I rewatched Angel Schanelec's latest effort in subdued emotions with Matalo Matango at the cinema, and it seems that we were both intriguedby it, as we agreed afterwards to revisit the film as soon as possible. I found my second encounter with it quite different from the first, with new and different reactions to the film. While I couldn't always find an access to the film during my first encounter and found a lot of the dialogue quite forced, the film seemed to float much more naturally this time, and I understood most of the characters' motivations much better this time (as well as some plot-points) and they rang much truer to me. The movie seemed to encompass me, and after a very comforting first half, I found it almost painful to sit through the rest, as the story shook me emotionally so hard that I started to feel it physically (which oftentimes is a good, if not pleasant, sign for the quality of a film to me).
I still don't completely know what to think of it, but it will now definitely end on my Top Ten list for 2007.
Fortunately I had written a review of the film after the Berlinale in March (one of the very few I managed to complete), and though I have absolutely no idea what it was about (I haven't re-read it, yet), I'll post it again in this thread, as it reflects my ideas after my first encounter with the film. I hope more of you get the privilege to experience this and other works by Angela Schanelec, who without doubt is one of the most gifted filmmakers working today. If I see "Afternoon" yet again, I'll report back. And maybe Matalo Matango can also share some of his impressions with us?
first posted in March 2007 in the Berlin Film Festival thread
Afternoon (Angela Schanelec / Germany / 2007)
Angela Schanelec's new film is loosely based on Anton Chekhov's play "The Seagull". Some years ago I tried reading one of his plays but wasn't able to finish it. The conflicted character's seemed hopelessly depressing and uninteresting to me, and the way the play would end already predetermined, so that I quit reading halfway into it. The literary quality of Chekhov's dialogue didn't elude me completely, but I'm not exactly a fan of the Russian school of social criticism in which the characters are trapped in their own world, endlessly circling around themselves and their petty problems, unable to grasp the reality that lies beyond. When compassion is needed, I am more taken with Henrik Ibsen's studies in which the character's are often able to free themselves to a certain extent from their former illusions and delusions, no matter how difficult the circumstances might be. If Chekhov portray's a world in deadlock, an upper class caught in its own rituals that has already become obsolete, Ibsen shows the dynamics at the end of the 19th century, depicting a society in flux, with the decadence of former moral and social standards crumbling. I'm not saying that one of these positions is preferable to the other, when in fact both have much more in common than might be apparent at first glance. It's just that the fiery temperament and optimism of a teenager is probably more suited to the confrontations at display in Ibsen's work than the fine modulations of Chekhov. In my case this was clearly so.
At the 57th Berlinale, some years and a bit of experience later, I was giving him another chance via the latest film by German director Angela Schanelec. Being already a huge fan of her work I was of course a bit biased before the film, and (I hate to admit it) had also temporarily forgotten her fondness of Chekhov and his influence on this particular film. Hers isn't exactly an adaptation of the play though, as the dialogue was completely rewritten and only parts of the atmosphere and the constellation of the characters remain. The setting is present day Berlin, upper middle class, a family and their friends at a house by a lake. The main conflict between mother and son has lost some of its importance, while other characters have been given bigger roles. I would call the film more of an ensemble piece, with the main conflict still intact, but now balanced and reflected through the actions of another character who was for me also the main attraction of the film. Agnes (very good portrayal by Miriam Horwitz) is the neighbor's daughter and former friend and lover of Konstantin (Jirka Zett) who is struggling to become a writer. He lives alone with his grandpa, and when his mother (played by Angela Schanelec herself) visits the former family home with her new lover, old conflicts resurface. Although the director is never making a direct statement through the characters themselves, and her standpoint can only be felt through the staging as a whole, the interactions of people in the environment in which they are placed, the character of Agnes seemed to me to approximate the directorial gaze. She is always observing, attentive but not judgmental, trying to articulate the problems that beset her and the others. In contrast to their enclosed and egocentric perspective she is open and approachable (only the mother's lover is presented as a possible soulmate). While everybody else wants to get hold of the others because of something they don't possess themselves, she is trying to create it in herself through interaction with the world. As the catastrophe unfolds she naturally has no place in it.
Besides Ulrich Khler, Angela Schanelec is for me currently the most talented of the dozens of young filmmakers who have emerged during the last ten years and made Germany once again one of the most interesting and innovative film countries in the world. Her approach to filmmaking is quite unique though her work with the actors could be somewhat compared to the methods of Jacques Doillon. Exactly written out in advance of the shooting, the precise dialogue has to be interpreted by the actors on the set. Improvisation and creativity meet in the choreography of the actors' bodies in the space that surrounds them, and a lot of the film's strength depends on the particular intonation of the written lines. It is a cinema that highlights a specific mood and atmosphere more than the story, which is presented only in fragments and never really explained. Things happen on the fringes of life, and in conversations it is more important for the camera to remain on a character's face than to cut to another person. Omissions are the most important structural element, as a lot of events often happen either outside of the frame or get shown in a casual way. Schanelec forces us to reconsider the question of what is actually important. Every scene and movement, every facial expression and line of dialogue have a power and relevance in themselves. Because something is shown, because it has happened and is part of the characters' lives. If you look at the film in retrospect, lots of its magic lies in the fact that each moment is treated as equally important, nothing is given precedence over anything else. What is of importance is the reaction to a certain event, not necessarily the event itself. Because only we can give the moments in our lives a specific weight, the impression they will make on us depends on our reactions to them. If people are struggling, searching for a place in life, nature itself seems ignorant to this struggle. For the beauty we give is the beauty we receive. That is the greatest gift of Schanelec's cinema. Learning that you are responsible yourself, and that what happens around us is also happening because of us. A cinema of reflection which makes it possible to experience yourself through others.