The films of Angela Schanelec are made up of particles of experience, each work carefully sculpted out of fragmented slices of the everyday. They are an attempt to capture on screen the undifferentiated flow of time—seamless summer days in Berlin, idle lonely hours wandering around Marseilles, the dead time spent in an Orly airport terminal waiting to be carried off somewhere else. Schanelec pleasures in gaps and holes, allowing for narrative excursions, digressions, detours. Two friends sit in a café talking about their future, one is going off to Rome, and the other is staying behind in Berlin. The conversation freely drifts from one topic to another, in the background the rich green of trees; we hear the wind outside, the noise of car traffic. There is the immediate feeling that we are just dropping in on them before moving on to someone else. It is a scene wonderfully familiar: you and I have seen it, lived it before. It is as if her films were made up of a double movement from life to film and back again.
Often the camera is placed at a middle distance from her characters; discreetly observing them sunk in the everydayness of things, every shot explicitly constructed and edited with each cut a shock to our sense of spatial and temporal continuity. Her films inhabit a purely cinematic space, rejecting the kind of cheap and worn out techniques that are often employed to create the illusion of reality—extraneous character and plot details that feel tacked on solely for the sake of trying to make it seem more ‘real.’ Schanelec’s cinema is interested in something far more subtle and ineffable: the texture and scent of ordinary experience, of time's slow inevitable progression towards the end (and beginning) of a specific period or moment of our life.
Watching her third film, Passing Summer (2001), is such an experience. It is one long sustained exhalation towards the end of a season wherein its characters are suspended between a ‘before’ and an ‘after,’ caught floating in that weightless transitional phase between young and no longer so young when your parents grow ill, your friends get married or divorced, and the shape of your life begins to cement itself into something frighteningly permanent. At the film's narrative center is Valerie: a late twenty-something architecture student, who has decided to remain in Berlin over the summer, living in a shared middle-class apartment with a married couple, Marie and Alexander, along with their daughter. Different narrative constellations begin to form as we drift closer or further away from characters: Valerie’s father becomes deathly ill; Thomas, Marie’s brother and a divorced father becomes romantically involved with Valerie; Marie becomes unwittingly pregnant, Maria, the twenty one-year old babysitter is engaged to be married. For such a seemingly ‘small’ film, it contains the stuff that entire dramas are made of: infidelity, a wedding, a death—here treated as the necessarily harsh pinpricks of experience that are a part of the events in the continuous flow of time, the common baggage of life moving at its own rhythm. The pockets of ennui that are diffused across the film are done so in a kind of playful earnestness, counteracting the seriousness of occurrences with enormous lightness.
Every moment that happens in the film, large or small, has happened a thousand times before: there the old woman alone in the train, there the two friends in the café on a summer day talking and talking, there a father and child spending the afternoon in the cinema, the father drifting off to sleep. Breath-giving moments because each one is instantly recognizable, causing an internal click in the body (like a fist opening up into a palm) that induces a state of enormous attention and calm, an aura of soothing slowness spreading out from the screen. A static shot of a park, the wind in the trees, the air a whirl of autumn leaves, in the middle ground three children playing: a scene of Straubian beauty you never want to end, the desire to just watch and watch. Or the two dance scenes: 1) another static shot of Valerie and her brother Ben in a club on an otherwise empty dance floor, the revolving lights of the disco ball, in the background in the semi-dark leaning against the wall a couple of onlookers, the loud pulsating rock song, brother and sister joyfully, uninhibitedly moving their bodies to the music; 2) Maria’s wedding, towards the end, opening with the camera on her father, played by Rüdiger Vogler (!), speaking lovingly about his daughter, how they used to go to the movies together when she was a child, how she’s gotten older and now he has to go alone and he says: “Maria? Shall we dance together?” The strum of an acoustic guitar, the camera moves to the left catching Maria as she enters the frame to join her father and soon the whole frame is crowded with dancing guests while the camera (and us with it) performs it own levitating dance. All are scenes full of such tenderness towards the moments that they are showing, a gentle lingering without intrusion, yet still so grounded in the actual, all in all: a touch of truth.