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A Film in Fragments: An Interview with Angela Schanelec

An interview with the German director about her puzzling, beguilingly beautiful feature.
Angela Schanelec. © Joachim Gern
Slowly accreting perplexed but beguiled word of mouth since its under-the-radar premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in August, German director Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path is an immaculately composed and constructed drama of mysteriously recurrent discontent. Beginning in an instantly enthralling series of isolated images that come together to reveal a bohemian couple hiking and busking in Greece in the early 1980s, the woman is quickly discarded by the story and we follow the man as he travels home to England after learning his mother is gravely ill. The film seems to re-form around him, his shabby destitution—he reveals himself a drug addict—his nearly blind father, and their grief over the mother. But yet again the film’s narrative proceeds to skip over time, jump in space, and divert with rubbernecked angularity; the man is left behind, the woman is picked up in 1989—Europe’s suggested movement towards unity and the dissolution of East Germany are pinpoints that help ground where we are and when—now a mother (and perhaps her ex- is the father) about to move to Berlin. And then we jump again, now to the present and in Germany’s capital and re-focused on a new woman, an actress playing a policewoman, whose marriage is quietly collapsing and who, like the ex-bohemian busker, seems to be transmitting something of her wobbly existential state to her child, who fends it off with generosity and spirit.
Made of opaque tendrils of story paradoxically suggested through the utmost of precision (and prettiness) in framing spaces and her actors—each of whom deliver highly measured and mannered performances akin to those found in films by Robert Bresson—Schanelec adroitly and suggestively splits couples, splits people, splits time and space like the most subtle of atom-smashers, sending each off into the world to live and change and split again under the world’s unseen pressures. Having seen the film twice and exited the darkness even more confounded the second time,The Dreamed Path seems to suggest that it’s a puzzle film. But once the “path” diverts and we jump again, it is clear there is no “solution” because it’s not presenting a puzzle at all, but rather envisioning the strangeness of our journey through time, moored and cast free by friendships, loves, family, nation, politics, desire and death.

NOTEBOOK: I have not been lucky enough to see your other films, so The Dreamed Path was my first encounter with your cinema. I found it completely surprising from the first shot. I'm curious to know whether this story began for you as an image, or as a character, or as a narrative.
ANGELA SCHANELEC: As an image.
NOTEBOOK: The first image we see in the film, or a separate image?
SCHANELEC: Yes, the first image of the film.
NOTEBOOK: From there do you build the narrative step-by-step?
SCHANELEC: Yes, in a way. It's habit.
NOTEBOOK: The film's style is quite fragmented, yet its scope is epic: it goes over multiple countries, multiple decades, multiple characters, families. Is your process in creating this scope in imagining all of it and removing things until you have the essence—or the mystery, even—or do you construct the film from fragments specifically?
SCHANELEC: Normally, it's the second way: that I construct a film in fragments. This time, it's also a bit the first way, because I worked a very long time on this project. In the beginning, it was constructed from fragments. The fragmentation became stronger and stronger during the work on it. I worked very long on it because I couldn't shoot it; the financing and producing was very difficult.
NOTEBOOK: As the project went along and time expanded and you had more difficulty making it, the film became more fragmented?
SCHANELEC: Yes.
NOTEBOOK: That's remarkable, because one would think a project would "come together" more over time, rather than dispersing
SCHANELEC: [laughs] Yes, but the fragmentation is something essential for the film.
NOTEBOOK: Why do you see it as essential?
SCHANELEC: Because, in a way, you can almost say that every image is a fragment. I mean, it's not like that, but it goes in that direction. There was one point, half a year before the shooting, when I worked again on the script, that I wrote a new version which came out as a shot list. Each line of the script was one shot. This was more and more simplification, really, of the story. Then I saw very clearly that this film was composed of images. Every film is composed of images, but in this case this was the work during shooting, because the script was finished and it was clear which dialogues remained—there were more dialogues in the beginning, which I threw out—and it was completely clear what the characters, the actors and non-actors would do, so the shooting was finding and deciding exactly the framing.
NOTEBOOK: What is beautiful about this movie, which I intimated when talking about its scope, is that I can imagine filling gaps with equally spare and evocative images; or even taking more out. Perhaps the structure would not work after that, but it has this porousness that suggests both more and less at the same time. In your script, did you have more that you could (or did) take out? Was The Dreamed Path a challenge to edit?
SCHANELEC: Compared with other films, not mine, then you can say that the shot list and the script is the film. But, for me, because I edited by myself and it was the first time in very long—I edited the first features I did, but then for many years I worked together with an editor—this time I did it again, alone. It took me months. It was already written down, but there are very few scenes I threw out. Very few. I don't know why it took me so long... But it also has to do with the fact that I edited The Dreamed Path digitally. When I edited the last time by myself it was the time of analog editing. This digital editing was really difficult for me.
NOTEBOOK: The possibilities become endless.
SCHANELEC: Yes, exactly. There's a real difference. Every decision can be...—this is not interesting.
