima, it was mostly certainly Werner Schroeter as ritualistically depicted in a number of sacrificial scenes from Eika Katappa; a sensual celluloid work more in touch with the secret of the soul than the abstract mind. Of course, Schroeter’s scantly clad St. Sebastian is an emaciated blond twink who looks more like he died from anorexia than from some royal Roman arrows, but such is the highly personally stylized cinematic world of Werner Schroeter; an auteur filmmaker who authored his own cinematic language of sorts, hence the intrinsically impenetrable essence of his films. As with virtually all of his early films, Schroeter's unmistakable muse Magdalena Montezuma (Day of the Idiots, Freak Orlando) is indisputably the star diva of Eika Katappa as a modern silent screen starlet and a curiously charismatic chameleon of celluloid who, like most of the actors in the film, ceaselessly changes from character-to-character and even different sexes throughout the work, including depicting an extra deranged drag king version of Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and a Gothic heroin chic take on buxom blonde Brünnhilde from the ancient Germanic Nibelungenlied. In Eika Katappa love, death, sacrifice and tragedy are perennial yet positively preposterously portrayed in a series of absurdly theatrical scenarios, thus many characters act as both morbid merrymakers and martyrs in a tidal wave of operatic tragicomedic allegory set to the intentionally asynchronous sounds of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) and Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (1900). Although never depicted in any sort of literal light, the archetypical homosexual, especially in the context of Schroeter himself, is ultimately portrayed a symbol of eternal martyrdom in Eika Katappa as a Christ-like figure doomed to lifelong unhappiness, heartbreak, and innate social heresy. As Schroeter wrote in a synopsis for the seventh act of Eika Katappa, with the “history of two lovely young men, loving each other desperately,” the director brings abstract allegorical meaning to King dandy Oscar Wilde’s treacherous boy toy’s Lord Alfred Douglas’ famous phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name,” a theme that was taken to a much darker and serious extreme in Der Rosenkönig (1986) aka The Rose King where both Saint Sebastian and Jesus Christ act as homoerotic symbols of ostensibly macabre torture and martyrdom. Of course, Greek soprano Maria Callas’ spirit weighs heavily on the overall aesthetically erratic essence of Eika Katappa, so much so that Schroeter inserted a still portrait of the diva at various points throughout the film that is most prominently displayed at the very conclusion of the overwhelming cinematic work in a gesture that is no doubt a noble tribute from one artist to another as a film that could have never been conceived without the singer's imperative influence on the filmmaker at a young and fragile age. Interestingly, Werner Schroeter himself also appears at the conclusion of Eika Katappa directing his handsome yet melancholy Mediterranean star, thus unveiling the artist behind the highly personal and insanely idiosyncratic piece of celluloid art.

It is worth noting that Schroeter’s filmmaker friend Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed a film entitled Gods of the Plague (1970) aka Götter der Pest where a character speaks the line "Life is very precious, even right now," which is spoken repeatedly throughout Eika Katappa; a celluloid collection of shattered fragments from the auteur filmmaker’s cinematically self-sanctified soul. Indeed, as Fassbinder once wrote, “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,” as a filmmaker whose vision and need to expression the seemingly inexplicable was always more important to him whether or not his films where even remotely accessible or financially profitable among general audiences, which, as time has proven, they are most certainly not. Similar to his previous but much shorter film Argila (1969) in aesthetic and sentiment, Eika Katappa is a figurative celluloid wound dripping with allegorical memories from beginning to end in the form of penetrating petite vignettes that inordinately obfuscate the personal with anachronistic aesthetic ingredients from both past and present in an intentionally anti-synchronal yet unfamiliarly harmonious manner. A hypnotic yet equally harrowing and humorous hermetic celluloid hybrid of high and low Occidental kultur, Eika Katappa – aside from being a collection of director Werner Schroeter’s personal romantic recollections and aesthetic obsessions – is, whether intentional or not on the filmmaker’s part, acts as cinematic obsequies for the Occident itself. A chaotic celluloid storm of what was once and will never be again, Eika Katappa is just as reflexive of Europe as a whole as Schroeter’s own intimate love affairs.  Released at the height of politically motivated peace and love campaigns in the then-wanton West, Eika Katappa stands the test of time because Werner Schroeter – an apolitical indulger in aestheticism – assembled a timeless cinematic work that is just as universal thematically as it is aesthetically, even as an unwaveringly acroamatic arthouse film.

-Ty E

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