I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The films of Daniel Schmid elaborate the sensual fantasies people call forth to veil reality, a response of desire to exigencies of the social order. His characters dream their fates, and in dreaming weave gorgeous arabesques from the image-hoard of High Romanticism (“the summer sell-out of 19th-century culture”). A Schmid film is typically set in motion at an exemplary moment of recognition in a person’s life: the recognition of the Other as the locus of transformative energies. The same moment, at the same time, is depicted as one of supreme delusion. Schmid’s purpose is neither to expose nor to endorse these negative epiphanies, but simply to give over-determined emotions and regressive sentimentality their proper weight into the lives of characters. No ecstasy can exist without sorrow and a degree, of self-delusion; the best part of a lifetime may be utterly irrelevant to the rest of it, or even fatal. These notions inform all of Schmid’s work; he acknowledges the destructive nature of emotional obsession, and places it, in a manner of speaking, within distancing visual parenthesis, but also recognizes something redemptive and necessary in the (increasingly rare) ability to feel anything intensely.
In person, and in his films, Schmid conveys a refreshingly philosophical civility, a quality he shares with his contemporary Werner Schroeter: a gregarious generosity of spirit comes through, as well as a breath of erudition and an immunity to received ideas that are particularly striking when one considers the scarcity of such qualities among American independent filmmakers.
Daniel Schmid When I talk about someone else, I talk about me, at a certain moment. If you tell me something about somebody, you tell me much more about you, than about the person. It should be like this, also, no? I mean, not in the sense of a constant radio program, which is sometimes quite tiring for other people—the danger is that those people who have their radio stations always on themselves, in this exhibitionistic way, get a little bit boring because they cannot receive, which means they never listen to other radio stations. They don’t support other radio stations, no? Isn’t this an experience you also have?
Gary Indiana Oh, all the time. But today is dedicated to Radio Daniel Schmid, (instead of me asking Daniel Schmid questions about Radio Werner Schroeter or Radio Ingrid Caven.) And I’ll ask you first about this film Miriam, which is listed in the catalogue of this Swiss Film Week, and which I’ve never heard of, Daniel.
DS Well, me too, actually. I never heard of it—I mean, I haven’t heard of it in 12 years. This has to do with a particularly German punctuality and bureaucracy, because I think it slipped in through all those cultural functionaries who are all the time in contact with each other, because what else do they have to do, instead of taking care of us—so some people of the Deutsche Filme Akadamie, I’m sure, do this very exact biography of people. This was a seven-minute try-out with a camera in the first year of film school. That’s all. It’s a seven-minute thing and I forgot completely, because while I went to film school I also did small movies in television, ten-minute things; with Rosa von Praunheim, we did a little movie about Samuel Beckett, which was Samuel Beckett walking in Berlin from the place where he was sleeping to the rehearsal of a play of his; we stayed on the same bridge for a fortnight filming Samuel Beckett walking by. In general the television didn’t accept those things afterwards. I never regarded them as that important. So Miriam slipped in through some German spy files. I don’t know if it even still exists, no idea.
GI What was the first real film?
DS Do Everything In The Dark. It’s a kind of invented documentary fiction about the last servant school in Europe, in Italy; you know, before the first world war there were millions of servants and butlers …
GI There’s a Walser novel about a servant school, Jakob von Gunten.
DS Yes, right, there’s a Walser novel; and there’s this wonderful thing by Jonathan Swift, Advice to Servants, that I took the title from; this got published in London in the 18th century. It has all these things like, “Never use your own knife, use the knife of your master, because your own knife you might use one day,” “Do everything in the dark, to save up the light of your master …” There’s a double sense to all of it, it came out and was quite a fashionable thing for one season in London, but of course it was never read by the people he gave this advice to because they couldn’t read. It was only the upper class that delighted in reading about how they should get killed by their servants. I shot it in Venice in five days, with Igor (Joczka), and with all these strange people I met there. An old mistress of Mussolini, and Principessa Cinni, the mother of this romantic figure in the ’40s who was so much in love with Merle Oberon that he flew over her house in Cap d’Antibes and every day threw thousands of roses down to her, and one day the plane crashed. People like that are in this movie.
GI The movie after that is about servants, too.
DS It’s about servants too, but it’s about master servant relationships. Tonight or Never. This is more a kind of definition—this is when I seriously thought I’d do movies. Because the climate in the early ’70s for this whole group we were somehow forming—Werner Schroeter, Rainer Fassbinder, all these people—at this time everybody was into political films, engaged films; and at this time everybody kind of looked at us like fascists. Or like completely useless. That was a time when I said, finally, “I want to do movies that are completely inutile and inoubliable”—what is it?
