Saturday, June 16, 2018

Olaf Möller: Barbet Schroeder

Expect the unexpected is the name of Barbet Schroeder’s game: Whenever you think you’ve been able to pinpoint his art he’ll come up with something so different from everything he did so far yet so him it hurts. Being a polymath of cinema and a polyglot of genres, he’ll deliver with the same ease: a prime piece of Hollywood genre glory à la Kiss of Death (1995) as he’ll do a formally experimental auteur film like La virgen de los sicarios (2000); an essayistic documentary on a gorilla talking in sign language (Koko, le gorille qui parle, 1978) as well as a drama centred on a women refusing to speak what’s ostensibly her mother tongue (Amnesia, 2015); a casually ironic look at the rites of sadomasochism (Maîtresse, 1975) and the rites of gambling (Tricheurs, 1984); a documentary series and a fiction feature looking at the same subject, as he did with the double The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1985) & Barfly (1987). And as we all know: Nothing confuses the middle brow more than an auteur who doesn’t play by the rule that reads Stick to doing what seems to be your thing, but instead prefers to constantly try out new aesthetic approaches – or, quite the contrary, seems to be happy doing a commercial job by the book and well at that.

And so far we only talked about the director and not the producer and distributor: As the co-founder of Les Films du Losange, Schroeder became one of the most decisive figures in French 60s cinema: Besides always taking care of his own exploits, he saw to it that his life-long friend Éric Rohmer could do whatever he wanted (after the misadventures of his brilliant feature debut Le Signe du Lion, 1959/62) starting with La Boulangère de Monceau (1963); over the course of the decades, he’d back maverick undertakings like Frédéric Mitterrand’s Lettres d’amour en Somalie (1982) with the same gusto as big Euro arthouse productions like Volker Schlöndorff’s Un amour de Swann (1984).

Schroeder was born in Iran in 1941, the son of a Swiss geologist and a German physician. The latter saw to it that after a divorce her son went to school in France. His penchant for the extreme and apart was witnessed by his fiction feature debut: More (1969), arguably the only movie ever that managed to make drugs look really sexy. With his third feature, the documentary Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (1974), Schroeder upped the ante: he spend a lot of time filming a mass murdering sociopath being merry and doing terrible things; Idi Amin became the first example of evil incarnate Schroeder faced, to be followed by Jacques Vergès, one of the most mysterious figure of international law and underground politics who’d over the course of his career defend some of 20th century’s worst perps in court (L’Avocat de la terreur, 2007), as well as a rather obscure figure like Ashin Wirathu, the face and voice of Buddhist fascism in Burma (Le Vénérable W., 2017). With Barfly followed by Reversal of Fortune (1990), Schroeder set off towards Hollywood and two decades of small gems like Single White Female (1992) or Before and After (1996) that did little to endear him with the arthouse crowd but brought intelligent entertainment to the masses. In between these, he’d shoot some truly off-beat projects, like the above-mentioned La virgen de los sicarios which is half surrealist delirium and half vériste exposé on the Medellin drug cartel, or the extraordinary Inju: la Bête dans l’ombre (2008), a brilliant adaptation of a Japanese crime literature classic that becomes a cautionary tale about Westerners who think they understand some foreign country better than its inhabitants.

Schroeder, a true cosmopolitan, knows that home is nowhere to be found and danger lurks around every corner. Which makes life interesting, of course.

Olaf Möller

Midnight Sun Film Festival 2018

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