Angela Schanelec’s cinema is one of details. It has not always been that way, though, or at least not so apparently; her early films, formally rigorous, with shots lasting long past the point where people vacate the frame or where choreographed pans are a kind of portraiture. They focus on characters in emotionally specific situations as they inhabit equally particular topographic and geographic spaces. In these films, Schanelec lays out the connection between a person’s internal state and their environment, be it a lonely artist adrift in Marseilles or travelers caught in the liminal spaces of Orly airports. With 2016’s opaque, challenging, ultimately revelatory The Dreamed Path, however, the close-ups became more frequent (and with them the Bresson comparisons), retrospectively spotlighting the attention she has always had in the peculiarity of the physique, light, and costumes. Since The Dreamed Path––first with I Was at Home, But… and now with Music––Schanelec’s cinema has asked the viewer to consider how people walk, how they speak, how they dance, even how they watch. 

Characters in Schanelec films are not “characters” in the abstracted literary sense. They are not fictional entities meant to be studied; they are “beings” with all the corporeality suggested by that term, a performer inhabiting a particular space in front of the camera. Even the finest actor can’t get around the fact that he or she, not a fictional character, is gesturing and speaking. Despite their occasional narrative opacity or unrelatable “beings,” Schanelec’s films are more interested in people than even some of the most carefully scripted character studies. And this attentiveness, even insistence, doesn’t stop at people: the light, the weather, the animals are as worthy of our interest as a person.

Yet Schanelec is also an intrepid interpreter of some of the western canon’s most remarkable characters. After the brilliantly realized interpolations of Hamlet that dot I Was At Home, But…, Schanelec has adapted Sophocles’ Oedipus the King to surprising effect. Below, she discusses her approach to adaptation, her rigorous planning and formulating of some of the film’s most striking images, and Bresson’s Mouchette in a way that encapsulates so much of what makes her own films unforgettable.

The Film Stage: When I interviewed you four years ago, you told me you only use music in a film or in a scene when you feel like the scene could stand on its own without music. And I’m wondering if, for this film––where music is obviously a foundational component––your approach was different?

Angela Schanelec: Sure, it was a different approach. I mean, the film is about music. It was a very conscious choice, actually. The fact that I didn’t use music before in a way it’s normally used, but in the way I tried to describe, doesn’t mean that I did not think about music. Music has a huge meaning for me. That’s why I worked with it that way. And now the decision to approach it differently… the title was, from the very beginning, Music, and I kept it. It’s about the question of where music comes from––not in general, but where it can come from.

So did you always know what music you wanted to happen in the film? 

No. I was looking for music for one-and-a-half years, online, searching more or less everywhere. In the end I met Doug Tielli, who wrote the compositions, in Toronto. I found them after a long time. 

And there’s also some classical music. 

This was much, much easier. I had a lot of possibilities with Baroque music. I always knew it should be Baroque; this was my interest from the beginning. And then I had a lot of beautiful choices, as is clear. 

Why did you want to juxtapose Baroque music with something contemporary?

There is this existing music which is older than the characters, which they can rely on and through which they can find themselves. And then the other way around: their own music through which they can develop as humans. 

This film starts in Greece and ends in Germany, as does The Dreamed Path. What made you want to revisit that journey?

To start in Greece came from the myth [of Oedipus]. It was not because I had already shot there, but for sure I was happy that I already had an experience shooting there. It was much easier. Images came more directly after the experience of The Dreamed Path; nevertheless, we did a very, very long location scout. It was not clear from the beginning where we would shoot, but we found out in the preparation. 

I’m also wondering if there’s something political about starting in rural Greece several decades ago and then moving to contemporary, urban Berlin with these mythical figures––as if commenting on the diverging fates of members of the European Union. Were you at all thinking about geopolitics? 

I mean, it’s almost impossible to avoid. It’s not the starting point, it’s not the subject, but it’s impossible to avoid associations in many directions. So it was never a starting point, but for sure it plays a role in what the characters do, how they appear. The jump from rural country to the city, to Berlin. In Berlin, it’s the opposite: nature almost disappears until the very end, which returns to nature.

Did you always know it would end in Germany?

No, it should have ended in the UK, but it was not possible to finance.

Why the UK?

