Days of Twilight, Nights of Frenzy: A Memoir

Days of Twilight, Nights of Frenzy: A Memoir


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Days of Twilight, Nights of Frenzy: A Memoir by Werner Schroeter, Claudia Lenssen

Werner Schroeter was a leading figure of New German Cinema. In more than forty films made between 1967 and 2008, including features, documentaries, and shorts, he ignored conventional narrative, creating instead dense, evocative collages of image and sound. For years, his work was eclipsed by contemporaries such as Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Alexander Kluge. Yet his work has become known to a wider audience through several recent retrospectives, including at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Written in the last years of his life, Days of Twilight, Nights of Frenzy sees Schroeter looking back at his life with the help of film critic and friend Claudia Lenssen. Born in 1945, Schroeter grew up near Heidelberg and spent just a few weeks in film school before leaving to create his earliest works. Over the years, he would work with acclaimed artists, including Marianne Hopps, Isabelle Huppert, Candy Darling, and Christine Kaufmann. In the 1970s, Schroeter also embarked on prolific parallel careers in theater and opera, where he worked in close collaboration with the legendary diva Maria Callas. His childhood; his travels in Italy, France, and Latin America; his coming out and subsequent life as an gay man in Europe; and his run-ins with Hollywood are but a few of the subjects Schroeter recalls with insights and characteristic understated humor.

A sharp, lively, even funny memoir, Days of Twilight, Nights of Frenzy captures Schroeter’s extravagant life vividly over a vast prolific career, including many stories that might have been lost were it not for this book. It is sure to fascinate cinephiles and anyone interested in the culture around film and the arts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226019116
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/20/2017
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Werner Schroeter (1945-2010) was a German filmmaker who made such films as The Death of Maria Malibran, Day of the Idiots, and The Rose King. In 2008, he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for his life’s work. In addition to his work in film, he directed numerous theatrical and operatic productions.

Claudia Lenssen is a film scholar and critic who writes for numerous film publications. She lives and works in Berlin.

Anthea Bell has worked as a translator for many years. Her translations from German include modern and classic fiction by authors such as E. T. A. Hoffmann and Kafka, as well as work by Stefan Zweig.

Read an Excerpt

Days of Twilight, Nights of Frenzy

A Memoir

By Werner Schroeter, Claudia Lenssen, Anthea Bell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-01911-6


Vous êtes pardonné, Werner

I first met the wonderful Maria Callas in Paris. It must have been in 1974, or just a bit later. I had been invited to a banquet at the Greek Embassy, and the ambassador's wife said, "I know you'd like to sit next to Maria." With my ripped jeans and boots, I must have looked very much a punk among the elegant Louis XIV and Louis XV furnishings. Then I was seated on one of those exquisite chairs beside Maria Callas. She was enthroned on several silk cushions and wore a beautiful emerald-green Balenciaga dress with magnificent jewelry, not an excessive amount of it but well chosen, and her hair was exquisitely arranged. She looked really beautiful at such close quarters. Then I thought: I'll stake everything on a single throw. If I lose, I lose. I'll act the way I am. Luckily my knowledge of music and of her life and work saved me.

But in the course of our serious conversation about the recording of the 1955 guest performance in Berlin of the La Scala, Milan, production of Lucia di Lammermoor, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, I suddenly succumbed to an impulse to take Signora Callas by the ear, turn her head, and look at her very closely. A moment's silence, a look, some ooh-ing and ah-ing. As we talked, we kept switching between English, French, and Italian, and I said, "You're so beautiful, I can't believe you haven't had a facelift. How can anyone be as beautiful as that?" She merely replied, "Vous êtes pardonné, Werner!" (You're forgiven, Werner). And so our conversation went on and was very amusing. At one point I didn't want to go on sitting with my nose in my cup; I wanted to be a towering figure myself, so I climbed up on the sofa and sat on the back, and she looked up and said, "Well, does that really make any difference to you?" I slipped down again. She was a woman with a wonderful sense of humor. It was melancholy humor and expressed her vulnerability. I once heard her say, "I've lost everything. My voice is done, it seems. I don't have a man, I don't have a child, isn't it funny?"

But I had gained something. When the evening came to an end, and her chauffeur signaled that it was time to leave, she let me know that I could go to drink tea with her in the next few days. And so we developed a tentative friendship that I felt was wonderful — or no, a rapprochement. We'd have had to know each other longer to call it friendship. I was overjoyed.

In fact, the day I visited the Greek Embassy had begun with me crouching in the shower, puking. By the evening I had thrown up as much as Callas herself before a performance, which she did every time, purging herself both above and below so as to appear onstage as a figure of purity. I, on the other hand, was puking out of excitement. So that evening I felt light, almost airborne, when I arrived for the banquet — not that that prevented me from getting fresh with her, in my usual way.