GI Useless and unforgettable.
DS Exactly. This was the period of this sozialekitsch, I would say, when all these bourgeoise people and intellectual people in Europe began taking care of the factory workers, without ever having spent one evening with a factory worker; it’s very far away now. I wanted to do a statement about how I would define my role in society. And it’s the classical old thing of the comedians, the clowns, the buffones, who are not really important; because we don’t change the world, we change nothing, the most you can do with a movie is to irritate; it’s an old, old thing, that if you overrate and overvalue things—these people who do movies and expect it to change people’s lives; in Tonight or Never I did a story about the role of these buffoons; a rich woman gives an invitation for them to come and for one night switch roles. Which in the Esterhazy family, in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in Prague, they had this custom. Once a year on this special day the masters were serving the servants and the servants became the masters. This is a kind of parable. So in the film I introduced a group of comedians who come to the house the night they switch roles and perform highlights from the summer sell-out of 19th-century culture, from La Traviata to Madame Bovary to the last scene of Gone With the Wind. Then one of the performers steps out and asks for the revolution, and that’s the top number of the cabaret, because the audience is very amused about it. He asks suddenly for the revolution and makes a revolutionary speech, telling how sick it is, this position, the servants letting themselves be driven by the masters, of course it’s a cabaret act, he’s paid for it, and he says all this bullshit, “I would like to recite and play in Nature, outside where it’s free and not in this bourgeois house”—as much nonsense as the rest, you know? And, of course, the comedians are paid by the masters, who play the servants and are also the only ones who enjoy this sophisticated number, because the servants don’t understand it. At the end of the night everybody goes back to his initial place. I like that with movies, you can do it so that everything is in a second, that the way it begins, it ends—because where are the ends in life? There is never an end, the end is in general mediocre, but these gorgeous theatrical endings we all dream of—it doesn’t occur, actually, La Paloma starts in a nightclub and ends in a nightclub, and it’s all in a second, where someone imagines on somebody a whole story—this I like, that you come back to the beginning. In Tonight or Never the first shot is the same as the last shot.
GI I was confused by La Paloma because it only becomes a hallucination at the very end.
DS Because you don’t expect it any more, you go so much into this story with this guy, by the very end you forget that it’s only a kaleidoscope. Then suddenly you come back, and, logically, you see the same five shots that the movie begins with.
GI Hecate is the same way.
DS Yes. It all takes place in a glass of champagne.
GI Now that I’ve seen Shadow of Angels I can see some consistencies. One thing I always remembered from La Paloma was that Bulle Ogier was the mother, who was, oddly, the same age or younger than her son—
DS But it didn’t bother anybody, you know. And we have this strange thing also, that Bulle talks French and he talks German, they have all these dialogues; because Peter (Kern) in life cannot speak French, and she doesn’t speak one word of German. First the producers were shocked, and I said, “You will see,” and no one protested. Strange. And the public also accepted her as the mother. You can do anything. I think so.
GI I was thinking of Shadow of Angels—the dwarf is actually the tallest person in the movie and is always referred to as the dwarf.
DS And the Jew is the kind of incarnation of the classical blond Aryan German Nazi officer, and the fascist looks like a Jewish caricature, the German looks like a German Communist, the mother looks like Greta Garbo on acid, and Mr. Mueller, the real fascist who killed people, the SS guy, is a female impersonator who instead of going to South America with a ticket paid by the American CIA, like they did with this guy in France, Barbie, instead of disappearing to South America with CIA help he becomes a female impersonator in postwar Germany and only goes out at night to sing.
GI That just reminded me of something really strange. We were in your living room a few months ago watching Barbie arrive from South America and then you switched the station and there were all these drag queens in a nightclub.
