INTERVIEW – ANGELA SCHANELEC
“I don’t want to wait for something to happen, nor for something to fade away.”
Your influences are clearly more French than German.
When I started out, I wasn’t interested in cinema in a systematic way. I came across films that influenced me and, in turn, they made me discover some others. There was Antonioni, Ozu, and also, to be sure, Bresson, Godard, Eustache. But not a single German film. You don’t get to choose what influences you. You acknowledge some things, and you either reject or embrace them.
Text is omnipresent in your films: many characters write, read, have books on their shelves. You also said that you write dialogues meticulously. You even translated Shakespeare, and the act of translating establishes a particular relationship with the text. Yet, we are under the impression that all your literary influences bring you back to theatre, or even poetry.
It is true that my writing doesn’t stem from theory. I’d rather let words fit together. Also, these are two separate things: some words are written to be pronounced, while others are only written on paper. I haven’t found yet how the two are connected exactly.
They say that directors sometimes make a film for a single scene. Does this apply to you?
I use some scenes as a starting point for my work. Like the assault in Marseille, for instance. Other scenes come out during the screenwriting process, when you have doubts for some reason, and just dispel them. But I am not sure that they add significant facts. I am not that interested in significant facts anyway. I am more interested in the way moments even up, through their continuity. I don’t want to wait for something to happen, nor for something to fade away.
You said that Der traumhafte Weg was a silent film, for which you went without a tool, dialogues, and that consequently, for the next film, you really felt the need to write dialogues. You seem to consider your work in a kind of continuity, in which each film already contains the next one, that adjusts, completes, extends or clarifies the one before. Are you concerned, like the young writer in Nachmittag, that “it” might stop?
No, I don’t do it deliberately. And for a long time, I have been afraid that it might stop. Not so much, lately.
You said that “Writing is a solitary thing for me, it deals with one person only. To me, the specificity of writing is the fact that you are alone.” How do you experience the transition to a collective endeavour with a film crew?
I do want to share. Sure, I write alone, but then I want to share. The trick is to find the right people to do so. Everything depends on it. These are two very different needs: solitude and sharing. That moment when you can open up to someone else’s thought. It is not easy, it either happens or it doesn’t. But is not a test, I am not appraising anyone.
You acted in two of your films. How did you choose these parts? How did it feel to be at once the director and an actress on the same film?
It doesn’t matter to me. Someone else could have played those parts, it just didn’t happen because I couldn’t find the right person. For Nachmittag, the search was just too exhausting for me. If I did it, it is only because I was confident it wouldn’t create any distance. Quite the opposite, I shared more things with the actors. It was fine, as I said, but it isn’t necessary at all.
In Mein langsames Leben, a woman starts a conversation with a stranger in a café about a trip to Italy she has just taken: “In a way, all the time I was there, I was always slightly excited and also slightly bored. Somehow, I keep waiting for something to happen”. The stranger goes back to reading his paper. “Anything new?”, she asks. “No disaster today”, he says. She laughs. “You never know if you want one or not.” Do you prefer disasters to boredom?
Absolutely not. I hate disasters. But anyone who has ever picked up a newspaper out of boredom will understand why she says that…
The way you use music, among other elements in your films, reminded me of Jean Eustache. In La Maman et la Putain, the characters use music to communicate, they put on songs to send messages, they converse with the singer. Is this film, or this director, important to you?
La Maman et la Putain really influenced me when I started out as a filmmaker. The dialogues, the excess, the time flowing by during the scenes. The impenetrability, the trivial, the urgent. Anything can happen, even forbidden or boring things.
You said: “I try to make myself understood, it is something that the characters in my films usually don’t care about”.
I can honestly say that I like my characters better than myself. I also often find them smarter than me. I don’t know if making oneself understood can be an immediate goal. Maybe this wish is nothing but a sign of weakness. If you give it up, you might feel lonelier. I think that I have a complicated relationship with what understanding means in our society. It is unclear to me. Everybody keeps saying that they want to understand things. But then, they understand, and it doesn’t change anything about them. Does it mean that they haven’t really understood? Or that what they understood wasn’t what they were hoping for? I think that one of the problems it raises is connecting understanding with suffering, with consequences that you cannot take responsibility for.
What do you make of the act of understanding?
As I said, it is unclear to me. Understanding something has nothing to do with an effort or with difficulties. It happens suddenly, it isn’t final, it might be a one-time thing, a single moment of clarity that you cannot get hold of. Trying to understand someone doesn’t mean much either. Sometimes, you want to understand something just to get it over with, so that you can move on.
You teach “narrative cinema”. How do you approach it, since narration is probably what your films question the most, through various means?
Tackling a subject means questioning it. It is an art school, the students must be able to bear the fact that things might be called into question, by me or by them.
In Ich war zuhause, aber, a woman tells her partner that she doesn’t want to have children, thus radically rejecting the social expectations of her genre, just like many other characters in your films try to escape their destinies, to free themselves from the expectations they were born to. Do you see yourself that way: as a person who freed herself from what others expected of her – as a woman, as a human being, or as a filmmaker?
No. I don’t see fate as a conscious thing you can escape from. I have never wanted to escape, and I have never tried. I will probably escape when I die.
There are children in almost all your films, and they play an important part. Why? What is their function? Is it questioning the contingency of our choices by pointing out that we have learned everything, by remembering us that we all used to be children before we became what we are?
Indeed, I think that a child is the most precious thing there is. Being unfair towards a child is the most terrible failure of all. The whole world is reflected in the relationship between adults and children.
At Orly airport, the woman who just had her coat stolen says “it is so horrible to think that we are surrounded by people like that”, and the man she just met tells her: “It was probably just one person.” Your characters seem to be fighting against misanthropy. How do you relate to this characteristic?
The woman only says that because she is upset then, and scared that she might be surrounded by thieves. By people who are different from her. I didn’t want to leave her alone with that fear, so I brought her this man, who reassures her. But I also find misanthropists interesting in a way. I think that they are really scared they might be fooling themselves.
Because they should square with human compromises and contradictions?
But human compromises and contradictions are very different things, aren’t they? Misanthropists are scared that they might be deluding themselves. They believe there really is some truth out there.
You said in an interview: “It makes me happy when what I see on screen means that I don’t have to feel like a crazy person, like an abnormal leper, as is often the case in life. I blend in with society when I go the cinema.” We sometimes feel that cinema helps us living, for instance by teaching us gestures. Do you think that it can show us what we have in common?
I think I said that from a really practical perspective. Cinema is a place where you are not alone. But the idea that you can learn a gesture is beautiful.
“You have to learn how to find an ending. I never know where it ends”, Sophie says in Marseille.
I can imagine that one might feel that way in such a situation. The same goes with the other dialogues you quoted. A dialogue is established between two people who, by facing each other, end up influencing each other continuously. It only happens because a person perceives another and becomes capable of doing something that he or she couldn’t have done otherwise. A thought, a gesture, a word.