Feb 28, 2014

Daniel Schmid - Le chat qui pense

As far as I am concerned, Swiss auteur/opera director Daniel Schmid (Violanta, Hécate) is one of the most underrated European filmmakers of the post-WWII era and his first three features—Tonight or Never (1972) aka Heute nacht oder nie, La Paloma (1974), and Shadow of Angels (1976) aka Schatten der Engel—are nothing short of strikingly singular high-camp masterpieces that should be made compulsory viewing for any serious cinephile. A friend and collaborator of both Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Schroeter, Schmid spent his formative years in West Germany, but would ultimately return to his homeland and become arguably the most world renowned Swiss filmmaker of all time, even among the Japanese (who he would pay tribute to with his documentary The Written Face (1995) aka Das geschriebene Gesicht), yet virtually none of his cinematic works have ever been made available in North America and thus virtually his entire oeuvre, especially his early works, are in serious danger of being disposed of in the virtual celluloid ash heap of film history. Luckily, Swiss documentary filmmakers Pascal Hofmann and Benny Jaberg, who previously co-directed the documentary Wintersong: A Film About Dakota Suite (2006) about English singer/songwriter Chris Hooson, have attempted to immortalize Daniel Schmid with their surprisingly lyrical love letter dedicated to the life and films of the filmmaker, Daniel Schmid - Le chat quie pense (2010). Featuring excerpts from Schmid’s films and archived footage from the sets, as well as new interviews with the filmmaker, auteur Werner Schroeter, actress/diva Ingrid Caven, cinematographer Renato Berta (who shot most of Schmid's films), and various others, Daniel Schmid - Le chat quie pense is an important documentary in that, aside from featuring rare film scenes and interviews that can be found nowhere else, the documentary also happens to be the only resource available to English-speaking viewers (although in various languages, the dvd released by T&C Film features English subtitles) on Schmid, as not a single English-language book has been written on the late great auteur. The perfect companion piece to the documentary Mondo Lux: The Visual Universe of Werner Schroeter (2011) aka Mondo Lux - Die Bilderwelten des Werner Schroeter directed by Elfi Mikesch—a work chronicling the life and work of Schmid’s one-time lover/assistant director and friend Werner Schroeter (whose work Der Bomberpilot (1970) Schmid acted as assistant director of)—Daniel Schmid - Le chat quie pense is not only a documentary about a criminally underrated filmmaker who the modern world does not deserve, but a cultural history of German-speaking Europe during the post-WWII years, which the filmmaker once stated of, “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,” in front of a bunch of unhappy leftists while giving a press conference for his first feature Tonight or Never.

 Born on 26 December 1941 to a family of hoteliers in the Grison Alps in Switzerland, Daniel Schmid had a somewhat unconventional childhood that revolved around fantasy and matriarchy as his father passed away when he was just a wee lad, but while living in a luxury hotel in a resort spot, he managed to meet many famous people as a child, including Danish-German filmmaker Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Knows), who would later become his hero and who he would have the opportunity to make the last filmic portrait of with his documentary Imitation of Life (1983) aka Mirage de la vie. While still a young man in his 20s during the 1960s, Schmid relocated to West Berlin to a politically and socially revolutionary atmosphere that was quite in contrast to his quiet upbringing in the Swiss Alps. Although Schmid appreciated the fact he could be openly gay in counter-culture krautland and even befriended members of the Red Army Faction, he got fed up with the phony socio-political bullshit of the far-left and decided to focus solely on filmmaking, with the medium-length work Thut alles im Finstern, eurem Herrn das Licht zu ersparen (1970) aka Do Everything in the Dark in Order to Save Your Lord the Light, but it was not until he collaborating with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who he actually met in 1966 and was briefly lovers with, and his wife Ingrid Caven that he became really serious about filmmaking and began to get noticed around the European arthouse scene. Convinced by Fassbinder to quit film school after being called a “spoilt Swiss Boy,” Schmid decided to make his first film Tonight or Never (1972) aka Heute nacht oder nie—a high-camp satire of the far-left student movement—with next to nil money after being encouraged by Ingrid Caven, who starred in the film. From there, Schmid directed two more dark melodramatic masterpieces starring his new muse Caven, La Paloma (1974), and Shadow of Angels (1976) aka Schatten der Engel, with the former film being described as follows by his friend Werner Schroeter: “”La Paloma, my happiness that remained.” The alpine world…It could have gone so wrong…Completely wrong, yet it didn’t. It’s such pure kitsch, and then there’s the grandiose singing of Lotte Lehman and Richard Tauber from the ‘20s. It’s the victory of what Susan Sontag calls camp. These elements become something new that not only has ironic remove, but manages to spring over that, too, so as to find new, expressive force.” 

