Traces, Places
by Chloe Lizotte

NYFF 2019:
I Was at Home, But…
Dir. Angela Schanelec, Germany, Cinema Guild

The films of Angela Schanelec often attract descriptors like “impenetrable” or “opaque.” Although she tends to abstract the narrative events of her work, this overlooks the corporeal dislocation she purposefully aims to provoke within her characters and audience. She structures her films around dramatic temporal and spatial jumps, but without the backbone of conventional pacing they seem especially jarring; it often takes a minute to realize that Schanelec has shifted gears to a different world. Her 2004 film Marseille hinges on a young woman’s sudden return to her professional and domestic dramas in Berlin after she spends the first half of the film on an existentially aimless vacation to photograph Marseille. While her backstory remains elusive, the film’s rapid shifts arise from her inability to settle. Schanelec’s middle-class focus and cerebral formalism, so based in hard cuts and constrained framing, compartmentalize her a bit from other overtly political Berlin School filmmakers, but in 2016’sThe Dreamed Path her canvas became more geopolitically expansive. In that film, she elided the fall of the Berlin Wall while following a diffuse group of characters from the ’80s through the present day, while their experiences—from contentment to separation, despondence to confusion—diagnosed an irresolution transcending any presumed era-demarcating closure.

Schanelec’s eighth feature, I Was at Home, But… concerns the aftermath of a disappearance: 13-year-old Phillip (Jakob Lassalle), son of middle-aged Astrid (frequent Schanelec performer Maren Eggert, who also starred in Marseille), has run away from home. The story begins when he returns after about a week, though this isn’t immediately obvious—when we first see him, Phillip materializes on the side of a road covered in dirt; soon after, we cut to what seems to be a professor’s office, where Astrid collapses at his feet in tears. By withholding the inciting incident, Schanelec starts the film on intentionally shaky ground. The audience must fill in the blanks around the action, deducing their way through on-screen behavior. Astrid, stubborn to the bewilderment of supporting characters, continually insists that she’d like to progress as though nothing happened—which becomes a direr outlook when it emerges that her husband recently passed away from a terminal illness. Meanwhile, Phillip tries to shield his younger sister, Flo (Clara Möller), from his mother’s grief, while he rehearses the title role of Hamlet for a school performance.

Even though Astrid and Phillip never verbally air their feelings for the camera, Schanelec sketches out episodes resulting from their repression. Astrid mechanically brings Phillip’s muddied parka to the dry cleaner, too filthy to literally clean, but can’t confront the symbolic limits of the gesture either. She tries to account for Phillip’s missed classes in a winding monologue to his teachers, who only seem exasperated by the entire situation. “I don’t think people can understand something they’ve never felt,” she admits to them—it reflects her skepticism of effective emotional communication, and it informs the entire film. A perpetual evasion of articulating anguish arises in the title of the film: the rhyme with Ozu’s I Was Born, But… echoes that film’s depiction of life-altering change within domestic routines, while the final ellipsis evokes a liminal, unresolved presence within one’s own life.

Part of Astrid’s isolation stems from her home city: Berlin sprawls out into networks of transportation, with hermetic cars and snaking trains offering cold and functional connective tissue. Schanelec selectively frames the city, often tucking familiar characters into the corner of a street scene or behind fences and trees. One phone call laid over street views from a moving cab explicitly recalls Chantal Akerman’s News from Home, but Schanelec aims to detach the film’s perspective from such singular interiority. She pushes the cliché of being but one insignificant story in a mass of indifferent, parallel strands to its extreme, letting the film orbit around false centers. A constellation of smaller players and events emerges: a young couple named Claudia (Lilith Stangenberg) and Lars (Franz Rogowski), who is a teacher at Phillip’s school; Phillip’s classmates, rehearsing scenes from Schanelec’s own German translation of Hamlet; Astrid’s new boyfriend (Thörbjörn Björnsson, of The Dreamed Path), who teaches Flo to play tennis.

These strands coalesce at one point in a musical centerpiece—one that hits with an unusual visceral force, after many passages without nondiegetic music. As Astrid runs into the darkened woods, for reasons at first unclear, we hear the lightly strummed acoustic guitar that opens M. Ward’s cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” Stripping away all bold ’80s pop excess into a minor-key ballad, Ward transforms its refrain into a whispered, almost unrequited plea to meet in secret, “for fear that tonight is all.” While the full song plays, Schanelec stitches together images with a clipped, indexical beauty. In the woods, Astrid clings to the gravestone of her husband, her body a twisted figure in the dark grass. After a cut, she dances by a hospital bed with Phillip and Flo, likely flashing back to her husband’s final days. With another cut, we are transported to an art museum; Claudia and Lars gaze into adjacent paintings of cityscapes with inky black skies, but Claudia walks away when Lars tries to come closer. The artwork, easy to lose oneself in, evokes the moonlit night above Astrid, revealed in another cut. The sequence doesn’t necessarily collapse the distances between these characters, but these moments anchor themselves to the music with a concrete affect: an overpowering, but defiantly wordless sense of loss and loneliness.

