The Death of Maria Malibran (1972)

By Peter Valente.

Werner Schroeter has carried the torch for free expression in cinematic art, and shares with many of these underground filmmakers, particularly Jack Smith, a desire for excess and theatricality. But it was a freedom that was won by overcoming obstacles.”

Werner Schroeter lived in New York City during the 70s and travelled widely throughout the United States (Willow Springs was shot in California) so he was familiar with many aspects of American Culture including film, theatre, and literature. In fact, after having seen Gregory J. Markopoulos’s underground film, Twice a Man (1963), at the Knokke-le-Zoute in 1967, he resolved at that moment to be a filmmaker. He also met Candy Darling, the transgender actress of Warhol fame, who appeared in The Death of Maria Malibrun, in New York, in 1971, when traveling there with his muse, the actress, Magdalena Montezuma. His early films, such as Neurasia (1968), and Argila (1969) were from a time when he was absorbing and thinking about underground films. I think it would be useful to draw some parallels between what the underground filmmakers surrounding Anthology Film Archives in New York, in the 60s and 70s, were experiencing in their attempt to avoid the lure of Hollywood, and Schroeter’s struggles at the beginning of his film career. 

Werner Schroeter

So what is underground film? One quick definition is any film made without commercial considerations. This usually means with little or no budget and a minimum of staff and equipment (perhaps only the filmmaker himself and his camera, and the world in front of him). In his autobiography, Schroeter writes that he began making films as a “dilettante, dealing with everything myself – the camera, the lighting, the cutting, and arranging the music too, because I enjoyed it.” [1] Schroeter began making short experimental films, such as his one on the diva, Maria Callas, [2] from slides of her with only the sound of her singing on the soundtrack. Using such a simple set up, the film anticipates much of what would be important in his films: the stylized aspect of the photos, the image of the iconic diva, and the use of opera. They all point to the mannerism that is central to Schroeter’s art.

One important and influential film, that reminds me of Schroeter’s aesthetic in his early films, is Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963). There is the same kind of theatrically, over the top drama, and use of popular songs. There is something so furious and ecstatic in this film that it defies any absorption into mainstream culture, much like Schroeter’s. In Flaming Creatures, transvestism is a commentary not only on the gender roles we assume in society but also on the sexual power games in relationships. Transgressing our ideas of submission and domination destabilizes gender roles, and, in the film, this creates a whirling sexual energy that is ecstatic. Its metaphysics are so naturally expressed. It is as if Smith would have liked to reconfigure heaven as a place for his “creatures” to roam in an aura of decadent luxury, as if in a nightclub. Space in the film is collapsed and we, the viewers, are disoriented; the film is, perhaps, calling on us to experience the same dizzying descent into transgressive pleasure. This also reminds me of Schroeter’s films, such as The Death of Maria Malibran. A fight against the demons of sexuality was waged by many of these filmmakers and constituted a central theme in many underground films, such as those by Carolee Schneemann. I would also include Werner Schroeter among those filmmakers whose films explored sexuality in an unabashed way.

Flaming Creatures

Underground filmmakers in the 60s worked to dismantle the influence of the Hollywood film which stood for popular entertainment, inflated budgets, hackneyed plots, and behind it all a faceless director orchestrating his puppet show. The auteur theory (which came to prominence in Europe in the mid 50s) did not catch on quickly in the U.S. And yet the director / filmmaker in underground cinema was a kind of auteur operating without the hierarchical structure that Hollywood filmmaking involves; often it was just the filmmaker and his camera, often rented, and perhaps only his friends as “actors.” (I shot my first few films with a small point and shoot Canon camera, and a few friends and then, in my later films, dispensed with “actors” entirely; I used myself as an “actor” when needed, or random people, and created sixty short films, twenty-four of which were shown at Anthology Film Archives in NYC.) Schroeter also used the same actresses in his films, such as Carla Aulaulu, in his early films, and Magdalena Montezuma, who appeared in the early films and many others; she was his muse up until her death; he also occasionally appeared in his early films, such as when he filmed himself directing an actor in Eika Kappara (1969).

