Interview: Angela Schanelec on I WAS AT HOME, BUT...
One of the leading figures of the Berlin School, Angela Schenelec has been quietly garnering reputation and fan base as one of the most important contemporary German directors for her complex, enigmatic work since the early 90s, with such films as Marseille and Orly. With her new film, I Was at Home, But..., she won a Silver Bear (Best Director prize) at Berlinale 2019.
The film is getting a theatrical run in New York, starting on February 14; Film at Lincoln Center is also presenting a retrospective titled Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec, which began on February 7 and continues through February 13.
As a big fan of Schanelec's mysterious and thought-provoking films, I was ecstatic to find out that she would be in town for last year's New York Film Festival. I sought her out to talk to her during the festival and was richly rewarded with an one-on-one interview at the posh, yet empty, Library Bar, situated in Hudson Hotel Midtown, on a memorable October afternoon.
ScreenAnarchy: I watched your latest film, I WAS AT HOME, BUT..., and there's a lot to take in. It starts with a pastoral scene with barnyard animals; a donkey in particular. I know you are a fan of Robert Bresson. Was AU HASARD BALTHAZAR something you were thinking about when you were making the film?
Angela Schanelec: I mean, Au hasard Balthazar is one of the most beautiful films ever made. The first film I saw from Bresson was L'Argent. It impressed me very deeply. Many, many questions arose in me after seeing that film, not only about filmmaking, but about life.
Then I saw other films by him. The last scene where the donkey is going to die in Au Hasard Balthazar .... I mean, there is nothing more to say. But I saw the film long ago.... At the same time, a donkey is a donkey, you know? Nothing more. Maybe I wanted to free myself (from Bresson) by showing it.
The original idea was not Balthazar. Nevertheless, this Bressonian donkey has been in my mind for a long time. But there is a German fairytale: These barnyard animals live together in the house. There is a donkey and a dog and so on.
You mean the Bremen Town Musicians?
Yes. This was the idea for me. Humans don't want them anymore because they are old. So they find each other and they live together in a house. So there are different influences for that scene.
It was interesting to me. I interpret it in respect to BALTHAZAR that the donkey is protecting the dog, whose nature is taking small animals apart. That he is there to forgive everything.
That he is a protector. That's how I felt when I saw that scene. And it was very beautiful.
It seems that grief and death are hanging over the whole film. Was that your starting point for this film when you were first writing?
The starting point was the image of the boy who comes back and he is 13 or so. I saw him all dirty at a street crossing which is now not in the film. And then...so what does that mean? And yes, I have a son, but he never disappeared.
Maybe the image came about from the relief that he never disappeared or fear that he could have disappeared. And then I wrote scene by scene and that's how the film came about. It was never my intention to write about grief.
No, it wasn't. It came up during writing. So he comes home and who else is there? There's a mother and a little sister. Who else? No one. A dog but not a father.
The color choices on the film are also very striking to me. The boy's jacket is yellow and the girl's is bright red. All the images you present in all your films really fascinate me. Since your films are not strongly narrative-oriented and in fragments, I always wanted to know for a long time what your writing process is like. How do you approach your subject? As you say, you build it up from a particular image in your mind?
Yes. In the beginning there is an image, then that image creates the next image. But I would say these images aren't all that important. The emphasis on these images are not the approach I take. A yellow jacket is just a yellow jacket. There is nothing behind, I want to say.
You understand what I mean? The yellow is felt because it's just yellow. It doesn't have to...
It doesn't have to symbolize something...
Yes! I think that is very important to realize.
This so-called Berlin School, where they group you with a bunch of other German filmmakers, the way I see it, the way I always thought of the Berlin School is that of transient life, the loss of identity or looking for identity. In your films, I see that theme a lot as well. Do you have an affinity to the School? Or is it just critics and scholars grouping you guys together?
In the beginning when the label first came up it was only Christian [Petzold], Thomas [Arslan] and me and we know each other because we started around the same time. Christian and I were never that close, but Thomas and I are friends still.
But we don't talk much about our work. I mean, when we started together we talked about films and shared similar interests in films. More Thomas and me. We didn't really involve ourselves in each other's films -- I am talking about writing scripts together or anything like that. We saw each other's films when they were done.
But later on, anything made in Germany that is not comedy is considered the Berlin School of films [laughs], and they found some funny moments in my films too, so... [laughs]. See, it became so general that it [the label] lost all meaning.
If it's not a grouping of themes, I feel it's a generational thing - you guys grew up and went through the Berlin wall coming down in '89 and there is this divide... Watching yours or Arslan's or Petzold's, I always felt that it played a big role. But in I WAS AT HOME, BUT... I didn't feel that. I can say that there was a historical context regarding the divide in your last film DREAMED PATH. I don't see that much of a historical context in the new film. Is this a fair assessment?
I think it is true. I mean you are right that with Christian and Thomas, I am in the same generation, the generation who started to make films in the 90s.
It's different with Christoph Hochhäusler, Ulrich Köhler, because they are the next generation of filmmakers. We are only ten or fifteen years apart, but that plays a big role.
You are right about the fact that we started in the 90s, when Germany was saturated with comedies, so that plays a role. But time has passed since then. So there is no connection between Thomas's and Christian's and my films anymore. And that's why.
Maren Eggert, the actress who has been in many of your early films, plays the main character, Astrid. I am curious about your working process with her. Does she know what you are trying to do with each of your films in advance? [She shakes her head] No?
But she can't, because I don't.
