MUBI's retrospective Spotlight on Barbet Schroeder is showing summer 2020 - spring 2021.
Trying to situate Barbet Schroeder on the film world-trend-map of the past six decades can be a tricky task. Coming on the scene as part of the MacMahonist group1, writing for Cahiers du cinéma mostly about American cinema in the late 1950s, Schroeder should be correctly considered a direct descendant of the politique des auteur. However, unlike other acknowledged “sons” of the New Wave, such as Jean Eustache and Philippe Garrel, this inheritance was not directly passed on to Schroeder when he began producing-directing his own stories, following the steps of his much admired Otto Preminger—in fact, his affective bonds with Cahiers didn’t protect him from the occasional scolding from the magazine’s “third-generation” critics: Serge Daney accused Schroeder of turning the subject of his documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974) into a stereotype, while Pascal Bonitzer was not impressed by Maîtresse (1976), though a few years later he would become the co-screenwriter of Schroeder’s Cheaters (1984).
Schroeder started out as a producer founding Les Films du Losange with Eric Rohmer in 1962, when the nouvelle vague was at its apogee, and when every aspiring filmmaker dreamed of being labelled as an auteur. Nevertheless, it’s much easier to trace a form of radical authorship in Schroeder’s forays into production—from the anthology film Six in Paris (1965) to Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973) and Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)—than in his eclectic body of work as a director, ranging from European meditations on the search of a paradise lost to documentaries about uneasy issues to American psycho-thrillers.
One could argue that Schroeder’s oeuvre, with its variety of perspectives and forms, may seem less the work of an obstinate auteur than that of a restless craftsman. A sort of wandering nature may stem from the filmmaker’s diffuse sense of belonging: he was born in Iran but left for Colombia by the age of three or four, and then moved to France when he was 11. “So I never felt completely French nor Colombian, and I never felt Swiss either, which is what my passport says. I never felt German either, because my mother was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and she would never speak German. So I don’t really have a home country.”2 The great Spanish cinematographer Néstor Almendros, who embellished Schroeder’s first five features, once characterized the filmmaker as an artist “particularly interested in the element of adventure which exists in all works of creation.”3 Accordingly, Schroeder tends to highlight the instinctive, boundless drive of his creative impulses over any form of coherence: “Cinema has allowed me to devote my compulsive, adventurous nature to a new subject every three years: power, masochism, primates and education, and now Charles Bukowski,”4 which was the subject of the documentary project The Bukowski Tapes (1982–1987) and the screenwriter of Schroeder’s Barfly (1987).
In the end, despite Schroeder’s unwillingness to admit that common threads run through his work—“I don’t like to think that I make pictures only if they fit in with what are supposedly my themes”5—it’s undeniable that certain thematic rhymes, recurrent motifs, and well-defined stylistic traits override the director’s diverse cinematic alphabet. So by dissecting some of this recurring traits—the asocial characters, the master-apprentice dynamics, the hybridizing of documentary and fiction, the ambivalent cold-empathic relationship between the filmmaker and his creatures—this piece, in a willingly distant, scarcely judgmental, purely Schroederian way, will play against the personal views of the subject in question.
THE FRINGES OF SOCIETY
One of the first things to catch the viewer’s attention when approaching Schroeder’s work is his interest for extreme behavior patterns, frequently set on the fringes of what the social regime considers to be respectable. A quick journey through Schroeder’s filmography leaves no doubt about the director’s thematic preferences: drug addiction in More (1969), a utopian search for a licentious Garden of Eden in The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) (1972), sadomasochism in Maîtresse, gambling in Cheaters, alcoholism in Barfly, and a wide range of psychotic personality disorders in a long list of American thrillers, among them, the exhilarating Single White Female (1992), Kiss of Death (1995), and Desperate Measures (1998). From this pool of opaque demeanors sprawl a dysfunctional family of discreetly rebellious characters, figures that accept their marginalized condition with ease, without the fatalistic view imposed by social correctness. As Gavin Smith pointed out in Film Comment, Schroeder “examines the moral and philosophical consequences of extreme forms of extra-social, if not antisocial, freedom. The dropout or subculture mentality of each film is fueled by a hedonism or an obsessive craving that threatens to destroy its communicants and jeopardize their very identities.”6
By accepting Schroeder’s invitation to get rid of any morbid or moralistic perspective, one can indulge in the director’s examination of different sources of pleasure hidden beyond the boundaries of social convention. An obsessive task that, for Schroeder’s characters, becomes an elemental way of life. It would be difficult to guess the professions of the depersonalized characters in More, the mysterious expeditionaries of The Valley, Olivier (Gérard Depardieu) in Maîtresse, the gamblers in Cheaters, or Henry Chinasky (Mickey Rourke) in Barfly. Not one of them has a conventional day job, just like Pasolini’s ragazzi da vita or Buñuel’s beggars and bourgeois; actually, they seem to have converted their exploration of hedonistic subcultures—driven by a mystic quest for paradise or self-destruction—into their full-time occupation. And the fact that most of these characters end up trapped in addictions turn Schroeder’s films into joyful handbooks of fetishistic rituals: the elaboration of the drug doses and the sexual foreplay in More, the liturgies of the Hagen tribe of New Guinea in The Valley—which tracea melancholic study of a culture on the verge of extinction—the theatrics of gun culture and the cult of media personality in General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, the S&M practice in Maîtresse, and the roulette ceremonials in Cheaters.
