a fire left burning
by Douglas Messerli
Magdalena Montezuma, Edgar Allan Poe, and Werner Schroeter (credited writers), Werner Schroeter (director) Der Rosenkönig (The Rose King) / 1986
Anyone who loves arthouse cinema will immediately recognize Werner Schroeter’s films, particularly his 1986 work Der Rosenkönig (The Rose King), as works with some of the most beautiful images ever screened. But “reading” his films, that is putting meaning to those images in the context of the movie’s limited moments of dialogue and lack of coherent narrative is another matter, evidenced perhaps by the paucity of reviews and essays that exist. There have been some well-written paragraphs in Film Comment, RoweReviews and elsewhere, and a short assessment in James Quandt’s excellent essays on Schroeter’s films in The New York Review of Books and ArtForum, but little else that might help an American neophyte interact with Schroeter’s great film, let alone place it in the context of the tradition of queer cinema.
Part of the problem is simply in knowing how to watch Schroeter’s works. If you’re an admirer of narrative—as admittedly I am—you may have difficulty in adjusting your mind when approaching the German director’s pictures—and here “picture” is a truly appropriate word. For like the Georgian-born Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov and, occasionally, the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, Schroeter’s films are not focused on dialogue and normative plot structures but upon images presented in the form of emblems and/or tableaux that present their significance through visual images that are sometimes specific to the culture and at other times embrace symbols that might be internationally recognized in the Jungian sense.
In Schroeter’s instance it is useful to know the legend of the Tausendjähriger Rosenstock, the “thousand-year rosebush” that grows from the Hildescheim cathedral. The legend behind it concerns Emperor Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, who in 815 was hunting in the Hercynian Forest for a white buck. He became separated from his hunting party and lost not only sight of the buck but his own horse. When his hunt-horn went unanswered he swam across the Innerste river and, disoriented, walked until he discovered a mound covered with a wild rose, symbol of the Saxon goddess Hulda. Praying over a reliquary containing relics of the Virgin Mary which he had brought with him, he meditated until falling asleep. Upon awakening the mound was covered with a glitter of white snow despite the summer bloom of the roses and green grasses and the leaf-covered trees. Hilda, associated with wilderness and winter, was thought by Louis as having “shaken her coat” upon the snow-covered mound, indicating that the Virgin should be venerated in the future instead of herself. The Emperor is said to have built the cathedral upon the rose-covered mound, whose flowers bloom still today.
Also of ephemeral interest to The Rose King is the South Tyrolean legend of König Laurin, the king of a race of dwarves in the Dolomite mountains which they mined for jewels and ores. Laurin lived in an underground palace made of shining quartz, but his special joy was his great garden at the entrance to his crystal palace covered with roses with the most beautiful of scents. The King was so fearful of a single rose being plucked that he declared that anyone who dared to touch the roses or tore at the silken thread wound round the garden as a fence would have his left hand and right foot chopped off.
When the King of the River Etsch one day determined to marry off his beautiful daughter Similde, he invited the neighboring nobleman, except for Laurin, to join him on a May Day ride. Hearing of the event, King Laurin put on his magic Cap of Invisibility and visited the gathering, immediately falling in love with the young girl, grabbing her up and escaping with her on horseback. Similde’s father immediately sent out his knights to rescue his daughter, but Laurin had little to fear, he felt, since his pursuers would never see him in his private gardens. But observing the roses at sway, the knights detected Laurin’s presence and trapped him. So angered was Laurin for the roses’ betrayal that he ordered that “Neither by day nor night might anyone ever glimpse his lovely sight again. Yet, having forgotten twilight, people can still see the pink glow in the sky (what the Germans call Alpenglow) at dusk and dawn.
But the Greek and Roman legends are far more crucial to Schroeter’s work. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, if you recall, already associated with the white rose, heard from Ares’ own mouth that he, jealous of, Adonis, god of desire, that he had sent a wild boar to harm of him during a hunting trip. Hurrying to her lover’s aid, Aphrodite arrived too late, her tears pooling with his blood to create the rose.
