Angela Schanelec: The Decisive Cut

The films of German filmmaker Angela Schanelec—subject of a MUBI retrospective—show one of the most innovative uses of editing in cinema.
Michael Sicinski

MUBI's retrospective Angela Schanelec: Showing without Telling is playing from April 5 - June 3, 2018. Angela Schanelec's The Dreamed Path (2016), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from May 4 - June 3, 2018 as a Special Discovery. 

Two images separated by a cut in The Dreamed Path.

1. “A good viewer of the future will immediately recognize that between shot 24 and 25 Robert de Niro has had pasta for lunch, while between shot 123 and 124 he has clearly had chicken for supper; but this disruption of continuity through excessive culinary attention will make it impossible for him to follow the plot.”  (Raul Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema

2. The straight cut is the most ordinary way for the cinema to move from one scene or event to the next. It’s a simple splice. But since one could conceivably splice anything together with anything, a standard editing grammar developed, one that we all know quite well, even if only on an intuitive level. If one shot features somebody looking in a particular direction, and the next shot features some thing, it is understood that that thing is the thing being looked at. If someone enters an exterior door, then materializes inside a room, we are supposed to understand that they have entered the building. There are lots of these basic formulae for easing the potential confusion of the otherwise “simple” straight cut. 

3. However, some filmmakers have developed styles that hinge precisely on exploiting, if not exacerbating, that potential strangeness implicit in the straight cut. To cite only the most obvious examples from film history: Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov created “intellectual” or “collision” montage by juxtaposing radically unlike images in order to exploit their difference in the viewer’s mind; Luis Buñuel’s Surrealism explored the dream logic of the unconscious, forging edits between dissimilar and even disturbing images with no obvious real-world connection; Robert Bresson developed a highly reductive system of model and gesture that, while preserving basic narrative continuity, insisted on the fundamental pictorial integrity of each individual shot, as a unit of space; Stan Brakhage largely abandoned literary meaning in favor of a visual or musical form of editing, in which cuts were intended to mimic the movement of the eyeball, rather than alluding to a narrative grammar; and finally, Maurice Pialat employed the straight cut as extreme temporal ellipsis, with no clear indication of how much narrative time had elapsed between the shots. 


4. Angela Schanelec’s films take this experimentation with the straight cut even further. In fact, they represent the most innovative use of “conventional” editing in narrative cinema since Pialat who, along with Bresson, has been a clear influence. Schanelec’s contribution is what we might call the “epistemological ellipsis.” Just as Schanelec’s characters are frequently experiencing some crisis of knowledge or identity, the director uses editing to disorient the viewer, withholding the typical cues of space, time, or identity that we have come to expect from the cinema. That is, we are not simply watching stories about individuals in confusing circumstances. We, the audience, are undergoing such circumstances ourselves, on our side of the epistemic divide. 

5. It was only in re-watching Schanelec’s most recent film, The Dreamed Path (2016), that this became clear to me. The film’s most dramatic temporal gesture, signified by a straight cut, is a jump from 1989 to 2015. It is possible to miss the shift into the present day if you are not watching closely, although Schanelec provides visual cues that situate the first and second halves of the film in time. (During the first half, we see the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV; in the second half, we see contemporary taxis and ads on the buses.) But even if you are watching closely enough to register the time shift, Schanelec makes sure that it takes you at least a little while to notice the change. There is no title card, no chyron, no obvious signifier of the present, at least initially. Schanelec wants the time jump in The Dreamed Path to be at least momentarily disorienting. As if cinema were allowing us to travel in time, we make a jump but are forced to get our bearings. The relation between the past and the present is an epistemological problem

6. In the specific case of The Dreamed Path, the problem of past and present is one of realized potential, of who in society is buoyed by a social safety net and who is summarily thrown away. In the opening scene, we see two buskers, Theres and Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson and Miriam Jakob) playing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” while a group of demonstrators promotes Greece’s entry into the EU. Kenneth’s mother is in an accident and, at the urging of his father (Alan Williams), must use his drug connections to acquire morphine so he can euthanize her. This trauma certainly does not help Kenneth’s heroin habit. When we see him again in 2015, he is drugged out and homeless. His dream of being a musician has faded, and when Theres runs into him, she can only muster pity. 

7. At the start of the second half, we meet a divorcing couple, Ariane (Maren Eggert), an actress working on a movie, and David (Phil Hayes), a successful, socially committed photographer. They have a daughter (Anaïa Zapp) who enjoys playing soccer. She receives all possible support from her well-heeled parents, who insist that she is talented in the sport. And when she has an accident at home, breaking her arm, David is insistent that the doctor takes care to protect the girl’s future soccer prospects. These people have no connection to Kenneth and Theres, aside from the fact that Ariane’s movie is shooting in the city square where Kenneth is begging. But Schanelec’s point seems clear. The “dreamed path” is not for everyone.  

