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Life in the Time of no Belonging

A portrait of director Angela Schanelec, German Films Quarterly 3/2018


In Angela Schanelec’s film "Mein langsames Leben" ("Passing Summer")  a young photographer says that it is possible to see things in photos that are supposed to be hidden. Movies by the filmmaker, born in 1962, consist of many such photographs – 24 per second – but what makes her work extraordinary is the intensity with which such photographs gaze back at us.

A cinematic language oscillating between longing and alienation is already established in her graduation film from the German Film and Television Academy Berlin, "Ich bin den Sommer über in Berlin geblieben" ("I Stayed in Berlin during the Summer"). Examining the relationship problems of two young couples, the film manifests the very emotions which generally tend to operate in concealment. Schanelec’s films offer no approach to a solution, they pose questions. Talking about what it means to understand a film, she says: "I think it means triggering a question, and then the answer, if there is one, raises another question; which means, I suppose, committing yourself to a process that leads beyond the film and, in contrast to it, never really comes to an end."

In her eight feature films to date, Schanelec observes daily patterns and the pressure of time passing in episodic movements. Often, we get to know a group of people and spend time with them. In "Nachmittag" ("Afternoon"), for example, which is loosely based on Chekov’s The Seagull, we spend time with a family around their lakeside house. "Orly" deals with various people at the Parisian airport in the title. The American filmmaker Thom Andersen once referred to this type of dramaturgy as "hanging-out films". But things are not quite as relaxed in Schanelec’s work as one might suppose from that term. Rather, her characters go through personal uncertainties and doubts. The time and attention granted in her films to these states of in-betweenness open up the chance to discover something unusual in the ordinary.

Schanelec, who has been working for a long time together with cameraman Reinhold Vorschneider, sends feelers into the very places where nothing is apparently happening. Then she shows the many small wounds that have collected there. In "Der traumhafte Weg" ("The Dreamed Path") there are many such wounds and despairing attempts to hide them. Only a young girl in a swimming pool thinks about how the wounds might be healed. She uses saliva, licking the wounded knee of a paralyzed boy. This is a rare moment of physical contact in Schanelec’s work. Usually, she depicts hesitation when it comes to touching, and shows those substitute actions that betray more about the characters than any conscious deed. This type of surrogate can be found, for example, in the recurrent dance scenes in her films. "When a character is dancing, the body is perceived in a special way; it reveals something that has been concealed until that point, an expression that I, as the director, initiate but can only influence partially later on, which is something that I want to abandon myself to."

This openness to abandoning oneself is also reflected in the use of on-camera sound that defines Schanelec’s cinema. Individual scenes not only exist in relation to a bigger story but also assume an independent presence. To a large extent, this is about leaving fictive situations untouched. There is testimony to what remains unspoken. In this way a necessary interest arises in the fragmentary, which is developed with great consistency in "Der traumhafte Weg" ("The Dreamed Path"). What happens outside the picture is taken just as seriously as the things we see. Existential themes are handled within the formal precision work: what it means to found a family, for example, or to fall in love. In the attention granted to the performers here, we become aware that Schanelec’s origins lay in theater acting. Again and again, astonishing moments full of intimacy are created, which gently protect the secrets of the characters and their actors, nonetheless.

With "Marseille" and "Orly", Schanelec also made two key films of her œuvre in France. "For a very long time, I idealized France, which caused me to feel equally attracted and excluded. The main characters in the films I made in France share with me that sense of being an outsider there." The business of belonging in German cinema is very similar as far as Schanelec is concerned. On the one hand, together with Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan, she is regarded as a founding member of the so-called Berlin School. They studied together in Berlin with teachers like Harun Farocki. On the other hand, it is very difficult to compare her films with those of her colleagues. She is more clearly radical and individual in her avoidance of narrative dictates. Films like "Marseille" or "Mein langsames Leben" ("Passing Summer") have occasionally been cited as masterpieces of recent German film, and yet Schanelec’s works continue to divide the critics even now. This is also due to her indefatigable consistency in questioning what we hear, see and think about things.

Roughly speaking, all her work is about an existentialist, distanced sense of loss in neo-liberal, prosperous Central Europe after 1989: an ordered lack of orientation in a time with no belonging. One aspect here with an enduring echo is the tangible longing to break away from this type of existence.

Author: Patrick Holzapfel

Source: German Films Service & Marketing GmbH