I Was at Home, But...
There is no shortage of essay films at the Berlinale, and Thomas Heise’s documentary Heimat Is a Space in Time suggests that the personal address possible in this kind of documentary can be a very powerful tool indeed. This feeling was confirmed with an almost painfully moving encounter at the festival, Frank Beauvais’s extraordinary Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream. It is a kind of memoir of the director’s life between April and October 2016 in images and words, and while the words, beautifully written, are what one may expect—concise but rich details of family upbringing, personal worries, life events, anxieties and encounters, observations on home, town, and country—the images are not. To construct the image-story of this seven-month time period, a period filled with national and international attacks and terror, love for and hatred of his home in a small Alcasian town, thoughts on friends and family and music, Beauvais turns to the cinema: the entire 75-minute film is illustrated only by clips of movies this most-devoted of cinephiles watched during this time in 2016. As such, the film is a record of viewing, of a passion for film, a love that is a self-admitted obsession and indeed a refuge in which to hide from the world. (It is also a record of the new kind of creative possibilities available to cinephiles in the 21st century, where the Internet brings before their eyes digital copies and bootlegs from around the world.) But even greater than this merely impressive idea of a catalog is that of animating, sometimes literally but more often than not in subtle gestures, unexpected imagery, sly or shocking moments, the diaristic narration of the director's life through movie images of what he was watching at the time. Never more honest than he is about his own insecurities and neuroses, Beauvais says that at first the cinema for him was a window to the world, but after seclusion and too much viewing, it become only a mirror for himself.
The films included cut across all eras and countless countries of cinematic history, but generally avoid actor’s faces and indeed avoid obvious recognition. In this way, while some of the fleet clips may catch you in a flash of identification, most fly by anonymously as pure moving images, gracefully conjoined to Beauvais’s eloquent and frequently emotionally or existentially tormented narration. A few images snap literally into visual interpretation of the director’s words, especially when he despairs at the horrific surprise of terrorism in his country and the repressive measures undertaken by the government, or, in the film’s most breathless and devastating sequence, when he describes care-taking for his father and showing him a favorite movie—Jean Grémillon's exquisite The Sky Is Yours—during which is father has an attack and dies. But the names of filmmakers or movies are rarely mentioned, for the film’s focus is on the fleet, elegantly edited (by Thomas Marchand) yet overwhelming bombardment of symbols, details, objects, bodies, and movements that elucidate in ways that range between obvious to glancing but most often are mysterious and evocative as interpretations of mood, ideas, interests, and spirit. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream easily risks being too geeky in its citational form and too narcissistic in its presumption of interest in this man’s hopes, woes and viewing taste, yet it easily escapes both to create a powerful picture of how the cinema can be channeled through a person’s very particular life, thoughts and feelings—and how a person can channeled through the cinema, a single individual revealed through an art addressing the masses.
The festival’s competition has been uniformly unadventurous thus far until the premiere of Angela Schanalec’s I Was at Home, But..., clearly the main selection’s token entry of challenging cinema. This sharply envisioned picture of human fragility, the binds of family, and individual loneliness is the director’s follow-up to The Dreamed Path (2016), the international breakthrough for the most under-seen and idiosyncratic filmmaker associated with the so-called Berlin School that includes directors Christian Petzold and Maren Ade. (MUBI presented the online premiere of The Dreamed Path alongside a retrospective of Schanalec’s work in the spring of 2018.) That last film was in competition in Locarno and with the new one at the Berlinale these are the two most prominent premieres ever for the director, but Schanalec’s cinema is as uncompromising as ever—and as expressive. Bookended by metaphoric scenes of a dog chasing a hare and then devouring it under the benign, watchful eye of a donkey, I Was at Home, But… then moves to Berlin to elliptically tell a story of a young widow and mother of two who quivers on the edge of a breakdown after her teenage son runs away.
Told in the more fragmented style the director used in The Dreamed Path—the donkey is a rather obvious reference to Bresson, whose ellipses and isolation of unexpected but pertinent images are very much an inspiration here—the film skips over much conventional exposition in order to pinpoint and expose a very raw emotional nerve and general disconsolation that runs through all the film’s characters, and not only the fraught mother (Maren Eggert). She forms the nexus of the narrative, but through her we reach the son, Phillip (Jakob Lassalle), who returns home at the film’s beginning and whose school trouble is hinted at but never fully explained, and his younger sister, on the outskirts of the undisclosed family drama, but who has obviously internalized it, exhibiting extreme tenderness towards both her mother and brother. In the movie’s boldest gesture, a teacher (Transit’s Franz Rogowski) at the son’s school punches out of the narrative and gets his own vignettes devoted to his passionate but wrenching relationship to a girlfriend. Their conversations over commitment, the nature and needs of their love, and childrearing indicate this mysterious film’s core subject, which is parenthood and its relationship to love and loss.
For as cryptic as its storytelling can be, the film couldn’t be more lucid in its images of mourning, commiseration, and familial love—several shots of the brother and sister together, and later several of the children embracing their mother, carry with them a convulsive emotional impact. Finally, it is impossible to ignore the film’s centerpiece scene, whose single long take is more in the style of Schanalec’s earlier work. In it, the widow walk down the street with a young filmmaker and teacher. In one of only a handful of outbursts from the woman, each of which reveal both humorously and heartbreakingly the turmoil held behind her daily life, she berates his movie for mixing actors with people who are genuinely ill, immorally colliding those who are pretending with those who have lived experience. This blatantly self-reflexive scene both defends Schanalec’s work and satirizes those who are vocally frustrated by her challenging, non-realist approach. Not only that, but since Eggert is an actress who has appeared in several of Schanalec's movies, and the teacher is played by Dane Komljen, the director of All the Cities of the North, we get a playful inversion of argument, since the one complaining of falsehood is the actor and the accused is someone acting his own role from his own experience.
Despite the beautiful clarity of its images (a fresco of frustrated teachers frozen at an impasse discussing Phillip’s progress is an example of the wide range of affect the film contains, for it is at once artificial and touching, despondent and amusing) and the directness of its emotional appeal, the obliqueness of the film’s narrative may come off as a frustrating puzzle to solve. (Of quintessential art-house abstruseness are the vague animal bookends and periodic scenes children rehearsing Hamlet with impressive gravity, perhaps externalizations of noble tragedy going on behind their impassive faces.) But in fact Schanalec’s is a style that not so much leaves gaps as dispenses with what can be presumed, challenging the audience (and in doing so, respecting them) to view the essentials. Challenge accepted.