Film Review: I Was at Home, But…
Written, directed, produced, and edited by Angela Schanelec. Germany, 2019, 105 min.
Screening at Harvard Film Archive on Monday, 2.10, 7 pm, with Schanelec in-person. $12.
Her eighth feature-length film but the first to receive official distribution in the United States, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But… is as beguiling, transfixing, and oblique as anything she’s done prior. With a title that nods to two classics by director Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), her latest work depicts one family, a mother and her two young children, as they absorb and adjust to the recent, shocking loss of their father. And in this film the German auteur, at the height of her powers, imbues something of those characters’ shared energy into every location and frame contained within (ultimately crafting a somber, elliptical Berlin that seems to oscillate between stillness and fury). I Was at Home, But… is a ghost story where mortality looms—by birth and death alike—but also one that sees how the world around us keeps moving, always, past even the most traumatic grief.
Descriptions of Schanelec’s work often characterize it as austere and moderately impenetrable, whether for better or worse. But while many of the signifiers and symbols here are indeed hardly intuitive (like the extended sequence of animal action that opens the film), a dry humor still emerges and cuts into that austerity to great effect. For instance the ferocity and pained anger of widow Astrid (longtime Schanelec collaborator Maren Eggert) threatens to boil over early on when she is dealing with her younger son having run away from home; but over time her self-assuredness and need for control becomes a major source of humor within the film, as in one running joke regarding her regrettable choice to purchase a bike from a neighbor. Eggert is fearless in pushing her character’s potential unlikability, and excels even when positioned as the punchline; as when she delivers breathless, eager, foolhardy monologues about her philosophies on art and life. In a way, Astrid is seeking to move past the tragedy that has altered her irrevocably, and to make efforts towards reintegrating herself back into the world she knew before. But in these occasional moments of “clarity,” her verbosity and resoluteness only come off ridiculous, which Schanelec plays to precise, dry, comedic effect.
Schanelec’s filmography is often discussed in comparison with the films of Chantal Akerman and Robert Bresson, both titans of the 20th-century European cinema. And the stillness typically favored by both filmmakers does make for a natural connection. The solitude and loneliness of certain tableaus in I Was at Home, But…, for example, call to mind Akerman’s Edward Hopper-esque masterpiece Toute une Nuit (1982)—where Akerman’s insomniac nighthawks yearn for connection and catharsis among strangers and loved ones, just as Schanelec’s family sporadically attempts to do. And like Bresson, Schanelec’s characters are, on a purely physical level, often still and sometimes even blank; inviting a level of viewer projection that, when working, can reach meditative and even spiritual heights. Also comparable to Bresson’s film work is Schanelec’s keen efforts to depict faces in a manner that’s almost philosophical; and to dedicate that same attention to the other parts of the character’s bodies, like their hands, that seem to probe or even reveal their various wants, desires, and histories. And of course the most explicitly Bressonian tie Schanelec crafts in this work is her use of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a performance of which is similarly viewed for a good portion of Bresson’s Une Femme Douce (1969). Schanelec’s choice to have schoolchildren perform the play directly to the camera, presenting its discord, conflict, and ultimately death, feels subversive and poignant all at once.
Despite her extensive body of work, Schanelec’s own singularity and originality is only just now introducing itself to US filmgoers (for instance, this screening of I Was at Home, But… concludes a complete retrospective of her work at the Harvard Film Archive). Those willing to enter Schanelec’s wavelength will find, in this latest film, a powerful and profound depiction of grief, loss, and growing up; and of how when searching for clarity and equilibrium, with trauma keeping hold at the center of your life, you can either be still in your grief or explode in your feelings.