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A Simple, Poignant Melody: The Cinema of Angela Schanelec

Ich war zuhause, aber… (Angela Schanelec, 2019)

EssayPart of Issue #5: Ghosts from the Present: The Berlin School

It is with some embarrassment that I admit my first conscious exposure to the name ‘Angela Schanelec’ came with the premiere of Ich war zuhause, aber… (2019) at the Berlinale. The film opens on a precise pan (captured with astonishing, synchronous clarity by cinematographer and filmmaker in his own right, Ivan Markovic), following a wild dog on the hunt. Then its prey: a rabbit, running for its life until it stops to rest. There is no indication of the moment of capture. Suddenly we are with a donkey, some distant relative to Balthazar, entering a room to survey the aftermath as the dog rips into its meal. The donkey looks through a window frame to the world beyond; the dog’s belly rises and falls with its heavy breath, drifting from exhaustion into a deep sleep. The simple necessities of life are tiring enough, the need to categorize such simplicity even more so.

The so-called ‘Berlin School’—if it exists—effectively refers to a literal school and location more than the aesthetic or thematic characteristics that its filmmakers have in common. The school in question is the DFFB, the German Film and Television Academy, where the likes of Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan, and Angela Schanelec (as well as several notable non-‘Berlin School’ filmmakers, such as Raoul Peck and Ute Aurand) studied.

Although none of the trio are Berlin natives, their work often converges around Berlin as a specific location, and Schanelec’s films focus so intently on location that Berlin becomes noticeably pronounced. In the case of Marseille (2004) or Orly (2010), she names the film after the location specifically used as a reprieve from Berlin.

Ich bin den Sommer über in Berlin geblieben aka I Stayed in Berlin All Summer (1994) opens with an empty gray frame accompanied by the narration of a story, a story we then see Schanelec herself writing on an electronic typewriter. The colors are drab and her white shirt nearly fades into the empty wall behind her. Not yet her feature-length debut—the film is only 47 minutes—it traces the lives of three women and two of their (male) partners. While relationships (or any facts, really) are rarely presented with absolute transparency in Schanelec films, characters’ unhappiness typically is clear. That is to say, they aren’t necessarily unhappy, but they are undeniably in a perpetual state that is decidedly not happy.

Ich bin den Sommer über in Berlin geblieben (Angela Schanelec, 1994)

At one point, Nadine (Angela Schanelec) and Alexander (Wolfgang Michael) sit next to a box of stuff yet to be unpacked. Alexander puts on a Schubert CD while Nadine pulls out a deep red ashtray to match her sweater. They smoke together, looking like a parody of art house intellectualism. Outside, the publisher, Louis (Tobias Lenel) and his girlfriend Maria (Isabel Karajan) walk by their building. A third woman, Carla (Joana Schümer) listens nearby, sitting in her car. This narrative departure to follow other characters has practically become Schanelec’s signature: we begin by following one main protagonist. At some point, we will be plunged into someone else’s life entirely, with only a clue of how they might be connected to our original character (sometimes only metaphorically). These moments of fracturing speak to my personal experience of Berlin; divvied up into districts that each have their own centers and points of interest of different sizes, styles, attitudes—the divided personality of a city still struggling to reunite. For such an early work, Schanelec exhibits absolute tonal and technical control without overtly telegraphing any influences.

At the film’s conclusion, Schanelec meets with the publisher, who offers a meta commentary on the film we have just seen:

“It is short and quickly read. It’s all over before one can engage with the characters. One only gets a sense of your intentions, but doesn’t experience them fully. The style is good. Perhaps lacking a little editing. You see, with young authors it’s often like this: they have bursts, but no stamina… You can decide how you want to clarify, but there has to be clarity in some form. What matters is to find that form.”

Given the work she’s made since, one might consider this to be less of a self-critique and more of a manifesto for her future work.

“Is what I’ve written not intelligible?” Schanelec asks.

“Do you want it to be understood?” the publisher asks.

“Certainly, I want to evoke memories, like music. Sometimes you get a tune in your head but you can’t sing it, yet you remember everything else about it: the moment when you first heard it, someone you were with at the time, or a feeling it evoked, but you cannot remember the notes, and you can’t explain why you can’t when it was such a simple, poignant melody. Then someone sings it and it all seems whole again, that for a moment there is truth that can be grasped or that can even be endured.”Translation by Steff Lebowski

Nachmittag (Angela Schanelec, 2007)

Thirteen years later, Nachmittag aka Afternoon (2007) also stars Schanelec as matriarch Irene and deals with a written story we never learn the full details of, though times have changed: it’s read on a laptop instead of at a typewriter, and was written by her son, Konstantin (Jirka Zett). His friend reads the final sentence. “Is that the end?” she asks, likely a popular question with anyone who has just finished watching a film by Schanelec.

