A ceaseless happening, allowing only for the collapsing, ever-sinking gazes of the characters and the camera pulsing in this blackout of a film, until all that remains is our helplessness in the face of life. Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path is one of the best films of the year, a film about healing and change, both of which are invisibly stripped in the images, all the while demanding a relationship between the bodies, one that appears and disappears, occurs and evades, succeeds and fails.
The Dreamed Path seems to revolve around two relationships that brush against each other like everything else in this film: not through a great dramaturgical chain of events but spatial simultaneities and gazes. Even so, these relationships are not what is at stake here. Rather, the relationship constellations are the ground we desperately try to keep beneath our feet in order to be able to speak about something we might have only felt; something we have to see again and again. Although we have undoubtedly also seen and heard it, Schanelec works according to the principle of pressing suggestion, meaning she only shows us what really counts, merely hinting at what can be told outside the realm of cinema. As a result, she succeeds in telling everything.
Nevertheless, this brings me back to what apparently must be done in order to allow readers to make any sense of this text: Kenneth and Therese are introduced to us in an image of harmony in Greece: in love, 1984. Then Kenneth gets a call; his mother had a serious accident. An image of shock that we can and cannot relate to: Kenneth’s motionless hands, a seizure, helplessness. Later we learn that he is a drug addict. Then the film jumps thirty years forward, although it never really does. It remains in between these moments in time. A separation took place; the entire plot of the film could be described in the past tense. Everything in the film was and is at the same time. Coming so close to present images of transience in the very moment we are seeing them is an immense achievement on Schanelec’s part. Perhaps the fact that the characters never change their costumes makes this possible. At least Therese never does. Thirty years later, we see her wearing the same clothes, which cling to her like an echo of the film’s beginning, giving her appearance a tinge of unreality; as if her clothes were a memory or the standstill itself. It is almost akin to Marguerite Duras: memories die in every image and desperately hang on to the life that the camera looks for in the bodies and ultimately finds only in children. As demonstrated by an impressive shot of a little girl licking the blood off a disabled boy’s knee in a swimming pool because spittle will help the bruise heal, children have not yet started wearing grown-up clothes. They touch those who need healing. Seeing children as a counterpart or using them as a frame or metaphor, as Valeska Griesebach does in Longing or Corneliu Porumboiu in The Treasure, has become too much of a stale trick in cinema. Schanelec’s final shot reveals nothing new in this regard, although she keeps it in the field of ambivalence.
Another story in this film: the actress Arianne. She abandons her life, her husband and daughter; her husband moves away; we see her working on a film. Everything passes without a word, recalling the last shots of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates. The weather changes too. What began in sunshine ends in rain. If it weren’t so painfully casual, it could almost be a feature of melodrama. But it’s just the weather, just chance, just fate, just banality. It is a movement with no particular reason; the humans that perform and carry it through this film are what tie it together. It is everything and nothing at once.
One shot towards the end of the film reveals this emotional film in all its perceptual brutality: Arianne telling the story of her background under an umbrella, sounding resigned. There is no lift to her voice anymore, no healing. This shot is followed by an image of the place where we normally see Kenneth, living on the street next to the metro station together with his dog. But now he is nowhere to be seen. His dog is standing in the street alone. The image right after the next (sound) cut is like a shot to the heart: an ICE train speeds past the camera way too close for comfort; we hear the sound, the railroad tracks. In the following shots, we see a shoe lying next to the tracks. Something disappeared. Something else disappeared in this film, at the very beginning.
It is a perpetual passing-each-other-by in a being-next-to-one-another, seeing as this coexistence refers merely to movements in the same place at the same time. From all of Schanelec’s previous films, The Dreamed Path seems to have most in common with Marseille, since both films revolve around points of contact that, placed side by side, act as a kind of autonomous mirror. We can draw connections, but we can also draw none. Relationships are both linked and completely unrelated to one another. Schanelec opens up the realm of connections without making any connections herself; at the same time, everything is placed in a permanent realm of possible relations. This includes political and social conditions on the decline, cinematic construction as such (such as the acting explored in Arianne’s character), geographic, linguistic matters; in fact, everything: the film’s observant, tentative movement through the world appears dreamed (but not dreamy). It is a precise description of the experience of daily life in a metropolis, where the unknown and unobserved hurry past us in fleeting encounters.
The Dreamed Path also stands for what has happened to bring us to this particular place together with these other people. The path in question is a dreamed one because we do not know it; it is just there. In a number of other respects, however, the film stands out from the filmmaker’s previous work. This is above all on account of the camerawork and editing. Though the comparison entails serious risks, The Dreamed Path inevitably recalls the late films of Robert Bresson. Schanelec may not take the fragmentation of bodies and images as far, but the emphasis on walking feet and succinct interactions steered by gazes practically evokes this very comparison. Acting is another parallel connecting the two filmmakers; Schanelec is looking for a similar form of innocence as Bresson, eluding the logic of theatrical representation and pseudo-naturalness and leading to the glow of pure presence. The editing creates a hypnotic sense of presence. Something akin to expectation, a spiral, a blank space of being; something that happened such a long time ago that it may not have been real although it has taken up permanent residence in us. We have rarely had the chance to see such a delicate German film about the end of love. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is in fact the only fitting comparison. The 4:3 format and Reinhold Vorschneider’s sharp camerawork result in both a sense of entrapment and dreamlike despair as well as an atmosphere of sheer determination, inevitability and necessity. This gives rise to a film that can be described as a slowly emanating tragedy. It speaks to all the bad that we do not experience; it simply happens.
How does the film plunge into these sequences of lingering? Frédéric Jaeger has rightly written about movements that are slowed down, undermined and dissolved in the film. Perhaps most impressively so in the scene where Therese is walking to Berlin through a forest and suddenly lies down in the moss. Much seems to depend on chance, oftentimes called fate. It just so happens that Kenneth and Therese are separated by his mother’s sudden accident. The separation of the other couple also seems to arrive to them rather than resulting from an act on their part. What Michelangelo Antonioni stages as failed expectations at the end of L’eclisse is the basic condition of The Dreamed Path. But, with the exception of Arianne, none of these characters are able to lament this powerless state. It is written into their bodies, gazes, and movements that fail to take place. Towards the end of the film, Kenneth and Therese see each other again. This scene has all the potential for a great love scene; the romantic moment of feelings coming out. But they keep everything hidden, holding back. In the end, they are just gazes and bodies in the same place at the same time. Everything flows into bodies which, hidden under a costume, do not give away anything apart from small wounds and scars, seizures and illnesses. The act of healing cannot take place because everyone keeps their wounds secret. The way Schanelec portrays it, the whole thing looks like one vast wound.
Ultimately, in Schanelec’s cinema, it is all about the beauty of a movement and the work with this movement, whether in one of her many dance scenes or a walk. This kind of work demands a way of seeing and observing that is unique in German cinema. The Dreamed Path is a film about losing time, but not in search of lost time—right in the middle of it all.
There will be a rare chance to see Angela Schanelec’s work in London in Autumn, 2018: The Goethe-Institut will be organizing a retrospective of her films. Curated by Patrick Holzapfel, it will present the work of Angela Schanelec in dialogue with that of other filmmakers. For more information see www.goethe.de/uk from June, 2018.