by Claudia Siefen
The minute she starts talking the big myth “Romy Schneider” starts its mesmerization. It seems strange that her voice does not seem to change in all those years. The scheme stays the same: she likes to talk a little too loud so in the calm and quiet moments her voice unfolds the complete scale of modulation. This may be too striking, too intentional so many a time, most striking in her early years. Nevertheless her sentences obtain a certain rhythm and colour, they find a complete expression mostly in calm moments of acting. One is easily tempted to equate that with gentleness. But on the contrary this mode of speaking turns into a way of knowledge through her career, even into a way of vibrant resignation. This happens most notably when it seems beneficial to Schneider’s personated character. In her emotionally charged susurration a reverse effect takes place: the tension of her acting builds up with the seduction of the sound level (“decrescendo”) , but without ending up in silence. By doing this Schneider enables herself to form the character aurally with a jolly intonation, a subtle irony and self amusement.
The more desperate her character is the more clearer her pronunciation gets. That brilliant ability produces a tenderness that turns out to be a clearly defined intensity especially considering her skills to preserve that intensity not only in the german language. The firmness of her voice maintains its characteristicness, be it german, english or french. One could interpret this hastily as a lack of dramatic art, as it still is a part of the actor’s job not only to create a physic form of the character in question (movement and timing) but also to create a voice and with that adding an extra acustic biography. But Schneider is filling that constant modulation into her characters, their movements and pauses, and it shows her great skills and abilities to synch the character’s body and the voice she created. The voice completes the character.
Schneider’s performance in all that is physical work. The body is pure visual effect and mortality. Understandably this mortality is a more cruel effect because it is more obvious. As one gets older ideally a human voice gains firmness and matureness, and we deprive the human body of that right. This is due to the simplicity of things: the outward takes place and manifests in sheer looks, and maybe it also demands less patience from the spectator, instead of waiting for the first sound, the first sentence. In the course of her career Schneider refines and specifies that construction of strain: consequentially the “young Schneider” did not care that much. Her characters live from the freshness and carefreeness, simply according to her young age. However it would be naïve to examine the interaction and the change detached from contempoary and local influences of fashion, directing, professional lighting engineering, costume and make-up, as shown in her body of work within european and american productions. Not least all this facts together, you can call them dependencies, find their concentration in film editing, making Schneider’s professional abilities and developements, her ambition and her frantic search for perfection more visible.
But firstly there dominates a certain suspicion. It is the interaction with and the visual contrast to her dark-haired acting partner Horst Buchholz in Monpti (1957) that counts. Schneider is the young and blonde Anne-Claire, a dressmaker’s helper living in squalor, always dressed in soft and clear colours. Her delicate figure accented by form-fitting belts, according to the fashion at that time she is wearing pastel-coloured tight pants and shin-length, vibrant loose skirts. She is poor and as a staged knack the director Helmut Käutner gets her to wear the identical clothes again and again in several scenes. Her hair is dressed in a pony-tail and a fringe. Even in a „rain scene“ with Buchholz she does not appear erotic but like a frightened wet cat. Mostly photographed in long shots, always in movement and following the camera, at a brisk pace she is keeping her arms close to her body, she seems without orientation when it comes to the „why“ and „whereto“. Her make-up offers a tanned complexion, a light orange lipstick and brown mascaraed eyelashes. She makes the tenuous, proper german girl. And throughout there are no close-up images of her face. Within Buchholz’s erotically charged dream-sequences she is wearing black dresses or corsages, bright red lipstick and lavish eye-make-up, her hair is glamorous and frizzy. Her swaying walk and her moving arms, open wide, seem to call him, to demand not only hugs but sexual satisfaction. But still there is no tendency in sight to keep her voice calm during extra dramatic scenes. When she is raising her voice and talking fast in despair at the very most she just seems overexcited, and not dramatic or desperate. In soft despair she pushes forward her lower jaw and her nasal wings shiver while her eyes fill up with tears. That certain pushing forward of her lower jaw is a mannerism used in her early years to underline the cheeky factor of cuteness, but it easily appears only strange.
