Angela Schanelec’s films make extensive use of ellipses, and narratives often branch out to new characters without warning, but far from being challenging or cryptic, her work is remarkable for its humanity. Her newest film, I Was at Home, But… shares, in her words, “the deep kindness and mercy” present in the films of Yasujirō Ozu, including I Was Born, But… from which Schanelec’s film takes its name. From the barest elements—questions of camera placement, light, and performance—emerges a symphony of human interaction that quietly brings the viewer into its space without ever forcing answers onto them. This is a contemplative cinema, and one whose rewards multiply with time and thought.
During the New York Film Festival, I had the pleasure of speaking with Schanelec about her new film, her philosophies of filmmaking and her process, her use of music, and more. Schanelec will return to the U.S. for her first complete NYC retrospective Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec on February 7-13 at Film at Lincoln Center, followed by the opening of I Was at Home, But… on February 14.
The Film Stage: To start I feel like I need to say that while I really, tremendously admire your films, I find them very difficult to talk about, so I feel like I need to start with a big question and then hopefully get smaller as we go. Can you talk a little about your philosophy for the cinema, what it is and can be?
Schanelec: First of all, it’s very very simple for me: having the chance to put the camera in a space and having a body in front. If I do that, certain questions come up. Filmmaking for me is about thinking about those questions: distance to the body, the space the body is in, movement and what movement means. This is very very basic and essential, but it’s a starting point. There is no theory behind it. It’s more that I start to do something and then, when it’s done, maybe if I reflect I find out something which can be formulated. But this is not the working process.
People have compared both I Was At Home, But… and The Dreamed Path to Bresson, thanks in part to some of the close-ups of hands and things like that. I think Bresson pares down cinema to its most essential elements, but I think it’s in service of predetermined philosophical and existential needs. He has a message to convey. Is it fair to say that you do not create a film to send a message or make a point?
I don’t know if this is true of Bresson. Maybe you are right, but for me, when I saw my first film by Bresson, which was L’Argent, in a moment where I had not started to make films, what I learned and experienced in his films is something about humanity or morality. I experienced what life can be or what life is. So… I never met Bresson, I don’t know his background, but seeing those films gave me the wish to start making films. Using that language, as you described it, showing hands and showing parts of bodies, I did that with The Dreamed Path but not before, but Bresson has been very present with me from the beginning.
What changed between Orly and The Dreamed Path that pushed you in that direction?
First of all, there was a lot of time between these two films. I wrote the script very shortly after Orly. I started working right away, but the film wasn’t financed, I couldn’t find financing for the film. In the end, I didn’t shoot for six years or something. But in that time, I continued to think about filmmaking, and I continued working on this script. I couldn’t let go. It was not done. And more and more as I worked on it, I tried to imagine an image in what I wrote and the more I moved in that direction. When we shot it, it is what you see now. But I don’t know what would have happened if I shot it two years after Orly. It’s impossible to say.
Do you typically start with the script?
So are characters and who they are the starting point for your filmmaking?
The starting point is a kind of story I write. I use writing to find out what I want, but when I move to the script I start anew. I know what I want, but I don’t write a script to match the story, that just doesn’t make sense for me. A script is concrete about scenes and when a scene emerges, it doesn’t have to be as it does in the story. The story just helps me. When you write, you already have an instrument. A script is just a script. It’s not literature. It’s a step to the next step. But writing a story, you already have the language, the instrument, to express yourself, so I come further than if I start with just the first scene. Do you understand?
Yes, I think so. Is that why you adapt theater frequently, but never novels?
Yes. A novel is already complete. I don’t think adapting it is impossible. I know it’s possible, but for me, the novel is a novel. The novel is literature. A theater play is also like a script. It isn’t meant to be read, it is meant to be played.
I want to talk about the sort of show-stopper in the middle of I Was At Home, But…, the conversation between Astrid and the director. It seems like Astrid’s objection to his filmmaking is pulled from Bresson. She talks about acting as lying. Can you talk about writing that scene and how you balance the differing viewpoints? It doesn’t feel to me like her viewpoint is what you share or what the audience is meant to share, it plays as something for the audience to think about, a provocation rather than a statement. What goes into writing a scene like that?