In Roman myth Venus’ (the Greek Aphrodite) son Cupid was stung by a bee when shooting arrows into a garden full of white roses. Walking in the garden, Venus later pricked her foot on a thorn left by her son’s arrows, turning the roses red.
Obviously, it is roses that Anna (the wondrous Magdalena Montezuma) of Schroeter’s story grows, with her son, Albert (Mostefa Djadjam) serving as an obsessed horticulturalist who as his mother observes is more of a dreamer than a practical biologist like Gregor Mendel, who in his experiments with genetics, developed various hybrids of roses. Having moved her life and handsome young son from an exotic Arabian desert after her husband’s death to an ancient rural acreage and farmstead in Portugal where she has difficulty communicating with the locals, she and her son literally survive on roses, dining on a rose-colored gruel, red wine, and white loaves of bread.
Anna seems frozen in her new environment,
filled as it is by cobwebs, an entire bestiary of animals (spiders obviously, a
cat, rat, lizard, and sheep), a group of almost feral children who comment on
events a bit like a Greek chorus, and decaying religious icons left over from
generations of previous owners. In this new environment Anna displays near
As she tells us in a voice-over early in the film, now that her husband has died her major attention has been converted to Albert, and she follows him with her stares wherever he goes, even leaning up again his bedroom wall as if she might hear him breathing or even his inner thoughts in the night. Albert, although clearly resentful of her attentions, seems to have discovered a new kind of freedom in this alien world. He too is protective of their roses and is almost vindictive when forced to bring his mother daily trimmings of rose stems for her vases throughout the house, yet he does spill petals a regular intervals, even stealing some of them to feed his newest “project,” as Quandt quite brilliantly describes it, for which he “nabs a hunky young local named Fernando (Antonio Orlando) pilfering from the alms box—a nod to Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977), a film Fassbinder also admired—and incarcerates him in the barn, lovingly bathing his Saint Sebastian–like prisoner.”
Schroeter’s emblems and tableaux begin to be repeated: roses dripping with water, a fountain pouring fresh water from the spout of an ancient lizard-like stone figure, the ocean waves rolling across a male naked body, fireworks lighting up the sky, sun shimmering through the roof beams of the ancient barn, ropes with which Albert has bound his captive being carefully and almost ritualistically untied as the boy asks “Did I hurt you?”—all represent what we quickly realize is Albert’s gradual release from years of a closeted life tied to the neuroses of his mother, in order to completely immerse himself into the splendors of the male body. The horticulturalist’s previous attempts at grafting roses has suddenly found an entirely new focus, as he tells his mother, which begins with the capture of the beauty, continues in nights of dutiful and patient self-torture—during which Fernando, in near-ecstatic anticipation of the event prays to God that the boy will not have suffer over love much longer on his account—and ends by the grafting of Albert’s body onto that of his own, which we witness appropriately through the lens of the director’s camera primarily by the openings and entwinements of the stems of their bodies, legs, hands, and feet.
Yet, somewhat as for Alfred Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, the mother remains to much with him in her dark ruminations, her unspoken fears, her financial worries, and most of all in her stifling love of her son with all her myths of shooting stars and the deaths of children who have kissed too early. As we hear a reader from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Alone” reciting, referring clearly to Alfred: “From childhood’s hour I have not been / As others were.”
Hence her disquisition on the deep black interiors of the artist Georges de La Tour, against which the characters stand lit as upon a stage waiting to enter a world outside of the painting while carrying with them the darkness of their pasts. She paints the reproductions of his art entirely over with black, blackening out even parts of her own face (reminding one a bit like the blue paint with which Jean-Paul Belmondo covers his face in Pierre le Fou).
Has the fire finally caught up with her, as she as always feared? Or can the two, mother and son, remain in their unholy bondage to await the slow flowering of their new variety of rose like the ancient thousand-year-flowering rosebush signifying the relic of Albert’s sexual awakening?
Both Magdalena Montezuma and her close friend Schroeter knew she was dying of cancer as she performed this role, she hoping she might die on the set in Portugal. She died 14 days after the final shot in Münich. The Rose King is dedicated to her.
Los Angeles, December 29, 2020
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (December 2020).