 For Shadow of Angels, Schmid adapted a controversial play that the filmmaker described as an “evil fairy tale” and Frankfurt Jews protested against for being ostensibly ‘anti-Semitic’ (one of the lead characters is named simply ‘the Rich Jew’), with Schroeter remarking regarding the work: “Fassbinder was very taken by the approach to his play “Garbage, the City and Death”, that Daniel filmed as “Shadow of Angels”. The film is pure Daniel but also pure Fassbinder.” Indeed, Shadow of Angels is undoubtedly one of the most brazenly dark, misanthropic, and simple yet esoteric films of German New Cinema as a work about a melancholy prostitute whose ex-nazi father (portrayed by Austrian actor Adrian Hoven, who was originally famous for starring in sentimental Heimat films) used to gas Jews during the good old days and now makes a living as a nocturnal third rate drag queen.  Due to his keenness for kitsch and high-camp aesthetics, Schmid was attacked as a supposed fascist by leftist filmgoers and critics alike, with Schmid remarking regarding his intent with his first feature at a press conference: “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.” If anything is apparent while watching his German era films, it is that he was infatuated with divas and you know you have a problem when a queen like Schroeter states of you, “Daniel saw a diva in everyone. He even tried to sell his aunt as an odd diva. Daniel was a diva addict. They were hidden everywhere, and you only had to bring this out in order to draw forth this artificiality and create a diva’s pseudo immortality.” After completing his Swiss-French work Hécate (1982)—a film set in a French Arab colony during the end of colonialism based on a novel by French fascist novelist/diplomat Paul Morand—Schmid permanently relocated back to Switzerland where he made more conventional and less campy works like Jenatsch (1987), Hors saison (1992) aka Off Season, and Beresina, or the Last Days of Switzerland (1999). Although Schmid would live until 2006, he would never complete another film after Beresina.  Ironically, like his friend Werner Schroeter, Schmid died of a form of cancer that obstructed his ability to speak and unfortunately he was unable to realize his final film Portovero, which he had already began shooting. 

 While I typically find reviewing documentaries, especially those about filmmakers, to be rather redundant, Daniel Schmid - Le chat quie pense is undoubtedly an imperative work for anyone with an interest in European arthouse cinema of the late-1960s to early 1980s. Admittedly, I have always been disappointed in Schmid’s post-Fassbinder era films (though I still have yet to track down Violanta (1978), which, as pointed out in the doc, was made during the filmmaker’s happiest point in life), yet the Swiss auteur filmmaker’s first three features alone are more important than most of his contemporaries’ entire oeuvres, but he seemed to realize that himself when he stated in an interview regarding Tonight or Never, “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.” Indeed, Schmid was an artist who understood that the only real art is highly personalized as demonstrated by his rather revealing remark, “In describing someone else, you are in fact describing yourself … rather than this stranger, because it is your projection; in actual fact, this says more about you than about this other person, who has long departed (…),” so it should be no surprise that he also stated of the filmmakers of his generation, “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, while one would expect it to be common that there is nothing more pathetic than an idealistic bourgeois boob who has never worked an single day in their entire life pretending to sympathize with the working-class, it seems that Schmid came from an exceedingly ethno-masochistic generation of decadent degenerates who worshipped ugliness and weakness. Of course, Schmid was an authentic fellow who had no problem admitting he was an unrepentant diva and high-camp addict with a sentimental fondest for opera and old hotels and every one of his films, from Tonight or Never to Beresina, demonstrates this. A surprisingly worthwhile work for Schmid novices and fanatics alike, Daniel Schmid - Le chat quie pense is as loving a tribute to Schmid as Schmid’s own documentary Tosca’s Kiss (1984) was to the elderly retired opera singers of Casa Verdi that is so candidly portrayed. Despite his affinity for kitsch and camp, Schmid, like the subjects of Tosca’s Kiss, also had an affinity for classical European kultur which made him stick out among his contemporaries, hence why his works have aged as gracefully as the finest of wines and silent films. Indeed, in that sense, Schmid is worthy of being named in the same sentence with the likes of his heroes F.W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg.

-Ty E

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