What unified many of these underground filmmakers was their outsider status: Jonas Mekas was a Lithuanian immigrant, Peter Kubleka, an Austrian, Kenneth Anger was gay, Maya Deren, a voodoo priestess, and Jack Smith was also gay and thought himself the reincarnation of Maria Montez! Schroeter was gay and marginalized. He is the least known of the filmmakers of the so called New German Cinema, though Fassbinder was his good friend and famously supported him. But many of these filmmakers are still not widely known. About Schroeter, William E. Jones writes, “I could recount the injustice of a film culture where Werner Schroeter is invisible, but this would require lending credence to the notion of film culture itself and having faith in institutions to make things right.” [3]

In America, these underground filmmakers were brought together in the 60s because they were unified against the system. System here means: the supporters of the Vietnam war, those who opposed Civil Rights, and all those who try to constrain the freedoms of the mind and the body. These filmmakers had something very real to fight against. What about today? It seems as though artists aspire to join the system rather than fight against it. There is no excuse for that or is there? It boils down to economics. The lure of Hollywood is greater than ever because of the revenue a moderately popular film can generate. But Schroeter had his own ideas about Hollywood:

I wasn’t enthusiastic about Hollywood…There are some American films I admire, like Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, but that wasn’t a classic Hollywood film. And of course there were traces of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? And Sunset Boulevard in Willow Springs. But my ideas came from Shakespeare, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi, not from Hollywood. Despite my travels and adventures in the USA, I consider myself a European artist.” [4]

Eika Kappara

Making it in Hollywood is a risky business. Like the stock exchange. Like the cost of living. Then there is the availability of equipment. University funding. Of course the Academy of Hollywood also conscripts ideas from mass or alternative culture for its own purposes. But it will not be entirely comfortable with it acquisitions until it transforms them into something that the masses can consume. I was interested in Schroeter’s films because I was also making films without commercial consideration. I could identify with the financial problems Schroeter often spoke about in his autobiography. And mainstream American film culture has largely been unable to assimilate his films in their discourse as evidenced by the paucity of writings about him in English.  

Film schools are concerned with techniques and theories. Each graduate leaves prepared with tools to confront the complexities of his time i.e. to earn a living. This reminds me of a funny story. It’s said that NYU film students look down upon sexually explicit scenes in films because they are interested in turning a quick profit by exploiting a well-known genre. This is the reason a student film is almost always a horror film (or perhaps nowadays, a kind of romantic film). That is, a film that has the potential to make a quick profit before it’s converted to DVD and sold on Amazon. But one such filmmaker at NYU entered the porn business quite by chance. His friends laughed at him. But they weren’t laughing when he eventually sold his films to Hustler magazine for three million dollars! So while film students are reaching for the stars, underground filmmakers have their feet planted firmly on the ground. Most of these students eventually end up teaching in universities. After all, a loft in the East Village costs much more that it did, say, in 1965, because of the Real Estate boom in the 80s, and those wealthy investors who eventually bought up all the properties in Lower Manhattan.

We live in the age of the professional. The word amateur is a derogatory term these days, suggesting someone without the requisite skills or equipment. In this sense, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Harry Smith, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Marie Menken, Carolee Schneemann, and Maya Deren are all amateurs. But inspired amateurs, nevertheless. People these days attempt to rehabilitate the word amateur by using the contemporary acronym DYI: Do It Yourself. But if you’re so inclined, you could also find a copy of Filmmaking for Dummies on your kindle! In his biography, Schroeter wrote, “I finally dropped out of my pseudotheoretical studies of film in Munich. I wanted to get at the camera and the cutting table; I wanted to work at my trace in practice and in my mind. Then I did apply to the College of Film in Berlin, and so did Rainer Werner Fassbinder” but they were both rejected. Shroeter continues: “When we spoke at seminars later, the story of that rejection was always good for a laugh.” [5]

Remember those 8mm home movies? The small intimate film. What happened to the small intimate film? The personal film? “Don’t step on my blue suede shoes” is personal. But also political. It’s about personal freedom. In Schroeter’s films the amateur is given center stage; like these underground filmmakers, Schroeter’s films, are intimate, especially when showing the private world of women, without all the special effects of a large production that are common these days. Schroeter’s films are also divinely escapist, in that they the world they create is one a viewer can indulge in without the preachiness of so much “intellectual” cinema. Edward Dimendberg writes:

