Just as in Jacques Rivette’s cinema, Angela Schanelec’s films begin at a point where the characters have yet to decide whether they will become passive observers of a documentary or enter the realm of fiction. Naturally, since Schanelec, unlike her French colleague, understands the world as something close to a prison, they cannot escape either way. However, the impossibility of escape does not contradict the feeling that the characters in her films do disappear: this disappearance is a direct consequence of the world around them.
This is especially apparent in Afternoon, which opens on a theater stage. The curtain rises on a casually unreal image of a theater troupe-in-waiting. Scurrying to and fro, they go through the final preparations for the play. A dog comfortably settles on the stage, catching our eye. It becomes obvious that what we are seeing is a display of the prelude to a piece of fiction. The curtain is raised; nevertheless, time continues to play out offstage. The gaze is not controlled the way it would be in a traditional theater. In fact, it turns in the other direction: the camera looks out from the stage. It does not even look backstage; it understands this place of fiction as a place of becoming. The beginning will come sooner or later, but not in this image.
Orly also begins somewhere between a possible story and a tenacious persistence on the last seconds preceding it. Actress Maren Eggert walks on a busy street in Paris; the effect is that of a piece of cinéma vérité. A man grins into the camera; he simply slips by, no story grows around him, nothing but his existence captured on camera in that single moment. Meanwhile, the actress almost runs into a man walking towards her. No Georges Delerue song accompanies this encounter. The fiction has not yet begun. But the camera does not let the actress out of its sight; it even makes a 360-degree turn to continue following her and eventually find a story together with her. This kind of panning shot, which the audience may recognize from Raymond Depardon or Straub-Huillet films, signifies a clear situatedness in the world. Here is the camera, and here is the world around it. What is at stake here is not a fictional world, but the concrete characteristics of the filmed location, the very place that makes cinema possible. In Schanelec’s films, instead of places emerging from stories, we are confronted with stories that have their origin in places, and her beginnings clearly demonstrate this. As if the filmmaker had to show us that what is about to happen is possible.
Sound plays an immense role in achieving this. We can often perceive it even before the image. Schanelec’s films frequently begin with a lot of noise and tumult. Passing Summer, for example, sees one of the characters trying to find her bearings in the midst of an ocean of noise in a close-up lost in itself. Where is this sound coming from? It might seem a figment of the character’s imagination, but in fact it is only an extension of what we cannot see. Just like the image, the sound is not subjective. It leads its own life. A great deal of noise comes from the curtain in Afternoon and the traffic in Orly. Everything is connected into a whole through a kind of suddenness we normally associate with literary short stories. This is what Schanelec has in common with her colleague Christian Petzold: The stories have already begun; we simply stumble across them. In Marseille, somewhat lost, we find ourselves in a car driving around the city in search of an unknown goal. The characters try to find a place while the viewer tries to find a hold. However, a hold can be found only in the film’s movement. Although it takes a good while before we see the first cut, as is often the case in Schanelec’s films, a pan eventually reveals a second person in the car. It is the actual protagonist of the film, merely a passenger still on her way into the story, slowly emerging into the frame.
“I’m going in now,” says a character in Places in Cities. Another motionless situation waiting for motion; another instance of suddenness. But something is different this time around. It feels as if we may have arrived too late. As in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse, the beginning already tells us of an ending. We feel the presence of the numerous nights and days that came before. Time and time again, what lies off-screen is made apparent. Especially in the beginnings, where the focus on the here and now is particularly strong. A young man and a young woman stand together leaning against a car. He is smoking. They have spent time together. We feel it in their averted gazes. The cigarette doesn’t feel like the first cigarette of the day. She wants to leave. He tells her he loves her. They stand there, practically motionless. Their feelings are expressed by words and turn into a part of the story only when she actually leaves. It is a great, almost unnoticable story. Someone leaves. Where to? What kinds of stories can be told?
Schanelec’s beginnings show a tenderness and caution for the first look. They are determined but careful. Instead of an early glimpse into the soul, peripheral to the ideas and so-called coherent plot that develop later on in the film, her beginnings tell of a move toward the story. Or is it stories? Perhaps a beginning in the words of the filmmaker herself says it best, that of I Stayed in Berlin All Summer:
“On that day the sky was white. She wanted to go out and looked for her umbrella in vain. Then she put on her raincoat and gloves and took the train into the city. She saw him standing right behind the embassy. He didn’t see her. He was looking at the shop windows and wearing a hat. She thought this was a special day: I am wearing gloves and he is wearing a hat. That made her laugh. Her laughter made her uncomfortable…”
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.