DS Right. Mr. and Mrs. Mueller, the German father and mother. Shadow of Angels is a very German movie. I think that’s why Rainer, after he wrote the play, said “You should do the movie, because you’re not that much involved.” Because the Germans have one big problem—and it’s more than this political problem. It’s that for centuries when there was all this national feeling in England and France, all over, Germany didn’t have it, because it was split up into thousands of little countries; they had it much too late, in the 19th century, that’s why they got into this imperial disaster with the First World War, that’s where the tragedy started. And they have a strange thing, Germans, they have, I think, an absolutely unsolved father complex, they have an Oedipal story that’s very very strange. And of course Shadow of Angels is also about this daughter-father relationship, of this generation—of the Meinhof group, if you want, Hitler’s children. Among other things. But these are also the things that are kind of outside of it. When I read it as a play, and then we began to work on it as a script, we worked three months, I saw it always like a fairy tale—a chilling, but also romantic, strange fairy tale, with this nearly Proustian relationship, somehow, but set in the late ’80s, you know? Where the only possible love couple in the film, the Jew and the prostitute, those two outcasts—who know, but they know also they’re in this system. And when they go to the execution, actually, when she asks him to kill her, and he says, “We never listened to music with each other—” because he wants to stop her from going to her guillotine—because when she is gone, he won’t have anyone to talk to. And then no one will talk in the world anymore. Because it’s set in a world where, let’s say, all social problems have their solution. Everything is controlled, everybody’s in control, but no one has a solution for the fear problem. So actually it comes to a society where people aren’t even scared anymore. The only people who are scared, probably, are Lily and the Jew. They’re older than the others, they know. And they have these old-time morals, both, in a certain way—and they have this scene, when they’re driving in the car—I always saw it in this fairy tale way, when he says, “We never listened to music together,” and Ingrid (Caven) turns to him and says, “Music would have confused us,” and she takes his hand. And he says, “And who wants to be confused?” And she takes her hand away and says, “We all need songs that sing of love,”
GI And then she gets killed.
DS And then she gets killed. Of course it has political aspects, of course it has aspects of a possible psychological plot, if you think of someone who comes back to the country which killed his parents, comes back kind of looking for the murderer of his parents. And he finds him, but he doesn’t denounce him; he goes always to the nightclub, where the murderer of his parents is performing in drag, he takes his revenge through the daughter. The Jew is very open, he says, “I’m here, and the Mayor is my friend, the political people are my friends,” because he does business with the bad conscience of these people. Of the Germans. He knows, and he pushes it, also. But that’s not what Shadow of Angels is about.
GI I noticed that a lot of things in Shadow of Angels showed up again in In A Year of 13 Moons—for example, the verbalization of this idea that this person who is—
DS “Me is somebody else,” he says in German.
GI “Thank God that no one knows my name—”
DS “—is Rumpelstilskin.” And through the whole film goes this, “silently and very peacefully through my …” getmutlichkeit, it’s not soul, it’s not heart, it’s a word that only exists in German: “my inner constitution”—and through the film goes this little spring song, it was written by Mendelssohn, and the words are by Heinrich Heine, it’s a hundred percent Jewish product of the early 19th century, and it’s the most popular German folk song. Forbidden under Hitler. They forbade it, but they couldn’t, it went on, it was so much part of the German soul. That’s one of the main themes. Another is Zarah Leander—you know, the Germans are the most extreme people, for the good and the bad. They’re nuts. Goebbels in 1943 had this slogan, you know, “Do you want a total war?” and at the same time Zarah Leander did this movie where she was singing a song: “Because of that, the world doesn’t scramble, tomorrow the sun will shine again, and the sky will be Himmelblau!”—heavenly blue! And the bombs were falling on Leipzig, Hamburg, Berlin, and Dresden by then, and she was singing in waltz, you know.
GI Let’s talk about La Paloma and Hecate. They’re very similar in a funny way.
DS In a funny way, yes.
GI This obsession that a man has with this otherworldly creature.
DS But who doesn’t have those obsessions? Constantly in my life I’ve had obsessions about people and I always had this hard waking up finding that they were all the time only a kind of projection I had in a lonely dance around myself. Especially when I got emotionally involved with people. And I am somebody who projects a lot on people. I see somebody and I immediately imagine stories, and when it interferes emotionally you really get out of control with it. Because it’s nothing to do with reality, this person, this object you project on. So this is very familiar. In Hecate it’s very strong—the idea in that film, for me, was to tell the story of an attractive, intelligent, completely uninteresting person who gets interesting through a woman, through an imagination, through someone who also allows him, for a short while, to imagine, for six weeks, a crazy story. Then he goes back into his mediocrity, but once in his life he was alive. And that’s wonderful, most people are never alive. It’s wonderful to be, for some weeks, alive, even if you project in a desperate, completely wrong direction. I think so. Sometimes people say that’s sick, but what is sick?
GI Your imagination can save you, in a way.