She once told me that she knew only people who were afraid of her. That struck me as impossible, because I couldn't feel afraid of her myself. She was so friendly and warmhearted, still like a little girl at the age of fifty. I asked her what she'd think if I wrote a newspaper column saying that Maria Callas was looking for a man, because I was sure any number would reply. She thought that very amusing.

And here is an even better story: a few weeks before her death in September 1977, we were talking about music that can be sung even when the upper register of the voice is not what it used to be, a subject that I had to approach delicately. She told me that she wanted to go on trying to sing. By chance, I found a cassette on her piano, and when she briefly left the room, I switched on the recorder and listened to what she had been recording with her singing coach. It was Leonora's "Pace, pace," from the final act of The Force of Destiny, superbly sung. When she was alone, then, she could obviously still sing. There was a score open on the piano, from Rossini's Barber of Seville, that had been written out in the nineteenth century by the singer Maria Malibran.

Learning that Maria Malibran had also been a composer, I researched the songs that she had written. Like her sister, Pauline Viardot (later the muse of Hector Berlioz and later still Turgenev's lover in Baden-Baden), Maria Malibran was artistically extremely creative, but she died at the early age of twenty-eight after a concert in Manchester.

In the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, Antoine, a friend of mine, finally found something that I was keen to track down: Malibran's song "Tac, tac, qui battera sera la mort" [Tap, tap, that will be Death knocking]. I had no new envelope, so I sent a copy of the score to Maria Callas in a used one, crossing out the names to which it had been sent before and writing her address over them. That was the behavior of a punk, careless and unforgivable, but the contents of the old envelope could have interested her. It must have been one of the last letters she ever received.

One day in September 1977 when I was sitting in the canteen of the Bochum theater where I was directing Miss Julie, Tamara Kafka came in and said, "Oh, there you are, Werner. Maria Callas died today." It shook me badly. What a terrible mistake on the part of the deity to take back that messenger of the gods! It seemed to me an inconceivable phenomenon.

My friend Maria Schell was rehearsing in Bochum at the same time for Fernando Arrabal's play The Tower of Babel, directed by Arrabal himself. After hearing Tamara's news, I instinctively changed into black leather. I was very thin at the time and looked funny. Back in the canteen, Maria Schell, who was still there, or maybe back there again, looked at me. I had an aura of mourning around me, radiating a broken heart, as I put it in my requiem on the death of Maria Callas, a piece that appeared in Der Spiegel [and is republished in this book as an appendix]. Maria Schell was to give a live radio interview in Cologne that evening and had a Mercedes available — at no expense to her, of course. And as she really was a dear friend to me, she said, "You come too, Werner. We'll stick together today." Maria drove us to Cologne herself. I was in a strange state of mind, there and not there at the same time. Maria took me with her into the studio, where the editor asked, "Who's that, Frau Schell? Some kind of weirdo?" To which she inquired, "Are you a racist? This is an extremely talented young artist, and I mean that seriously, my dear fellow." So although he gritted his teeth, he had to put up with my presence and my occasional contributions to the program.

Then it was late. We had something to eat in Cologne and drove back to Bochum at about midnight. I was all churned up with grief, a pater dolorosa and an orphaned child. The woman who was like the Mother of God to me, that messenger who determined my fate, was dead. Just as my real mother determined my corporeal life, Maria Callas inspired my artistic life. It was a dreadful loss. Somewhere between Cologne and Bochum, Maria felt exhausted, and I was at the end of my tether. We pulled into a parking bay just off the autobahn, she pushed the seats back, and we fell asleep. When the sun awoke us, we yawned and slowly moved off again. It was nine in the morning when we reached Bochum. We drank the contents of a huge pot of coffee, and then Maria went off to her rehearsal with Arrabal, and I to my own rehearsal of Miss Julie with Ingrid Caven, Wolfgang Schumacher, and Tamara Kafka. So that had been the day of the death of Maria Callas.

A day later Der Spiegel called to ask if I would write her obituary. I didn't have the patience to sit down and write, so I dictated the text between rehearsals to a charming secretary from the theater manager's office, ad hoc, without recording it or reading a proof. It took a little while, and the magazine even postponed printing the edition by a day so that the article could be included.