Here the idea of a knife repeatedly highlighted in the short story of I Stayed in Berlin All Summer reappears, but this time it is physically present for a near fatality. “What is this, hara-kiri?” Irene jokes to Konstantin, only for her expression to rapidly warp as she realizes the truth in her question and races to stop him.

Most of Afternoon’s action takes place at a summer house next to a lake somewhere just outside of Berlin. There is a German cultural obsession with vacation houses, and—at least in Berlin—there is an obsession with lakes. Roughly three quarters of the year are spent in a soul-crushing, eyelid-dimming gray light. When the sun shines, there is an internal push to take advantage of something as simple and easily taken for granted as light. Thus, summer often encourages as many lake visits as possible. There are a surprising number of lakes in and around Berlin, and their banks are always full when the sun is shining.

Nachmittag (Angela Schanelec, 2007)

Dane Komljen, a Bosnian filmmaker who cameos in I Was at Home, But… nicely sums up the dread and dissatisfaction of Afternoon:

It begins and ends with a stage. First, we find ourselves at a theatre, the first words uttered: “So heavy.” We see a fragment of a rehearsal where Irene pets a dog tenderly. Here she is allowed to be something else. The other one is the bathing platform in the middle of the lake. Like Irene, Konstantin takes to this ‘stage’ to escape the role he’s been given. He emerges from the cold water and climbs onto it, almost disappearing from view and from this life. So heavy. But the film doesn’t end there. We see Irene once more, her face witnessing this moment from the distant shore. If there is any more certainty this time, it’s only that she can’t understand what she has seen.

Marseille (2004) begins with an apartment swap; Sophie (Maren Eggert) is visiting the titular city to take a break from Berlin. She’s speaking in French with Zelda (DFFB alum Emily Atef), the owner of the apartment she’ll be staying in, though somewhat uneasily. When Sophie asks if she speaks any German, Zelda offers in German, “Good day. Goodbye. My friend the tree is dead.” In such close proximity to being asked to remember to water a house plant, this last proclamation nearly reads as a threat. Smiling, Sophie asks, “What?”

Marseille (Angela Schanelec, 2004)

Zelda breaks into song, quoting two lines from ‘Mein Freund, der Baum’ by the singer Alexandra (born Doris Treitz in what is now Šilutė, Lithuania but was in 1942 Heydekrug, East Prussia), sadly a member of the 27 club. Sophie replies by singing a few notes of Charles Trenet’s French classic ‘La Mer’—simple, poignant melodies, and like Schanelec’s body of work, an exercise in communicating something outside the barriers of the direct meaning of words.

In a conversation with Dane Komljen in I Was at Home, But…, Astrid (Maren Eggert) claims “…it means different things to everyone, as all words do. It’s amazing we even expect to be understood, yet words just come pouring out.”

When we see Sophie jay-run a crosswalk while traffic passes through shortly after her, it is a strict violation of Germany’s social contract. But here in France she is free to do so, and as long as she outruns the cars and motorcycles, no one will honk at her for getting out of line—as opposed to Germany where individuals go out of their way to publicly berate you for choosing to live your life outside the bounds (however slightly) of law-abiding, rule-following citizenry.

Marseille (Angela Schanelec, 2004)

As Sophie takes an interest in a nearby car repairman, Pierre (Alexis Loret), she asks him where she can find a rental car, which he manages to procure through a friend. We see the initial request made, and then their meeting to return the keys. As usual, Schanelec does away with the in-betweens, for which she has no use nor time—one can almost imagine the lost sequences which would make up the filler between necessary scenes were the film helmed by another run-of-the-mill euro art director: driving to another town for a day, trying a new sandwich, sitting outside while we’re supposed to think about how much Astrid must be thinking about Pierre… Instead we see their meeting at a bar to return the keys. Just as a mutual romantic interest begins to flare up, Pierre’s friend Bertrand appears to direct his tension toward privileged German vacationers, asking if she’s “Alcoholic? Jobless? Virgin?” After a heavy silence, Pierre mentions, “Bertrand works in the Pizzeria in Port des Auffes.”

“Where the tourists go,” Bertrand chimes in. After dryly (sarcastically?) apologizing, he keeps pushing the issue, “Seriously, what do you do?” Sophie, who we’ve only known so far as a vacationing photographer, does not reply.

We then see Sophie and Pierre at a party. Very suddenly we are thrust back to Berlin, where we begin to follow another character entirely, for most of the rest of the film—setting us into a disorienting daze reflective of both protagonists’ state of mind. When we return to Sophie, it’s to follow her back to Marseille, a desperate attempt to recapture the magic of her last trip. But this time she doesn’t meet Pierre, and after a tangle with a criminal (unseen, skipped over as though its impact on her life were the same as the two-day car rental) she’s in a police interrogation, answering questions in German, translated by an interpreter, until she switches and answers directly in French as she begins to breakdown. Through tears she explains, “I wanted to listen to music.”

After watching Marseille I went to the grocery store to return some bottles and get the cash deposits back—a highly motivating means of recycling that works: you pay an extra 8 or 16 cent deposit (25 cents for aluminum cans or plastic) per bottle so you’ll bring them back, since these accumulate. This deposit is called Pfand in German, and there are machines in most stores which speed up the process of collecting your returns, all you have to do is set the bottle onto a conveyor belt, where it’s scanned to confirm it can be returned at this store, and when you’re done you get a receipt for the total amount you’ve collected. My personal record for doing this in one go was somewhere around 7 euros in returns (it’s not terribly easy to carry so many bottles at once unless they’re mostly plastic). Anyway, the crates that the machine sorts them into often fill up with bottles, and someone from the store has to go clear space and add new crates. In the past I would always just find someone working and ask them to do it. Today I asked the first employee I could find, who was clearly perturbed by this interruption from his regular shelf-filling duties, “You just have to ring the bell next to the machine.”

In Germany, one is expected to already know how things work, and you’re treated as less intelligent when you (accidentally) reveal that you don’t know something. I have no intention of accusing Schanelec of applying this mode of thinking to her filmmaking, but it seems to me at least an important factor which may very well inform it. To some unexplainable degree, revealing everything you’re thinking point blank would reveal one’s ignorance. This revelation requires a vulnerability which many Germans refuse to allow themselves. Conceptually, such haughty snobbery manifests far more directly in the work of Michael Haneke, from the even socially stricter Austria. But the similarity between their styles is only superficial; where Haneke uses ellipses to show us how smart he is, Schanelec simply cuts what she doesn’t need in search of that “simple, poignant melody”—no trills, no arpeggios.

Marseille (Angela Schanelec, 2004)

In my efforts to single out German filmmakers whose work resonates with my experience of this country, I have found myself over time more disconnected from the work of titanic names like Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. Fassbinder might be the exception to the rule, an incredible distillation of everything; the good and bad as a whole of what it means to be German or to live in Germany, sometimes Berlin-specific, sometimes not. Schanelec does not only film Berlin, her works are Berlin: from the same scratches I recognize on S-Bahn windows, to those big yellow buses, to the need for a bike and the mysterious need for a bike to repeatedly reject us in various ways . The repressed anger and resentments that so many citizens—native and foreign alike—fight through daily for fear of being socially ostracized until the fateful day comes when they reach their breaking point. It’s the same nadir threatened in I Stayed in Berlin All Summer and Marseille and reached by Schanelec as Irene in Afternoon, or Astrid in I Was at Home, But… It’s the same resentment which is sometimes fueled by the clash of cultures and linguistic differences in a city where 21% of its 3 million residents come from a country other than Germany.

Ich war zuhause, aber… (Angela Schanelec, 2019)

The end point is hardly as simple as “music allows for communication which bridges linguistic and cultural barriers,” but this is work which engages with far deeper questions of communication. How can people from different cultural backgrounds hope to understand one another fully when words “mean different things to everyone,” even for two native speakers of the same language? In one sense, film is an answer to that question—despite our reliance on subtitles for the finer points, Schanelec largely communicates her bewildered view of the larger world through her disorienting ellipses and silences. But the strongest and most affecting part of what she communicates is something I’m not able to elaborate linguistically, precisely because it does not originate in words, but those simple ingredients of cinema fulfilling their potential: images, silence, movement through space-time.

In I Was at Home, But…, Astrid stops by her son’s school unplanned to tell the teachers who will decide her son’s future—whether or not he should be allowed to return as if nothing had happened after a long and mysterious absence—that she hopes they will understand why there’s no reason to keep him from returning.

“My whole life is in his hands, as is the life of his sister, although it’s in my hands too, but… it has to do with the fact he’s a man, or is becoming one. There’s no word for that state of becoming and being at the same time.” Here we find Astrid in a difficult spot; she is forced to make herself vulnerable in order to plead her case, revealing not only what she’s thinking but what she’s actually feeling.

That state of becoming and being at the same time: a simple, poignant melody.