Sunday 13 June 2021

German Film Festival - Janice Tong reports on two highlights starring Maren Eggert - I WAS AT HOME, BUT... (Angela Schanalec, 2019) and I'M YOUR MAN (Maria Schrader, 2020)

Maren Eggert, I Was at Home, But... 
(click on any image to start a slideshow)

In recent years I’ve been more and more drawn towards German films and television shows. Of the latter, I’m referring to some of the brilliant Netflix series that I’ve savoured; like DarkFreudBabylon Berlin, and Perfume; of the former, where can I even begin...Angela SchanelecFlorian Henckel von DonnersmarckJoachim A. Lang’s Brechtian trilogyMarie Kreutzer’s The Ground Beneath My Feet; to name but a few. 

There is something very powerful in the way German films can strip off the veneer and arrive at the heart of the matter from the get-go, like an arrow, this is a swift and fluid trajectory; and the beauty you see there is raw and intense; laid bare for what it is; and perhaps all the more heart-wrenching in its purity. These emotions strike you when you least expect them to, rather than succumbing to the delicate winding narratives of English and French films, (the ones I prefer at least) which are more palimpsestic and require prying minds, like when one is peeling off the silk-fine skins of an onion. German films arrive at the profound without hesitation, from zero to a hundred in the blink of an eye - the very notion of the augenblick.


It was mere luck that I happened to see two films, I Was at Home, But...  (Ich war zuhause, aber) and I’m Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch) , on consecutive days with Maren Eggert as the main protagonist in both films. 


There couldn’t be two more different films, but somehow there was unity in this paired viewing. 

Maren Eggert as the grief-stricken Astrid,
comforted by her two children, I Was at Home, But

I’ve often found the sensibility of Angela Schanelec’s cinema to be an intimate one, without having to obey strict narrative structures; her disregard of this means that dialogues need not be articulated to convey a sense of the passing of time, or a tool to gel the lives of friends, family or strangers together. 


Life is messy, frustrating and full of moments of waiting and stillness, and her cinematic eye adheres these moments in dreamlike chronicles. I Was at Home, But... charts the uncompromising surrender of a mother to what defines her - is she a woman? A mother? A lover? A work colleague? Isn’t it too much to ask for a single person to be all of these? 


The film opens and ends with scenes of nature, where Schanelec treats us to the most beautiful of beasts, a donkey, whose fur is scruffy and velvety at the same time. At the end of the film, the donkey is in quiet meditation, looking at the view outside an open window in an abandoned house; it’s a shell of a house with a domesticated farm dog sleeping by its hooves. What is the donkey looking at? It looks as though he is contemplating life. Just as you begin to ask these questions, the donkey turns his head to direct his gaze towards you - as though asking you the same question. 

Schanelec's enigmatic donkey, I Was at Home, But...

Schanelec’s donkey immediately conjures up another - Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), and one is reminded of the last image in the film of the beast of burden; and you realise that existence for you or I are not so dissimilar to Balthazar.  He lays down at the end, in the middle of a field and succumbs to his last breath. 


I Was at Home, But...poses these existential questions without so much as directing a single line of dialogue to this. We see it in Maren Eggert’s gestures (her grief struck shoulders doing the dishes with her back towards us), her determinism and strong will (when conveying her ideas to a former colleague, her fiery intellectual criticism of the artifice of dance and theatre compared to real life), shows that her struggles manifest themselves continually and reshape her as a person at each instance. Schanelec tells us these details through the intimate close ups of hands, toes, feet, parts of the body as fragments of the whole, but also importantly, that singular gestures also have meaning. 


At the outset, we learn that Astrid is the mother of two children; her young teenage son, Phillip (Jakob Lassalle) has reappeared after an unexplained absence; the way she wraps herself at his feet at the school echos that of Mary at the feet of Jesus, bowing down before him, or a different Mary, about to anoint his feet for burial (she is not yet a Stabat Mater, her son is in fact alive). In this perfectly staged image, we can see Phillip’s small hand gently resting on her shoulder, a calm and affecting hand against the torrent of Astrid’s ragged breaths. Later, she takes his soiled yellow parker to the dry cleaners -  is the duty of the mother to provide clean clothes? Or, could the external appearance of cleanliness bear enough resemblance to a life unsullied, and we live in that lie?


There are beautiful moments of pause throughout the film, the staging of Hamlet by primary school children has an Eugene Green quality to it. Acting as artifice; the play within a play can be seen to remark on the fact that the real erupts into the scene without the need for announcement or pronouncement; it simply does arrive. Thus the beauty of the dance sequence to an acoustic version of Bowie’s Let’s Dance mesmerises us in that it doesn’t pretend it’s real life - it is, in fact, art; it is invention.