NOTEBOOK: It is! That transition is interesting. In a film like this, especially if what you're saying is that you didn't cut much out of the film, then what I assume you're working on is the rhythm of how long you hold a shot or release it. And all of a sudden, you can so easily change it a little more this way, a little that.
SCHANELEC: Yeah. For me, as a character I'm a perfectionist—which I'm not saying is good or bad. In that situation, editing digital, being a perfectionist...sometimes I thought I'd get crazy! When I had the idea to try something, even if I knew before that 99% it's not a good idea, "oh, but I can try it!" This is so senseless!
NOTEBOOK: Why did you choose to go back to editing by yourself?
SCHANELEC: Because I didn't want to edit with someone I didn't know before. There were only two editors I work with, and both of them were not available. And also because I was in the mood to do it!  The way of shooting this was different from my former films. I was keen to do it. To see what happens, it was exciting for me.
NOTEBOOK: Not having seen your earlier work, how was the shooting of The Dreamed Path different?
SCHANELEC: It has much more shots. Before, I worked with much longer shots.
NOTEBOOK: Was it liberating to work with so many more images?
SCHANELEC: Liberating? No. Liberating? In what sense?
NOTEBOOK: I assume if you were working in long shots even if there's a lot of time for things to happen, you're restricted to that shot. But if you can choose a greater number of shots...
SCHANELEC: No, it was really hard to find those angles and the framing. It's not good to say it was hard, but I had the feeling that this was essential. What we do...this is it, then. I didn't have in the editing other choices, it was decided before the shooting what we will do. There were almost no other possibilities. Only in the length of shots.
NOTEBOOK: Much of your film reminded me of Robert Bresson's work. What I like about Bresson and what I like about your film is the absolute charge given to each shot. Because each scene is made of so few a number of shots, each shot is so flush with meaning and tone. The tone is very pointed. I would imagine that finding just the precise right way of framing someone laying on the floor, just the right way to light them—that finding this charge is a challenge. You were saying the script took the form of a shot list—did you have a pretty good idea in your mind of exactly what each shot looked like you wanted to construct?
SCHANELEC: Yes, completely.
NOTEBOOK: So while shooting there wasn't a process of discovering how to shoot each poignant image?
SCHANELEC: No, I had an image of how it should look. For sure, when you're shooting you try some things, but I thought it was necessary that I know it. To have an idea how I can build it. I didn't think this was something I could find out during the shooting. I had the feeling this is something I have to know. This has nothing to do with concept, this is something else. This is not a concept. This is not a conception of film.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned earlier that some of the actors in The Dreamed Path are non-professionals.
SCHANELEC: There are four characters who are seen as main characters. The homeless person, Kenneth, he's played by a singer, Thorbjörn Björnsson, a professional, classical singer, but he is also on stage. Theres, his girlfriend, is played by a dancer, Miriam Jakob. So she knows also what it means to be on stage, she makes her own performances. Maren Eggert, she's an actress and she's playing an actress. And Phil Hayes, he's also an actor but more a performer. Around them, there are many non-professionals, not only the children but also those roles who had only two or three shooting days.
NOTEBOOK: I feel like the actors had a fairly similar cadence in speaking their dialog. How did you work with them in their speaking parts?
SCHANELEC: It was different from character to character. Every one of them had a different relationship to the way of speaking when the camera is rolling. For example, Toby [Thorbjörn Björnsson], who's playing Kenneth, he's not English, he's from Iceland, so he worked with an English trainer on the dialogues, and this was a completely other way of working. Theres, as Miriam, from the very beginning she did nothing. Doing nothing means for me that she didn't force herself to do something which she doesn't have the feeling that she has to do. With Maren, because she's an actress maybe she'd be the one who would say, "I should not play," but this is not the truth [laughs].
In general, I can say what I wanted and what I told them, more or less, is that it doesn't help if they have to say "no" and they play "no." It's too much! It's better just to say it. Then it's possible to hear it. And then it's possible to understand what it means, the "no." But if someone plays the "no," this can be with a shaking of the head—and then you also have an expression, and so you have two things. You have the meaning and you have the expression, and I think it's a misunderstanding to say that the meaning becomes more obvious if you express it also. That's not true! For the viewer, even if he doesn't think about it, but he knows that this is not reality. He knows if someone plays, in every fiction. If you say afterwards, "this is really well played"—we know that it's played, and this makes a difference.
NOTEBOOK: Was it a challenge for the actors to work with these characters in a story that's so dispersed through time?
SCHANELEC: That was not a subject for us. To speak about that, to think about that, would go in a psychological dimension, where you would say, "when I was younger, what does that mean?" That was not at all a subject. I think that the only possibility was to trust that I will tell that with the film. We did a little bit to suggest time, we did a bit with the hair and also with the skin. But, for example, with the clothes we did nothing. The viewer understands, after a while—or feels, even. This is what I wanted. It's in the viewer.
NOTEBOOK: The film's attitude towards time is quite audacious. I've seen the film twice but even so it wasn't until I read the long synopsis that I discovered there are four different time periods the story covers; I had only noticed three. With such a mysterious treatment of time, why did you want to indicate the specific periods by showing the protest in Greece in '84 and the German border crossing in '89?