This director has already appeared in the film, and the moment he appears in the beginning I did not have this scene in mind, but I started to imagine what would happen if she were to meet him. And then I wrote the scene very fast, I wrote it in one hour and I changed almost nothing afterward. The important thing for me is that she meets someone who is very interested in her opinion because he wants to work at that place that she is working, and she’s older, and she’s someone who will decide whether he gets a job. So there are many reasons. And he’s kind, also. There are many reasons he is listening to her and gives her the feeling that, “Here is someone who wants to know what I have to say.” This was the feeling, or the set-up. And it happens to her—as it happens to me—that things come out.
From the very beginning I’m very interested in the difference between dialogue and statement. When you write dialogue you always have the possibility that someone can answer. If you say something that is not finally reflected through the whole thing, then the other person answers. A dialogue is always something between two people, and this dialogue can only happen because these two people bumped together. It is not a statement. Nevertheless, it has something to do with thoughts going through my mind. But to let someone say, “Playing is always lying”—well, Maren plays it, so it’s clear that I deeply believe in the possibility of playing. But what playing? What does playing mean? This is a very essential question for me. What is playing? This is important for me in this scene, but also in the Hamlet scenes, and in all my work.
I’m glad you mentioned the Hamlet scenes, because the performance we get from the children there is very different from the performance we get from her in that scene. What drove you toward that performance style and your decision to shoot them as you did.
First of all, the text is very different. The Hamlet text is written with a rhythm. One of the scenes also has rhymes. And this influences the acting, I think. When I came in touch with Shakespeare and with these pieces, and especially with the words and how they express themselves, this is very—since they have existed for so long there are so many interpretations of Hamlet. If you go see a Hamlet play in Great Britain it’s different from in America, it’s different from in France, the whole theater tradition of the specific countries goes into the interpretation. But what, in the end, is there, written? I mean, it is fantastic, it is incredible.
So, I asked myself, “What does it mean if you just say it?” And I think, for me, it’s a big misunderstanding when people say—and I’m always very surprised—they say to me, “It’s so empty.” This is not at all the case. I cast so many children, more than a hundred children, and it was from the very first moment clear that there are very few children who could say it like that. And for me—and I know this is not the same for everyone—for me, really, the meaning of the words comes out in the way they see it. I think it’s very interesting that some reactions to the film, that I hear similar reactions as mine, but also the opposite. This is something really interesting because it means, again, that everything is in the eye and ear of the viewer. And I cannot influence that. I can just follow what I want to hear or see.
And for me, the way they say it, they know unconsciously what they say. And this is the interesting thing: they would not at all be able to describe what they say in other words. They can only say it in those words because they cannot at all interpret, they are not able to analyze, they just say it. And the difference is, between those children and others, is that in a way they know what they say. It’s very interesting in the context of playing, the fact that an actor can say everything, I mean, physically, what you give him he can say. What does that mean? That means he can lie. And we all lie because we are able. Words can just be used as you like to use them. But there are situations, and I work with this image, that it’s impossible to lie. And that’s these children. And what they say makes something of them. They don’t do anything for the text, but the text does something with them.
I had a very interesting experience in The Dreamed Path with a non-actress. It was the one… did you see the film?
One who appears in the first part in Greece, she has very very short scenes only, I don’t know whether you’ll remember her. She doesn’t have children, and she has only brief sentences, and she never played before and she could say everything, but she couldn’t say “this is my daughter.” She couldn’t. She said it always—this scene is not in the film—but it was incredible, I couldn’t believe it, she said always, “She is my daughter?” (inflecting as with a question). And I told her, “Listen, if you say it with a question mark, I can’t understand.” We made it nearly fifty times. She couldn’t say the sentence. So, for sure, I have to be, and am, deeply interested in working with people like that. And working with the children is the same. For sure not for every child, but I searched for them, and I found them.
What about the selection from the scenes from Hamlet? People are picking up on certain parallels—the drowning, the scenes from the river—did you pick these scenes because they comment on the happenings with other characters?
No, I chose them very simply, thinking about what could be said without context. Scenes should have a special length, they needed to be not too short and not too long, and in that measure, what is possible without having the context? I wanted to have a scene with rhymes, and the interesting thing is Shakespeare’s writing is so complex that you always have the possibility to relate. It’s more that it’s impossible not to, so it was not necessary to ask, “okay, what scenes will connect the characters and the Shakespeare characters?” Because this happens almost on its own. It’s hard to avoid.