Because of the narrative of the main character. It was clear he would leave Greece, which is connected to the myth, but since he becomes a singer, I chose the UK because it’s more neutral. You can easily understand why he ends up there. There are a lot of immigrants. It’s a country where you find a lot of people who come from somewhere else much more than in Berlin––you do in Berlin also, but much more [in London]. But we could not finance it, and this also had a consequence for the places in Berlin. Potsdamer Platz, where we shot the accident, is also quite a neutral place. It has no face; that kind of architecture you can find anywhere. 

There are few indications of temporality in the film. It almost feels like it could take place anytime at certain points, but then you also have, I think, very clear temporal markers. The World Cup match, I think, is the biggest one. How did you approach setting the film temporally?

It was clear that the ending should be contemporary Berlin––or the UK, as I said, but anyway that it should be today. And because of the age of the main character, I just worked backwards. The character would have to be younger in the ‘80s. It was the same process for The Dreamed Path. It happens often to me that I have an idea from which I start, and then I ask myself questions about the past and how it came to the point I’m thinking about, and then I go back in time rather than forward. It’s not the first time this has happened to me.

In I Was at Home, But… children are reciting Hamlet, and here you’re refashioning Oedipus. What’s important to you about resituating such texts in contemporary times and telling them in modern ways?

If you take Shakespeare, it doesn’t lose any strength. There’s no loss of anything even today. It’s the same with the myth. In both cases, my approach––my attitude––is that it’s so strong that I can just rely on it; I do not have to fulfill anything. It doesn’t need me. I can just see where it leads me without any need to fulfill anything. So it was with Hamlet. I decided Hamlet very fast. It just started with rereading Hamlet and deciding which passages and which moments I would take, and then afterwards I saw that they relate. There is always a [relationship]. The text is so rich that you can always find a relation between what [the children] say and the story I’m telling.

And for sure: with the myth, it was a completely different approach, but the feeling for me is somehow the same. I did not have the urge to fulfill something or to go back to the myth and say, “Ah, no, the story should develop in this way.”

Angela Schanelec at the 61st New York Film Festival. Photo by Colleen Sturtevant.

But yours is different in at least one very significant way, which is that your Oedipus is never made aware of his crimes.

Yes… this is true. And I never questioned that––I could never––and I never thought about or imagined that he would become aware of it. It’s too cruel. This is the one thing. I mean, it’s connected to how, if he became aware of it, it would be this really specific destiny, but for me it was much more interesting to tell him as someone who we all are. I think this question––you can call it destiny, but it’s really [just] not knowing where your life leads you––we cannot know, we cannot understand. This is what I wanted to tell. If I have the moment where he has to understand, then I lose this and you would say, “Okay, but this is so extreme. This has nothing to do with me.”

It takes over the movie.


Obviously there is not much dialogue––it’s sort of a dialogue-free Oedipus retelling––and some of your other films don’t have very much dialogue at all, but others have quite a lot. I’m wondering, first, when you realized this would be scarce on dialogue. 

It has to do with the time I’m telling in the film. In this film, I have a very long [timeline]––like decades, 40 years. It’s the same as The Dreamed Path. Then this idea creates completely different situations. So here I found out that there is no need for dialogue. There’s just no need for it. If I have a film with a lot of dialogue, the subject is always also talking. Not only talking, but also our ability or inability to communicate––our failed communication is always a subject when people talk a lot in my films. It’s not about the information they say; it’s about our use of language. I mean, we are able to talk, so we talk, but what does that mean? But in this film, that cannot be a subject––so they do not talk.

I’m thinking of the mechanical larynx in I Was at Home, But…

I Was at Home, But… is a lot about communication and the different levels of how advanced you are. You can say that the children, who have the language of Shakespeare, are the most advanced. The older they get, the more they lose the ability to make themselves say what they want, of expressing themselves.

Ambient noise is always important in your films, but it seemed to me from the very first shot that it was especially important here. How did you go about designing the soundscape? It’s obviously its own kind of music. 

Yeah, this connected to the subject of the film, to music––so it was clear that if the film is called Music, then every sound plays a huge role, whether it’s a note in a song or someone breathing or whatever else. This was very clear from the beginning. This also made it possible for a film called Music to have music only after about half an hour or 40 minutes. 

I’ve worked now for more than 10 years with the same sound team. I’m getting more and more to the point where the post-production is for the sound. In my very first films I didn’t do it at all. The original sound was the base of my work. This changed over the years. 

