My introduction to Angela Schanelec through her second feature film, Places in Cities (1998), was revelatory. Watching it I understood for the first time how form can expand a two-dimensional medium to extend beyond itself and actively include the physical space the viewer inhabits and their own inner life.
She is a master of interiority, of portraying it and inspiring it—so much so that I find the experience of watching any one of her films more akin to the act of writing than to the intended escapism of most movies. More specifically, the experience recalls the act of writing in a journal; the hyper-presence of being alone, that unique compound comprised of perception, memory, and the acute awareness of one’s own corporality.
I had the pleasure of meeting and acting with Angela in Matt Porterfield’s short film Take What You Can Carry in 2015. She was as generous and direct as her films would lead you to believe. We spoke again over Skype in early December 2019.
Hannah Gross (Rail): It’s nice to see you! I think the last time I saw you was very briefly in Toronto.
Angela Schanelec: Yeah it was Toronto, a few years ago.
Rail: After a screening of The Dreamed Path [Der traumhafte Weg] (2016).
Schanelec: How are you?
Rail: I’m fine, yeah, I’m good! So you’re at home? Are you in the middle of working on anything?
Schanelec: Yeah, I’m working on a new film. We just started the financing, and I will start to cast, and we have been traveling for location scouting in summer and autumn.
Rail: Is this your Oedipus film?
Rail: Oh, very exciting.
Schanelec: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. I mean, we are thinking about shooting next autumn, but right now we don’t have any money, so we’ll see how it will go. We plan to shoot in Greece and Great Britain, so it will not be as cheap as I Was At Home, But… . It’s more like The Dreamed Path, and that took me a really long time to close the financing, so yeah, I will see.
Rail: That’s exciting. Well, thank you for agreeing to talk to me this morning.
Schanelec: Yeah, I mean it was nice to read your name, do you do this often?
Rail: No, you’re my first interview! [Laughter]
Rail: I saw I Was At Home, But... in the fall, which I loved so much. And Places in Cities was the first film of yours that I saw, and that was six or seven years ago, so this provided a really nice opportunity for me to watch all of your films again, but in closer succession. Although, now that I’ve been doing that for the past three days, I feel I’ve set myself up in a weird state to conduct an interview, because in many ways your films put the viewer inside a place that’s beyond language.
Schanelec: I hope so!
Rail: Is that your intention?
Schanelec: It’s not intended, but when I say “I hope so,” I mean I hope so. Because if what I’m doing can be easily translated into words, then why do it? It’s strange, talking about films, talking about my films; if I was able not to, I would not do it. But I don’t see a way of avoiding it without being rude or misunderstood. If I would say, “I don’t do interviews,” then what would that be? [Laughs] And then I hear myself talking, but I don’t know how to avoid it.
Rail: When the editors first approached me about this idea, I said of course, I would love to, but I think for some reason I already knew that you didn’t like interviews—not that you’re not generous with interviews, in fact I think you’re an extraordinarily generous filmmaker in how you answer questions—but I sense a resistance, which makes sense through the framework of your films: you don’t want people to rely on your answers to interpret your movies. I was reading your diary that was posted on Mubi from the preproduction of Marseille (2004), in which you wrote that you don’t want to explain anything, that you only want to report. How did that come to define how you wanted to make your films?
Schanelec: I think this “to report” is connected to the fact that what I’m doing is more or less about questions I have, and these questions appear from what I see; what I see on the street, but also what I imagine. The fact that I can stay interested through the entirety of making the film, which is a long time, is because it’s a question. It’s not that I know something and can now explain it. And so, it’s more of a report. And more or less, this means I don’t know what it means, but I know that it exists. So I can show it. But in our culture, it’s all about meaning. So the question then is always, “but what does that mean?” In a way, I think there is no answer—I don’t have an answer. [Laughs]
Rail: Yeah, it’s funny—this conundrum of the necessity of interviews for promotion but then having to constantly confront people’s desire for an explicit meaning when your films are expressly doing the opposite.
Schanelec: I just think that I’m not interested. If someone sees the film and something becomes meaningful to them, I have nothing against that. It’s just difficult when people are interested in my opinion about the meaning of what I do. Because my opinion is not important, it has no meaning. What I can do is film. So now, what do we talk about? [Laughs]
Rail: I find it refreshing. I think it’s something that should be questioned, our desire for a didactic interpretation of a film or any kind of artwork. Why we need to be told what we’re supposed to see, or if what we’re seeing is correct?
Schanelec: Yeah, this is the most crazy thing. The question: “Am I right when I think you want to say this?”, or, “Am I right—did you mean that it is like that?” Because what I mean—I just repeat myself—but what I mean, I mean. It’s more or less about trust. Often the viewer doesn’t trust themself. They don't trust the fact that they feel something when they see something—when they see a form, when they see a scene, a moment, whatever. They don’t trust what they felt, and they want a confirmation from the filmmaker that I/they really meant that. But this is a misunderstanding, the filmmaker cannot be more right than the viewer. The filmmaker already finished his work. It’s not his job to say if what is seen in the film is right or wrong.
Rail: This was one of the first things that really struck me about your films, that there’s a real permission in them for the viewer to incorporate their own experiences within the experience of watching the film. And I think you allow this or achieve this in many ways. In The Dreamed Path, for example, there are two striking examples that felt as visceral to me as a sense-memory recall: the scene of the children in the swimming pool—the experience of being a kid and being in a swim class was so vivid and came rushing back immediately, what the water felt like, the smell of the chlorine… And the scene where Kenneth is burying himself with the earth from the grave conjured the same intuitive response, knowing that that’s what grief feels like. And it’s not metaphorical. The way in which you frame these moments are what allow for a real engagement from the viewer.