The brilliant dance sequence to an acoustic version of
Bowie's Let's Dance, I Was at Home, But...

Sometimes you wonder if Astrid will lose it, when she gives a colleague a piece of her mind about his film, or when she yells at her children and then demands her solitude by having them vacate her immediate space (they were seen later to be waiting outside their home for her to finish with her lover). It is without a doubt that Phillip and Flo’s reticence and patience has been passed down from Astrid; they are a part of her, and so they understand innately what it means to be a family and what constitutes home. There is strength in their bond, a close-knittedness that’s beautifully portrayed when later, we see Phillip carry his young sister Flo (Clara Möller) on his back as he navigates his way upstream in an idyllic forest; there is so much tenderness in this one scene that needs no explanation. Regardless that he stumbles a bit on the rocks, you know that they will be just fine. This small film is well deserving of its 2019 Berlin Silver Bear.

Phillip (Jakob Lassalle) with his sister
Flo (Clara Möller) on his back 

It’s impossible to see Maren Eggert ‘acting’, she is transparent, her body is simply the vessel in which the characters of Astrid and  Alma (from I’m Your Man) embody; their existence comes only from Maren’s withdrawal of her selfhood from the world in order to inspire life into theirs.

Dan Stevens and Maren Eggert as Tom
and Alma, I'm Your Man


Eggert is Alma, a successful anthropologist working with her team on the idea of poesis in early cuneiforms at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. She was on the cusp of publishing her research when her boss Roger asks her to review a personalised AI male companion in the beta stages of development. She was unsure at the beginning, being a self-sufficient professional who is happily (or rather, resolved to be unhappily) single; she hated the intrusion. 


The opening scene where the couple first meet, in a glitzy throw-back club of the 30s, where a band is playing Putting on the Ritz and couples ballroom dancing - this hidden den decked out in a plush red velvet interior and a back-lit bar was of the hyperreal. Enter Tom, played impeccably by a very funny and gracious Dan Stevens (many will know him as Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey fame)and yes, he speaks fluent German and French; as the ‘man of her dreams’. Tom created uniquely for Alma, his algorithms are finely tuned to serve her every whim and desire. A hilarious dance sequence follows. Stevens has great comical timing and sense - his gestures and expressions depict and exaggerate android-like motions; and he is perfectly cast in this role for Maria Schrader’s take on a modern screwball comedy. The subsequent ‘malfunction’ in the same scene paves the way for many laugh-out-loud moments in the film.

Puttin' on the Ritz - Alma and Tom getting to know
 each other by dancing,  I'm Your Man

The script is finely tuned, a clever balance of the screwball comedy hijinks, and witty dialogue that highlights the difference between the human and the machine. But the heart of this story reminds me of another recent film on a similar subject; Her (2013) directed by Spike Jonze, and also the recent new novel Klara and the Sun by master writer Kazuo Ishiguro. It speaks to us of the very human but abstract ideas of love and happiness. 


Whilst the exploration of human vs AI is nothing new, (think Bladerunner, Terminator, Ex Machina, the Alien franchise etc etc etc), and on the surface, Schrader utilises this film to explore similar ideas (could machines think, do they have feelings); but this is also where her film takes its departure; she asks of her viewers to consider broader concepts: is our experience of life in this particular epoch very different from a millennia ago? Our need to ‘stitch’ ourselves to our past when we are guided every day by data and machines, our lives ultimately enhanced by technology. What does it mean to be moved by lines of poetry in cuneiform tablets? Or, for the viewer (and Tom) to be in awe at the sight of the Pergamon Altar, built in 2nd century BC; with the ‘love story’ backdrop asks of us these age-old essential questions: what does it mean to fall in love; and what does it mean to be human. 

Dan Stevens contemplating the Pergamon Altar, I'm Your Man

Schrader’s I’m Your Man is such a stylish and entertaining film which takes you through its thought-provoking centre charmingly and effortlessly and you literally come out of the cinema feeling elated.




#mubicurrently has five Angela Schanelec films showing in Australia. click here for an earlier review of an Angela Schanalec film on Film Alert 101


#germanfilmfestival is currently playing at selected Palace cinemas around Australia, finishing on the 13th June in Sydney and Canberra; 20th June in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth; and then coming to Melbourne a little later in the month from the 17th June to 4th July.


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