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Find Without Seeking. The Films of Angela Schanelec

Angela Schanelec’s films speak. They express personal thoughts and feelings. Although this may sound like a banal statement, it isn’t something that can be taken for granted in contemporary cinema, which is permeated by “big themes.” Her films are naked. Sounds, images, words and colors move on the screen in a determined, yet fragile way. As with a naked body, there is something obscure in these works, something that lingers between the images. Something familiar that doesn’t demand identification. A longing that doesn’t yield to romance. It is a sincere cinema of in-betweenness, of hesitation, of doubt.

The passing of time and the alienation of bourgeois life in neoliberalism have seldom found stronger expression than in Schanelec’s work. Her film Afternoon reveals the various interlocking relationships within a family. What stays in the mind, however, is the duration of an afternoon, at once peaceful and merciless. Schanelec makes time visible. Her work often revolves around family or relationships, but is never isolated from professional life, places, sociopolitical conditions, dreams and the relentless nature of time. As an actress who began her career in theater, one of the things Schanelec found in cinema was the heightened intensity of the moment. Every second counts. A bird’s cry from a treetop recounts the same fleeting sense of the absolute as a moving dance between father and daughter.

As part of a generation that found fertile ground for aesthetic and narrative innovation at the German Film and Television Academy following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Schanelec embodies a cinema that doesn’t shy away from depth. Like many great filmmakers, she operates in an environment that seems almost like a family. Friends and relatives appear in her films, and she collaborates on several projects with the same team, including Reinhold Vorschneider behind the camera and Maren Eggert in front of it.

Schanelec’s cinematic language has changed dramatically over the course of the last three decades. Nonetheless, fascinating lines can be drawn from her early student works such as Lovely Yellow Color and I Stayed in Berlin All Summer to her most recent film I Was Home, But for which she won the Silver Bear for Best Director at this year’s Berlinale. Schanelec’s work contains varying degrees of indirectness, consciously positioning events in the here and now on the one hand, while filtering them through the prism of abstraction, narration, and artificiality on the other.

In this regard, Schanelec, who now works as a professor at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, has focused on direct sound, especially in her early works. Urban soundscapes envelop the films; a remnant of the unforeseen remains audible within the highly controlled images. Perception comes alive. There is a strong desire to be completely present, to truly perceive places, people, feelings. This holds true for characters and filmmaker alike. Fictional figures are depicted in truly classical narratives, such as the ménage à trois from My Sister’s Good Fortune, yet the individual scenes are not about advancing the plot, but rather being in the presence of these figures. Although this aesthetic, which also relies on longer shots, began changing somewhat by The Dreamed Path at the latest, the camera always captures something of the characters’ point of view.

Pier Paolo Pasolini once called this approach “cinematic free indirect discourse.” In relation to Schanelec, and without going into too much detail, one might say that the way the filmmaker views the world always tells us how her characters see it. The style of her films is related to the psychological situation of her protagonists. Pasolini coined his term in relation to literature, and literature is important to Schanelec too. This becomes apparent time and time again, be it in the recurring images of people reading or in quotations such as those from Marianne von Willemer or Italo Svevo. Reading some of Georges Perec’s texts, one has the feeling that he is describing Schanelec’s Berlin: the non-places where one lingers, the stories that one brings to those places, leaves behind or forgets; what one sees from a window, lying in bed, or simply the feeling of a repeated path. In the case of Schanelec, places are expressed in memo form. One can imagine that, like in the work of Perec, she describes places while sitting in a café. No character in her oeuvre is detached from their location. Sometimes passersby almost disappear within the movement dictated by the architecture. Places in Cities is an outstanding film in more than just this respect It follows a student named Mimmi through life or rather her search for it. Pressing feelings of loneliness, longing and insecurity collect in semi-darkness, like in a puddle illuminated by a solitary neon light. Mimmi and her body are often only vaguely perceptible, but one always senses her corporeality, set against the changing locations of her self-discovery.

The recurring image of women reading chimes with the sort of subtle political representations that have been rendered in a similar way by Chantal Akerman and Joanna Hogg, to name just a few. At another level, one experiences the power of the fictitious in Schanelec’s films. Figures create and dream themselves, nothing is real, everything is a question of perspective. In I Stayed in Berlin All Summer, for example, we witness how people imagine a story that subsequently takes place. Images are often created only via a narrative. The characters talk about their dreams or share their desire to sleep together. In addition to literature, theater repeatedly appears in the films as an indicator of such fictionality. Narrative becomes visible.

Schanelec’s films always go precisely as far as they can. She never makes assertions that are not visible or tangible from her perspective. Consequently, the question of perspective is also explored from a narrative and aesthetic point of view, such as in My Sister’s Good Fortune, which is about everyone seeing something different in a fact. It depends on who is looking and from which vantage point. Schanelec is aware that she always remains an observer. Her own gaze, equal parts gentle and strict, questions itself until it is no longer visible. In The Dreamed Path and I Was at Home, But, Schanelec challenges cinema’s preference for the human face. She fragments the body and shows that a movement of the hand or a step can have the same expressiveness as the eyes. Such fragmentations, which are both reminiscent of and distinct from those of Robert Bresson, also work in narrative fashion. Ellipses and overlaps between the present and the past leave things unclear that would perhaps appear dull if illuminated.

Schanelec protects her characters, allowing them to keep their secrets. She explores the meaning of visibility in cinema and life. In Passing Summer, a photographer says that photographs help us see things that are usually hidden. Schanelec’s work consists of many such images, and their distinctive nature lies in the fact that they also look back at the viewer just before revealing what is hidden, helping us to see what is hidden in ourselves.

Susan Sontag once said that she didn’t write because of readers, but because of literature. Similarly, Schanelec makes films for cinema. It is there that her films find their home—entirely without a “but.” That has become rare today. Anyone who still dreams in the house of fictions can find themselves and all that words cannot describe in Angela Schanelec’s cinematic realm. – Patrick Holzapfel, translated from the German by Andrea Schellner.

The Harvard Film Archive is thrilled to welcome Angela Schanelec to discuss her latest film, I Was at Home, But—the last film screening in this near-complete retrospective.