Angela Schanelec in North America

On Film / The Daily — Feb 7, 2020
Angela Schanelec

German director Angela Schanelec’s films have screened in Cannes, Locarno, and San Sebastián, but the Silver Bear she won for directing when I Was at Home, But . . . premiered at the Berlinale last year is the most prestigious award she’s won yet. Over the next several weeks, Cinema Guild will be sending the film to art-house theaters across the U.S., and in the meantime, there are retrospectives currently running in three North American cities. In New York, Schanelec will be at Film at Lincoln Center today and tomorrow to introduce a few screenings and to take part in three Q&As. When she returns home, she’ll begin work on her ninth feature, Music, a contemporary retelling of the myth of Oedipus.


The retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive is on through Monday, and in his program notes, Patrick Holzapfel suggests that the “passing of time and the alienation of bourgeois life in neoliberalism have seldom found stronger expression than in Schanelec’s work.” In Toronto, TIFF Cinematheque’s survey runs through Tuesday, and programmer Andréa Picard argues that Schanelec “has created one of the most rigorous, compelling, and painfully honest bodies of work since that of Maurice Pialat.”

That’s a name that comes to Nick Pinkerton’s mind as well. “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,” writes Pinkerton for Artforum. “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.”

Programmer Elspeth Carroll, too, emphasizes Schanelec’s trust in her audiences. “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 writes in the new Brooklyn Rail. “The leanness of her filmmaking is less an act of distancing than a demand for engagement, a sort of reciprocity between filmmaker and audience.” In this same issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Schanelec, talking with actor Hannah Gross, elaborates: “Often the viewer doesn’t trust themself. They don't trust the fact that they feel something when they see something—when they see a form, when they see a scene, a moment, whatever. They don’t trust what they felt, and they want a confirmation from the filmmaker that I/they really meant that. But this is a misunderstanding, the filmmaker cannot be more right than the viewer.”

Schanelec began her career as an actor, and with her late partner, the renowned theater director Jürgen Gosch, she translated Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Their version is currently being performed at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, and we see and hear fragments from it in I Was at Home. Around thirty years ago, Schanelec enrolled in the Berlin Film and Television Academy (DFFB) and studied alongside Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan under Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky. These years are the origins of a film movement that many have since referred to as the Berlin School.

Introducing his interview with Schanelec for the Notebook, Evan Morgan sketches the evolution of her unique style. “Around the time of Marseille (2004),” he writes, “Schanelec started to experiment more openly with structuring absences; the blank spaces that marked her earlier work—but which were previously circumscribed, carefully—began to grow more yawning.” In her 1994 graduation film, I Stayed At Home in Berlin All Summer, “the gaps never get so large as to prevent an attentive, attuned viewer from forming a linear read on the plot,” writes Morgan. “But in The Dreamed Path [2016], the empty spaces expand far beyond the point of resolvability, and Schanelec’s strange, lapidary syntax stops simply obfuscating the underlying narrative material—instead, it remakes it from cut to cut. The breach is suddenly big enough to hold many more narrative possibilities, to accommodate manifold potential fictions, which churn and combust in a perpetual state of emergence.”


The FLC’s complete retrospective runs through next Thursday, and at the Film Stage, Schanelec talks with Forrest Cardamenis about Ozu and Bresson, while in BOMB Magazine, she discusses her approaches to dialogue, cinematography, and one aspect of her work that she “can do nothing about” with Ricky D’Ambrose: “It’s taken me a long time to accept that my films are seen as German films.”

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