Daily Archives: October 11, 2019

Angela Schanelec’s I WAS AT HOME, BUT… at CIFF

It was an honor to review Angela Schanelec’s great new film I WAS AT HOME, BUT… for Cine-File Chicago. It screens as part of the Chicago International Film Festival twice in the next two weeks:


Angela Schanelec’s I WAS AT HOME, BUT… (Germany)
Thursday 10/17, 8:15pm and Sunday 11/20, 4pm

The international distribution of Christian Petzold’s films in the 21st century, resulting in his critical coronation as contemporary German cinema’s preeminent auteur, has been a welcome development in the world of cinephilia. It is regrettable, however, that the films of Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec, Petzold’s formidable colleagues in the movement known as the “Berlin School” (the first generation of graduates from the German Film and Television Academy to make their mark after the reunification of Germany), remain largely unknown outside of their native country. As critic Girish Shambu points out in a recent video essay, the Berlin School has been called a “counter cinema” for the way these filmmakers have reacted against the aesthetically and narratively unadventurous mainstream German movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s and have taken inspiration from the glory days of Fassbinder and the New German Cinema of the ’70s instead. Schanelec is generally regarded as the most challenging of the Berlin School directors: her would-be 1998 breakthrough PLACES IN CITIES was panned as a “joyless snoozer” by Derek Elley in Variety who claimed Schanelec’s movies “throw out no emotional lifelines for the viewer.” I would argue, however, that, while devoid of obvious emotional signifiers and easy character identification techniques, Schanelec’s work, like that of her hero Robert Bresson, can be emotionally overwhelming if one is watching and listening correctly. I WAS AT HOME, BUT…, Schanelec’s latest, is an ideal introduction to her unique brand of cinema: a fragmentary, elliptical and non-linear tale of a young teen boy’s return to the home where he lives with his single mother and younger sister after having run away a week previously. Upon returning, the boy, Phillip, resumes rehearsing a grade school production of HAMLET in which he plays the title role, while also attempting to navigate life in a still grief-stricken home two years after the death of his father; one scene, where Philip and his sister Flo continually attempt to console their mother Astrid, who rebuffs them while cleaning a kitchen sink, is ingeniously staged by framing the characters from behind in a static long take that goes on for so long it eventually evokes a feeling of cosmic wonder. Astrid (the superb Maren Eggert), meanwhile, has a few misadventures of her own: one amusing subplot details her failed attempt to buy a bicycle from a man with a tracheotomy, and another sequence, gut-bustingly funny, sees her haranguing a Serbian filmmaker (Dane Komljen, playing himself) in the street after having walked out of his movie. Finally, a parallel story involving one of Phillip’s teachers (TRANSIT’s Franz Rogowski) debating whether to have a child with his own girlfriend may seem random initially but ends up poignantly underscoring Schanelec’s aim of painting a complex portrait of the joys and sorrows of parenthood. While her title may reference Ozu’s coming-of-age classic I WAS BORN, BUT… and a prologue and epilogue featuring a donkey obviously nod to Bresson’s AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, Schanelec ultimately generates a sense of transcendence through an employment of image and sound that is entirely her own. This is nowhere better exemplified than in a remarkable, time-hopping sequence, scored to M. Ward’s muted cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” that begins in a cemetery at night before flashing back to years earlier in a hospital room then flashing-forward again to the present in a museum. A masterpiece. (2019, 105 min) MGS


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