What does it mean when we call something opaque? The word seems to fit the work of the German director Angela Schanelec, despite the lucid visual qualities of her style: the crisply defined compositions, stiff posing, and cold, unfiltered light. There’s rarely any ambiguity about what the audience is looking at. Her subject matter is quotidian and at worst banal, defined within spaces as unremarkable as airports, locker rooms, and apartments with minimalistic Euro furnishings that tell us zilch about the occupants. (Though the contents of bookshelves often reveal a lot about Schanelec’s own tastes.) But questions of why are rarely given answers.
I Was At Home, But…, which won the directing prize at last year’s Berlinale, is the first of her films to receive a theatrical release in the United States, though Schanelec has been making movies since the 1990s. To say that it presents a high challenge level for most viewers might be something of an understatement. It opens with shots of a donkey and a dog in an abandoned house, dropping us in media res into a domestic drama in chilly Berlin through glacial fragments that take some time to piece together. The sense of progression is tenuous, sometimes deliberately out of order, with everything (even the droll humor) in the same monotone register.
Unlike Schanelec’s last film, the mind-numbing The Dreamed Path, I Was At Home, But… offers something of an emotional through-line, thanks to a compelling performance from Schanelec’s frequent lead, Maren Eggert. She plays Astrid, a widowed, fortysomething art professor whose teenage son, Phillip (Jakob Lassalle), has come home, after disappearing for a week, with a severely infected toe that will require amputation. Phillip’s return may not be the precipitating event, but there is a sense of crisis diffracted and displaced throughout the film. We witness this more obviously in Astrid’s brittle treatment of Phillip and his younger sister, Flo (Clara Möller), and more subtly in a subplot about Astrid’s attempts to return a used bicycle that she bought from an older man who speaks through an electrolarynx.
I Was At Home, But… is not, strictly speaking, a puzzle film, but the ellipsis of the title does give away something about its nature. So does the implied (and possibly overreaching) reference to Yasujirō Ozu’s silent comedy I Was Born, But…, which the Japanese master loosely remade some decades later as Good Morning. Schanelec is hardly the first art filmmaker to riff on Ozu’s fixation on seasons, linkages, spatial arrangements, and the roles of parent and child. Nor is she the first to fuse Ozu-mania with similar hero worship of the work of Robert Bresson, whose influence looms over every one of the film’s cropped close-ups, connect-the-dots cuts, and affectless acting beats. Even the donkey is an obvious nod to Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar.
There are stretches of stilted silence, non-events captured in shots of extended duration, scenes in which characters are posed like mannequins, and long passages of a classroom production of Hamlet, in which Philip plays the title role. One presumes that we are meant to draw the obvious textual parallels to Phillip’s return and perhaps to some lingering unease about his mom’s new boyfriend (Jirka Zett), a tennis coach. But mostly, the Hamlet stuff—which feels like another auteur homage, this time to the stripped-down adaptation experiments of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet—just goes for too long. Less often, there are moments of warmth and strangeness: a warbled rendition of “Moon River” that Phillip sings to Flo at bedtime; a dreamlike montage set to M. Ward’s acoustic cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”
There is an aspect of self-interrogation, too, involving the emotional fakery of art and the reality of trauma, which one presumes is drawn to some extent from Schanelec’s background as an actor. It’s a frustration that gets vented in a scene in which Astrid harangues a visiting filmmaker (Dane Komljen) after running into him at a grocery store. The scene, which is so talky that it seems to belong in a different movie, is captured in a single tracking shot that runs about 10 minutes, fluctuating from attack to apology. The smiles and nods veer into the kind of slow-burn cringe comedy that one often finds in exchanges between audience members and directors in the movies of Hong Sang-soo.
The filmmakers that Schanelec draws on for inspiration are all masters of one kind of economy or another. The problem is that Schanelec herself is not. Despite its austere, theory-heavy minimalism, I Was At Home, But… is lopsided and lumpy, filled with longueurs in which the brain begins to check out. That is partly the design of this static character study on the apparently inexhaustible (to art filmmakers, anyway) subject of inexpression and buried grief. Schanelec, who dislikes explaining her work, would prefer viewers to just go with the flow. There may be something to that experience.