DS I think this more and more. Especially in the last years. I had never been confronted with death, and then I had it with my mother, with Rainer—with three people I was very close to. Like everybody, of course, I refuse, and hate, and I’m scared, I’m revolted by the idea of death; after my mother died, I took the watch she had next to her bedside—she died at home—and I remember I took it, and her ring that was there, and I got so mad I went to the bathroom and stamped on it and then I threw it down the toilet. That was good for me, a kind of revolt, otherwise you’re in this organization when a funeral is coming up; then I found out, by knowing it now, I see, or I realize—maybe it’s an experience that could even be … but in life, it’s not so important, friends or people who die and all this, the only thing is what you make out of it, your attitude towards it, what you do with it in your mind. It’s not so much the realistic, actual facts of life. I saw people who have had terrible, tragic lives—my grandmother, all her children died one after the other, and with every hit she got she got stronger, and got kind of … positive. And that’s because she completely lived in her own world. People said, “Oh, what a cold woman,” it wasn’t that, she was afraid of getting destroyed if certain things came too close to her, so she protected herself with fantasy, and from the most disastrous thing she made something out of it—a funny thing, whatever. We’re all capable of the best and the worst, it’s the circumstances that make people the way they are, and the way, then, that you deal with those circumstances. It has a lot to do with fantasy. I had a grandfather who ended, after a quite happy life, at 80 his cells went back and he ended up in a mad hospital, and he went on in his imagination thinking that this mental hospital was a hotel, his hotel, and it was full of people, and when you went to visit him, he was at the entrance, always, very cheerful, saying, “We work fabulously, the hotel is full!” Really, for the last five years of his life he imagined he was the owner of this grand hotel. That’s wonderful, no? It’s not always like that …
GI But your grandfather did run a hotel, didn’t he?
DS Yes, but the other grandfather, not this one. They all ran hotels, of course. They were Swiss. The other one was blind, he turned blind when he was 32. They couldn’t operate then, around 1914; he was married to this strange woman, my grandmother, who pretended he was not going blind. And to please her, because she didn’t want the village to feel pity for her, he went on pretending for her. He went slowly blind over five or six years, so he looked at everything, he knew exactly the neighborhood, he knew the hotel business in his mind, he prepared himself, more or less, to live blind, and then he was blind for about 38 years but went on in the evening holding a newspaper in his hand, to please her. When he died he said to my mother, “I just want to inform you, I never saw you; since 1916 I only knew if it was day or night. But she didn’t want it.” They went on playing this game for 38 years. He was totally blind, and she pretended not, and probably through this fact, he was not. He was the first person who took me on imaginary trips, he would put me on his knees and point to the blanket on his knees and say, “Now we’re going to eat, this is chicken soup, and this is this and this is this,” and out of this blanket the whole world came, I was two years old, this is my earliest memory: I was on a blind man’s knees, and out of a blanket on his knees he was making me see a whole world. I didn’t know he was blind.
GI My father was deaf. But he was not one to deny it.
DS It’s more difficult to play the game, probably.
GI Oh, tell me about Notre Dame de la Croisette.
DS It’s a tight movie about the Cannes festival, and this year people said that, more and more, the festival becomes like that movie—all the confusion and running around, and missing everything, so that after 24 hours you really don’t know anymore where you are.
GI I’d really like to see it. It’s interesting to make films about film festivals. You know in Berlin this year I saw three films.
GI No, only three. The whole time we were there. Because we were so busy running to the Metropole and the KC and then in the middle of it Werner said he wanted me to be in that play, so suddenly all I was doing was studying my lines—
DS Oh, your big German stage career, right, you were too busy to see movies. Now you will be forced to go and see operas when you come to Europe next time. I’ll do two operas, Bluebeard by Offenbach, and Lulu in ’85. I will record both on films.
GI When are you doing them?
DS ’48—I mean, ’84, and ’85, work starts in February. It’s a challenge.
GI Paloma is your most operatic film so far.
DS It’s difficult to say. I have a broken relationship with all of them. When I see them again I only see the mistakes. If you put the hit parade question, do I have a favorite, I like this Buñuel answer, “En plein passi, en plein par la.” You know? “Here a little piece, there a little piece.” That’s true, it’s moments: we hardly have a syntax of reception. What makes you say when you come out of a movie house, that you liked it? It’s three or four times, little encounters in your subconscious, little rendezvous with the content of something. However, how this rendezvous happens with the input of millions of pictures and sounds forgotten or half-forgotten, with a book or a movie after years, it’s little pieces. Sometimes you even remember things that are not in. Recently I saw again, on television, La Dolce Vita, and you remember this famous scene when Anita Ekberg goes through the night with the cat, and they end up in Fontana di Trevi and she goes into the water, and it’s this whole water pleasure scene? There was a still photograph where she’s all wet, and I always remember her getting completely wet; and I saw it on television again, and the water doesn’t go over her, she goes in up to her knees, her hairdo remains intact.
GI I made a screening last year of Death of Maria Malibran, and we were having a hard time because we got the reels mixed up. And Ila (von Hasperg) couldn’t tell the difference. I couldn’t either and I’d seen it at least ten times.
DS It’s a 90 minute tape you have there. It’s a pity you didn’t see Notre Dame, it’s very light. And it’s about show business.
GI I’m back in Paris in September. You can show me then.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee