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The Question of Space: A Conversation with Angela Schanelec

With a touring retrospective and her latest film, "I Was At Home, But...," opening soon, the German director discusses her filmmaking.
Evan Morgan
Above: I Was At Home, But...
In some sense, Angela Schanelec has been doing the same thing for 30 years. Even before she completed her thesis project, I Stayed in Berlin All Summer (1993), she was making movies according to her own inimitable design. As far back as 1991’s Beautiful Yellow Color, which runs just 5 short minutes, the now-familiar Schanelec system appears already operational: the compositions will be stable and severe; the cutting will be swift and hard; and the narrative—or what remains of it—will lie somewhere in the breach, between the two. These principles continue to shape Schanelec’s work to the present day, and, under her direction, constitute a more or less exhaustive formal approach. It’s perfectly logical, then, that we might take Schanelec to be the kind of artist who, with preternatural assurance, etches a roadmap for herself at the outset, and whose career traces a pre-established arc of concentration, concatenation, and refinement—something like the unwavering teleological trajectory of a Robert Bresson, say, to whom she is often compared. A filmmaker who disavows novelty, who works by paring away, who refuses to wander.
Thankfully, for Schanelec, there is still the occasional unmapped byway. And there is certainly The Dreamed Path. That film, Schanelec’s seventh feature, first appeared stateside in the 2017 edition of New Directors/New Films series, a program put on annually by Film at Lincoln Center, which, as the name implies, is meant to highlight emerging, as-yet fully formed talent. Given her veteran status on the festival circuit and within her native Germany—to say nothing of the stylistic mastery amply displayed in her six preceding features—Schanelec’s belated inclusion in the series might seem a kind of backhanded compliment. But it might also be the case that The Dreamed Path, if not precisely an aesthetic reset, is the culmination of trends more lately apparent in Schanelec’s cinema. Around the time of Marseille (2004), Schanelec started to experiment more openly with structuring absences; the blank spaces that marked her earlier work—but which were previously circumscribed, carefully—began to grow more yawning. In I Stayed At Home in Berlin All Summer, for example, the gaps never get so large as to prevent an attentive, attuned viewer from forming a linear read on the plot. But in The Dreamed Path, the empty spaces expand far beyond the point of resolvability, and Schanelec’s strange, lapidary syntax stops simply obfuscating the underlying narrative material—instead, it remakes it from cut to cut. The breach is suddenly big enough to hold many more narrative possibilities, to accommodate manifold potential fictions, which churn and combust in a perpetual state of emergence. The Dreamed Path is many new films, so to speak.
With introductions out of the way, Film at Lincoln Center has now invited Angela Schanelec back for a complete survey of her oeuvre, titled, quite appropriately, “Dreamed Paths.” The occasion is the release of her newest new work, I Was at Home But…, a film that finds the director returning to familiar domestic spaces and narratives as one might encounter in early films such as My Sister’s Good Fortune (1995) or Places in Cities (1998), but which is nevertheless fit to wander, down paths dreamed or otherwise. Indeed, I Was at Home But… begins and ends with images that—as Schanelec herself puts it—she wouldn’t have dared to shoot as a younger filmmaker. That, and much else that she says in this career-spanning interview, ought to prevent any rigid assessment of her artistic development from taking hold. But if it is, finally, too difficult a task to reconcile Schanelec’s evident, enviable consistency with the intensifying changeability of her work, well then I’ll simply parrot Maren Eggert in I Was at Home But…: “There’s no word for the state of becoming and being at the same time.”

NOTEBOOK: I’d like to begin, if we can, with a quote from you. I came across it the other day, after I had a very emotional experience rewatching I Was at Home, But…, and it really struck me. You said: “It’s impossible to imagine people without space.” I like the quote because it helped me understand what I find so moving in I Was at Home, But…: the accumulation of small domestic details, unspoken little things that hover in the background, like the notes and stickers tapped to the back of this family’s front door, which imbue their home with so much life. So I wanted to ask: How do you begin imagining the spaces that your people occupy?
ANGELA SCHANELEC: Well, I’m unable to imagine any scene or dialogue or situation without space, so when I start writing, I’m already aware of the question of space. The space is already present, so of course I try to find that space when we’re looking for locations. It’s an essential question for my work, because writing without imagining space means something… something imaginary. Or a kind of dream. Sometimes in dreams you don’t see the space.
NOTEBOOK: Are the locations in your films generally places that are familiar to you?
SCHANELEC: When I started making films in the 90s, I often shot in familiar spaces like my own apartment or the apartments of friends. So at the time, it was possible to have all these spaces already in mind during writing. Now, I scout for locations. For The Dreamed Path and I Was at Home, But… we did a lot of location scouting because I didn’t know the spaces. It was very important for me to have enough time—months—and a partner in my DoP, who could speak with me about the locations. We’d find them, discuss them. It’s an essential part of the process.
Above: The Dreamed Path
NOTEBOOK: Have you changed how you approach these spaces, compared to your early films? In something like The Dreamed Path there’s a sense of rootlessness—homelessness even. Thorbjörn Björnsson ends up literally homeless in that film...
SCHANELEC: Yes, but if someone is homeless or rootless you still have to find the place you want to shoot with them [laughs]. So for example, in The Dreamed Path, the location at the end, when he’s on the street in Berlin, that took a very long time to find. It was quite painful, really, to find that space. Partly because it was not private. It was public—people are always around. But, in the end, there’s no difference. The effort to find a space for someone who is homeless might even be more difficult than, say, finding an apartment for a mother with two children, as in I Was at Home, But...
NOTEBOOK: Does that change how you think about camera placement? Are you finding shots on the set? Planning them out in advance?
SCHANELEC: Everything concerning the locations and spaces happens in advance. When we see a location we see it through the camera. Whether a location works or not is always determined by the imagined frame. Location scouting means seeing spaces through a camera, and understanding what images are possible.
NOTEBOOK: Often when I read about your films, I see them described as controlled and methodical, which I understand, though that doesn't seem entirely right to me. I think the precision of the camera placement often masks how intuitive the broader movements feel. I ran across another quote of yours that might articulate why that’s the case: “All of my films are based on the thought that the better part of life is inscrutable, full of misunderstandings and ruled by chance." Where does chance enter your process? Is it in collaboration with the actors? At the scripting stage?
SCHANELEC: I find this an extremely interesting question... [pauses] During the writing. And I have to say, I think I said that 15 years ago, but I still find it true. Even more so now. Really, I know less and less. I could describe the wisdom that I’ve gained as I’ve grown older, for sure. But in fact, I know less. So this quote still plays a role. What I’m describing there happens with me, alone, during writing. And after the script exists, things become controlled, it’s true. It becomes about fixing things, choosing locations, casting. It’s full of decisions. What I said in that quote, it’s contained in the writing.
NOTEBOOK: This idea, that—with time—you’ve come to know less, seems to track with certain developments in your work. I sense an increasing openness in the recent films, more comfort with incongruous elements, which are allowed to disrupt the film, and which are not easily placeable within the narrative. Things like the animals that open and close I Was at Home, But.... Do you think your films have grown increasingly open to these kinds of possibilities, where chance can interrupt the narrative?
SCHANELEC: It’s obvious that I’m not interested in classical dramaturgy. Which is not to say that I don’t know classical dramaturgy. That is deep inside me, as a base. But then the question is: when, where, and how do you leave it? How free do you feel to leave all of that? For me, it is always interesting to follow what comes in my mind during writing, which might mean not following a main character through a whole film. Places in Cities, which I did twenty years ago, is a film where you see the main character in every scene. But the fact that you see in her every scene had to do with my relationship with her. I wanted to see her in every scene. And I had no no desire—no, I don’t want to label it as desire. The film simply didn’t bring me to the point where I could imagine something like the animals in I Was at Home, But…. It was a different kind of script, and it happened at a different point in my life.
Above: Places in Cities
NOTEBOOK: Is that related to the psychologies of the central figures, then? Perhaps Maren Eggert’s character in I Was at Home, But... possesses a less coherent psychology than the young woman in Places in Cities, and therefore the film itself is more fragmented. I imagine that might affect how you direct the actors.
SCHANELEC: Well that’s something completely different. The direction depends entirely on the nature of the actor. In Places in Cities I found Sophie [Aigner], this nineteen year old girl who had never acted before. I was looking for non-professional actors, and I found her through friends. The work with a non-professional performer, compared to an actor, is so different. Even the work between actors is different. It’s simply a relationship between people. The work is to find out how I can reach someone, and I have no rules.
You can’t really compare Maren Eggert in I Was at Home, But... with Sophie’s character. Maren is a professional actor. I understand her completely differently than Sophie. For example, in Places in Cities, there is a moment in the last quarter of the film, when Sophie is in Paris, where she falls asleep at a bus station because she has nowhere to go. There’s a homeless man at the station who, while Sophie is sleeping, sleeps beside her, and who allows Sophie to rest her head on his shoulder. I shot that moment. And then Sophie is supposed to wake and realize what has happened. She stands up, looks at him. As we were shooting this, I asked her, “Can you try to look at him with an open mouth? Breathe with an open mouth.” And she just looked at me and said, “I don’t know.” When we tried it, she wasn’t able to do it. So I discovered that I have to accept things. A scene like the long dialogue between Maren Eggert and the young director in the middle of I Was at Home, But..., or the scene in the kitchen, where she shouts at the children, it’s not possible to expect something like that from Sophie. So I must assess what I can expect from someone. It’s fundamentally individual.
NOTEBOOK: Can I ask you about your relationship with literature? Afternoon begins, in a sense, with Chekhov and The Seagull. In I Was at Home, But... we get snatches of Hamlet. Does your interest in these texts arise from your background in theater? Or are these the kinds of things that you have around, that you’re reading for pleasure, and which then enter your films?
SCHANELEC: Reading is important for me, but with Chekhov and Shakespeare specifically, yes, that has to do with the time that I spent in the theater. And all the questions that I couldn't solve during my time there.