A year later in 1958 with the austrian production Die Halbzarte by Rolf Thiele we find the steretype of the “wild girl” coming from a bourgeois family, and it is only staid and adapted to the light-hearted comedy. Also easily and plain coded: Schneider enters the dialogues and lines of a confident and easily fruitful playwright with a flippant accentuation. That certain accentuation gains in importance mostly because she is using it surrounded by honourable gentlemen: she is raising her voice in the male dominated theatre world! Right at the beginning of the film we are taken to the joint supper with the talented colourful family Dassau, living in Vienna, and together they are not going to mince matters. Schneider ist he writer in this unimpaired family, wearing a pinned-up hairstyle and glasses from time to time. During heated discussions she braces her arms against the table. Her ellbows seam to be her allies during the complete film: she has an opinion, cementing this one in her direct and sweeping speech, debating dreams of the future and fixed plans, too. There are plenty of close-ups of her face, a vigorous editing finds some peace on her face, that is descreetly made up but it shows already the snappy eyeliner she will wear more powerful and dark later as an successful playwright. With a hard cut after this family idyll we are shown again an easy coded scene with that famous female writer, her hair is now cut in a bob, her lipstick is red and she is wearing a polo-neck oft he same colour. You won’t find the silver cross anymore that she was wearing in movies before that one. She is talking with that flirty inflection of a writer who is used to promote herself but now she is a successful intellectual and every sentence and every look is for-profit. Her husky tone of voice accentuates the vivacity of her movements and she is allowed to let off steam on a jazzy dancefloor during a masterly directed scene in a small dancing hall. But we will never see her practising her very profession. Her success now as a writer is a fact and the long road to that success is not of any interest.
But something has changed, she remains her „parent’s good girl“, but now she is also writing ribald stage plays but even in flirty situations she finds her way back to mature colours. During an evening conversation with her number one man she is wearing a sand-coloured jumper that she borrowed from an exotic dancer earlier that day. And that jumper is that cut low so it assures her his unrestricted attention. He already knows and appreciates the „wild girl“, now he is offered also the undisguised side of her, the successful freelancer, working hard on her career. But still she keeps looking for a man, a house and a white fence and children. There is nothing to say against personal fulfilment, independence and career, but the bliss of love followed by marriage should be a woman’s priority. Schneider is allowed to break her horns, therefor she is visiting nightclubs and bars, hauntingly beautiful in a red dress while sitting in a red decoration and, most of it, amusing her friends with a crisp conversation. While doing so she perks her eyebrows up in an archly way, just grinning sovereignly when she is again confronted with an ecstatic audience. Success makes you airy and lonely, too. The editing shows that moral „advice“ in an interesting way: lively long tracking shots and pan shots including her family dominate the beginning of the film. In half close-ups each and every family member connects in his or her movements with all the others. As a group and also in single movements they form a „true entirety.“ Even during dialogues single close-ups are preferably avoided. As a famous and glamorous writer Schneider finds herself in a fast editing, and close-ups producing a certain distance to the actors illustrating that cold stageworld. The camera comes to rest again when Schneider is with her future husband, long calm shots and editing.
Schneider has a small frame but she is not trained and she is sturdy in physique. A fact that will bother her in the coming decades and a fact she will strive to have under her control, meaning strict dieting and sports. So she watches her posture, keeping her shoulders back and she cranes her neck to look thinner. While walking she strains her complete back, including also her legs – you see this strained movement in all of her films. She forms her characteristic special walk: firm steps originate directly from her knees, accompanied by a soft flail about. The changes are fascinating watching and comparing her work with a director like Luchino Visconti during the omnisbus film Boccaccio ’70 (1961). It is three years later and she has run off her pounds. Schneider is now slimly built, more accented and she now moves different. Her steps are light and not that galvanic anymore. No more rocking and no more flailing around. She is rather brisk and fluent, even a little rough around the edges. Visconti sets lights in a very modulating way and he seems to play with that her ascetic stature, dressing her in Chanel and showing her naked, with pearl necklaces around her delicate neck. She is not led to crane her neck anymore. Her hair is darker now, short and curly and her full lips are accentuated by a lipstick of drier texture. White and black eyeliner highlighting her blue-grey eyes and make them shine. Visconti simply adores her beauty. His episode Il Lavoro, based on a novella by Guy de Maupassant, shows us a young and rich woman, cheated by her husband (Tomas Milian), who is obsessed by sex for money. She is told of his antics by the local newspapers because she and her husband belong with the Milanese aristocracy and the yellow press is eager to write about his adventures. We witness the moment where she starts fighting for the first time. Schneider overcomes his constant public humiliation in a powerful way. She brings herself to use her final reserve of strength in order to commit her husband to herself. In that baddish condition she retains control. She knows her hubby well and is sure of the fact that a tearful confrontation would be of no profit. So she starts her brutal and cold chamber play, preparing for a nice evening out, having a relaxing bath and getting dressed, her husband following each and every step of her like a puppy dog. Her indifference leaves him in panic. It is her in their marriage, owning the big money and what if she decides to cut off his money supply? From that point on Schneider is a pure wave of delicate movements, her child-like impression vanished completely and she brings out her gauntness and cold eyes. Visconti now gives her the space that she needs to scare her husband to death. She is working with very fluent and open facial expressions, she wrinkles her brow in anger, grimaces distastefully or even snuffles!
