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Interview: Angela Schanelec on I Was at Home, But…, the Berlin School, & More

The filmmaker discusses her elliptical approach to filmmaking and how she compels our active spectatorship.

Angela Schanelec
Photo: Joaquim Gem

One year ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Silver Bear for best director went to Angela Schanelec for I Was at Home, But…. The film stars Maren Eggert as Astrid, a Berlin woman recently bereaved of her husband and coping with the subsequent weeklong disappearance and reemergence of her son, Philip (Jakob Lassalle). Astrid’s life in the wake of these dual traumas unfolds episodically, as her emotional duress manifests itself as displaced obstinacy and heightened passion in social interactions.

Astrid’s emotional struggle is also intercut with dispersed scenes of Philip’s class neutrally reciting lines from Hamlet, of a romantic crisis in the life of one of his instructors (the omnipresent Franz Rogowski), and of a donkey and a dog living together in an abandoned schoolhouse. With this film, Schanelec crafts a portrait of grief that can be at once alienating and deeply moving, its fragmentary nature both reflecting the way Astrid and Philip’s worlds have been shattered and compelling our active spectatorship.

That latter aspect is typical of Schanelec’s body of work, as well as the film movement it has been grouped with. The so-called Berlin School—originally consisting of Schanelec and Thomas Arslan and Christian Petzold, her fellow graduates from the Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie Berlin—wasn’t the filmmakers’ intentional creation, but rather a label often applied to the slow-paced, formalist, and critically engaged art films they made. French critics and the German film magazine Revolver were the first to propagate the coming of a nouvelle vague allemande in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and, as Schanelec emphasizes in our interview, particularly in the early days of the “School,” the grouping helped the trio’s small collection of completed works find places in film festivals.

Now, 25 years into her filmmaking career, Schanelec has an oeuvre that stands on its own—as evidenced by the career retrospectives that have begun to crop up around the world. Last fall, the Vienna International Film Festival organized a comprehensive one. And from February 7 to 13, Film at the Lincoln Center in New York will be showing her films under the program “Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec,” which in addition to her shorts and features also includes a program of three films by other filmmakers selected by Schanelec.

Has this retrospective given you reason to revisit earlier work that you haven’t in a while, or to revisit your work as a whole? If so, what kinds of insights have stood out to you as you have considered your career up to this point?

I have to say that it’s quite exhausting to be confronted with the work of my whole life. There were other retrospectives, earlier retrospectives, and for me it’s quite hard. I mean, I’m very happy that there’s this interest in my work, there’ no question. But it’s also quite hard for me.

What’s so difficult about it?

Because, I mean, it’s not such a big body of work. I started in the ‘90s, and the first long film was in 1995, so it’s 25 years. But between my films is two or three years, so I spend a lot of time with them. And when they are finished, they are finished. And then I have the deep wish to continue with something new. And I think I know my films.

Do you see, then, each film as something new you’re exploring? Or do you leave a film with an idea you want to continue working on in the next film?

It’s not a new start. It’s not a new beginning at all. It’s rather a need that emerges from the work on a film, and I follow up on this need in the next film. And this is also not an intellectual or conceptual decision, and often it’s very primitive. So, when, for example, I’ve worked a lot with language, there’s a certain fatigue, or there emerges the need to work with images again. If you look at the way my films alternate, there’s always, I don’t know—in Plätze in Städten [Schanelec’s first feature] there’s hardly any talking, in Passing Summer lots of talking, then in Marseille, again, hardly any. So, certain needs develop, and they come from exhaustion.

In fact, I noticed that The Dreamed Path has no subtitles on Amazon Prime, and perhaps it doesn’t need them because as you said it’s one of your films that’s so visual.

This is only one point how one film comes from another. Ah, there are lots, but it happens, as I said, not rationally, but instead it emerges from certain needs.

To what degree do you feel an affinity with something called the Berlin School? And if you did, do you feel like it’s so-last-decade, do you feel it’s over now?

To start at the beginning, it was only Thomas Arsland, Christian Petzold, and I. And Thomas and I had become friends already at the Filmhochschule. And via this concept, “Berlin School,” it was much easier to make the films visible, because we hadn’t made so many films. But then under the concept “Berlin School,” one could show the whole set. Then the films were also shown abroad very often, and naturally that was good, and we were happy with that. But the concept didn’t result from collaborative work, but only from a look at the finished films. And we—Thomas and I—never, though we were friends, we never worked together even at the Filmhochschule. There was no cooperation, and correspondingly, the films developed completely differently over the course of these 15 years—or I don’t really know how long this concept has existed. If you look at the films only of the three of us, you’ll see they’re very different from one another. And mine are somewhere different entirely. In my eyes, anyway.

I agree.

And therefore the concept is not relevant for me. What’s also positive, though, is this next generation came up—Christoph Hochhäuser, Nicolas Wackerbarth—and the two of them are from Revolver, and are very practiced at communicating. And that was also positive, because for Thomas and I that was unaccustomed. We had much more worked each for ourselves.

Turning to I Was at Home, But …, there’s a lot of Hamlet in the film. You translated a volume of Shakespeare plays a couple of years ago, so it’s clear why Hamlet appears in it to a certain extent, but I’m wondering what has drawn you to Shakespeare recently, and whether your work translating him served as a kind of germ for the film.

