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BERLINALE 2019 Competition

Angela Schanelec • Director of I Was at Home, but...

“My humour doesn’t have a punchline”


- BERLIN 2019: We talked to German director Angela Schanelec about her polarising film-essay I Was at Home, but..., shown in the main competition

Angela Schanelec  • Director of I Was at Home, but...
(© Joachim Gem)

Shown in the Berlinale’s main competition, Angela Schanelec’s non-narrative I Was at Home, but... [+see also:
film review
interview: Angela Schanelec
film profile
, made with the participation of Maren EggertJakob Lassalle and Franz Rogowski, has already divided the festival audience with its slow pace and loose storylines, revolving around a teenage boy named Phillip (Lassalle), who, after disappearing for a week, finally returns home. 

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Cineuropa: Most of the interactions shown in your film are so awkward that they almost become funny. Like the seemingly never-ending scene in which two characters [including Maren Eggert’s Astrid] squabble over a broken bicycle.
Angela Schanelec:
 It’s the kind of humour that doesn’t really have a punchline. These scenes certainly don’t have one, which means they are kind of endless. These people just can’t stop! That’s why they needed some time to play out. I teach film in an art school [the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg], so it has less to do with classical scriptwriting that has been written about in a thousand different books. When I am teaching, at first I listen to what my students think, what they want to do and what they have already done. Early on, I try to make them think about what an image or a sound actually is, and what it means when, instead of holding a photo, we actually see something that’s moving. 

Or not moving at all – there is such a stillness to your scenes with kids, shown here reciting passages from Hamlet. It immediately strikes us as odd because it’s more common to see them just running around, full of energy. Was that your intention?
I think that sometimes, adults can be much more helpless than children. Also, to see them running around, all you have to do is to go out in the street – you don’t have to go to the cinema. It’s interesting what children are actually able to do: they can be still, or they can recite Shakespeare. My aim, and I think it’s clear with this film as well, is never to recreate reality. It’s not enough just to point a camera somewhere and make people think: “Oh, that’s exactly how I see it as well.” 

You started your career as a filmmaker at the Berlin Film and Television Academy, where you met Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. Together, you were credited with creating the first wave of the so-called Berlin School. Do you still feel a part of it?
It doesn’t really exist any more. It started with Thomas, Christian and me, and we have been making films for more than 20 years now. We developed and branched off in very different directions. It helped us at one point because in cinema it’s often easier to do certain things once you are working under some kind of label. But just like in other comparable groups, after a certain amount of time, things just change. It’s clear that my films have nothing to do with the movies made by Maren Ade, for example.

In I Was at Home, but... you are certainly not afraid to confuse viewers. How did the idea for the film originate?
The first thing that came to mind was this image of a 13-year-old boy, not a child but not an adult yet, reappearing at home dirty after coming back from the wilds of nature. I am not afraid of creating confusion, because I really believe it’s possible just to see things. The confusion only creeps in if you start to think. In cinema, it’s enough just to see. Of course, if someone comes out of my film somehow unsatisfied because they have a feeling of having interpreted something wrongly, then it means I have failed – I don’t want to leave anyone unhappy. But what you see you tend to filter through your own experience, and this experience is yours, and yours only. We all have different lives, so why shouldn’t we make different associations?

Is that why you start the film with scenes set in nature? Because with animals, unlike with people, nobody wastes time trying to figure out their motivations?
It would be nice to look at animals and then maybe take this way of looking at things and keep it for when human beings appear on the screen. The fact is, an animal would never do anything that goes against what its own body is telling it. With the people, every situation I show here just happens to them; they can’t do anything about it. It’s not an action – it’s a reaction. They do what their bodies tell them to do, so yes, it is possible to see them as animals as well.

With my actors, I try not to talk about psychology. Before I do the casting and make my final decision, I am always trying to understand whether it’s possible to work with them without explaining too much, mostly because I find it completely pointless. You are just wasting your time instead of knuckling down to work. I really think it’s problematic that films are seen as something that could, or should, always be explained. Film can be so much more than that. It gives you a chance to spend some time with images, bodies and situations. It gives you a chance to experience something new. I really believe that film is all about what you feel; it has very little to do with our brain.

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