In an article published in the October 1965 issue of Cahiers du cinéma, Schroeder, fresh from his experience producing Six in Paris, advocated for “a new aesthetic of realism”7 based in the cost-saving use of 16mm stock footage, live sound, color, and natural sets. And though the 16mm strategy didn’t work out due to exhibition problems—an operator had to stand by the hybrid 16-35mm projectors at all times—the fundamentals of cinéma vérité sprawled all over Schroeder’s oeuvre, especially in his collaborations with Néstor Almendros, whose work was once described by Rohmer as “an ontological, Bazinian path: respecting nature, expressing its beauty.”8 In fact, it’s through this sensitive attention to nature’s intoxicating sumptuousness that More and The Valley—shot in the islands of Ibiza and New Guinea, respectively—trace their protagonists’ existential journeys. In both films, nature exerts a catalyzing effect on the protagonists’ inner states (peace, upheaval, harmony…). The jungle settings and the inhospitable wilderness trigger a process of liberation in the cosmopolitan characters, but—as taught by Roberto Rossellini, a filmmaker Schroeder adores—every revelation and epiphany comes with a price: a process of self-examination which puts to the test the character’s feelings and dreams.
But Schroeder’s vérité instincts transcend the study of the natural world or the fluid transitions between documentary and fiction, and also emerge in his personal involvement with his films’ real substratum. This way, though Maîtresse belongs to the world of fiction, Schroeder undertook an exhaustive documental research on the praxis of sadomasochism. Actually, in some of the most heated up scenes, real prostitutes replaced Bulle Ogier—the film’s protagonist and Schroeder’s wife—within the same take; she would leave the frame dressed in leather so they could enter to whip the clients with greater “professionalism.” As posed by the great Spanish film critic José Luis Guarner, Maîtresse’s “documental coldness is characteristic of the overall tone: the sadomasochistic theatre is not presented à la Ken Russell, or even à la Todd Browning, but from the almost phlegmatic stance of a The Times reporter. (…) Schroeder is much more like Tom Wolfe than one might think.”9
On the other (crucial) hand, Schroeder’s detached perspective coexists with an empathic approach to the characters’ amoral odysseys, a desire to comprehend which reveals an interest in the most passionate, subversive, and bewildering side of human nature. Asked about the feverish impulses of the protagonists of More, Maîtresse, and Cheaters—the latter inspired by the real life gambler Steve Baës, a good friend of Schroeder—the filmmaker stated: “To make a movie about passion implies making a picture about someone who forgets to win. You can make a movie about the passion of winning, like in so many American movies, but movies about a passion for sex, drugs or gambling have nothing to do with winning.”
Regarding Schroeder’s promiscuous inclination in his treatment of documentary and fiction—which aligns him with the heterodox career of Werner Herzog—Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978) should be considered his most impure endeavor. The project began with the shooting of 16mm documentary notes of the ape Koko, known for having learned more than 1,000 hand signs and for understanding approximately 2,000 words of spoken English. The idea was to make a fiction feature about a female primate trainer—a character based in Penny Paterson, Koko’s instructor and caregiver—who escaped to Africa to take her gorilla back to his natural habitat. But when Paterson refused to travel to Africa, and in spite of the fact that Sam Shepard had written 40 pages of the script, Schroeder decided to abandon what would’ve been his first American fiction film to focus on the completion of a documentary. To come full circle, in the making of Koko: A Talking Gorilla Schroeder didn’t renounce organizing the facts through fictional narrative patterns—as in the presentation of the zoo director as the ape’s antagonist—and benefited from Koko’s acting skills: “She noticed the little noise that the Éclair camera made, and acted differently when she knew she was being filmed. She was a true star, a cinema animal, an actress.”10
One of Schroeder’s most consistent interests has been the interaction between master and apprentice figures, as evidenced by the introduction to the drug culture of Stefan (Klaus Grünberg) by Estelle (Mismy Farmer) in More, the sadomasochistic lessons imparted by Ariane (Ogier) to Olivier (Depardieu) in Maîtresse, or the gambling training of Suzie (again Ogier) by Elric (Jacques Dutronc) in Cheaters. However, the real interest of Schroeder’s approach to the mentor-pupil dynamics is the fluid, ambiguous nature of the role-playing itself, a feature most evident in the filmmakers’ American thrillers. In Single White Female (1992), it’s the reluctance of Allison (Bridget Jones) to become an indulgent master for Hedra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that triggers the psychodrama and the criminal plot, while in Murder by Numbers—Schroeder’s take on the Leopold & Loeb case, the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959)—the whole teenage storyline revolves around the slippery, deceptive interaction between the arrogant, seductive Richard (Ryan Gosling) and the reserved, Nietzsche-obsessed Justin (Michael Pitt).
