Director: Angela Schanelec
Screenplay: Angela Schanelec
Starring: Maren Eggert, Jakob Lassalle, Franz Rogowski, Lilith Stangenberg
Year: 2019
Duration: 105 min
Country: Germany
BBFC Certification: 12

It’s not often that you only understand a film’s plot after you have watched it, but that was exactly the situation I found myself in after watching Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But… Once the film had finished and I was looking it up online, I saw a brief plot synopsis that surprised me. Really? That’s what happened? I thought to myself. Not that this detracted anything from my appreciation of the film. Nor, as contradictory as it sounds, did comprehending the plot afterwards make me feel like I had missed out on anything during my first viewing. Perhaps this goes some way to explain the kind of film I Was at Home, But… is. Presenting itself as the antithesis of a traditional, plot driven narrative, this is a film where your own subjective interpretation of what you see is arguably more important than what is objectively depicted by the film maker.

It seems that Second Run (who are releasing the I Was at Home, But… on Blu Ray later this month) seems to agree. There is no explanation of the plot on the back on the case and in that vein I won’t go into details about it here. Suffice to say, I believe that this is a film that works most potently if you know as little as possible going in. Part of the pleasure of the film (or equally, part of the frustration) is in attempting to find the connection between the disparate, sometimes almost disjointed scenes and forging your own interpretation. In that sense, perhaps it would be better to explain what the film is about as opposed to what actually happens.

In the most general sense, then, I Was at Home, But… is a film about loss and grief. It centres on Astrid (Maren Eggert) a mother living with her two children in modern day Berlin and how the numbness and dislocation that can follow a bereavement effects the small family unit. 

The film opens with a short sequence of wild animals living in a dilapidated house. It then cuts to a teenage boy wearing muddy clothes, who arrives at a school in the the middle of the night. There is no dialogue during these opening ten minutes. The pace is slow and deliberate, where shots are held for a sustained period with no cuts. Schanelec’s camera lingers on the small details, such as close ups of the boy untying the laces of his muddy shoes. It is a cold, opaque opening that offers enigmatic clues, not facts. While the remainder of the film opens out and finds moments to relax and breath, this sense of obtuseness and disorientation remains throughout.

Schanelec continues to explore her theme and characters mainly through elongated sequences and slowly drawn out scenes. We witness Astrid having a stressful time trying to return a bike that doesn’t work. In another scene, shot as one long take along a busy road, she argues with a film maker about the intersection between truth and artifice in performance. The focus much of the time is on the mundane and ordinary, yet captured in such a way that makes the film feel like a cold, detached reflection of our ordinary world.

There are times when the Schanelec’s exploration of her key themes feel like an over-indulgence. She frequently cuts to teenagers performing Hamlet (which is itself another exploration of grief and loss) that over time begins to feel inconsequential, especially in a long scene towards the end of the film. Yet there are other moments that soar, where Schanelec manages to elegantly capture some of the myriad emotions that stem from an all-consuming grief. 

In the film’s most conventional and beautiful sequence, Astrid lies down by a grave as a haunting cover of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance plays out over the soundtrack. As we see Astrid and her children dancing in a hospital, the film achieves a rare cathartic moment. This outpouring of emotion is contrasted later on with a scene in a swimming pool, where mother and daughter, crushed under the quiet weight of their feelings, hold each other in silence. In moments like these, I Was at Home, But… achieves something quite profound, capturing a side of mourning that is rarely explored but universally experienced.

What Schanelec has achieved with I Was at Home, But… is certainly admirable. As the title suggests, this is a film about an absence, where something has gone missing and it is doubtful if it can ever be found again. There are moments towards the end that suggest that peace and calm may be possible, but only in a world that is radically different from what has gone before. 

Yet that is only my interpretation. For everything remarkable about Schanelec’s film (including a wonderfully nuanced performance from Eggert) there is no getting away from the fact that it offers no easy answers or explanations. It is a film you have to work at, re-visit and perhaps reinterpret in order to get full enjoyment out of it. For some, this might be a key reason to watch it. For others, I Was at Home, But… will represent the worst aspects of the ‘art’ film. Slow, obtuse and challenging, it certainly isn’t for everyone.

Schanelec has often been compared to Bresson, but I Was at Home, But.. reminded me of the work of Michael Haneke. Yet without the strong narrative threads that makes the Austrian auteur’s similarly cold and detached aesthetic more palpable, Schanelec’s film, I feel, is always going to be more admired that loved, outside of a select few who will appreciate her opaque, elliptical narrative. 

For me, while I greatly admired the film’s ambition and applaud its success at tackling a difficult subject matter, it ultimately proved to be too cold and distancing. In attempting to capture the sense of dislocation and the grey unreality of grief, the film itself becomes a cold, dislocating experience. It may not be satisfying, then, but perhaps that was the point all along. 

I Was at Home But…is released on a region free Blu Ray by Second Run on the 29th March. Being a recent film, the picture quality is fantastic throughout, with the grey, naturalistic palette coming through with pin sharp clarity. The German soundtrack is nice and clear and comes in both a DTS 5.1 mix or 2.0 Stereo. I listened to the DTS mix and it was very nice and clear throughout. The disc only contains English subtitles.

There are a few extras on the disc, which are as follows:

  • A new and exclusive filmed interview with director Angela Schanelec (2021)
  • Three early short films by Angela Schanelec:
    – Lovely Yellow Colour (Schöne gelbe Farbe, 1991)
    – Far Away (Weit entfernt, 1992)
    – Prague, March ’92 (Prag, März 92, 1992)
  • Booklet featuring a new essay by critic and journalist Carmen Gray

Interview with Director Angela Schanelec: This is an engaging 40 minute interview with the film’s director. She comes across as less serious than I was expecting and proves to be a fun and informative interviewee. The interview is rather badly filmed but you soon manage to look past it. Schanelec discusses where the idea for the film came from and her writing process, her creative process while shooting and thoughts on working with professional and non-professional actors (of which there are a mix in the film). A highly recommended watch for fans of the film and the director.

Three short films by Schanelec round out the rest of the extras on the disc, all of which bear striking similarities to the tone and aesthetic of the main feature. The first, Lovely Yellow Colour, is very short and made up of drifting camera shots of an empty apartment while a voiceover talks about the breakdown of a relationship. Far Away focuses on a brief interaction between two strangers in a record store. The last short film, Prague, March ’92 is a combination of monologue and, as the title suggests, documentary shots of the streets of Prague in 1992. If you like Schanelec’s work you’ll find much to appreciate here. If you don’t, the these three shorts won’t do much to change your mind.

The package is rounded off by a booklet containing a critical essay by Carman Gray, who breaks down and analyses various aspects of the film. Gray offers numerous insights that help with clarifying and understanding the film in a wider context and is well worth a read. 

 

I Was at Home, But...
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