Waiting for Something to Happen
The Films of Angela Schanelec
In Passing Summer (2001), a woman, newly returned from Italy, begins a halting conversation with a stranger in a coffee shop. Of her trip she says, “somehow the whole time I was there I was always a bit excited, and also kind of bored. Kind of waiting for something to happen.” A little more conversation, and the stranger returns to his newspaper. “Any news” she asks. “No catastrophes today,” he replies. She laughs. “You never know if you want them or not.”
It’s precisely this kind of waiting that interests Angela Schanelec, the German auteur whose latest, I Was at Home, But…, opens this month at Film at Lincoln Center, preceded by a complete retrospective of her work to date (eight features, her mid-length graduation film and four shorts). Hers is a cinema of suggestion, of feelings delicately provoked, of connections inferred and, inevitably, misread.
Each moment in her films is charged, expectant, as though there were something looming—but always just out of frame, just beyond the next cut. She grants us no more than is essential: a voice, a hand, the nape of a neck. Locations are shown in fragments, tied together by the intruding sounds of a city. She forgoes a forced naturalism from her actors in favor of measured, deliberate performances. The rest she leaves to us. The leanness of her filmmaking is less an act of distancing than a demand for engagement, a sort of reciprocity between filmmaker and audience.
Schanelec was a theater actress before she became a director, studying under Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky at the dffb, alongside Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. From her earliest films, Schanelec’s singular point of view—at once unsparing and tender—is apparent, as is her distinctive style: a deeply expressive color palette; long, lingering takes which find meaning in the most banal objects and acts; largely static shots, each so deeply charged it could stand alone.
Her graduation film, I Stayed in Berlin All Summer (1994), borrows from The Dry Heart, Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg’s 1947 novel about a woman who coolly shoots her husband between the eyes. This story (or one like it), told in voiceover, opens the film, linking two women—Nadine (Schanelec) and Maria (Isabel Karajan). Their relationship to one another, and to the men who enter the film fragmentarily (first a voice, then a hand), is slowly and incompletely revealed.
Schanelec shares with Ginzburg a concern for the insufficiency of language—what the latter refers to in an essay as “the meager, barren words of our time, painfully wrung from silence… weak, desperate summonses that are swallowed up in space.” The couples in I Stayed in Berlin All Summer speak, but their words don’t seem to land. Maria asks about marriage; Louis (Tobias Lenel) asks after his glasses. Alexander (Wolfgang Michael) answers Nadine’s prose, which he finds too opaque, with an admission of love and a verse of Heinrich Heine. This, in turn, is swallowed up by a Schubert lied—Meine Ruh’ ist hin (“My peace is gone, my heart is heavy”), its sound wafting down to the street below, where a woman waits in a car and Maria and Louis pass by.
In her feature debut, My Sister’s Good Fortune (1995), her characters yearn to engage, to be known. Isabel (played by Schanelec) is caught in a love triangle with impassive Thomas (Wolfgang Michael) and her passionate half-sister Ariana (Anna Bolk). While Isabel is reserved, fixating on words and phrases, Ariana speaks compulsively, her self-expression heedless and overwhelming. It is only from a distance that Isabel makes known the nature of her desire: “I want you to see how I shop and how I brush my teeth, ” she writes in a letter to Thomas, read aloud by Ariana.
The sense of isolation is perhaps most acute in Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path (2016), which shows the complete rupture of two relationships. There's (Miriam Jakob) and Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson) are separated by space and time—shown in radical temporal and spatial jumps—while Schanelec’s fragmented framing and avoidance of shot/reverse-shot editing makes it seem as though Ariane (frequent Schanelec actor Maren Eggert) and David (Phil Hayes) are in different places, even when they’re occupying the same room. Language, too, is strained: There's speaks through movement (a lush pop song transforming her physical therapy into a sort of dance), Kenneth through song (a Schubert lied from Marianne von Willemer’s Suleika I). Their mostly expressionless faces communicate nothing more. All this creates an almost unbearable sense of loneliness while rendering the rare moments of tenderness unusually affecting.
The need for connection expresses itself as restless yearning in Places in Cities (1998), Passing Summer (2001), and Marseille (2004), a loose trilogy of films centered around young women searching for something in new surroundings, their designs thwarted by events beyond their control. Each film is animated by some diffuse desire that simmers in lingering glances and erupts in sudden torrents of words.