Do you know how you want it to sound when you get into the editing room? Or is that you working with your sound designers and trying different things and seeing what works? 

I was very lucky in that case, because the sound designer was [recording sound] on set. This was perfect because we could discuss from the very beginning. And he also did a lot of sound recording in Greece. The wind, many things. There was a lot of material. We developed it that way together. And then, in the editing room, there are always points where I cannot go further without understanding better how it will sound, so I ask him to step forward with the sound so I can have the sound in the editing room and continue because it’s so decisive. I can imagine things, but not everything. So we work really, very closely.

And for exteriors––the exteriors in this film are beautiful––do you have the financing to wait for the perfect day, or are you just working with what you have on a given day?

I mean, we do not have the money to wait. 

That’s what I expected. 

Yeah. So what we do, first of all––after the locations are decided––is: we know which time of the day we can shoot at each location and which time of the day is not possible, and we schedule based on the need for light. I mean, in Greece for all these landscapes, the question of where the sun is makes it possible or impossible. So this was very important. And then if the weather is not as it should be, then we try to repeat it on a shooting day where we have some time left and go again. But for sure: it’s a question of money.

There are many shots of people looking where you omit, or at least delay, the reverse shot where we get to see what they’re looking at. The first one I remember is when they first see the body. We see people looking but don’t know what they’re looking at until several shots later.

For me, someone who is looking at something is extremely interesting. Not because I ask myself what he’s looking at, but because of how he looks when he is looking. So I feel no need to show the reverse shot. And if I show it, I feel free to decide when. My interest is already in the shot of the one who is seeing or watching something. I don’t know why… it’s just interesting! If someone is watching something and he’s really absorbed, you have a lot of freedom to see him, to see the person. You can see everything; you can observe, somehow, so much about them.

There are two things I really like about it. It makes the actor or the character this foregrounded presence; it’s about watching the actor inhabit this act of looking. But there’s also an interpretive freedom.

Yes, and it gets more and more interesting when you have several people. You compare them. You look at them and see how different they are, even though they’re all doing the same thing. The word “freedom” is nice for that.

And there’s another thing: if you watch something, the action is always a reaction. It’s never an action. It’s always reacting to something. And this question of reaction is something very profound for me because, actually, everything is reaction. There are many more situations in which you see someone react than see someone act. It was always a subject because you have these very strong actions in Greece. When the father and the son come together and he tries to kiss him––these are actions. This is action. But what I’m interested in is always the reaction. Where does it come from that he wants to kiss this person? Where does it come from? This is the interesting question. And what is the moment, then, of the reaction? It’s not to see him falling. It’s to see the person who is reacting to what he did.

To latch onto something you said––when you have lots of different people looking, it becomes more interesting. Is that why you tend to work with new actors from film to film? It’s an entirely new person who you get to watch react.

Yes, this is something. This is very true. There are some actors I continue working with, but normally every new character is a new person. I do [work with the same actors] sometimes because it makes things easier; I’m not a masochist. But yeah, basically a new character is first of all a new person. 

And it’s not just shots of them looking. It’s shot of their hands, their footsteps, how they––

Yes. Hands, the bodies. It’s not so easy to take the same actor for another role.

Especially with that kind of attention to––I don’t want to say minutia, because it’s very interesting––but details of the body.

Yes, the physique is so decisive. I’m not someone who is interested in how an actor can change. I’m more interested, if I work with actors, to find out who they are. 

I’m remembering now, because we’re talking about close-ups of people’s bodies, that I wanted to ask about his bloodied feet. I didn’t know, going in, that this was Oedipus. Did you put that in as a bit of a guidepost…


…for the audience.

No, not for the audience!

Never for the audience!

The subject of hurt feet––I mean, maybe it’s why I was close to Oedipus, to this myth––is very essential for me. In I Was at Home, But… the son loses his toe. I mean, this is a subject I can’t lose my interest in. We walk with our feet; it’s very primitive, my interest. We need our feet. If they are hurt, we walk differently. The whole attitude of the body changes.

If they’re hurt, or if they are in those big platform shoes.