Schanelec takes Astrid’s extremes seriously, but doesn’t indulge them. Instead, she places her in dryly comic conversation with acquaintances who are oblivious to her circumstances. These scenes unfold in multiple-minute, dialogue-heavy long takes—rhythmically jolting for a film that is not verbally forthcoming—which offer oblique insight into Astrid’s mindset. In an often funny subplot, perhaps because it is so distant from her immediate world, Astrid gets enmeshed in an elaborate dialogue about a reimbursement for a bike that immediately broke. The man who sold it to her, who speaks with the aid of an electrolarynx, maintains that it’s a quick fix, but Astrid argues that she’d rather he take it back since she doesn’t want to risk a further malfunction. In her efforts to close the loop on this transaction, she inadvertently entangles herself in a complicated comedy of errors, which only fortifies the limbo in which she’s trapped.

Schanelec, who began her career as a stage actress, also ties Astrid’s communicational anxiety to the idea of performance: when retreating from oneself and others, it is difficult for any interaction not to feel “acted.” When Astrid runs into a filmmaker (Dane Komljen) at her local supermarket, she veers into an explosive tirade—an uninterrupted ten-minute take—about his most recent project: she takes ethical issue with his choice to intermingle real, terminally ill patients with professional actors because the “false,” the performed, always shatters any truth that may be present. On a roll, she goes on—looking into the middle distance rather than at the filmmaker, who watches her with genuine concern—saying that actors try to control life by mimicking it, which makes them “master liars.” She notes in passing that her husband was a theater director, at which point the filmmaker says he empathizes with her reaction, but Astrid’s trauma seems to cut deeper. The film strikes a nerve close to her lived experience, while that idea of inescapable falsehood paralyzes her attempts to reintegrate into “normal” life. She can only respond by withdrawing.

Phillip’s class performance of Hamlet, which punctuates the film in brief interludes, supplies an intriguing counterweight. Schanelec has mentioned in interviews that children carry a strength that puts her existential concerns in perspective, and there is a certain redemptive sweetness to this play-within-a-film. As the group of 13-year-olds run through the play, Ophelia’s madness, and the concluding bloodbath, there is a transparent fiction to the rendition; they wear everyday clothes and rehearse in unadorned classrooms. The situations are larger-than-life, but the children’s line readings preserve an innocence about the material—least of all Phillip, whose Hamlet lands a bit more pointedly narcotized. At one point, an unexpected physical ailment intrudes on his rehearsals. In a series of extreme close-ups and disorienting wide shots, Phillip hobbles to a cab with the aid of two other students. We cut to a hospital, and piece together that Phillip’s toe has been seriously mangled, the exact cause obscured. Across her filmography, Schanelec tends to avoid clearly depicting physical injury—in Marseille and Afternoon (2007), characters accidentally hurt themselves with cooking implements, carefully obstructed by camera angles until bloodshed shockingly intrudes into sterile households. That disjointedness compartmentalizes harm, almost making it an out-of-body experience. But even as this trauma threatens to fracture the family, Phillip grows closer to Flo, especially so as Astrid pulls away; he sings “Moon River” to comfort her while Astrid hovers in the hallway, listening so as not to break the moment.

Compared to Schanelec’s earlier films, I Was at Home, But… feels more direct and conventionally devastating for its roots in grief, from which the film’s splintered structure emerges. It seems telling that Schanelec opens and closes with brief vignettes of animals, at a distance from the trappings of human language. In the opening scene, a dog hunts a rabbit, presented as a simple fact of the food chain. As he eats in a bleak-looking barn, a donkey stares out the window, standing alone in melancholy shadow. Then Schanelec cuts to Phillip's entrance, as though the donkey is observing the events of the film; she returns to him in the end, still peering outside. His enigmatic stoicism conjures the memory of Au hasard Balthazar—especially as Bresson’s economy influences Schanelec’s aesthetic. But this could equally be the projection of an overactive human mind onto a creature less doomed to overthink, contemplating an entirely different mystery.