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MUBI Podcast Expanded: Barbet Schroeder on the Cinémathèque Française

The filmmaker shares memories of the Cinémathèque Française, his Oscar-winning film "Reversal of Fortune," and working with Pink Floyd.
Rico Gagliano
The second season of the MUBI Podcast, titled “Only in Theaters,” tells surprising stories of individual cinemas that had huge impacts on film history, and in some cases, history in general.
In Episode 1, host Rico Gagliano sits down with Barbet Schroeder to delve into the wild history of the Cinémathèque Française and its legendary founder, Henri Langlois. In this extended conversation, the filmmaker shares memories of the French New Wave, his Oscar-winning film Reversal of Fortune, and working with Pink Floyd in the late ‘60s.
To listen to the episode and subscribe on your preferred podcast app, click here.
Earlier this year, I spoke to Barbet Schroeder for this week’s episode of the MUBI Podcast. The main topic of discussion: the early days of the Cinémathèque Française, that hallowed institution where, in the ’50s, he and other budding filmmakers got steeped in movies, guided by legendary programmer Henri Langlois. They’d end up spearheading the French New Wave.
But Schroeder’s career has been too long and fascinating for us to stop the conversation there.
Moviegoers are probably most familiar with his work in Hollywood in the ’80s and ’90s, when he directed major stars in films like Barfly (1987), Single White Female (1992), and especially Reversal of Fortune (1990), about wealthy real-life murder suspect Claus Von Bülow. It earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director (and an Oscar win for its star, Jeremy Irons).
Reaching back further, Schroeder’s filmography also takes in gritty features about people living on the edge (the junkies of More [1969], the BDSM submissives of Maîtresse [1976]), documentaries (including his “Trilogy of Evil” exploring brutal political figures like Idi Amin), and of course, the films he produced for director Éric Rohmer, many under the production company they formed together, Les Films du Losange.
What ties all of this together? From the start of our conversation, it seemed clear much of his work is informed by experiences he had as a child, when his father—a Swiss diplomat—was stationed in Colombia.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NOTEBOOK: When do you first remember a movie making an impression on you?
BARBET SCHROEDER: I saw my first movie when I was seven. It was in Bogotá, Colombia. And it was Bambi. I had to be taken out of the theater when the mother dies. I was in tears, screaming, and they decided—my parents—that movies were not good for me, because I was too sensitive. So they banned me from cinema! For years! For several years.
NOTEBOOK: This is what year?
SCHROEDER: 1948 or so. So I was banned from cinema. And I arrived in Paris at eleven, and about two years later, I discovered the Cinémathèque. That was my real beginning with movies.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of which: you were not born a French citizen. What was that shift like? 
SCHROEDER: The shift from Colombia to France was a huge shock because I was coming from a country where there was a lot of blood in the streets. In 1949, there were 2,000 people killed in Bogotá. I drove around with my father and I have vivid memories of, for example, firefighters being pulled away from their truck. People replaced the water from those trucks with gasoline, and they started putting the gasoline on all the American buildings. And so it was quite a sight to see all that in flames. I have many memories from my childhood that are very bloody.
NOTEBOOK: Did you actually see death in the streets?
SCHROEDER: Oh, yes, of course. I saw somebody who was complaining about a refrigerator that he was forced to carry by a group of people.  And one of the guys came with a machete and tried to cut his head and he fell to the ground. And so on. 
When I arrived in Paris, I couldn't believe it when kids were fighting in the courtyard at school when I was eleven. They surrounded the people fighting, saying, "We want blood, we want blood!" I said, "Are you crazy?" I was shocked, because they had no idea, you know. 
NOTEBOOK: You're like, "Hey, I've seen actual bloodshed. You don't want to see bloodshed."
SCHROEDER: Yeah! I didn't say anything. I just ran away from them and I didn't want to speak to them. It was too awful, for me, what they were doing. Pretending they wanted to see blood. 
NOTEBOOK: You said you discovered the Cinémathèque a couple of years later.  How did you hear about it? 
SCHROEDER: I have no idea. Maybe my mother took me to see a Bergman movie? I just know that I ended up going there all the time. 
NOTEBOOK: Your mother may have taken you to a Bergman movie at such a young age, really?
SCHROEDER: Yes! Because she knew it was good. She wanted me to see only good things! 
NOTEBOOK: Was your mother a cinephile?
SCHROEDER: No. But she was an art lover. My grandfather was Hans Prinzhorn, who was a psychiatrist who discovered the art of the mentally ill. That’s an important moment in painting in the ’20s. 