It’s interesting because it’s an invitation for the viewer to interpret. A lot of your films have multiple narrative trajectories, or a bifurcation, and they seem to encourage the act of interpretation without encouraging any specific interpretation. What is your relationship to the audience? When do you begin to think of them, and how do you see them or not see them as part of your work?
I see them as very essential. I am the audience too. I don’t make a difference between me and the audience. When I see a film, the difference for me is whether I’m inspired or whether I’m tired in the end. I’m not so interested in what the director wants to tell me. Why should I? I mean, who is he? And who am I to tell the viewer what he shall think? For me it’s much more normal to show something, and I can only wish that in seeing it their brain is not getting crazy with questions of interpretation, but that they see what is in front of him. This is light on bodies, landscape…these are images and sounds. Definitely, my films are more about questions than answers. If I have answers I lose interest immediately. I cannot make a film about an answer I found that I will then express to the viewer. I make the films about questions I have. That’s why I am able to be interested for the long period of making a film.
And questions… if you give an answer, then this answer emerges as a new question. This is how things should go on, and how life goes on.
These last two films have grown your audience quite significantly and raised your profile, at least in North America. Has that affected your relationship to audience in any way?
No. Why would it? It’s not that I’m not interested in the audience reactions of my films. I’m very interested because I depend on it. If people do not like the film, I cannot make the next one. I need a minimum attendance. But this comes to mind only when the film is done, but not before.
I want to ask–and I know you have a contentious relationship with this label–about the Berlin School. A label like that can be very helpful for a group of filmmakers getting started, but do you see a relationship between your work and the work of Maren Ade, Christian Petzold, or anyone else?
At this point, no. Thomas [Arslan] and me, we are friends, but as you said, it was very helpful in the beginning. But this beginning was very long ago, and I think it’s important to have in mind that in the ‘90s when we started to make films, in Germany you didn’t have interesting films. You had German comedies, and then the fact that there were some people who worked in a different way made them a group, because there was not so much of that. But this developed, and I think a film of Christian and me or Thomas and me or anyone are so different. Christian and Thomas and me, we know each other, Tomas and me we have been friends for many years, but we don’t talk about our scripts. We see each other’s films when they are done.
Can you talk about the title of the film? Obviously it’s a reference to the Ozu film, but is Ozu a particularly important film for you?
Yes. I saw the Ozu films long ago, and every time I see them… there is a very very deep kindness in those films. And mercy. How he sees his characters and how he films them. I think it has a lot to do with Japan, and I Was Born, But… is—I’ve said it often—for me the most beautiful title I can imagine. And I Was At Home, But… is a kind of reduced variant of this universe.
There is a lot of music in your film, often deployed in quite surprising and beautiful contexts. There’s the “Let’s Dance” scene in this film, there’s the end of Marseilles when she says “I need to listen to music,” there’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in The Dreamed Path…at what point do you pick these songs?
It’s different for each. For The Dreamed Path we met with two actors and spoke about what they could sing, and they suggested “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It was a song they both know, and when they sang it, I didn’t think about using it, but then I began to understand that it was good, so I kept it. In other films it’s different. But everything is very deeply influenced by my relationship to music and the fact that I cannot compose music, so music is something which is given to me. I cannot make it. The reaction on music is a very intuitive one that is just reaction, which cannot be influenced. You cannot influence how you react to music. You just react.
So, from the beginning, when I started to make films, I was very careful with music. Music doesn’t need a film, and often music is in a film because the film needs the music, not the other way around. Then I noticed that I use music when I’m sure it is just added, that the scene doesn’t need it and is good without it. And when I’m sure this is the scene, then maybe it’s possible to have a “plus,” the addition of the music.
In Places and Cities there’s a scene where the music was chosen from the very beginning because it’s an original song, but in I Was at Home, But… the “Let’s Dance” scene was shot with other music, and it was clear to me that I did not want to use this music because I wanted to feel that this is not what they hear, that it wasn’t… what is the word…
You’re looking for a distinction, even a counterpoint, in what we see vs. what we hear?
Let me stay with that for a moment, that you hear music and your reaction is entirely intuitive. Is there a relationship then between the music, or the use of music, and the performances, or perhaps “reactions” that you get from the actors?
