Angela Schanelec x5: Circling reality

18 November, 2020

German filmmaker Angela Schanelec is associated with the Berlin School, a name perhaps too rhetorical for what it really is: a handful of young directors, including Christian Petzold, Valeska Grisebach, Thomas Arslan, schooled by Harun Farocki, who in the early 2000s were trying uneasy narrative forms at the opposite end of mainstream cinema. Unlike the New Romanian Wave, which coagulated around the aesthetics proposed by Cristi Puiu, the Berlin School doesn’t come with a unitary narrative-stylistic agenda – the easy argument that it would consist of films about neoliberalism and urban alienation would be easy to contradict. The film that would have determined the name of the movement (invented actually by the German critic Merten Worthmann), Passing Summer (2001), by Angela Schanelec, isn’t really a portrayal of the “city” of Berlin, but may be taken out of context at any time. Schanelec is less known in the USA, although she has been awarded in Europe multiple times, because her films avoid embellishment or getting too much into the psychology of things, have twisted narratives and present, in fact, a reality obstructed from all sides, where you exactly can’t be sure of anything, everything is volatile and prone to change. Just like Puiu’s Aurora, Schanelec’s films are based on the ambiguities of the relationships between the characters, on the ambiguity of intentions – it’s a fiction that leaves the impression of lack of control, of too much life outside the frame. It’s a reality that swallows the screen or makes it insignificant before the mundane immensities that cannot be accommodated within its perimeter.

Mubi dedicates to Angela Schanelec a retrospective consisting of four films: Passing Summer, Marseille, Afternoon and The Dreamed Path, that can be watched at any time by accessing their library.


Passing Summer (2001)

Passing Summer
Passing Summer

Similar to the protagonist of the recent film La Virgen de Augusto / The August Virgin, Valerie (Ursina Lardi) stays in Berlin during the summer, although most of its inhabitants travel to other places – her best friend, Marie, goes to Rome with romantic expectations, her mother spends her time at a spa, and so on.

Unlike La Virgen de Augusto, here the relationships between the characters, their identities and Marie always remain vague, as do the places she visits. Schanelec doesn’t follow Marie exclusively, but randomly sticks to some character, lingers on for a bit, and then moves forward. This spider web structure doesn’t lead to a general resolution, like in Magnolia, but it’s rather twisted – nothing connects these people more than them staying in Berlin and their soon to be over relationships. Passing Summer is a good choice to start on Angela Schanelec’s filmography: first of all, it contains the great themes of her following cinema (women’s loneliness, death, the lack of human communication); secondly, it makes the stylistic and narrative agenda of her following films quite clear (Schanelec doesn’t force the camera into people’s lives and doesn’t invade their emotions, only records them). For this reason, Valerie ends up visiting her dying father at the hospital, and this part is inaccessible to the viewer, because it’s blocked by a huge glass window. The lack of dramatization in moments like this, which would otherwise be emotionally charged, are part of Angela Schanelec’s Bressonian anti-naturalism.


Marseille (2004)


With Marseille, Schanelec experiments with some sort of narrative “frustration”: she offers the viewer a piece of story that could very well work in a conventional manner, then chops it with all sorts of unforeseen threads, or prefers to fill it out with time ellipsis.

Sophie, based in Berlin, exchanges apartments with Zelda, who lives in Marseille, for a short period of time, during which each of them would have time to visit the respective city. When they meet to exchange keys, they talk in French, but they also grant each other playful moments: Zelda sings to Sophie in German, and in turn Sophie sings to Zelda in French. Over the passing weeks, we don’t see much of Sophie’s promenades as a tourist (by the way, there’s absolutely nothing impressive about the way Schanelec sees the city, it’s rather depicted as gray and modest, not even the protagonist seems to visit any interesting sights), but just her stalking a car mechanic, whom she keeps watching from a distance while working at the auto body shop, until she musters the courage to approach him for renting a car. He rents it to her, and Schanelec leaves a long ellipsis between this moment and the moment they meet for a beer to return him the keys – we don’t see her driving around, we don’t even see the car. And again, the potential for a romantic thing between the two is broken by an inopportune friend, who tries insistently to get something out of her, and then by her sudden departure to Germany. Once there, the narrative moves on to her friend, theater actress Hanna (Marie-Lou Sellem), and her relationship with her husband, photographer Ivan (Devid Striesow). Seeing her in a rehearsal of a neo-Victorian play, in which she fires her maid because she doesn’t know how to light a lamp, we can figure out that the help of the people around her is crucial for Hanna to continue her career (Sophie helps her with the food and the baby, etc.). In the final part of the film, Sophie returns to Marseille, as if trying to consume her previous stay (and in need of a break from a world that knows who she is), but is assaulted in the middle of the street – a moment that is not captured by the camera, but it’s fully described at the police station. It seems that Sophie never finds what she is really looking for, since something unexpected always occurs. For example, in one of the most surprising sequences, she is approached while waiting at the stoplight by a girl who returns her a hat she seems to have forgotten in a restaurant months ago – Sophie leaves smiling, crossing the boulevard.


