Werner Schroeter’s Playful and Dreamlike 1972 Low Budget Film “Willow Springs”

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“Werner Schroeter will one day have a place in the history of film that I would describe in literature as somewhere between Novalis, Lautréamont, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline; he was an ‘underground’ director for ten years, and they didn’t want to let him slip out of this role.” – Rainer Werner Fassbinder

I start this review of the 1972 film, “Willow Springs,” with the above quote from Schroeter’s friend and admirer Fassbinder as it is purely the uncompromising and “underground” nature of Schroeter’s work that made him so respected and in turn kept him from being as well known as the other directors of the German film wave that included Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders. A mostly self-taught filmmaker who began his career making short 8mm experimental films, he would soon meet fellow experimental film-maker, Rosa von Praunheim, and this introduction turned into a partnership resulting in their co-direction of “Grotesk-Burlesk-Pittoresk” in 1968. For his first full-length film, 1969’s “Eika Katappa,” Schroeter began to showcase the idiosyncratic techniques that would mark much of his later work. The experimental visuals, mixed minimalism, drama and the incorporation of twentieth century songs to contrast these elements created a film that blurred the line between art and satire. Because of his ambiguous and modernist approach to filmmaking, Schroeter films would rarely be screened outside of his native Germany and would remain virtually unseen in the States until his passing in 2010, which sparked an interest in his work.

“Willow Springs,” Schroeter’s 1972 film, and his only film that was shot in the United States, sets the scene in a lonely, dilapidated house with a bar on the edge of the Mojave desert; the house, like the place in which it is located, is called “Willow Springs.” Like his 1970s film, “Der Bomberpilot,” the focus is on three women, except that in “Willow Springs,” these women are not passive and waiting for the men in their lives to make all of their decisions; no, this trio of women rob and kill the men who dare to visit their roadside shack. The women are lead by the severe Magdalena (Magdalena Montezuma, the star of many of Schroeter’s films) who dominates the ethereal Christine (Christine Kaufmann), an angelically sad woman who seems content with the middle. And finally at the bottom of the totem pole is the frumpy Ila (Ila von Hasberg), who serves as maid to Magdalena and Christine but is quickly growing unhappy with the situation and voices her displeasure. To unify them in their gender, Magdalena leads them in a Amazonian-like ritual, and in her movements, she has as her soundtrack a mix between the Andrew Sisters “Rum and Coca Cola” and opera, clearly indicating the immortality of her character, while Ila and Christine get free rocking Doobie Brothers to affix them to the early 1970s .

Soon, a drifter named Michael (Michael O’Daniels), a beautiful pure embodiment of the American west, enters “Willow Springs” and falls is love with Ila, who is more than glad to leave, but will Magdalena allow them to do so? What transpires is a sequence that plays into all of Schroeter’s strengths as a director, incorporating dream logic and surrealistic imagery as Magdalena’s attempts to create a unified feminist front in her deserted family home starts to quickly unravel. Shot in California, the film’s location, Willow Springs, plays an important role: One is clearly reminded of the Spahn Movie Ranch where the Manson family congregated and mapped out their plans of Helter Skelter prior to making their ugliness real. There, music in the form of the Beach Boys and Beatles was also used in the same manic way that juxtaposed the eventual violence that would ensue the lives of all involved. Like the music utilized in the film, Schroeter’s cinematography is in constant conflict between the gorgeous still pieces and haunting contempt held within Magdalena’s gazes. As it was the topic of many of the post-1968 directors, “Willow Spring” eludes to a passing of of the flower generation and its conflict with the uglier undercurrents that seemed to circle under all of the love they hoped to make real.

Scene From “Willow Tree” 1972

Though it was made in the States, “Willow Springs” was only seen here through festivals and never found adequate distribution. Receiving steady funding from German television, Schroeter continued to work with Magdalena Montezuma on several films until her until her untimely death in 1984 at the age of 41. Schroeter then worked with the French actress Isabelle Huppert on two fiction films, “Malina” in 1990 and “Deux” in 2001, but increasingly devoted his time to the theater and documentaries. In 1982,  Schroeter was destroyed when his friend Fassbinder, who seemed to admire Schroeter’s underground spirit, was able to get funding and purchased the rights to direct a version of Jean Genet’s novel “Querelle de Brest,” which Schroeter had declared that he was trying to do himself. This effectively ended their friendship, and Schroeter publicly trashed Fassbinder’s film, “Querelle,” which was to be his last as Fassbinder died shortly afterwards at the age of 38.

As for Schroeter, he continued to work for the rest of his life and directed his final feature, “Tonight,” just two years before his death in 2010 at the age of 65. A flamboyant and interesting talent, who, despite not reaching the level of success of his contemporaries, was a defiantly nonconformist director who refused to make film in any other way than in his own idiosyncratic style.

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