8. Schanelec uses unexpected edits and juxtapositions to create problems in the viewer’s knowledge. Often we cannot know how certain characters’ plots relate to one another until very late in the film. This is the primary organizational principle of Schanelec’s film Orly (2010), which draws various people together in the titular airport and then sets up certain expectations—individuals connected by spatial proximity—that are largely thwarted. There is a sense that multiple parts of several films are drifting (or “flying”) past each other, flatly refuting the Haneke / Egoyan / Kieslowski approach to interlocking narrative strands. 

9. But this is not Schanelec’s most radical gesture by far. Several of her earlier films are defined by an almost sadistic withholding of basic narrative information. Although one could attribute this to Schanelec’s scripting, it is really in her editing patterns that she organizes what should be highly conventional epistemological questions, only to defer or short-circuit the viewer’s drive to know. Probably the most definitive aspect of Schanelec’s epistemic disruption is her ambiguity regarding family relations. A number of her key films, including Passing Summer (2001), Marseille (2004), and Afternoon (2007), all center on family and friend relationships. And yet, in almost every case, Schanelec maintains significant ambiguities regarding those relationships until the very end of the film.

Passing Summer

10. Passing Summer is a good example of this strategy. The film is focused on Valerie (Ursina Lardi), a young woman whose friend Sophie (Nina Weginer) is away in Rome for the summer. She and her brother (Devid Streisow) must deal with the fact that their father is dying. In Valerie’s orbit are a whole host of individuals—Thomas (Andreas Patton), Marie (Anne Tismer), Maria (Sophie Aigner), Clara (Clara Enge), and others. It takes time for the viewer to suss out exactly who is who in relation to Valerie, partly because the connections are somewhat counterintuitive. Valerie and Marie are housemates. Marie and Thomas are siblings, and Thomas is a friend of Valerie’s. The other relationships gradually emerge, although some remain questionable even on a second viewing. This is partly because Schanelec avoids the kinds of abnormal dialogue that one would find in a mass-market film. (“Ah, Maria! How is your brother Thomas?”) But it is also because the sorts of groupings and introductions that would clarify who is who, the kinds of maneuvers that can be accomplished through montage, are avoided in favor of ambiguity. This is all for a purpose. Valerie is experiencing confusion and existential despair over her place among these individuals, and in her own life generally. By transferring that confusion to the viewer, we are asked to scrutinize this strange social circle, along with Valerie. 

11. Marseille is initially even more difficult to get a grip on. It is the story of Sophie (Eggert), a photographer from Berlin who has answered an ad to swap flats with a young woman in the titular city in France. However, for the first third or so of Marseille, it appears that Sophie and her “story” are a mere pretext. This film contains some of Schanelec’s most experimental cinematic work, a foregoing of narrative movement in favor of a pure presence of the image. From shot to shot and edit to edit, we are unable to map the spaces of the city. Instead, Schanelec and ace Berlin School cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider provide a kind of distanced, alienated vision of the city.  

12. Several early moments of Marseille recall Ernie Gehr’s masterpiece Signal: Germany on the Air (1985). That film, a portrait of Berlin from the perspective of a foreigner, was a formalist study of dislocation and disorientation. For several key passages of Signal, Gehr positioned himself at various positions in and around a traffic circle, photographing the tangle of street signs, traffic lights, reflective shop windows, store signage, and passers-by. In the beginning of Marseille, Schanelec and Vorschneider mimic this approach, perhaps unintentionally, because they are also examining the dislocation of an urbanite out of her element—a Berliner in Marseille. The edits confound space, rather than clarify it, transmitting this confusion to the spectator. However, unlike the first-person cinema of an avant-gardist like Gehr, Schanelec positions her photographer protagonist Sophie within these puzzling frames. She is often a small figure, engulfed by the urban environment. However, in Marseille Schanelec makes the move of doubling this distanced mode of looking, increasing our sense of alienation from what we are seeing. That is, we are seeing Sophie’s lack of clarity through Vorschneider’s.


13. On the one hand, this could be said to simply exemplify primary and secondary identification, in Christian Metz’s terms: first with the camera, and then secondarily with the protagonist. But more than this, Schanelec is providing “identifications” that instill epistemological doubt, withholding rather than providing clarity. And so, as this process entails intertwined levels of visual ambiguity, the status of Sophie as a coherent protagonist (as opposed to a pretext, as suggested above) is itself called into question. That is, we are initially led to suspect that Marseille will use the trope of the urban photographer to allow Schanelec to work with Vorschneider to produce an abstract city symphony, a film that maps the epistemological experience of the visitor in a strange new town.