NOTEBOOK: So your mother was already steeped in art.
SCHROEDER: Yes, she was always interested in all different arts: music, literature, painting, everything. But cinema, just a little bit. She was a beginner. [Laughs.] 
NOTEBOOK: Which Cinémathèque did you attend? There were several incarnations of it.
SCHROEDER: It was on the Rue d'Ulm, in the École nationale supérieure, which was a very serious institution in French education. And it was in the basement. Before, the Cinémathèque was on Rue de Messine. And that was a smaller room where the previous generation of film buffs—all the people from Cahiers du Cinéma—used to meet every night.
NOTEBOOK: What do you know of that original one, on Rue de Messine?
SCHROEDER: I never went there. I dream of going there—the people who were there at the time talk about it as magic. And I say the Rue d'Ulm was magic. And so on and so on. [Laughs.]
NOTEBOOK: Describe “your” Cinémathèque—the Rue D’Ulm space.
SCHROEDER: It was…seats that were not so comfortable. In wood. We were part of a group that liked the first three rows. It was nothing extraordinary. You just went downstairs into a big room with wooden seats, and that's all.
NOTEBOOK: This is the late ’50s? 
SCHROEDER: Yeah—’55, no?
NOTEBOOK: Who else was going with you?
SCHROEDER: In my group there were about ten people. Bertrand Tavernier was there, and we had discussions every night about all the movies. I always disagreed with him. Jean Eustache had an always very deep and sensitive point of view on the movies. And of course, the discussions ended up on the sidewalks or in cafés.
NOTEBOOK: Are there any of those conversations that you remember very well? 
SCHROEDER: Oh, Tavernier would speak about Renoir or Buñuel. He was also crazy about American cinema, but not the movies I liked. He would say something about Buñuel or Renoir, and since I was crazy about American cinema, I didn't agree with him about stuff like that!
NOTEBOOK: You were so into American film that you were kind of like "Buñuel—forget it! American film is where it's at!"
SCHROEDER: Yeah. I learned later, of course. And actually, you asked me what was the first film I saw at the Cinémathèque, and I just remembered! It was a movie of Buñuel’s! L'Age d'Or. That was a huge, important moment for me.
NOTEBOOK: What about it caught you so completely? 
SCHROEDER: Just that it was a total revolution. It was so bold. It was against all the rules. It was fantastic for me.
NOTEBOOK:  It's interesting; I spoke to [new wave critic and filmmaker] Luc Moullet earlier this week, who also mentioned L'Age d'Or. Would you say that film had a big impact on French New Wave filmmakers in general?
SCHROEDER: Well, on young people—we were very young—that [film] can have a big influence. Because it's really about the revolution of the heart. Much more than the revolution in politics. It's a total revolution in life.
NOTEBOOK: You say you especially loved American films. Why American films as opposed to any other culture's films? 
SCHROEDER: I don't know. The actors—I loved the actors in American movies. And I started studying the directors—of course, Hitchcock and Hawks. But Hawks, especially. I saw all his movies. And I learned a lot from [his] movies, because they were not fancy. They were not trying to make beautiful shots. [Those films] were at the height of men. They were talking about men. And the man who was making them knew what he was talking about: he was talking about the world he had lived in, about things that he knew. And it was very important for me. He was quite the revelation, Hawks.
And then there was Mizoguchi, who was... You want to cry because of the beauty of those movies. And nobody had seen most of those movies. Some of them didn't even have subtitles, and some of them were three, four hours long. So it was really quite extreme.
NOTEBOOK: Luc Moullet also mentioned that: that Langlois would show Mizoguchi films or Japanese silent films without any subtitles, and kind of didn't care. Like it didn’t matter—
SCHROEDER: No, it's not that it didn't matter—he didn't have anything else to show! He wanted to have shown all the movies of a filmmaker, so he would show all the prints that he could find.
NOTEBOOK: I'm assuming you knew him.
SCHROEDER: My God, of course! No, Langlois was very open to the public, especially the young public. We could talk with him for hours, and he was very enthusiastic about us. He was really an important figure. He was not just the president or the director; he was somebody who understood movies and loved movies from the inside, and loved to share [them] with young people. 
NOTEBOOK: Can you describe him physically and as a personality? 
SCHROEDER: He was, I think, from a Turkish family. He was a little bit on the fat side. He was not fat—he was just round and sensuous. You could imagine him eating a lot of legumes. And he had a small voice. He was passionate, but he didn't show it. You could feel it.