The camera follows her in long shots, used also during the editing. Visconti makes the husband (and the audience) wait for her for completely 8 minutes, the library is filled with lawyers and they keep talking about her plans concerning her fabulous wealth. Visconti still lets us wait, sending finally the husband out to look for her and asking her to join them. He is walking the endless beautiful corridors, several rooms in their luxury flat until he is reaching her private facilities. And finding her there lying on the floor, writing a poem and listening to music while she is smoking a cigarette. When her husband (and so the audience) is entering the room and is addressing her, she is forced to look up to him. A masterful contradiction contrasting their living conditions. And the verbal power play begins. And it ends with telling him the new rules of their marriage: concerning sexual intercourse in the future he will have to pay her, too. Obviously he is used to it and prefers it that way… In her monologue the camera follows her, swaying and playing in light and in shaddows. She even turns her back to the camera, continuing her monologue and she seem not that interested in his reaction. Schneider now sets the pace of the movie. Waiting for her built up such a tension but it was worth it. And Schneider is using that tension now up to the border. That tension found its preparation already in the dark and heavy décor of the complete scene, velvety earth tones, the strict lines of the furnishings and heavy voluminous fabrics. The warm colours of this hazy decoration arouse the same impression as the lightness of her voice, set in beautiful contrast to her grave speech. In the end of this episode Schneider will be a quiet woman, a woman in quiet tears, knowing that the man he loves will only stay by her side because of an ice-cold agreement. And she will accept that.
In his black and white production Le Procés (1962) Orson Welles creates an almost colourful and wide-ranging set decoration with Jean Mandaroux and his cinematographer Adolphe Charlet. We see Schneider as „Leni“, the old lawyer’s Mr Hastler nurse. Her hair is carelessly bound together, she is wearing a white nurse’s tunic, held by a tight belt, accentuating her waist. Her acting is all airy lightness and makes you think of an endless improvisation. Welles, also starring as Mr Hastler, directs her forceful movements in a playful and rapid way. She is competent in her job as a nurse, every movement right on the money, even with a little irony. In this strict constructed interpretation of Franz Kafka’s novel it is her and Welles, building a fluent couple, knowing each other for decades. That also means they know exactly how to torture each other. Their comedic synergy is a beautiful counterbalance to the seriousness of the subject. Welles’ bulkiness contrasts Schneider’s fragile stature, but the composed harmony of their interacting within the surreal production becomes visible. While the shadows placed on Welles underline the lawyer’s impenetrability, the same shadows support Leni’s humour and recklessness in this deliberate confusion of perceived time, a constantly conflicting reality, and they achieve an incompatible unexpected effect. Schneider seems to stiffle a laugh constantly, but without questioning the sobriety of her „Leni“: she remains enigmatic and dangerous, too.
With the next following four english productions two are of special interest because they show significantly how Schneider got used to work with her german accent, and how she incorporates her accent to her character. In The Cardinal (1963) directed by Otto Preminger she gives her interpretation of a young, focussed woman called „Annemarie“, in Vienna during the 1930s. She is a nazi sympathiser. She does not know of her husband’s jewish origin. Against this volatile background she involves an american priest into moral conflicts. The young woman and the priest are more than on cordial terms with each other. But the priest remains true to his vow and principles. And it is him to absolve Annemarie of her sins in the end. This is a heavy plot and Schneider, wearing elegant and tight clothing and a brown bob, airs the awareness of a penitent. Her way of speaking is accordingly deliberate, she underlines her german accent, from time to time she even adds a german word to her english lines. She is moving slowly, appearing starchy and shy. The end of the movie admits the conclusion that she was almost holden back in her acting, to keep the attention of the audience completely with the priest, his story and his suffering, and his later career as a cardinal.
