Perchance to Dream

Nick Pinkerton on the films of Angela Schanelec

Angela Schanelec, Der traumhafte Weg (The Dreamed Path), 2016, DCP, color, sound, 86 minutes. Theres (Maren Eggert).

IN ANGELA SCHANELEC’S THIRD FEATURE,  Passing Summer (2001), there is a scene in which one of the characters—you might call her the central character, though it seems misleading to refer to a “center” in one of Schanelec’s films—a young woman, Valerie, played by Ursini Lardi, asks an older male authority figure for feedback on some short stories she has written. His analysis: “Rather nice, when you let yourself go, when you’re not trying to express too much through style alone. . . . To put it plainly, whole sentences are generally better than fragments. . . . Reading it, you start wishing for something more normal.”

It is worth mentioning that the authority figure is unidentified—context clues suggest a current or former professor—and that up to this point, an hour into the film, we’ve had no indication that Valerie is an author of fiction aside from a couple of stray shots of her tapping away at a laptop. Schanelec’s cinema is very much a cinema of fragments, a mosaic of moments, usually taken from the lives of a more-or-less loosely connected collection of middle-class Europeans who will, through the course of any given film, unexpectedly pick up and wander off with what there is of a narrative. Along with pinball shifts of perspective, Schanelec’s work is distinguished by some of the most chasmic and elliptical ruptures this side of Maurice Pialat, rifts that open without warning and trust that the viewer is spry enough to span the breach. A bracing example of both tendencies is found in Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path (2016), which commences in 1989 with two young lovers who part after a romance in Greece, and then, with a single unceremonious cut a little less than halfway through, enters the home of a couple in contemporary Berlin whose marriage has begun to unravel.

Angela Schanelec, Marseille, 2004, 35 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes. Hannah and Anton (Marie-Lou Sellem and Louis Schanelec).

The woman in the modern-day couple, Ariane, is played by one of Schanelec’s favorite actresses, Maren Eggert—she starred in Schanelec’s Marseille (2004), in which she’s an amateur photographer who escapes Berlin and an undisclosed emotional disturbance by traveling to the south of France, and has the greatest share of screen time in Schanelec’s latest, I Was at Home, But..., which won her the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival. In this film, Eggert plays Astrid, a single mother of a thirteen-year-old son and a younger daughter, strained to the point of snapping by the pressures of motherhood in the aftermath of her partner’s death two years’ prior, its circumstances as mysterious as those surrounding the brief disappearance of her son, whose reemergence opens the film. I Was at Home, But... will open at Film at Lincoln Center on February 14, preceded by a complete retrospective of Schanelec’s body of work and a director-curated carte blanche sidebar of films influential to her work, including Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972).    

Described as a “structuralist sketch,” the earliest work by Schanelec in the series is a 1991 short called Lovely Yellow Color, an auspicious title, for Schanelec is one of the most delicate and attentive colorists in contemporary cinema. Her palette is generally muted, lending an especial emphasis to the occasional splashes of bold primaries—the lemony button-up dress provided to Eggert by the police station house at the end of Marseille, or the bright red top that identifies Miriam Jakob’s character after the passage of some twenty-five years in The Dreamed Path. Schanelec can create boudoir scenes with an ineffable, Hopper-esque tension. She is particularly good in the gloaming, that hour when the last of the light still holds but the streetlights have come on. In The Dreamed Path, there is a brief sequence of shots involving a woman boarding a bus—yellow, against a cobalt dusk—in the suburbs, then turning to look out the window. It is one of the most moving things I have seen in recent cinema, and I can’t even begin to tell you why.

Angela Schanelec, Mein langsames Leben (Passing Summer), 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 85 minutes. Valerie and Thomas (Ursina Lardi and Andreas Patton).

Born in 1962 in southwest Germany, in the city of Aalen, Schanelec initially studied and worked as an actress, appearing at Berlin’s Schaubühne and Hamburg’s Thalia Theater, with which Eggert has a longtime involvement. Schanelec has performed in several films, including her own Passing Summer and Afternoon (2007), and in the American filmmaker Matthew Porterfield’s 2015 short Take What You Can Carry. Acting, professional and otherwise, plays a prominent role in her work. In The Dreamed Path, Ariane is an actress, seen shooting what appears to be a television police show—a nod perhaps to Eggert’s recurring role on the (incredibly) long-running procedural drama Tatort (1970–). In Marseille, Eggert’s character has a tetchy relationship with her sister, an actress (Marie-Lou Sellem), who is appearing in a Chekhovian stage production. (“You’re not really unhappy, it’s just an act,” says Eggert to sis. “You’re acting because you can’t stop acting.”) The spirit of Chekhov also hangs over Afternoon, which opens with a curtain raise as viewed from backstage, and which finds its form as a loose reworking of The Seagull. Shakespeare, too, is an abiding presence (with her late husband, the theater director Jürgen Gosch, Schanelec has published translations of Shakespeare), from a minor character called Desdemona in Marseille to the significance of Hamlet in I Was at Home, But..., which intersperses scenes of Astrid’s adolescent son and schoolmates rehearsing for a classroom performance of the play.