Henri Langlois in Retour d'Henri Langlois à Paris (Bernard Eisenschitz and Néstor Almendros, 1967).
NOTEBOOK: How often were you going to the Cinémathèque back then?
SCHROEDER: I ended up going every night. I was not seeing every movie, but there was a reason [to go] almost every night, because they screened three movies a night.
NOTEBOOK: I actually read—in another interview with you—that it was after a screening at the Cinémathèque that you decided to become a filmmaker. That was inspired by conversations you had after screenings?
SCHROEDER: Yeah. It came from a passion for an art that was not really discovered. At the time, Hitchcock was considered a joke by 90 percent of the population, and most of the critics. I mean, it was really the work of the Cahiers du Cinéma that brought all those very important American filmmakers to the front. I would talk to somebody who was not into movies and they would tell me, "This is not art, it's just entertainment for the masses," you know? That was the mentality. And I had a passion for this art, and I wanted to be part of it.
NOTEBOOK:  What was the first movie you were involved with as a producer?
SCHROEDER: Well, I went to the Cahiers du Cinéma [office] because I was a fan of that magazine. And I met Éric Rohmer, who became a longtime friend, but also a lifetime master. I started being an assistant to him—and producing, independently, movies in 16mm that we were doing—for two or three years before I started a production company. And that was to produce [an anthology] film made by six filmmakers, called Paris vu par.
NOTEBOOK: I feel like in film school, we’re taught that French New Wave people watched tons of movies at the Cinémathèque, then decided to make films themselves… and boom, they just did it. But there must have been a learning curve. What were the challenges of making those early New Wave films?
SCHROEDER: Well, with Rohmer it was simple: we shot in the cheapest possible way.  Color was expensive, so it would be black and white. And rich guys would do it in 35mm, so people like Rohmer and Jean Eustache would do it in 16mm black and white. With Rohmer we did [a series of films called] the Moral Tales. And we had so little money that no one can understand how little it was. La carrière de Suzanne [Suzanne’s Career] was 52 minutes. And I am sure—I guarantee you—we didn't use more than 60 minutes of negative. Rohmer was so economical—he was shooting like John Ford. Every shot he did, he knew exactly the shot [to use]. So then he just had to assemble them and the movie was there. 
When we were shooting at a cafe, we would ask friends to come to sit as extras. But we didn't have money to pay for extras. So people paid for their own coffee in those scenes! [Laughs.]
NOTEBOOK: Were you surprised that these French New Wave films started getting an audience? I mean, they were often challenging movies.
SCHROEDER: Yes, it was great for everybody to discover that. It was a big revolution from one year to the next. Let's say, in two years, everything changed. All the big established directors, they couldn't find the money to make more movies. Everybody, producers, wanted to produce a New Wave director. And it had started with the Cahiers du Cinéma and articles criticizing the "cinéma de papa"—the old cinema, the academic cinema. 
NOTEBOOK: I always had a question about French New Wave films: you were, as you say, influenced by filmmakers like Hitchcock, who made very narrative, entertaining Hollywood movies. How did you take in Hitchcock, and spit out the relatively challenging New Wave?
SCHROEDER: I think Hitchcock is extremely challenging! I mean, he's bringing the cinema to places it had never been before. But it's like in painting: you have the impressionists, and you're surprised that they talk about Titian and about Rafael and all the great painters. And you say, "How come those people—who are painting just little dots of colors—so admire painters that look more conventional?" Well, it's the same thing. 
More (1968).
NOTEBOOK: Your first film as a director was More. It was shot by the great Néstor Almendros, who you worked with a lot. What was the relationship between the two of you?
SCHROEDER: Well, it was very, very close. Actually, he escaped from Cuba and he arrived in Paris. He went to see my friend, [filmmaker] Jean Rouch, who told him, "You should go and see Barbet—maybe he can help you find some work.” And he came to see me, and I said to him, "Listen, I'm doing a thing with Rohmer called Place de L'Étoile, and if you want to come take photos, it's fine with me."
So he was there taking photos. And at one point the cameraman was talking with Rohmer. Rohmer had a way of explaining things that was complicated—he could be difficult to follow and to understand. So the cameraman got annoyed, put down the camera, and walked away! 
The crew looked at each other and we said, "Now what we do?" And then there was the little voice of Nestor saying, "Oh, I know how to use those things!" And in fact, he had used that camera in Cuba.