The one thing is that when they dance—there are some dancing scenes in my films—dancing is something I cannot direct. It just doesn’t make sense. In the moment, the actors dance—or the non-actors, whichever. They do what their body is able to do. So yes, I cannot influence it, and I know from the beginning that I have to be—and I want to be—open to this movement and the fact that I cannot influence it. So, writing a script, if it happens that it comes to a moment that I have the wish to let it go, to free myself from the responsibility, I let them dance. Yes, in this film, I Was at Home, But…, the dancing was made. There was a choreographer who made it with them and they rehearsed it, but that fits the scene. Also, you see how they move. The movements themselves are choreographed, but you can recognize them, in a way you recognize them in other films.
There is a lot of humor in your films.
Humor that I think often surprises people, or at least surprised me and seemed to surprise the audience I watched it with. What function does humor serve for you?
Hmm… I really like humor? The question is how it appears. You can come to humor or something funny without having in mind that you want to be funny. I don’t want to be funny, but when I go further with a scene, for example the buying of the bike, and I think, “Okay, couldn’t he speak through that voice box,” and then it’s clear this will become funny. But I didn’t do it in order to make it funny, I did it because I’m interested in what comes out of this voice box. And it makes the same effect, in a way, that the children do with Hamlet. It limits your possibilities to express yourself. I had this in mind, so when I wrote it and he’s talking through the voice box, the humor is a side effect. It’s not the goal, it’s not the aim.
And it’s a side effect born partly out—you said it limits the possibilities of expression, but on the other-hand you have Astrid who is very visibly expressive—so it’s a humor borne out of the contrast of performance.
Yes, yes, and this contrast of performance is based on the situation of the two of them. And they are confronted with this contrast. She hears how he speaks, so what does it make of her? But I think this question of side effect…it’s a side effect. And yes, I’m happy if I generate it, because it’s not planned, it’s not the aim from the beginning, but I think “okay, this is funny.” Also, the long scene with the director and her that we talked about in the beginning, I think this is also very funny.
Yes, yes, definitely.
And I adore that, but I don’t write it in order to be funny.
Both this film and something very different like Orly share an interesting similarity in that they have these different narrative trajectories and highlight ideas of simultaneity and chance meetings. Can you talk a little about constructing these bifurcated or triptych narratives?
I write scene-by-scene, chronologically. I write a scene and I imagine it in images. And I get to the last image of the scene and I think, “What can be next the next image?” And that leads me to the next scene. It’s not in order to be mystical or cryptic or something, it’s just a sequence of shots, of images. And the script is kind of a shot list. It’s not that I have a whole complex story and then I cut things out or something.
But in Orly, a lot of what your images were going to look like is left up to chance because those are just regular people walking around the airport, right?
Yes, Orly is based on this airport where I’ve been and I’ve thought, “Look at these people, they are all so interesting and beautiful in this space.” The space gave the chance for the people to appear. This has to do with space, with light, and I thought, “what would it be like if I knew or heard what some of them say?” We started with dialogues, and we rehearsed them before—kind of like theater rehearsals—and I had in mind that the actors are as good as the others, and as important. And that the others are important as the actors. Everyone has the same weight. For sure this is not the case because you hear only the actors, but as an image in mind, this was not changing anything from what I saw there, it was just having this small thing to let me hear some of them.
Airports are interesting to me because they’re a space where time kind of stops existing, borders don’t exist, people from all over the world in all kinds of internal time clocks. And I mention that because I Was At Home, But… also is kind of de-cultured in a certain way. There’s a sense that it could take place anywhere. Is that a conscious effort?
Probably it has to do with my relationship to Germany, that…[long pause]. I want to get over it in a way. I never understood myself as German, on one hand. On the other hand, I am. This is my language, this is where I was born, where I grew up, where I lived. I’ve never lived in another country…[pause]. I don’t think about confronting myself with German reality when I write, and I hope very much that [long pause]. I hope that in Germany we have a life that can be compared to everyone’s life. This has to do with the German history, it’s clear, but…this is complicated. This is really complicated because you cannot live in Germany without knowing its history. And this is a question I tell my children. They are not at all as influenced as I am [by the history]. I was born in ’62, but… I think it’s quite impossible for my generation not to be influenced and not to find out how to live with it. And this is my way.
I feel like I’ve taken up too much of your time, I’m sorry about that.
Not at all.
See? It is not so hard to talk about my films.
I Was at Home, But… opens on February 14 at Film at Lincoln Center, preceded by the retrospective Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec, February 7-13.