Mimmi (Sophie Aigner) from Places in Cities is always in motion, wandering aimlessly, scarlet against the night’s grays and blues. She’s impatient for her trip to Paris and then, once there, for something more. Schanelec’s use of color, of light and darkness, is extraordinary in this film; more interested in Mimmi’s relentless desire than the spectacle of its satisfaction, Schanelec has her lovers blend into one another, obscured by shadows or obliterated by darkness. When, after a silent, pitch black love scene, Mimmi switches on a light, she is revealed standing alone, her naked body cast in a Vermeer-yellow light against the darkened doorway.
On her trip to the titular French city, Marseille’s Sophie (Eggert) watches mechanic Pierre (Alexis Loret) as he watches her. When at last they speak, Sophie asks him how he cleans the oil from his hands, evoking Susan Sarandon’s nightly rituals (and neighbor Burt Lancaster’s rapt observation) in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980). A jarring jump cut finds her back in Berlin, where she is a privileged observer in photographer Ivan (Devid Striesow) and actress Hanna’s (Marie-Lou Sellem) strained relationship, a position Hanna both depends on and resents. When she decides to return to Marseille, she’s interrupted by a bizarre crime. The act itself, though filmed, is never seen. Schanelec elides the lurid scene, instead showing us Sophie’s face—her fragile restraint overcome by emotion—as she struggles to recount the events to an unseen police officer.
As her friend heads to Rome, Passing Summer’s Valerie (Ursina Lardi) stays behind in Berlin to write. Drawn into her roommate Marie’s family, she remains an uneasy observer, listening more than speaking. We discover the family in tandem with her—listening in on Marie and her husband’s intimate conversations, following Marie’s brother Thomas (Andrew Patton) (with whom Valerie has fallen into a relationship) to Paris for work. But little is revealed of Valerie, herself, until late in the film when her thesis advisor’s criticisms of her overbearing style—her “childish demand to be understood...to arouse interest in [herself], not in the subject”—suggests an otherwise unexpressed urge.
In Orly (2010), the airport—a space out of time, at once intimate and impersonal—seems to invite an openness from its characters. As some unknown danger mounts in the background, the film’s focus is turned to their quiet revelations and fleeting encounters. The camera seeks out and follows them through the bustling airport, finding them within a crowd, tracing their glances. Among the four central pairs are Sabine (Eggert) and Theo (Josse De Pauw), the partner she just left. We see Theo only once—sitting in their home, surrounded by old photos and records, an irritated Sabine on the phone—but his voice returns at the end of the film as Sabine reads his letter, his story about a god who lives among us but cannot intervene carrying over scenes of the airport teeming with security forces.
In Afternoon (2007), a loose adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, Schanelec explores the mother-son relationship through the fundamentally-at-odds actress Irene (Schanelec) and writer Konstantin (Jirka Zett). Konstantin’s first suicide attempt—offstage in Chekhov’s play—here becomes a rare moment of intimacy between mother and son, with Schanelec moving swiftly from ironic detachment (“are you performing hara-kiri?”) to intense emotion, slicing her hands as she grabs the knife from him. “Is this yours or mine?” she asks of the blood smeared across her face. Later, Irene remembers her time in Paris with an infant Konstantin, wistfully recalling their oneness, now forever lost. Parenthood is cast as a defiance of atomization which is nonetheless painfully vulnerable to its force.
I Was at Home, But… is a remarkably tender work, as if Schanelec herself wished to temper the ferocity of Astrid’s (Eggert) grief, fear and anger (even the palette—warm grays, soft pinks and blues—is calming). From the moment we see her—running across an empty playground, up the stairs, falling to the feet of her son, now returned to her after an unexplained disappearance, she seems on the verge of a breakdown. She bursts in on a staff meeting, accosts a filmmaker, strikes out at her children, and argues with the man who sold her a busted bike. Eggert is remarkable, and there is an added poignancy in having known her as Marseille’s 20-something Sophie. But the children—Astrid’s son and daughter—hold an equal weight, answering her eruptions with quiet gestures of reconciliation.
Children appear frequently in Schanelec’s films (her own, Louis and Agnes, can be seen in a few). Always treated without the slightest sentimentality and just as unknowable as any adult, they seem to offer a moral center. Woven throughout, a school rehearsal of Hamlet (from a translation by Schanelec and her late partner Jürgen Gosch) lends the children a solemnity, while also allowing us to observe them at play without their having to perform childhood.
A sequence involving a dog, a hare and a donkey opens I Was at Home, But… Is it an homage to Bresson? An allegory for the story that follows? Perhaps it’s best considered not in relation to the story, but to the viewer—as a way to recalibrate our perception, to observe without expectation. If we have been taught to view every work of art as a puzzle to be deciphered, Schanelec denies us that possibility, compelling us to engage with the full force of the work’s emotional reality instead.