Apr 19, 2013

Tonight or Never (1972)

Undoubtedly, auteur Daniel Schmid (Violanta, Hécate) is one of the most underrated directors of his generation and quite possibly the greatest Swiss filmmaker who has ever lived, yet most of his early films are nearly impossible to find and/or have yet to be released in any home media format at all, including his high-camp feature-length debut Tonight or Never (1972) aka Heute nacht oder nie – an ambient and hallucinatory assault against the German leftist 1968 student movement disguised as a decadent modern Gothic tale set in the 19th century featuring mostly 1930s opera and pop music. Inspired by the tradition of an aristocratic Austrian family who, on the night of St. Nepomuk (May 16th), would exchange roles with their servants for the night, Tonight or Never features Schmid’s own dark romantic twist on the tale by adding a third, more prominently featured group as the morbid yet merry masters of a grand performance comprised of a semi-sadistic and sardonic camp-and-kitsch-ridden pack of comedic showmen (and women) who do takes on scenes from Gone with the Wind (1939), a work by Tennessee Williams, a satirical take on the suicide of the title character from Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1856), and the tragic conclusion of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake (1876) in what has been described as a “cultural scrap heap.” Vehemently hated upon its released by leftist filmmakers, film critics, and ‘revolutionaries’ alike due to its audacious aesthetic excess and quasi-counter-revolutionary political persuasion, Tonight or Never, unlike a good portion of the European films from its time, especially associated with German New Cinema (the director was friends with both Fassbinder and Werner Schroeter), has stood the test of time and Schmid himself later remarked regarding his debut work in an interview, “The film was severely attacked by the prevailing left “Zeitgeist”. It’s very strange. I recently talked to an American critic who’s now 25. For him the sixties have only survived as a theatrical act – and that’s exactly how the comedian in the movie is treated.” The comedian Schmid speaks of  in the film is a funny fellow who proclaims to the jovial delight of his blueblood-playing-plebians it is a “time of revolt,” so it should be no surprise that German and Swiss leftists did not take kindly to the filmmaker’s mockery of their failed revolution, nor the fact that Tonight or Never featured a cultivated and carefully crafted neo-Victorian 19th century aesthetic and an appreciation for the fin de siècle, which ultimately inspired his ethno-masochistic detractors to accuse him of “celebrating bourgeois cultural fascism.” Of course, unlike naïve youthful idealism, Tonight or Never – a work set in a hotel (substituting for the interior of an ancient Gothic castle featured at the beginning of the film), which as the son of hotel owners/runners who came of age in a hotel in the Swiss Alps, Schmid was quite familiar with – is a film from the soul by a rare filmmaker of his age who, rather unlike many of his degenerated generation, was not ashamed of his background but instead, fully embraced it, even if the taint of his cadaverous age permeates throughout the film. 

 Although Rainer Werner Fassbinder would marry her and cast her in supporting roles, Daniel Schmid was the one who made Ingrid Caven his star and diva as a sort of Marlene Dietrich figure and she would play the lead in the filmmaker's first three feature-length films (and masterpieces): Tonight or Never (1972), La Paloma (1974), and Shadow of Angels (1976) aka Schatten der Engel. In fact, it was Caven who convinced Schmid to direct Tonight or Never without even writing a script on virtual nil budget, which was completed over a two week period in 1971 and shot at the director’s grandparents' hotel in Switzerland during the off-season.  Schmid originally expected his friend Fassbinder to produce his first feature, but as the director explained in an interview with Juliane Lorenz, “At one point I expected that my own movie, Heute Nacht oder nie [Tonight or Never], would be produced next.  But Rainer had other ideas.  He literally told me, "No way.  On Monday I start shooting my next movie."  I got mad, said goodbye, and stormed out of the apartment.  Ingrid followed me four days later and acted in my production.  In due course several other dissidents joined us, among them Harry Baer.  I still remember Rainer telling me, 'You'll never pull that off.  You're much too spoiled.'”  Of course Schmid, who once stated regarding his curious relationship with Fassbinder, “Our mutual attraction derived from my inner resistance to some, though not all, of his movies,” would pull it off almost immaculately and aristocratically and the rest is history.