I think what I wrote was good. It contains the essentials about the damage that Maria Callas attracted to herself, the damage done to her. She wasn't able to cope with it because she came from another sphere, and her criteria of life and art had little to do with banality, so it brought her down. Her death was a strange one: she got up in the morning, went to eat breakfast, and died — maybe of heart failure. It was never fully explained. A few years ago I read that she suffered from a skin disease of unknown origin on her back and her throat, which were not on public view. Her death came when she was suffering from deep depression, involving all kinds of men. To me, it meant the loss of a great love, a divine gift taken from me too soon, for I would so much have wished for more meetings with her.


Spiritual mother, natural mother

A year before the death of Maria Callas, my mother died. A few hours earlier, I had had to go to Munich for the première of a show with Ingrid Caven, the first chanson recital that Ingrid ever gave. When she was still with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Daniel Schmid and I had discovered her as a singer, before Yves Saint Laurent later arranged for her to appear at the Théâtre Pigalle in Paris.

After the show the phone rang. My brother was on the line, to tell me that our mother was dead. He and I had been caring for her together until the morning of that very day. I remember how we sat in our little house in Heidelberg-Dossenheim, talking, while our mother lay in her bed upstairs, knocked out with morphine. She was the first of many close to me to suffer from cancer. My whole family has died of that disease.

Her death was traumatic for me, as a mother's death is, I think, for anyone who is sensitive. Earlier, before anyone (including she) knew she was sick, I woke up suddenly in the night and fell out of bed, crying out that she was going to die. The mystic link between mother and child is extremely strong. That link, that mutual relationship, remains alive, transcending all boundaries. It was like that with my natural mother and also with my spiritual mother, Maria Callas.

I remember that, when my mother died, I retreated into myself. The year 1976 was a sad one. Her death marked the end of a kind of dream life in which everything seemed to happen at one remove, including my work. That's because her existence constituted home for me. I could be in Los Angeles, Mexico City, or somewhere at the back of beyond, and yet a moment would always come when I fell into a nest representing her. Lying in bed, with the windows darkened, dreaming and recuperating, was perhaps a case of leaving the nest in reverse. You can recover your strength in the place where you feel at home. When there was no such place for me anymore, I experienced self-alienation on a large scale. Yet I made the best of it, for I worked more after my mother's death than in the seven years before it.

But eventually things looked up again; I was asked to direct a play at the theater in Bochum. It was Miss Julie, with Ingrid Caven as Julie, Wolfgang Schumacher as the servant Jean, and Tamara Kafka as his fiancée, Christin. This Strindberg play, in a translation by Peter Weiss, was a great favorite of mine, and it was a fine production. Ingrid was excellent, prissy and at the same time erotic. My friend Alberte Barsacq created wild costumes; my companion Magdalena Montezuma worked with me and Jan Moewes to design a beautiful set. The struggle for power and love in the play turned into a curious hybrid between Strindberg's own period and an elegant Folies Bergère show. The life of Miss Julie celebrated life itself, even when trodden underfoot.

Looking back, I came to realize that things are always interconnected. Grief has always been a part of my life, as have loving relationships, friendship, and my artistic work, whether in movies, stage plays, or opera. I felt that, like Diderot's Jacques le fataliste, I had become a stoic: I understood that every aspect of life rises organically from another.


My model family

I was born in 1945, in Georgenthal in Thuringia, a resort near Gotha to which visitors came for its healthy air. When I was six, my father, Hans, said that after the Nazi period he didn't want to live under another repressive regime, so he emigrated from the German Democratic Republic with my mother, Lena, my Polish grandmother, Elsa, my elder brother, Hans-Jürgen, and me and started again from scratch.

At first we lived in a hastily constructed working-class housing development outside the city of Bielefeld. I still remember the gloomy ruins in the city. Everything I saw outside me was so alien to my feelings that my grandmother and her dreams became the world I lived in. Incidentally, the building of the Berlin Wall left me cold and had no effect on the rest of our family either. We had said goodbye to Georgenthal, and a great deal of time had passed since we left it and before the Wall was built in 1961.

My parents may have met in Berlin, where my mother, the daughter of a baroness, studied medicine. She originally wanted to be a medical doctor, but she became a housewife and mother instead. In those days, women hardly ever thought of pursuing a profession after marriage, and she probably did not want one by then. My father came from a farming family that ran a dairy in Thuringia. He himself was an engineer and inventor, and he developed special hand-brake power intensifiers for use in agricultural machinery, among other things. He had built up his factory in Georgenthal by his own efforts, and later he began again in Geretsried, near Munich, where the firm he founded still exists today.