At the time he was literally living on Quaker Oats and sleeping in a camping bed, in a little room of someone else’s little apartment. But after this first tryout with Rohmer, he ended up shooting films with him.  And of course, Nestor had attended a school of cinema in Rome [the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia], where he developed these precise theories about using only natural light and so on. We all became obsessed with this, and he managed to create some kind of a cult around him.
Of course after that, Truffaut started saying, "Oh, oh! I'd like to work with him too!" And then in America, they started! And then he got the Oscar [for Days of Heaven] and all that. Then unfortunately, he died of AIDS. That was very, very sad.
NOTEBOOK: So sad. But an amazing story: from Quaker Oats to winning the Oscar.
SCHROEDER: Yes!
NOTEBOOK: In that first film, More, legend has it there's real drug use in that movie. Later in Maîtresse, there's real BDSM. Why were you so interested in infusing your fiction with reality?
SCHROEDER: Well...that's always what I like in movies, that reality. That the performances feel real, that the sets look real. I always admired Preminger because all of his sets looked completely real, whether they were real or not. And of course, you must talk about something that you know, like Howard Hawks. More was a story that could have happened to me. So it was personal from beginning to end.
NOTEBOOK: How could that story have happened to you? Were you in danger of becoming an addict?
SCHROEDER: Yes. I was in love with a girl who was an ex-addict, and she wanted to start again. She wanted an excuse to start again by getting me to try it. So I decided that I would base the movie on that situation. And bring it to this dramatic conclusion. [Laughs.]
NOTEBOOK: Is it actually true there are depictions of real drug use in that film?
SCHROEDER: Well…I think there were people smoking, but we didn't take heroin, that's for sure.  But I'm happy people think that!
NOTEBOOK: [Laughs.] Speaking of psychedelia, you worked with Pink Floyd on that soundtrack. Tell me your favorite story of working with them—I can't imagine.
SCHROEDER: They were my favorite group. I admired them very much. And when I called them to do the film, they were not as well-known. I said, "I made a movie in Ibiza." And they said, "Oh, Ibiza! We just spent the summer there." So they were already interested by this idea.
But I didn't like film music. For me, the music had to originate in the scene. So for example, if you hear music in a party scene, it’s whatever music is playing on the sound system at the party. Even in a little scene on the terrace of the house, I went to the absurd extreme of showing a mini-cassette player. A character stopped the cassette, and the soundtrack stopped to show the music had a source in the scene! That was also Rohmer’s point of view at the time: that we couldn't use typical scoring. We had something against that! [Laughs.]
But my experience with Pink Floyd was absolutely extraordinary. In two weeks, we managed to do the whole [soundtrack] of that movie. I just told them the moments where I needed music, and basically they made a record with songs for those moments, and I had the rights to use that music. And that record was the biggest hit for them at the time. And they were furious, because the previous record, they had worked [on it] for a whole year, and it hadn't sold as many copies!
Maïtresse (1976).
NOTEBOOK: Your next movie was Maîtresse, which similarly was an exercise in a certain amount of realism.
SCHROEDER: Yes, of course, I wanted it to be real—including the mistress and the clients. In the scenes where extreme things are happening to the clients, those were actual clients, and those are a real mistress’s hands.
NOTEBOOK: The mistress was sort of the “stand-in” for the actress playing the mistress, whenever there was a BDSM scene?
SCHROEDER: Yeah, if you want. A mistress I met was the soul of the movie. [She] was an extraordinary woman who became a close friend for many years. And she was the one that gave me all of the details for the film. She was the one who gave me the line: "It's interesting to get into the madness of people.” Which is a line that impressed everybody. And that’s why people could feel that there was some kind of reality behind this movie.
NOTEBOOK: Between this, More, Barfly, and many of your documentaries, you seem attracted to people who take their life to extremes. Why?
SCHROEDER: I don't know. But I can tell you this: when I saw Maîtresse completely finished with an audience, I realized that the movie was not going to do big business if I kept all the extreme scenes in. And that there was a way to cut it down. I was my own producer, so it was not some producer who was telling me I should cut it down! But I decided finally to go against that instinct. And now, this movie plays on French television and it does the maximum ratings every time it plays. It plays several times a year, on the main channel! When the rights expire, they buy it again immediately! And I never thought in my life that this movie would be playing on television! [Laughs.]
NOTEBOOK: At some point in the early ’70s, you begin a string of movies about brutal political leaders, or their collaborators.
SCHROEDER: Yes. About evil.