What I can say is that I translated, between the year 2000 and five years ago, six or seven Shakespeare pieces, and Hamlet was quite long ago, but it was the one that impressed me to a very extreme point. It’s a very intense work to translate dialogues, because in a way I try to find out how I can say something. It’s not a text, it’s words which are spoken. And so there’s a confrontation, an intense confrontation that belongs to me, that remains present to me. When I began to write the script, I didn’t write it with Hamlet in mind. But when I considered, how will one see the students, and I thought, I want to see the students without the teacher. What could they do? They could perform. What could they perform? Hamlet. It came back to me. My confrontation as someone who’s staging something with actors—the confrontation with staging—is to be found in the Hamlet scene. That is, what does the spoken word mean in front of a camera, and in comparison to the stage, and all these questions, I could think through them. That’s actually it. In a moment in which language is so expressive, like in Shakespeare, that has consequences for the performance, for the expression of the play, because the children simply say the sentences, but they don’t really play it. But it’s important to understand that just saying it doesn’t mean emptiness, it just means to let the body work, I mean to let the body express itself without will, without position.

One thing that I was picking up on in how you use Shakespeare is that when you’re going through the kind of grief that Astrid and Philip are going through—especially if you’ve lost a parent—that’s an almost universal experience, and you feel like it’s something that has been played through so many times. You feel that grief intensely, but you also feel that you aren’t unique—it’s in Hamlet, everybody goes through this.

You’re completely right. I don’t feel unique at all [laughs]. It’s interesting that you say it. I never talk about it. It’s just sometimes I try to describe that. But what I’m interested in isn’t what is special about the individual person. I speak much more about what unites us, about [what is] basically human, than about the individual. So, yeah, to that extent, you’re right. That’s somehow interesting, somehow very important, because it’s important to me that the characters you see can be anyone.

You’ve spoken of the importance of space in your films—of the emplacement of the characters, so to speak. I Was at Home, But… clearly takes place in Berlin. But to what extent do you see it as a “Berlin film”? Could this story take place somewhere else?

Yeah, for sure it could take place somewhere else. But Germany isn’t so big [laughs]. Of course, this film was shot in Berlin because I live there. But there’s also a reason why I live in Berlin. There aren’t so many alternatives if you want to live in a big city. What’s special about Berlin is that many people live there who aren’t from the city, and that shapes it. And the streets are very broad in Berlin. One notices this in particular when one wants to shoot a “big city” shot showing a lot of people—that’s very hard to find in Berlin. One has to go to Friedrichstraße, or these days Alexanderplatz. But even there, it’s simply so wide. And because, before as now, the city is so varied, the tourists aren’t totally concentrated. There aren’t so many alternatives when one wants to aim at explaining the big city, and a city where there are foreigners. The young man, for example, in the long dialogue scene in the middle, he’s applying to be a professor. That’s already complicated. So obviously it’s a city in which foreigners work at colleges and apply for professorships. There aren’t many alternatives to this.

I think that audiences, when watching your films, realize how much work the standards of conventional narrative do for us. Yours have a kind of different infrastructure. They call on us to fill in more of the gaps, especially when it comes to relationships between the characters, which are established largely through implication. How conscious of structure are you when you’re writing or conceptualizing your films?

I think I’m very aware of classic storytelling. I’m very aware of it as everyone, as someone who sees films, also as someone who worked a long time in the theater. I’m very aware of it, but I use it in a different way, because my interest is on the moment. For me, every moment is essential as it für sich [“for itself”], as one says in German. So, every moment I see für sich. I don’t tell any moment in order that this moment makes me able to tell another moment. So, this is a very different way to narrate. And, yes, maybe this describes it already, that also this classical narration is a narration of storytelling and not how life moves on.

I Was at Home, But… conveys a clear sense of structure. It has these bookends, the scenes with the donkey and the dog. There’s a sense of self-parody there: We see the donkey looking out the window, ignoring the dog, and then, soon thereafter, we see Philip’s school director doing the same thing with him. I know you’re probably sick of being asked “what’s with the animals,” but is self-parody part of what’s going on here?

No, I mean, I didn’t reflect on that, what you’ve said. I had this character of this boy, and he came from nature, and I had this wish to show nature, but I didn’t want to show him, so I noticed that I wanted to show animals instead, because they live in nature, more natural than a child can. They aren’t missed, you understand what I mean? We were looking on location, scouting for a stable for the animals, and a stable normally doesn’t have windows, so we saw many stables where we shot it in Croatia. And then we saw an abandoned schoolhouse, abandoned for 20 years, had a window and a small stage. I saw it and I thought immediately I want to shoot the animals here, not in a stable but in this abandoned house. So, I had the opportunity to let the donkey look out of the window, and I felt that this is good. But I didn’t think, “Ah, okay, then it will be a great parody of the school director, who also will look out of the window.” He looks out of the window because he’s waiting for the mother because he’s in a situation where he cannot talk to that child. So, it’s easier to look out of the window. Also, the donkey cannot talk to the dog [laughs]. So, for me it doesn’t make sense to reflect on that. I just follow and trust my relation to what I want to see and tell.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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