I don't know how my father managed to avoid being conscripted into the army during the war. He never talked about it, but he was a clever man, and maybe his factory was needed at the time. We had a beautiful family villa in Georgenthal, and after the reunification of Germany I inherited it. I went to see the house that my father had left for the sake of freedom. By now it was a home for senior citizens, and it would have been so terrible to turn the old people out that I decided it could stay as it was. Furthermore, the dilapidated building on an unattractive plot of land was not worth much. Today it stands empty.

My father was a very liberal man who never complained of losing all he owned when we came to the West, and I think highly of him for that. As a child I thought that his tolerance was almost like indifference, and only years later did I realize that it was his way of accepting the nature of society. For instance, homosexuality was never an issue in my family, and there was a time when I alternated between boyfriends and girlfriends, although my erotic links to the men were always stronger than those I felt for the girls with whom I also slept.

It was the human qualities and not the sexual orientation of my partners of both sexes that my father appreciated, and he usually liked them. He took it all as perfectly normal. If I came home with a male partner, that was that. I couldn't be forbidden anything on that level; I might be quiet, calm, and gentle, but I had a certain forcefulness in which there was a kind of nonviolent authority.

My brother and I grew up with a good deal of freedom, if not to say actually running wild. My mother was a lovable and indeed a loving woman, although she had her flaws, like every other human being. She clung to the love of her sons, which was sometimes difficult for me and was even more difficult for my brother, who never entirely managed to break away from our parents.

I learned a great deal from my parents, my brother, and our relatives on my mother's side of the family, none of whom were materialists. But I had no real relationship with my paternal grandparents, and didn't like them. The way my father and mother lived showed us that life itself is what counts, and you have to grasp the present. I'm not interested in material things either. I see the ideal way of life as two or three suitcases, a good hotel, maybe a crate full of books and music as well. Although I'll admit that life is inconvenient if you don't have any money.

My beloved Polish grandmother Elsa Buchmann, born Baroness von Rodjow, would have loved to be an actress; it was her great dream. She had a real talent for the art of drama, but as a baroness and married off to a stout, choleric attorney at the age of seventeen, she could never live that dream. Our parents, too, took an interest in the arts, but the main influence on us came from our grandmother. She could neither stand repression nor exert it; instead, she turned everything into fantasy. When we went for walks with her, she told us crazy stories, until we came to the cemetery, where we would have a picnic on the grave of our great-grandparents. She read us fairy tales that I have never forgotten, and I keep rediscovering them in my work to this day.

I have much to thank my grandmother for; she awakened my imagination. I remember just how she could say that a chair was a palace, a flowerpot was the jungle. I was fascinated by such freedom in her way of treating inanimate objects; we had plenty of scope to move in her strange, daydream reality. She could transform everything: for instance, as if we were in a boat on the Nile, and there was a problem — then along came the Snow Queen, who found the weather too warm, and we had to find ice to keep her from melting. Or my grandmother would say that my brother and I — he was about ten and I was seven — should put our ears to the streetcar rails and hear the Indians come riding up. Or following her instructions we must piss everywhere to mark out our own part of Indian territory, something that really shocked the good bourgeois folk of the time. She designed a magical world that was very tolerant and incredibly creative. I owe such a great deal of my magination to her.


Excerpted from Days of Twilight, Nights of Frenzy by Werner Schroeter, Claudia Lenssen, Anthea Bell. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface, by Claudia LenssenVous êtes pardonné, Werner
Spiritual mother, natural mother
My model family
Innocence has a friend in heaven
The sun of the night
Muse, companion, friend—Magdalena Montezuma
Rosa/Holger and Carla—the beginning of my artistic work
Argila and Neurasia
Eika Katappa
 . . . and what came of it
Salome in Baalbek
Beautiful is ugly, ugly is beautiful
The Death of Maria Malibran
Emilia Galotti; or, How the theater discovered me
Willow Springs
Gods in decline
El Angel
A sense of the world—journeys in Latin America
Flocons d’or
One must leave so as to understand
Madness, the key to all hearts
Naples in winter
Champagne Schroeter
The White Journey
Abroad in Germany and Italy
The Bavarian Sausage Conspiracy
La patrie de l’âme
Failure makes you human
Day of the Idiots
A blasphemous clan
Réveille-moi à midi
The Rose King

I and alcohol—alcohol and I
Grief, Longing, Rebellion
My theatrical family
Where words end, music begins
The Queen
Enough breath for my life
All that life devours
The last love, friendship
The way to something new
This Night
Afterword, by Claudia Lenssen
The prima donna’s broken heart, by Werner Schroeter
Canceling out unbearable reality: A conversation between Monika Keppler and Claudia Lenssen
Life’s work
Test films, fragments, incomplete projects
Live performance (plays, musical theater, opera, dance theater)
Distinctions and film awards (a selection)
Index of Names

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