Afternoon (2007)


Afternoon is loosely based on A.P. Chekhov’s The Seagull, although the connections with Chekhov are not very transparent, except when it comes to the characters; without having read the play, the spectator is thrown into a pit of connections from which it’s very difficult to get out. Irene (played by Schanelec) would be Irina Arkadina; Konstantin is her son (the equivalent of Treplev); his girlfriend, Agnes, would be Nina, and Alex (Irene’s brother) would be Trigorin. These things can be annoying for a viewer who is unfamiliar with Chekhov (or simply a spectator avid of narrative clarity), but they are a little easier to spot than the multiple characters in Passing Summer. For example, the information that Agnes might have had a room in this family’s house (at first, one might believe that is her own home, but then it’s revealed that she is actually the next door neighbor who grew up with Konstantin), now taken by the youngest of the family, leads to a great conflict; so does Irene, who has returned home, where she no longer seems welcome at all. Otherwise, their interactions can be easily added to the Bergman’s lack of communication spectrum – they are people who no longer get along and don’t even make an effort to change that – but there are also moments that might seem tender: Irene remembering a train ride, when Konstantin was just a child and she carried him in her arms; also, the way Irene keeps trying to persuade the family’s misanthropes to come down for supper, even though she doesn’t know how to cook very well. Of all Angela Schanelec’s early films, Afternoon is probably the most cohesive – that’s because she gives space to the characters to gradually peel away their family traumas and frustrations.


The Dreamed Path (2016)

The Dreamed Path
The Dreamed Path

The Dreamed Path has a huge time ellipsis (16 years), during which a German couple (Theres, played by Miriam Jakob, and Kenneth, played by Thorbjörn Björnsson) who was traveling in Greece ended up breaking up – he wanted to become a singer, she a teacher. Cut to present times, he is a beggar, she tries to divide between work and her child, and they meet by chance on the street and they can’t seem to say anything to each other. At the same time, a contemporary German couple is falling apart – she is an actress (Maren Eggert), he is a writer (Phil Hayes) – it is clear that there is no attraction between them anymore, but neither of them can’t let go. Despite the fact that these things may seem very clear, they don’t actually are – the first couple is dressed the same, they look the same, throughout the entire film; there are all sorts of fragments all tangled up narrative-wise that seem rather hazy (during shootings, Maren Eggert, dressed as a policewoman, steps out of her trail as out of her mind with a piece of toilet paper attached to her foot). Kenneth, who has the most coherent course (but tragic at the same time), has a moment after his mother’s death, when he digs his own grave, in which he lays down and stays for some time, as if trying to understand what death really means. There are all sorts of such scenes in Schanelec’s film (the protagonist of I Was Home, But… sporadically talks about how people should lay on the ground to remember who they are), when time seems to slow down, and the characters enter an unnatural calm.


I Was Home, But… (2019)

I Was Home, But...
I Was Home, But…

Her latest film, I Was Home, But… is probably her best one yet: it starts with a donkey and a dog sharing an abandoned house, with dust-covered walls and the carcasses they’ve just fed on. There is nothing predetermined or conspicuous in the world that Schanelec watches from a distance: the protagonist suffers after her son returns home after a long absence (and, gradually, a fear of permanent abandonment installs in, which might have to do with her husband’s recent death, too). Except for the sequence where she falls at his feet, overwhelmed with relief that he has returned (evoking, as such, Michelangelo’s Pietà), there is no other dialogue or direct contact with her son throughout the film, just a series of interactions with other strangers, between riding a broken bike and returning it; between facing her problems or covering them up with others. Just like in The Dreamed Path, Schanelec diverts the camera from catching sight of the characters’ feelings in situations of emotional crisis – by showing anything other than close-ups rendering the character’s state of mind (and here I refer to extreme close-ups of legs, objects or clothes), the viewer is denied the image of a suffering person, and they will need to take on the emotion of the action inside the frame, absorb it like a sponge.

Georgiana Musat Georgiana Musat
Journalist and film critic, with a master's degree in film critics. Collaborates with Scena9, Acoperișul de Sticlă, FILM and FILM Menu magazines. For Films in Frame, she brings the Monthly TOP, published at the beginning of each month, on Wednesday. In her spare time, she retires in the woods where she pictures other possible lives and flying foxes.