The production is downright experimental, grade school epic theater, and the performances are measured, drained of emphasis, not outwardly emotive. It is probably Schanelec’s move away from naturalistic performances—along with an increasing usage of synecdochic close-ups—that has led some to draw comparisons between her work and that of Robert Bresson, an influence that Schanelec doesn’t deny. (I Was at Home, But... is bookended by a fable-like sequence featuring only animal performers, including a donkey that can’t but evoke Balthazar.) Bresson is a hard taskmaster; everyone ought to study him, but no one ought to emulate him, for like most truly original styles, his doesn’t award imitation. Fortunately, Schanelec uses Bresson not as a template but as a point of departure from which to follow her own erratic path. (Having eventually studied film under Harun Farocki at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin, she has sometimes been lumped in with the so-called Berlin School, but this already vague group designation does no favors to a talent so cussedly individual.)

Angela Schanelec, Ich war zuhause, aber... (I Was at Home, But...), 2019, DCP, color, sound, 105 minutes. Astrid (Maren Eggert).

While a certain affectlessness is the baseline for performance in I Was at Home, But..., the film achieves some of its most striking moments by breaking its own rules, such as a quietly bravura walk-and-talk in the middle of the movie in which an increasingly impassioned and indignant Astrid breathlessly berates a filmmaker colleague, Jorge (Dane Komljen), for what she believes was a disingenuous scene in one of his films, as he looks on, mute, pained, and more than a little concerned for her mental well-being. The unobtrusively elaborate following shot, running some nine minutes, the torrent of dialogue, Astrid’s thrusts (“Unbearably bad cinema. Do you understand?”) and Jorge’s hapless parries (“I understood that some time ago”): We’re closer to Preston Sturges in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943) than to Bresson here—and Schanelec can be disarmingly funny, as elsewhere in a running subplot involving Astrid’s purchase and return of a used bicycle and the difficulties of communicating via electrolarynx.

There is an autobiographical handle to I Was at Home, But...—Gosch, the father of Schanelec’s two children, died in 2009—though an evident fascination with the particular textures of loneliness, and the lengths to which people will go to be free of it, can be found in her work well before this date. In this, too, she is Bressonian, for any discussion of the Frenchman’s late work that doesn’t touch on suicidal ideation is necessarily incomplete; like Eugène Green, the other great descendant of the Bresson tradition, Schanelec is preoccupied with the problem of isolation in an atomized modern world. The family may act as a bulwark against solitude, but an imperfect one, a breeding ground of pathologies. The deaths of parents loom large in Passing Summer and The Dreamed Path, and practically every moment of I Was at Home, But..., a film redolent with the rot of autumn, is haunted by a knowledge of mortality. The comforts of home and hearth, too, are vulnerable to contingency: A mordantly comic scene from The Dreamed Path has Ariane’s ex, played by Phil Hayes, being shown around the bleakest furnished bachelor flat imaginable by a realtor, who introduces him to the barren bedroom by proclaiming: “It more or less has everything.”

Angela Schanelec, Ich war zuhause, aber... (I Was at Home, But...), 2019, DCP, color, sound, 105 minutes. Astrid (Maren Eggert).

While Schanelec’s films evince an enormous tenderness for children, to her characters these children can serve as vexing reminders of loves lost in time, distance, death. While I Was at Home, But... is less prone to leaping between parallel plotlines than most of the director’s movies, and it gives significant space to the romance between one of Astrid’s son’s teachers (Franz Rogowski) and a young woman (Lilith Stangenberg), last seen together during a pained breakup in the darkness before dawn, initiated by her refusal of motherhood: “In this mass of senseless creatures, a child. One that exists only because you and I wanted it. It seems crazy.”

If not quite presenting a senseless mass, Schanelec’s outspreading, disjunctive multicharacter narratives, demanding a vigilant engagement from the viewer who doesn’t want to be left behind completely, are very far in methodology and philosophy from those awful, coddling multicharacter dramas that proliferated in the aughts—Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004) and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006), for example. The difference is that between receiving the homiletic reassurance “We are all connected” and being handed the jagged fragments—the broken dish or glass is a favorite Schanelec motif—and told to put the thing back together for yourself, and too bad if your fingers get cut while you do.

The rewards for the effort are a sensorial awakening, a sharpening of awareness to the world, and even brief glimpses of bliss—as much as Bernardo Bertolucci or Claire Denis, Schanelec loves a dance scene, and hers can elevate even the wet-blanket vocal stylings of M. Ward, heard in I Was at Home, But... Always an interesting filmmaker, Schanelec has with The Dreamed Path and I Was at Home, But... become something much more, making in middle age the strongest films of her career, at once rigorous and absolutely free. “Schools” and influences are only relevant now as approximate descriptors—she’s in a class by herself.

“Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec” runs from February 7 to February 14 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.