She is using the same resistance and strong accent but with a completely different effect in What’s new, Pussycat? (1964/65) directed by Clive Donner. As the domestic partner of Peter O’Toole she is a model of charm and understanding. O’Toole makes a good womanizer, Schneider his long-term girlfriend „Carole“. She wants him to marry her and to be devoted to her. Her laughter is infectious. She is not a moody besom, but charming and zappy, a real partner for life, and during the next 108 minutes O’Toole will have the opportunity to find out. O’Toole and Schneider harmonise in a lovely and warm way, as they are both extremely good looking. Schneider is speaking english at a spanking pace, bubbling out in a dynamic way. The dialogues with O’Toole are not only sizzling erotism, but they also show the immense trenchant, comedic timing of both of them. Her introduction is casual and flippant, we meet her hopping into the shower. And just a moment after we see her with O’Toole, wrapped into a bath robe, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of marriage. We witness a lovely and fresh scene leading us to the young woman’s working place: a bookshop. And while Schneider is likewise talking and flirting flutteringly with her admirer, Woody Allen, she has to resist an obtrusive customer. Wearing an unfavourable red two-pieve suit she is romping up and down a ladder at the same time. She is wearing her brown hair open and her light skin receives a porcellain touch by lighting, you will even recognise some freckles. Within the play of the essemble there are mostly long shots and figure shots that are used, during the diaogues editing is sparingly used. And wild chases are rhythmical directed to prevent the scene of editing.
The french-italian co-production La Piscine (1968) cements the iconic figure Romy Schneider. Her look is simply breathtaking and one thankfully determines that Jacques Deray’s cinematography seems literally to stuck with her. The movie is all summer heat, and the swimming pool is the only opportunity to cool down from time to time. This time Schneider and Alain Delon build a couple. They want to spend their holidays near St. Tropez. The film highlights the pool in a fatal way. Right with the beginning the pool mirrors the sunburned surroundings and Delon, who gives himself up to the heat. Again Schneider is introduced by a sound, jumping into the pool, we hear her active swimming strokes, getting slowly closer to Delon who will only now take off his sunglasses. Delon is wearing bathing trunks and Schneider a black bikini, both are allready slightly sunburned and wet of swimming. The vivid light and the dry colours produce an electric atmosphere, and even with all that open landscape and blue wide sky, everything seems constrictive and involves you in difficulties in breathing. Schneider is wearing her hair in her iconic style, firmly and slickly brushed back, a queue of hair in her neck. The heavy eye-makeup underlines the line of her forehead and the lipstick she is wearing is almost like the colour of her skin. She is called „Marianne“, the severy one, the organised one. With her attractive husband she found an outlet to let herself go, that inclused also her austerity. You feel and see the mutual dependency, the sexual attraction and the friendly bond. The bow is stretched. Within the staged setup of suspense their clothing is not interpretating their behaviour. No one is dressed in black just because of killing someone, and no one is dressed in white or light colours because the mood is pure happiness. Delon will be the killer of Marianne’s former lover, and the sun keeps burning from a lovely blue sky, the pool keeps being the only refreshment close to their house. This makes the horror all more intense. Everything seems to be the same, everything is just like in the beginning, they are both enjoying themselves, enjoying the sun, the food, the drinks and their love. Schneider speaks fluent french. Her acting and language is full of nuances, sporadically you don’t even hear her accent. The french language does no harm even to her more jarring moments, while railing against something and raising her voice. On the contrary she seems more powerful, seems to say more exact the words she wants to say. Her language and dialogues are one flow.
Over the course oft he following years it proves Schneider’s true skills: as an actress she is technically in the position to unfold important upheavals of the characters she represents, without being the centre of the cadrage or of the drama’s progress. So many things she reveals at the sidelines, they seem to happen only incidentally. Apropos with nothing she gives the character the space for personal progression, in a decent way but all the more powerful she shows the impalpable passing of time.
Originally published (german) in “ROMY SCHNEIDER Film. Rolle. Leben”. – Edited by Karin Moser; Film Archiv Austria (2008).