Yeah, this is the same; this is the same thing. I mean, the question then––for the prison––is how to ensure that they shall not run away. I mean, I could not put them in chains. This approach, I thought it more interesting to think, “How could I change their walk?” So when it came to my mind, the shoes in the prison, I was very excited because I thought of how beautiful it will be to find them these shoes and [see] how they will walk and what they will wear together with the shoes. These are the fantastic moments in the process of making a film. I’m very interested in costume and in shoes.

I rewatched Mouchette recently, and––

The clogs in Mouchette––I mean, come on.

Say more.

It’s how she’s walking with these wooden shoes and what they mean. I mean, on the one hand, the meaning, but it’s not only the meaning; it’s really the moment. Each frame you see her walking in the shoes, the noise of the shoes…

And the tracks in the mud.

And how easily you can lose them, which happens. All this in these shoes! Here, they can’t get rid of them. Not like with chains, but they are not allowed [to remove them]. So what does it mean that they really accept that they are not allowed? And then what is the moment where they do it in the shower? So there are such opportunities in shoes.

And when do you realize these details are so integral to the film? Surely not on set.

No, not on set. Nothing on set. I prepare as much as I can. Everything which comes to my mind which can be prepared, I prepare. I only don’t prepare what is impossible to prepare. And still it’s a universe which cannot be prepared. The rhythm of their breath––how someone watches, how he looks in that moment, the movement. The question of sound… even if you prepare everything which can be prepared, the film happens on set. But I would never decide to say, “Okay, this I do not decide because I’m looking forward to what will happen on set.”

There’s a shot, right before one of the characters jumps into the sea, and there’s a lizard that jumps on her foot. Certainly that wasn’t planned.

No, it was not planned. But I mean, what could I plan? I could plan that there was a lizard. So then I could imagine, if I have a lizard and I have a lizard trainer––I mean, the lizard has to come with a person, an animal trainer, and the little crabs came from this person also. So I have the idea of the lizard. And then I tried to imagine what is possible with the lizard. I thought, “Okay, what is possible, if we have enough lizards and enough time, we can make it happen that the lizard comes into the image; from out of the frame it comes into the frame. This will be possible.”

So then I think about a solution for how we shoot it. My idea was that we see the feet as we see them in the film. Then we have the lizard coming in the frame. Because we do not know where the lizard will go, we’ll have a second shot of where the lizard goes, and we’ll see her clothes––her clothes she picked up in the shot before, from under the stone––falling on the lizard, and this will tell us that she jumped. This was the idea of what we wanted to shoot. And this we shot. And then, through shooting it, there was one shot where the lizard climbed on the feet. 

And you decided to go with that.

But I would never have said, “Okay, I want the lizard on her feet, and we have a trainer, and we have four lizards…” We would wait two days and the lizard would not do it. So I was planning a solution which was reasonable, and this is what I mean. And then we see.

But you always wanted a lizard in the shot.

Because there are lizards in the mountains. The size of the lizard was good. The colors can be beautiful.

Can you give me another example of something like this that happened while you’re making the film of where you had one plan, and then something wonderful happened in front of the camera and you kept it? 

Yes. There was another huge thing in that film. So, in the beginning––in the script––we have a storm. And it was a huge question: how do we film the storm? And then we had a lot of discussions about machines that make a storm, but it was clear if we do something like that, we could afford only a specific duration for the storm. I mean, if we have machines that make wind and rain, it’s the money––the question of money, of how long or short the storm can be. I mean, not long. This is clear. This cannot be a three-minute shot of a storm because we cannot afford that. But it was clear that then I would have a problem with the rhythm of the beginning. I didn’t want it to be forced, to use [such a short] shot for this beginning, because of the whole rhythm of the film––this would have had an impact on the whole rhythm of the whole film. 

I was thinking about how I could tell about the storm in a shot where I could decide the length of the shot. So we forgot about the idea of creating a stone, and we thought, “Okay, we will see if we have an opportunity during the shooting, with the weather, to have a storm.” It was quite clear that the chance was not so big. And we said, “Okay, if we do not manage, trust the DOP, and I will stay longer or come again and just wait for a storm.” But then we had this fog. 

I mean, I would never have written, “First shot, landscape, fog almost fills the image for three minutes.” How can I write this because I cannot force this? But then this happened. And then also we had storms. And we did a lot of shots of trees in the storm. But then in the editing, the fog––which was not in my mind before the shooting––was the best.

Music opens on June 28 and will expand.

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