SCHANELEC: When I wrote that, it hadn't had the importance at all that it has now—not at all. It was very simple. When I began thinking about what I wanted to tell about what characters, I wrote first the part in Berlin and there was this homeless person. In thinking about him, I had the wish to know what he was when he was younger. And I thought, "what does it mean, younger?" He's 50...so maybe when he's 20, when he's really young, what would he do? So then I was in the 1980s. In the 80s everyone—also me—was in Greece, backpacking. In Europe everyone in that age, around 20, went with a backpack to Greece, island hopping, you know? Then I was thinking what was in the 80s in Greece, because I wanted them [Kenneth and Theres] in relation to other people their age from Greece, so I found this agitation thing. But I never thought about the political dimension because of the situation of Greece now.
NOTEBOOK: For me, it specified, with these small touches, the international tensions that were existing at the same time that these characters are having existential tensions within themselves. It suggest that maybe these two things are not inextricable.
SCHANELEC: It's difficult to say. Why do you write down things? There is an aim, but in the same moment it's maybe a different aim than what appears in the end. For example, with Greece, I thought, "these are two people, they just found each other, in a way, and they sing together." I thought it could be nice if someone at the same time is shouting, because he is politically engaged. It would be nice because they'd have the same age and these ones think they have to fight for something, whereas my characters they are content with each other. This is what I wanted to show. So I was thinking, "okay, what could this be?" And there were these elections in '84, so I used that. I didn't say to myself that this should be an international thing—not at all. It's just that it's important that, for example, Theres and Kenneth are from different countries, because they lose each other—it would be different if they were both German.
For example, this part that maybe you didn't recognize has to do with the age of the son. I had this ten year old girl in Berlin and I wanted the son aged five. So after '84 I had to have five years, so I was in '89. That's the reason; I thought, "okay, '89, what is on television?" During the editing I thought it was impossible to [use] the reunification. I cannot use something so worldwide. I tried a few other things like Cliff Richard or a football game [laughs], but then I thought, why not? I mean, everyone saw these pictures of Germany? Why not take it? The way Kenneth's father looks at it and turns—he's not interested in what he's hearing. This I liked. That I could tell that there were so many private, important things at the same moment that make these pictures just pictures.
NOTEBOOK: You mention the children. Why was it important for you that there were children in these adult relationships?
SCHANELEC: The children...because I need the children [laughs]! I think it's simple like that. Since I have children, I have children in the film. I have them because all my desperation [laughs] is nothing when I look at them and listen to them. I hope this sounds not sentimental, but it's true that they are really strong—their behavior and what they can endure. They are really strong, and we lose so much of that when we get older. All those characters I show, I think of them also as children, as grown-up children. They are not as pure, they look different [laughs]—but I need those images of children...not to get crazy!
NOTEBOOK: I have one final question, which I am not so sure of. I found the film quite...funny, sometimes. I find this also true of Bresson, that this technique of fragmentation and the emphasis on the power of individual shots and therefore the charge of moving from one shot to another, is actually very adept at expressing comedy. I find that Bresson can be very funny—
SCHANELEC: [laughs]
NOTEBOOK: —it's true! And it's not often talked about. And your film can sometimes often be funny. What does comedy mean to you in this film?
SCHANELEC: What comedy means for me would be easier to answer than what comedy means to me in a film like this. Because I really like to laugh in films, but normally these are really comedies. I like professional, mainstream comedies. I don't like films that are art-house but also a bit funny. This I don't like at all [laughs]. In my work, when I have to laugh then it's more like...erleichterung. We have to find that word, it's important..."relief." It's true that this film is about things that are not at all easy. Sometimes, during the editing, for example, or also during shooting, I had to laugh—because I was erleichted [relieved] that this is just a film. But that's not true, this is not just a film. That's why it's difficult to say.
Maybe it's good to speak about comedy in the context of beauty? When things are really beautiful they get light. Things suddenly get light. But it's difficult with this comedy thing. My problem with comedy is that it has no length. It's funny for a moment [laughs], afterwards you laugh—but then it's over. This "over-ness," this is something I don't like. To make something funny, but not lose the tension. Laughing is a strong tension, but then it's over. Do you know what I mean?
NOTEBOOK: Yes, to not let the punchline nature of comedy puncture the tension that humor creates.
SCHANELEC: Yes, and this is what I try to do, to keep tension like that. This is not a film that goes like [waves hands up and down mimicking a wave]—that's normally most films. The Dreamed Path goes like this [draws hand along a straight line], from the beginning to the end. And then we have a problem with comedy. I wrote a new script now—
NOTEBOOK: A comedy?
SCHANELEC: There are really funny moments in it, and I ask myself how I can handle it. Because I don't want that problem. A joke is also, in a way, an end of something. There's this longing for comedy, now, in the script—I have to find a way for that, and I don't know whether I'll find it. But I think about it. This is something I want to keep from this film. When one film is finished, what does that mean for the next one? It's not so clear, what it means. I will try to find out.
Wonderful interview! Really impressive. I can't wait to see the film.
Thanks, Marco—looking forward to your thoughts on this one, too.

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