14. But once again, Schanelec produces a different sort of film, one whose mode of address only becomes apparent while watching. While walking, Sophie meets Pierre (Alexis Loret) at a garage. She asks to rent a car. With a single shot of a freeway, we are to understand that she has already borrowed the car and she meets Pierre in a bar to return the keys and pay him. The two of them go dancing in a second bar, and then, suddenly, Sophie is back in Berlin. At this point, Sophie becomes the central figure in a chiefly narrative film, one about her family relations. But more to the point, Schanelec has once again dramatically used the otherwise ordinary straight cut to radically dislocate the viewer (and Sophie) in space. What we discover eventually is that Sophie left Berlin precisely because she is trapped in a “bad script” when she’s in the city—in particular a sibling rivalry with her actress sister Hanna (Marie-Lou Sellem)—and that Marseille is a space in which she (and the film) are relatively free to pursue vision for its own sake. In this respect, Schanelec stages Marseille as a “splice” writ large, between avant-garde looking and narrative demand.

15. In the second half of Marseille, we get a glimpse of a theatre rehearsal. It is a story of crumbling aristocracy, possibly Chekhov, although I did not recognize the scene. Hanna is playing a surly maid who holds dominion over her master and mistress. By contrast, Afternoon opens onstage during a rehearsal. In fact, the camera is positioned at a point backstage which allows us to see the entire proscenium and the sparse tech audience. We are at a point that precisely mirrors the ideal gaze of the proscenium, a point that, strictly speaking, does not exist in the theatre. Once again, Schanelec and Vorschneider have doubled the cinematic gaze, while coupling it to another medium, this time the stage rather than photography. 

16. The actress in Afternoon is Irene (Schanelec), and the director is starring in her own adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, a play that was briefly mentioned by Hanna’s son in Marseille. In Afternoon, Schanelec makes a kind of gambit. If you recognize the Chekhov, you will have a relatively easy time mapping the character relationships despite the film’s sharp cuts and elliptical editing. If not, then once again the spectator is plunged into an epistemological quandary. It is fairly evident that Irene is returning to her childhood home, but there are familial relationships that are opaque for much of the film’s running time. Whose child is Mimmi (Agnes Schanelec)? Why is Konstantin (Jirka Zett) staying in the house caring for Alex (Fritz Schediwy)? How does Agnes (Miriam Horwitz) factor in, and who is Max (Mark Waschke)? Eventually the lines of interrelation are clearly drawn. However, Schanelec holds them in suspension for quite some time, which is uniquely maddening for a film whose entire thematic structure centers on long-simmering family resentments and entanglements.


17. Once again, rather than clarify relationships for the viewer, thereby providing a film “about” dislocation and alienation, Schanelec transmits this dislocation directly to the viewer by instilling basic doubts about what we are watching. Who is that character? What is this place? How does he relate to her? These are precisely the questions that Irene is struggling with, and we must struggle along with her in order to make even the most basic sense out of Afternoon. The closest the film comes to actually depicting alienation, rather than instantiating it, is Agnes’ emotional break in front of Konstantin. She expresses her plight through language that is sadly poetic rather than plain: “I know your voice, and your whole body. I know it all, and it’s all a part of me…” But this is the exception to Schanelec’s usual m.o., partly because Agnes is an exceptional character, one not subject to the family’s self-destruction. 

18. Afternoon is a pessimistic film, equal parts Pialat and Bergman. By contrast, The Dreamed Path depicts a broader social anger, a sense that the crises that are currently wracking Europe and beyond are not solely attributable to pathologies in the bourgeois family. How are human beings either permitted to move or doomed to remain in place? How does history produce discontinuous effects whose impact can only be seen retroactively or from a distance?

19. Schanelec is one of the “big three” in terms of the early progenitors of the Berlin School, along with Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. While Petzold’s films have always been characterized by a political orientation (aided, no doubt, by his longtime association with the late Harun Farocki), and Arslan’s work has displayed an interest in the critical possibilities of genre (a debt, in part, to honorary Berlin Schooler Dominik Graf), Schanelec’s work has tended toward an inward-looking formalism. Her exploration of the power of the straight cut, the perceptual and epistemological consequences of the ellipsis, has marked her as perhaps the most philosophical of the three.  

20. But The Dreamed Path shows a new direction. The straight cut between 1989 and 2015 is not just another splice. In its dialectical acumen, it shows Farocki’s influence in a different manner. How can two relatively distant eras be brought close, examined side by side through the analytic of cinema? What do the end of East Germany and the occasion of reunification mean 26 years on? Who did we leave behind? With this one extraordinary edit, Schanelec generates some of the most provocative ideas of her career. 

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