The Literary Frenzy of Werner Schroeter’s “Malina”


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Movies about writers are almost impossible to do well—the revolutions per minute of a writer’s mind are nearly beyond the grasp of a camera, whereas the outward activities of writing are nearly inert. (Similarly, writing about filmmaking is largely doomed, because nothing in the intricacy of a literary passage can rival the gestalt of a single image.) Yet Werner Schroeter’s 1991 drama “Malina” (long unavailable, and now streaming on MUBI) is one of the few movies that rise to the achievement of the authors at its center—both the real-life one, Ingeborg Bachmann, whose novel it’s an adaptation of, and the fictitious, unnamed writer (played by Isabelle Huppert), the main character of the novel, whose life and work both the book and the movie depict. The movie’s literary artistry is due, in part, to a second literary refraction that the novel underwent en route to the screen: Bachmann’s novel was published in 1971 (she died in 1973), and the script for Schroeter’s film was written by Elfriede Jelinek, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“Malina” catches the profuse, prolific, prodigious, and prodigal imagination of its protagonist—the enormous energy of creation and clamor of thought that are inseparable from the writer’s moment-to-moment whirl of daily activity. It does so with a surprising and canny economy of means that’s all the more remarkable given the torrential genius that Bachmann displays in the novel, which is a masterwork of rare imaginative power. (The novel was republished by New Directions in 2019, in Philip Boehm’s revision of his own 1990 translation, with an introduction by Rachel Kushner.) Like the movie, the novel is the story of an unnamed female writer; unlike the movie, it’s narrated in the first person, and, as such, it’s one of the great portraits of a mind at work—of a woman’s mind, in urgent thought about the very implications of writing and living as a woman. It’s a novel in three parts, each devoted largely to a different man—to her literary lover, Malina, who works at a military museum; to Ivan, a younger, nonliterary man whom she seizes for sex and romantic banality; and to her father, an abusive and violent (and possibly incestuous) monster, memories and nightmares of whom haunt her.

The novel is wildly fragmented, yet it remains tautly bound by its thematic and tonal coherence and by its protagonist’s overwhelming mental energy, a relentlessly forward-driving rush of creativity that assimilates disparate elements and incidents. The novel features the protagonist’s intricate and torrential narration of her daily life and her distant past, her letters (which are a major part of her literary output), a long fable, a batch of tightly detailed dreams, an extended interview with a journalist, large and short chunks of her dialogues with Ivan and Malina, and shards of a music score by Schoenberg. Her voice veers between exalted observation, scathing poetic…

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