Whether spectators decide to follow the winding trails of Schroeter’s intertexts to their philosophical summits or to forgo interpretation and allow the allusions in the film to wash over them, watching the film is to plunge into erudite melancholy, a grim meditation on mortality whose dense web of citations provides a counterpoint to the violence and terror expounded in the narrative. Intertexuality functions not as a form of bragging intended to burnish the intellectual credentials of Schroeter, but rather proposes the myriad cultural references in the film as viable escape routes – instructions for living – that enable aesthetic transcendence of an intolerable reality.” [6]

The films are a catalogue of his obsessions: opera, the diva, silent film, theatre, art, literature, music. It is an intoxicating brew for anyone who wants something original. 

These underground filmmakers in America lived through the political and moral outrage of the 60s and created films in opposition to what they saw as an attack on personal freedom, on the self. This movement of filmmakers in New York galvanized around the idea of the inviolability of the self. This gave birth to the lyrical film. Roy Grundmann writes, in “The Passions of Werner Schroeter”:

In the mid- to late 70s, after the generation of ’68 had undergone a sense of ideological calcification, watching a  Schroeter film was considered to be politically revivifying. For Koch, the exalted mimeticism of Schroeter’s films brought back memories of cinephile dinner parties during which the guests, inspired by party music, began to gesticulate in the manner of silent film actors, potentially producing a new lexicon of human interaction.” [7]

Meshes of the Afternoon (1945)

In America, I’m reminded of the diaristic films of Jonas Mekas, and of Stan Brakhage, who emerged from the lyrical film to become an essayist of the ontological; Kenneth Anger, who explored the spiritual nature of the self in his own films and through his exploration of the works of Aleister Crowley; Harry Smith, who revitalized the art of animation in films that also contained mystical and occult symbols; he was also, like Anger, a disciple of Aleister Crowley; and Bruce Connor, who legitimized the use of found footage with his politically charged yet undidactic interpretation of current events. I think of Marie Menken’s wit, and of Joseph Cornell, whose work is entirely created from found footage; or the great humanism and erotic force of James Broughten’s films. But towering above them all, because she was the first to theorize about and make underground films, is, of course, Maya Deren, whose Meshes of the Afternoon (1945) jumpstarted the movement. Werner Schroeter has carried the torch for free expression in cinematic art, and shares with many of these filmmakers, particularly Jack Smith, a desire for excess and theatricality. But it was a freedom that was won by overcoming obstacles. In his autobiography, Schroeter writes: “my path was one of organic, autodidactic development. Like my friends Rainer and Rosa [von Praunheim], I was obliged to adopt an energetic approach and to overcome obstacles.” [8] It is a great lesson for contemporary filmmakers.


[1] Werner Schroeter with Claudia Lenssen, trans. Anthea Bell. Days of Twilight Nights of Frenzy. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), Pg. 30.

[2] Maria Callas Portrait (8mm, 13 min, 1967)

[3] William E. Jones. But Our Life Depends on what’s Real (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2014), pg. 8.

[4] Autobiography, pg. 75

[5] Autobiography, pg. 29

[6] Edward Dimendberg, “’For and Against Interpretation: Nuit de chien (2008)” in Roy Grundmann, ed. Werner Schroeter (filmmuseumsynemapublikationen, 2018). Pg. 180.

[7] Roy Grundmann, “The Passions of Werner Schroeter,” in Roy Grundmann, ed. Werner Schroeter (filmmuseumsynemapublikationen, 2018). Pg. 24.

[8] Autobiography, pg. 30.

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full length books, including a translation of Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout (Commune Editions, 2017), which received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. His most recent book is a co-translation of Succubations and Incubations: The Selected Letters of Antonin Artaud 1945-1947 (Infinity Land Press, 2020). Forthcoming is a book of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum Books, 2020), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2021). Twenty-four of his short films have been shown at Anthology Film Archives. He is presently working on editing a book on Harry Smith.

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