NOTEBOOK: So is that move that you make, from theater to filmmaking, a way to deal with those questions?
SCHANELEC: At the time, when I decided to make films, I had chosen not to accept a theatrical contract. It felt like a severe decision against theater. It took years before I understood that such a decision was not possible. What you have lived and what you have experienced continues in your thinking. So it wasn’t a rational or intellectual decision to return to—and try to find a way to deal with—questions that I had during my time in theater. Looking back, I can only say that these Chekhov and Shakespeare plays, which stayed with me, were unsolved questions—are still unsolved. Films like Afternoon or I Was at Home, But... are just attempts to find out something. There is so much in these plays.
NOTEBOOK: I’m also curious about the role of nature in your work. We’ve been talking about Places in Cities, a title that seems to reflect something essential in your cinema, this interest in modern city life. But there are also these recurring images, where your characters are drawn to—almost literally collapse into—nature. I Was at Home, But... ends with Maren Eggert asleep on a rock in a stream. In Afternoon, there’s the lake they’re constantly plunging into. Thorbjörn Björnsson digs a grave for himself in The Dreamed Path and then lays down in it. Is there something that draws you to these images?
SCHANELEC: Again, this is a very essential question. What I can say is that, in my earlier films, I wouldn’t have dared to shoot nature as I have in my recent films. I don’t know enough about nature. I don’t live in nature. I live in a city. Nature is something else to me, not just another space or location. It’s something much more profound than a city. In The Dreamed Path it appears like in a dream. In I Was at Home, But… it’s a bit more real. Then again, at the end, she’s on that rock. Nature is something that I feel is lost, that I want to have back. Though to be clear, I love the city. I love Berlin. I accept this. But in nature I feel something completely different.
Let me put this more concretely: I can talk about it in terms of the development of sound in my films over the last 20 years. That’s very easy to describe. In the beginning it was very important for me to use direct sound. I did that like a maniac, even in places like a park located right next to a busy street. Everyone told me that it would be impossible to shoot a dialogue scene 10 meters from where cars are driving by. But I was really interested in this convergence, in trying to express something, in words, in a space where cars are loudly driving by.
But in my last two films, where these appearances of nature are more obvious, the sound design is all post-production. The sounds are 100% post-production. It’s not possible to capture that natural sound directly. Because things that look like pure nature are not pure nature. Pure nature does not exist in Europe. You will always hear something coming from somewhere else. I think my relationship with nature makes more sense when I describe it like this, more technically. We've lost something. When I shoot a scene in nature, the things I want to create with these images, they require 100% post-production sound.
Above: Orly
NOTEBOOK: I find it quite fitting that the city sounds are direct, concrete sounds, and all of these natural spaces, which you describe as dreamlike, require post-production sound…
SCHANELEC: Yes, and that’s why I said it took me time to feel like I could dare to do that, to accept that the sound had to be created. If I create an image and sync it to the original sound, it makes it feel more secure, makes me feel that what I’ve created actually exists. Now I create everything, image and sound. It took me time to come to that point.
NOTEBOOK: Which film was the first film that you shot without direct sound?
SCHANELEC: Orly was the first film in which it was very obvious that direct sound wouldn’t help us. In the airport, we recorded the dialogue as direct sound. But it wasn’t possible to use the ambient sound, though for different reasons than those I’ve just described, in terms of finding natural sounds. It’s a very different space. But it was the first moment where I accepted that I had to do sound design in a more intense way.
NOTEBOOK: Orly does contain what is—for me—the most striking use of sound in your films. Near the end, this strange mechanical hum starts on the soundtrack. Initially, we can’t locate the sound within the image, can’t tie it to anything. We only gradually come to understand that this sound is a helicopter taking part in an emergency response. But the emergency that it’s responding to, we never see. We only know that everyone evacuates the airport. The inciting incident is obscured from our view, kept offscreen, like the crime in Marseille or the death of the father in I Was at Home, But.... Which makes me wonder: How do you think about these offscreen events in your films?
SCHANELEC: I’ve discovered, over time, that my ideas about offscreen space have to do with my experience in theater. Because there it’s completely normal that someone comes on stage and explains events that you don’t see. I did theater for seven years, so for me this was normal. It was only later that I realized that I had applied these rules from theater to film without reflection. But in film, the results are completely different. For example, in Marseille, I originally planned to show what happens to Maren Eggert’s character. But then it became clear to me that it was not necessary to show it. I thought it would be more interesting to show only the interview, the aftermath.There are many more possibilities in the offscreen space.
NOTEBOOK: All those unfilled in spaces allow for multiple entry points into the films...
SCHANELEC: I really do see it that way. It’s essential to have these entryways for the viewer.
NOTEBOOK: An open door…
SCHANELEC: Yes! Filmmaking, for me, is thinking about these doors where the viewer can enter. And it’s not only film; in literature too. It’s about the one who reads and the one who writes. In everything, it’s about a relationship. It’s about relations. 
Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec runs February 7 - 13, 2020 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York. Schanelec's latest film, I Was at Home, But... opens on February 14.

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