NOTEBOOK: What sparked you wanting to make those films? 
SCHROEDER: I thought this man, Idi Amin, was really funny in the telegrams he was sending to heads of state. He was very original, very crazy. And I said, "I want to find out about this guy. And my only way to find out is not to just have him talk. I want to tell him, “OK, I want to make a movie about you, but you have to tell me what I show of you. You have to do a self-portrait of yourself." And that's how I make all those movies about evil. I choose some evil people, I approach them without judging them, and I ask them to do their “self-portrait.” And of course, in the editing, I try not to show obviously my attitude. I like the character to speak for themself.
NOTEBOOK: But I can imagine people having a moral problem with that, saying you're potentially amplifying some truly evil ideas. 
SCHROEDER: Well, I think I'm doing the opposite. I think when you realize, "Wait a minute. I can meet very nice, sympathetic people that maybe are actually criminals, and I wouldn't know it," it's good to know that—that this is possible. Second, it's good to know what is behind evil. Because otherwise you just put them [on-screen] as a person who is bad, and you don't want to hear about it. You have to try to understand. Try to see how it works.
The height of that, for me, was [the film The Venerable W.], when I started trying to understand this Buddhist monk that was creating a genocide with the help of the army [in Myanmar]. That was really very extreme, and I think interesting. 
NOTEBOOK: You grew up seeing traumatic things that weren’t much different than what these people were perpetrating. How, emotionally, were you able to handle being around such people? 
SCHROEDER: Well, maybe that’s [why] I was able to...able to handle that as something that’s part of life. 
And also, my mother had a very special relationship to evil, because she was German and she didn't like Hitler. She was not Jewish, but she had some Jewish friends and she escaped with them to Zürich. And from then on, she refused to speak German. And that’s the inspiration for the main character in [my film] Amnesia
So, I was in contact with the Holocaust on a daily basis. Because my mother had only Jewish friends, and I was always in the middle of horror stories through her.
NOTEBOOK: What do you think you've learned from making these documentaries? 
SCHROEDER: I learned that evil is part of man. And the only thing to do is know it, and to try to control it [in] any possible way.
NOTEBOOK: Having met these people, how do you think it can be controlled?
SCHROEDER: I cannot control people, but I can control the evil in myself. Definitely. Actually, Buddhism was one of my dreams of controlling evil. And then when I discovered a Buddhist monk in Myanmar was doing that… I had to try to understand that too. Because Buddhism was the solution for me, until I met him. 
Reversal of Fortune (1990).
NOTEBOOK: Let me ask you about Reversal of Fortune, and then I'll let you go. I hadn't seen it since it came out, and I remembered it as being a departure from your earlier films. But rewatching it, I see links between that movie and your earlier ones. 
SCHROEDER: Of course: I'm totally fascinated by this possibly evil man. And by his humor. I'm trying to understand these evil men, and this is why I was attracted to this story—even before reading the screenplay, I was collecting newspaper pieces about Claus von Bülow and about his humor. And when I read [the screenplay], for me, it was the best thing I ever had in my hands. I fell so much in love with the dialogue I knew it by heart, and I was totally possessed by this movie.
NOTEBOOK: You just said exactly what I thought when I was watching it: this idea of grappling with characters who seem comfortable with moral ambiguity is in keeping with your early work. And actually, even though technically your early films were rougher around the edges, I think story-wise, they’re like Reversal. Things develop in this inexorable-feeling way. There's almost a feeling of fate in your movies.
SCHROEDER: Yes. That’s definitely something that comes from the storytelling of American movies. That's what I liked in American movies when I was at the Cinémathèque, yes. At the time, I considered Hollywood to be, for cinema, what Florence was for painting.
NOTEBOOK: You don’t think so anymore?
SCHROEDER: No, because when I arrived [in Hollywood] in the late '80s, for me—coming from the Cinémathèque—it was like arriving in a desert. Many directors that I like were not able to work, were living at home, in difficulty.
I was very close to Samuel Fuller. I was seeing him often, and in his garage he had all those projects that had been turned down. It was a huge library. And so it was very sad to see that there was no more room in Hollywood for all the great talents that were still completely kicking and alive at the time.
NOTEBOOK: It feels to me that your life has been a series of...in a way, having an idea about something, and then realizing the reality is a little different.
SCHROEDER: Yes! [Laughs.] Yes, maybe.

Tags

MUBI PodcastBarbet SchroederCinémathèque FrançaiseHenri LangloisInterviewsLong Reads
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