 Featuring a number of rebelling Fassbinder Superstars, including Ingrid Caven, Peter Kern, Peter Chatel, and Harry Baer, Tonight or Never is still fundamentally an auteur piece that is merely accentuated by its unconventionally charismatic star power. Like his friend and one-time lover Werner Schroeter (Eika Katappa, Palermo oder Wolfsburg) – the most dandy of the Europe dandy filmmakers – Schmid shared a love of opera and German expressionist cinema and these influences certainly bleed beauteously throughout the singularly hypnotic phantasmagorical entirety that is Tonight or Never – a pure aesthetic and political attack on the prevailing trend of anti-aesthetism and working-class-fetishizing of that time. As Schmid stated in an interview about having the supposedly ‘bourgeois idea’ of a grand hotel in Tonight or Never, “It was a world I knew, and I think you can only really say anything about worlds you know. With all the rules of their specific games, all their strengths and weaknesses. At the time many of my colleagues – writers, filmmakers – were identifying themselves with a working-class environment they’d never lived or functioned in.” Indeed, featuring not a single prosaic lesson in poverty porn or the dubious pseudo-Freudian sexualization of savage street serfs, Tonight or Never is a glamorous if equally and intentionally grotesque tribute to a dead epoch directed by an uncompromising man who was disgusted with his own suicidal zeitgeist. Featuring a corpselike cast of characters with the auras of aristocratic zombies and vampiric mannequins who seem to 'float' around, if they move at all, Tonight or Never is a one night stand with the dead somnambulistic souls of the Occident who exist only in memory and, quite symbolically, have been totally drained of their vitality. 

 To the complete and utter disgust of the Marxist Swiss-krauts that attending a press conference following a screening of Tonight or Never at the 1972 Solothurn Film Festival (SFT), Daniel Schmid stated regarding the work,“I did have political intentions in making the film. It may sound strange but the backdrop of political interpretation in front of which I localize the film is, in the best case, only present so as to disconcert the viewer. I live in a decadent era. That is my private belief. I believe that I live in a late chapter of Western history. I have no conception of how things might continue,” as if he had just read a number of German Conservative Revolutionary tomes before directing the quasi-apocalyptic work. Of course, as a European of the post-WWII who, like Fassbinder, essentially grew up fatherless, Schmid was far too cynical to be any sort of radical traditionalist purist, even remarking in an interview regarding Tonight or Never, “I mystify only to demystify. It can’t be pure nostalgia if it’s not intact. I don’t invoke a Gattopardo world, I disavow it, treat it ironically. I like to play with forms in a world where there are hardly any structures and forms left. Think of Griffiths’ first close-up of Lillian Gish. It was a sensation, it was meant to be something specific. Today the whole world of television is one close-up concerto. That means the degeneration of structures, the degeneration of forms.” A rare work of postmodern cinema with elegance, class, mystique, and—most importantly—a (dark) heart and soul, Tonight of Never, despite being the debut feature-length work of the director and an intrinsically experimental work shot without a script, is nothing short of a masterpiece and a major aesthetic achievement of post-WWII European cinema that can only be compared to Schmid’s subsequent work La Paloma (1974) – a nearly flawless and strikingly magical high-camp effort also starring Ingrid Caven and Peter Kern. 

 At the predictable but rather anti-climatic conclusion of Tonight or Never—a work bearing no relation to the 1931 Gloria Swanson comedy of the same name—the masters go back to being masters and the servants go back to being servants, thus highlighting the absurdist illusion that was the self-loathing bourgeois leftists of the 1968 student movement in their idealistic, and ultimately futile pursuit of establishing a classless utopia. As Daniel Schmid recognized in an interview regarding the hypocritical yet unsurprising metamorphosis of his peers from hippies to yuppies in later decades, “Some of them, by the way, were the same people that supported the “holy” war against Saddam Hussein twenty years later, a war everyone helped make possible. But I’m no politician.” Indeed, while the suave satirist Schmid was no politician, he proved with Tonight or Never that his understanding of people and politics, as well as art, was much more profound and insightful than that of his celluloid compatriots, foretelling how the so called “new left” would devolve into the new plutocracy as the degenerate descendants of the parents they loved to hate.  Describing his old friend, Schmid once stated of Fassbinder that he “believed himself to be a monster and so he behaved like a monster.”  If Fassbinder was a monster, Schmid was a proud and cultivated magician (or cine-magician) of the heretical sort who destroyed his own illusions, with Tonight or Never being his first great performance as an unholy marriage between the Habsburgs and Grand Guignol as the sort of asocial and aberrant party Alfred Kubin might have hosted at his 12th century castle.

-Ty E

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