German director Angela Schanelec's latest look at the nature of migration, stasis and loneliness should prove an equally striking and challenging cinematic event for new viewers, while previous enthusiasts of her opaque and minimalist oeuvre will be elated by this subtle masterwork, one that is filled with powerful political nuance.
The above statement is a bold one to be sure, but as someone who has patiently waited six years since Schanelec's last feature, the multi-narrative Orly, I feel very satisfied in saying as such.
It is important to note that while her near 20 year career has yielded multiple premieres at top tier festivals like Cannes and Locarno, unlike her contemporary Christian Petzold, Schanelec remains largely obscure outside of her native land. While The Dreamed Path is in no way enough of an accessible title to warrant wide exposure even on the indie circuit, the distribution landscape has changed enough since Orly's premiere in 2010 to suggest that cinephile minded outlets like Fandor should be picking her Bressonian catalog up post haste.
Rich and profound in vision, The Dreamed Path flows with a beguiling ease, but is certainly not a lucid affair. Exposition is absent, with plotting a mere shadow. While the narrative is all there, you need to pay close attention. Details can often be found in the framing of silences more so than the glacial tone of dialog. The film works in two parts, each tale chronicling the deterioration of couples in their relationships, some 30 years apart. The first story begins in 1984, and follows young German Theres (Miriam Jakob) and Englishman Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson) as they travel through Greece, eventually back to Germany, and when Kenneth finds out his mother is seriously ill, he moves on alone to the U.K.. Their separate threads continue through the decade, up until a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The second story is set in present day Berlin and features Ariane (Maren Eggert), an actress, David (Phil Hayes), her often absent anthropologist husband, and their ten-year old daughter Fanny (Anaïa Zapp).
While both stories intersect tangentially, most connections between them are found in thematic motifs and aesthetic choices that find their rhythms across the film's 86 minutes. Schanelec and her long-time cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider's brilliant form of minimalism is so stark that it distils and maximizes time and space to such an effect that the impact of the image we are left with is equally pure and abstracted; rife with absolute meaning and nothingness.
Take for instance the seemingly simple shot of water being poured from a pitcher to a glass. It is perfectly centered in the 4:3 frame. A late afternoon light cuts through, casting a crystallized shadow on the table. Instead of moving onto close ups of the conversation that is at the heart of this scene (one about belief in God and the frustration of his absence) Schanelec stays on the glass until it is emptied. Consider also the moment Kenneth calls home and gets the bad news about his mother. This takes places after he and Theres sit on the sidewalk busking for a few bucks, singing a sweet and tender little version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". Instead of cutting to his reaction of the news, Schanelec stays on his shoes, the dropping of his cap, then moves to Theres' reaction, then a torso only shot of a police man catching him before he falls. We then cut to a bunch of Greek youths in the back of a van, then a dog and woman, who asks what has happened. Schanelec very sparingly uses close ups of faces. The few that are used, emotionally count for all the absent moments, months and years.
This expert focus on abstraction through realism is key to the film's lasting power in a number of ways. A visual motif through both stories is the use of feet and hands, sometimes idle, at other times busy. Indeed, the opening of the film consists of close ups of Theres and Kenneth's feet and hands as they scramble up a wooded hillside. Another repeating theme with bodies is illness and disability, from Kenneth's mother's comatose state, to his father's (Alan Williams) near blindness, to Fanny breaking her arm, and a paraplegic boy she swims with at the pool. It is important to note that in a film full of intimate disconnection Kenneth's father and Fanny may in fact be the most present and resilient characters. What we also find in these threads then is the further compression and acceleration of action through seeming stasis and altered ways of living. For nearly all major story points revolve around these conditions and happenings.
Like all of her work, from the coming-of-age journey Places in Cities to the arcane yet enveloping Marseille, Schanelc is very much interested in migration, modern borders and liminal spaces. The suggested inter-play of Germany, the U.K. and Greece in the first story creates a striking thread of histories when one considers how each of these countries has affected the European climate in recent years. Indeed, if the film is about people's inherent inability to connect, then it is also about union, not only between people, but between countries, and especially between one's faith and one's own body and senses.
As such, The Dreamed Path is also about the ways in we watch each other and the world around us. While the emotions of its characters are held tightly to the periphery of the frame, it is in fact through the observational way we enter the work that we are able to relate to their feelings of emptiness. That is not to say the film is dour in conclusion. Like its title, The Dreamed Path suggests just as much hope as it does regret. Inspired by the careful existentialism of Bresson and Kieslowski, Schanelec's film is cinema as question, and nothing more.
That question, of course, is etched by many paths, stretching out across generations, borders, class systems and beyond.
The Dreamed Path had its world premiere in competition at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival. It has its North American premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival Monday, September 12th, and plays again Wednesday, September 14th.