Schanelec: I mean, you said that it’s not metaphoric, and I think that this is very essential: that there are no metaphors. And the problem is often that metaphors are expected, that there is something behind. But it’s not a metaphor, there are no metaphors. Sometimes I have the feeling when I compare, for example, with acting, what many people expect [of acting] and then the way actors are seen in my films. With the scene in the swimming pool in The Dreamed Path, I had several moments in Q&As where people said very angrily to me, “Children don’t behave like that! They would never behave like that in a swimming pool. Why don’t they run, why don’t they shout?” The viewers want to see a behavior [on screen] which is like what they know it to be. For example, with the swimming pool, they don’t want to carry the experience enough to see everything that is connected to this situation in the swimming pool: you see the children, they have their bathing suits, there’s the water, the light, everything. So, what they miss is not what they don’t know, they know exactly how children behave in a swimming pool, and they want to see it in order to make it meaningless. They won’t accept exactly the opposite because they cannot bear the meaning, they cannot carry the meaning. So, they want the image to shoulder the meaning.
I understood that if I have a scene which is tragic, a tragic moment, and the actor is crying strongly or something, he takes it from the viewer—this weight. If I have the same tragic situation and the actor does not cry, but the same situation is told, it’s the viewer who has to feel it. This is the opposite of what the viewer wants. The viewer wants the other person to be seen crying. And I think this is very interesting, because when I understood that, I understood, “How is it possible that you have so many completely tragic, awful situations in films and television?” You know? The whole time you see people or parents—for example, in thinking about I Was At Home, But…—parents whose children are kidnapped or die, or whatever… and the viewer is quite happy to spend his evening with that! How’s that possible? It’s possible because he gets rid of it. If I tell it, like in I Was At Home, But…, but I don’t show it, then he has to bear it by himself. Which he doesn’t want, so he refuses. He says, “but I see nothing, where was he [Jakob Lassalle’s character in I Was At Home, But…]?” But, if he would be honest, or if he would be ready, he would understand that he knows where he was, because it’s obvious: he was away, he’s dirty, he wasn’t at a friend’s home. That's what I mean with the missing trust the viewer has in what they see.
Rail: It seems that’s something that’s coddled by a lot of movies, by mainstream movies for sure, but not just “mainstream”…
Schanelec: I see a lot of mainstream cinema, and also what is called “art house cinema." [Laughs] I don’t want to say anything against it, it’s just that other things should be possible. As a viewer, everything that you see influences you. It doesn’t go through you without any result, or without any trace. I don’t mean to say that you’re conscious of these traces or results that art has or an accident that you see on the street has or just something very random that you see has. But I think everything that you see… if you see a lot of TV, then this influences you. I want to say it without judging. But it’s not meaningless, what you spend your time with, what films you spend your time with, how you spend your time and what you do.
Also, actors. And you are an actor, but I don’t know if you see this in this way too… The work the actor did before they work with me plays a big role. Because then they’re used to a way of acting, to a way of working, to a way of relating to the director, to the acting partner, and so on. Where you make films, the country you make films in, plays a role. The other movies that are made in that country, the directors and actors that have worked there before, all of that matters. Most of the time I am focused on German-speaking actors. I never thought about that when I started to make films—that I’m so reduced through language. When I start to work with foreign actors, and I have only, and this is really interesting, worked with a few—some French actors and now Alan Williams, who is British, was in the last two films—my experiences are so good because the relationship between them and me is based on other experiences that German actors may not have had. That means, on the one hand, that these experiences might help, or that they know that they can’t count on these experiences because now it will be different because I’m not working in the French system or the British system. So it allows for an open relationship with more possibilities.
Rail: Can you trace your interest in, as you describe, a different way of reading cinema and your desire to make films that engage the audience in different ways to your work as an actress in theatre?
Schanelec: This is a difficult question… I know now that I’m very influenced by the years I worked in theater. This I’ve found out. At the beginning, when I stopped working in theaters and stopped acting, at the same time more or less, I had the feeling that this was a complete turn. That I was now with my back to the theater, I had nothing to do with it anymore, that I was doing something completely different. I also never had the wish to direct theater. That was never really an opportunity for me, I never thought about it.
But then, through all the years, I’ve found out that I’m so influenced by what I did there. In terms of writing a script for example, in my trust in words—what a word means, and what I can say with words without showing it. In theater you have this person who comes on stage and tells a story. The story already happened in another place and another time, but it’s just enough that he tells it. And this is not the only thing, there are many, many others, but what you asked me now, I don’t think so. I don’t think that this is coming from my theater experience. My experience as a viewer of theater was not so abundant. I didn’t start to act because I saw theater. I grew up in a small city and there was no theater. I went to the acting school only by reading pieces, not because I saw theater. Then when I began working in theater I was divided. On one hand there was the work, which interested me, but when I started to go to plays I was not very impressed. I was interested in doing it, but from early on it was a problem that when I went to see theater pieces I thought, okay, this is not so interesting… Theater can be completely extraordinary and incomparable with anything else but it’s rare, it’s seldom, it doesn’t happen often. And in the end that was the reason why I stopped.
Schanelec: Yeah, because I liked to act, but when I started to see films I was much more interested in the films that I saw than in theater works.
Rail: I read that seeing Bresson’s L’argent (1983) was what you’ve described as a catalyst for your foray into filmmaking.
Schanelec: Yeah, I saw L’argent when I was still acting and this was something completely new for me. Completely unexpected, I had never seen anything like that before.