It's not written in the script as...?
No, the script is written exactly, the dialog's written exactly what you see. Nothing is improvised. The long scene with the daughter and her, for example. I mean, she learned it, she learned the text, but she can't know because I don't know.
And the difference with her compared to other actors is that she gives me the feeling that she trusts me. She doesn't ask questions. She takes the scene that is given and she lets herself go with it. She is not afraid, probably because we've known each other for so long. She knows that with me she doesn't have to prove anything.
It's always the case that if you work with an actor that you haven't worked with before, he wants to prove it to you. It really doesn't make sense. It's about situations and it's about sentences and it's about practical things that have to happen in front of the camera.
It's never about interpretation, it's never about meaning, it's never about where we are going. Maren doesn't ask these because films are not about where we are going. [Laughs.] It's about a scene. Then another scene.
Is it the same for you when you are directing children?
Yes. With I Was at Home, But..., also Dreamed Path, I employed child actors. For Maren I give her the script, since I know her and we have a mutual trust. But I don't give other actors the whole script. Because it won't make sense. It doesn't have anything.
On the contrary, if they saw the script, there will be more conflicting questions that will not be productive for the project. So, for children, I don't have the script. They don't need it.
It is fascinating to hear this, since watching your films, I had all these ideas about how you approach your films. This is very helpful.
There are many visual images that strike me in this film. There is a recurring image of the crown. I don't want to ask what it means but how does it connect with the film?
I was also thinking about BALTHAZAR again, about the flower wreath the girl puts on the donkey.
Presenting the crown to someone is a very beautiful act. Then you make him very independent and strong in a way. Because the king doesn't need to be told what he has to do or anything. I mean, you can read it like that, but you know it's more complex. The crown means, 'I exist and I don't need you to...'
Yes. So then, giving the crown to children, it's even more beautiful. But you can't do it like that in real life. Shakespeare gave me a chance to do it. And to go one step further, there was a boy in the supermarket and I did it without Shakspeare since there was a crown already in the film.
I thought it was beautiful. It's a striking image. The crown in the mud and the custodian picks it up. I loved that scene.
I loved the scene in the parking lot with the teachers who, I guess, one is professing his love to a fellow teacher, and it broke my heart. How did you come up with the scene and how does that tie in with the rest of the film?
The question of motherhood is the one that ties in. It was presented in the film very soon. I mean... it is always more complex than that. When mother doesn't want to have a child, it stops right there and then.
Every man, every boy has a mother. It has so many aspects. The fact that in our society today, we stopped accepting what nature makes possible. This notion of: 'I have the right to have a child' and 'if nature doesn't give it to me, for whatever physical circumstances, then modern medicine will give it to me.'
This idea is very strange to me. That we don't accept anymore what is given to us. And on the other hand, in the scene, she is the other way around. Physically she can get pregnant and can give birth but she doesn't want children.
So that's how it came up. I was interested in a woman who says 'no.' And it is impossible for the man to understand, but it does not make him stop loving her.
No, this is true. That's why the scene is beautiful and heartbreaking, because he asks, "So you love me and I understand that you don't want to have a child, but then what else is out there after we are gone?" It really struck me.
Yes. But there is nothing more to say than that in that scene. The young woman who decides not to have children, opposite mirror Astrid.
Another scene that I really loved was that Astrid was in the kitchen and the kids were making a mess and she just loses it. And the children try to console her and she just pushes them away. That's tough for children.
That's something I feel very strong about: children don't judge. They are not able to, because they need the mother. At some point in their lives, they start to judge but I think it's a very existential point when that happens, but in this film they don't. It's also important that there are two. They have each other. And that makes them stronger, but also generous.
Also important for me that that kitchen scene is not some turning point. We see her the next morning and she is the same. That scene is not some kind of crutch, as if that will solve things going forward. No, nothing can be solved. And life continues.
In film dramaturgy, this would be the plot point. No, it's not. It's not essential to be a plot point. It's a scene of humans. Maybe they later will have some epiphany, but they cannot know at that point. I also don't know.
There has been a six-year gap between ORLY and DREAMED PATH. And a three-year gap between DREAMED PATH and I WAS AT HOME, BUT.... Why is that? And what is your next project?
Yes I am working on a new script. But the long period between Orly and Dreamed Path was very painful. It's a long story.
The money wasn't there and I had three producers. I had written I Was at Home, But... already before I shot Dreamed Path. Also when I shot Dreamed Path we had this summer scene in the beginning and at the end. But most of the scenes were shot in October and November and we had to wait six months to shoot the summer scene in Croatia and another part of Germany for the end of the film.
There were also free phases that I was able to think about a new film. It's based on the Oedipus myth. We now associate Oedipus with Freud, but my story is not that. The first part of the story is this child who was lost and grows up not knowing his real parents and accidentally murdering his real father and then also not knowing his mother and accidentally meeting her and falling in love with her. So that's the first half of the film. Then they have a child and then they understand who they are.
I am interested.
We are trying to find the money for it and if everything goes well, I'd like to start shooting next September. I am really worried about how it's gonna go with the financing because it will be more expensive than I Was at Home, But... because we want to shoot in Greece.
Got you. You shot in Greece before no?
Yes. Dreamed Path was also shot in Greece. It was also at higher cost. So this film, I Was at Home but was much lower cost and I produced it myself.
Is it always difficult to finance your film?
It's a pity. Hopefully you won't have problems for the new one so we will be able to see it soon.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com.