Mar 6, 2013

This Night

While his penultimate work Deux (2002), an avant-garde autobiographical work utilizing female twin sisters to depict his life in a most allegorical way, was arguably his most personal effort, German New Cinema dandy Werner Schroter’s cinematic swansong, This Night (2008) aka Nuit de chien aka Diese Nacht based on the novel Para esta noche (1943) aka Tonight by Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti, marked a final attempt at creating a highly personal celluloid mythology while on the brink of death. Beginning with the quote, “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard. It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come,” from William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599), This Night follows a failed revolutionary hero named Ossorio (played by gay French actor Pascal Greggory) who returns to his home city of Santa María (a fictional city that was filmed on location in Lisbon and Porto, Portugal) one night in the hope of saving his lover Clara; a woman who the protagonist made the mistake of abandoning to fight for an abstract political cause that only sired failure and defeat. While in an apocalyptic city under the control of a terroristic militia led by a murderous mad man, Ossorio only has one night, “this night,” to save the woman he loves, but she seems to be nowhere to be found. Assembled by Schroeter when he was facing the deleterious and debilitating effects of malignant cancer, which the director would finally succumb to in 2008, This Night is as unrelentingly bleak and as decidedly dystopian as films come, so it is no surprise that Christiane Peitz would write in the director’s obituary that the film was, “a long journey into darkness, a hymn to life in the face of brutality and terror,” as death was at every corner for the determinedly damned dandy who created it. With a brief scene in the beginning of the fatalistic film of a pissing sailor that seems like it was taken straight out of the director's previous work Deux (2002) and his aborted dream film of adapting fag frog novelist Jean Genet’s novel Querelle de Brest (1953), This Night subsequently announces with its feverishly foreboding atmosphere that the viewer is about to witness a man’s dance with death in the name of love; a love that may be already lost. As Schroeter wrote in his posthumously released autobiography, “All my films, including Tonight, bear witness to my quest for a form that communicates vitality, the pleasure of creativity and beauty, which is a gift of our profession. In beauty, in recognition of beauty resides a hope—malgré tout, despite all. It expresses a hope even though the theme of the film deals with the darkest night aspects of existence …Without pain and a quest for truth there is no beauty,” and, indeed, This Night wallows in nocturnal pulchritude, albeit of the particularly perturbing and pessimistic sort, and a coming to terms with personal pain and those destructive forces that serve to only further that perpetual pang. A fiercely foreboding phantasmagorical neo-noir of the dauntingly dystopian, arthouse sort as only Werner Schroeter could have assembled, This Night reminds the viewer that only when a person can transcend a fear of death can they achieve greatness and create beauty, even in a despairing realm of imminent disintegration. 

A lot of things have changed in Santa María since 40-year-old doctor-turned-revolutionary Ossorio left his lover Clara behind to fight in a revolution against the system that ended in abject failure. Apparently, a ‘hero of the revolution’ among those who know of him, but an enemy of the current state, Ossorio is nothing more than a lone soldier in the city of Santa María; a fallen place where treacherous ‘friends’ will do anything to save their own hysterical hides, including selling out compatriots to a megalomaniacal dictator named Morasan (Bruno Todeschini), who does not think twice of slaughtering people left and right, as his militia has turned the city into a metropolitan graveyard that is about to be leveled to the ground by leaders on the mainland who want to do away with the renegade city.  With a cholera outbreak and a trigger-happy militia going around blowing away beauteous babes and hysterical homos on every corner, Santa María is no longer the majestic Mediterranean metropolis its name hints at.  887 boat tickets exist for those lucky individuals who will be able to leave the virtual necropolis before it is blasted into oblivion and Ossorio plans to make sure he and his sweet Clara leave safely via the boat, hence his sole objective when he made the quasi-suicidal decision to return to Santa María in the first place. Unfortunately, Clara made the mistake of writing and publishing articles in sympathy of a counter-revolutionary named Barcala (Sami Frey), who she temporarily had an affair with, in a newspaper that was described by her dictator detractors as, “an insidiously subversive rag,” thus being put on a master list of enemies of the militia, thus the possibility of finding her is dubious at best, or so Ossorio learns on his mission for love and redemption in a city where hatred, treachery, and fear reign supreme. On his rather unpredictable journey into the belly of the beast, Ossorio learns that Clara became the mistress of various other men, though she never found the love she lost when he went and fought in a failed revolution for a utopia that was not mean to be, thus also resulting in a love that was also not meant to be. Against his own will by unfortunate circumstances he cannot control, Ossorio’s mission takes a different course and he decides to save a little girl, and after receiving a "going away gift" in the form of two boat tickets from paranoid rebel leader Barcala, he is on the way to completing his mission, but in Santa María, men wear many masks and a former comrade can also be a corrupted enemy, or so the failed revolutionary learns. In This Night, the iconic Schroeter ‘diva’ is nowhere to be found, even if the film is ominously operatic, thus making the film a rare exception in the filmmaker's cinematic oeuvre. Featuring music by Liszt, Mozart, and Rossini, This Night is Werner Schroeter at his most ‘butch’ and stoic in a cinematic story where the protagonist has one last chance, during one last night, to sacrifice one's life for love while faced with total uncertainty, as well as accepting responsibility for actions of the past that led to one getting in that particular predicament in the first place.

Interestingly, while This Night both begins and ends with the character of Caesar’s dialogue from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard. It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come,” Schroeter neglected to add the first sentence of the quote, which is, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” That being said, what Schroeter’s opted for leaving out of the quote in This Night is more revealing than what he decided to include, because in many of the director’s films, especially his earlier works like Argila (1969) and Eika Katappa (1969), characters perish, only to return in subsequent scenes totally unscathed. Whether these characters were “cowards” or not remains to be seen, but if anything is for sure, it was with his cinematic swansong This Night that Werner Schroeter finally accepted the inevitably of death and braved it stoically in the form of fierce filmic fatalism of the delectably dystopian sort that is effective both on a personal and political level. As someone who was born a month and a day before Germany’s unconditional surrender during the Second World War, Werner Schroeter virtually came-of-age in the sort of world he depicts in This Night, so it should be no surprise that a little girl, the director's virtual ‘inner-child’ as a gay man, is thrown into the madness of a metropolis on the verge of apocalypse. Although not his greatest film, This Night was the natural cinematic conclusion to a life of darkness that sought beauty amongst the chaos. 

-Ty E

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