In Schroeder’s universe, apprentices can have two masters, as with the ex-con-turned-informer Jimmy Kilmartin (David Caruso) in the neo-noir Kiss of Death (1995), who subordinates almost masochistically to the personalities of a mutilated cop (Samuel L. Jackson) and an asthmatic and psychotic mobster (Nicolas Cage). But the pupil can also grow into a torchbearer, as in The Valley, where the wife of the Melbourne’s French consul (Ogier, once more) leaves behind her idle, bourgeois existence to end up commanding a Pink Floyd-musicalized expedition to a psychedelic promised land—all in all, a mixture of Jules Verne and Hermann Hesse, in the words of French critic Jean-Louis Bory from Le Nouvel Observateur.
But beyond the interactions within the film’s diegesis, maybe the most sophisticated “power game” of Schroeder’s filmography is the one the director himself “played” with the Ugandan ruthless dictator Idi Amin—responsible for the death of 300,000 Ugandans, mostly members of the Lango and Acholis ethnic groups, from his 1971 coup d’état to his leaving for exile in Saudi Arabia in 1978. General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait sprung from the deal Schroeder made with the genocide, convincing him that the project, produced by French television, would be a propagandistic endeavor. Schroeder proposed Amin to draw “a self-portrait,” with the dictator commanding the shooting of staged rallies, military maneuvers, and other displays of national pride—his directorial powers eloquently expressed by him yelling “film that helicopter!” to Néstor Almendros, the camera operator. However, the movie is essentially the caricature of a populist demagogue starring his own show. Without emphasizing a critical perspective, Schroeder’s film captures the eruptions of Amin’s demented and paranoid personality. In the end, the non-complacent result of Schroeder’s strategy became clear when the dictator—demanding the cutting of two and a half minutes from the film’s international cut—held 135 French citizens hostage in an Ugandan hotel, supplying them with Schroeder's home telephone number and conditioning their release to the filmmaker's acquiescence.
One of the cuts imposed by Amin (and restored when the dictator was driven from power) was the last sentence of the voice-over narration: “After a century of colonialism, isn’t it in part a deformed image of ourselves that Idi Amin Dada reflects?”, a rhetorical question that enriches the film’s dialectical nature, between portrait and self-portrait, colonial past and post-colonial present, the other and ourselves. But this wasn’t the last time that Schroeder would pose unwanted question on the face of the audience, and himself. With Terror's Advocate (2007)—a portrait of the controversial lawyer and anticolonial activist Jacques Vergès, most notorious for defending the terrorist Carlos the Jackal and the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie—the filmmaker went deep into what J. Hoberman has called “nightmare manifestations of the West come to reality.”11
Coincidentally, the nightmares Schroeder suffered from after a treacherous neighbor cut 30 cherished trees from the filmmaker’s property in Ibiza propelled him to shoot the brilliant 13-minute essay film Où en êtes-vous, Barbet Schroeder? (What are you up to, Barbet Schroeder?, 2017), commissioned by the Centre Pompidou on the occasion of a retrospective held by the Parisian cultural complex. Arranged as a poignant philosophical meditation on the nature of hatred—with philosopher Bernard Pautrat invoking Spinoza’s disapproval of the illusory, pernicious mechanics of hating—this short film follows the adventurous Schroeder to Burma, where he finds peace in the reencounter with the words of Buddha (he had traveled in 1961 to the historic locations of Buddhism), while at the same time he researches the genocide of the Rohingya people, spurred among others by the fundamentalist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, the subject of Schroeder’s last feature to date, The Venerable W. (2017). How can one deal with these blatant paradoxes? To which extent are these brutal contradictions inherent to human nature? In the end, that seems to be the true core of Schroeder’s film journey, as his irrepressible hunger for understanding shimmers as the only way to counterbalance the natural ebullience of evil and destruction.