If language is something you acquire — as a child, learning the “meaning” of words and how they fit and flow together — then it is also something you might depart from: drunkenly, tiredly, neurologically. In the widely regurgitated model of Austin, speech is an “act” — it does something. For Wittgenstein, words (and language) are malleable, forever subject to particular contexts or “games.” With Mein Satz (meaning: “my sentence”), artist and filmmaker Amina Handke attempts to subject language, in various registers and contexts, to a kind of extreme malleability. She imagines what words can un-do, and how they can undo us. Here, the language that Handke attempts to pull apart isn’t just her own native German, but specifically the language of her father, the playwright Peter Handke, whose play, Kaspar (1967), constitutes the nucleus of her film.
The premise is both simple and simply jarring. A woman — Handke’s mother, the actress Libgart Schwarz — is on her way to a rehearsal for the play Kaspar. During these rehearsals, she “loses” her language; not her ability to speak, but her ability to speak cogently, to communicate and to be understood. Already, Amina Handke, the daughter of two artistically active parents, participates in a dialogue with the people who, we must assume, “gave” her language, who socialized her into the world of speech. Now, she imagines what it might mean to separate herself from this language. What stands on the other side of its loss? Emancipation; a kind of terror? And what value is there in a speech without understanding, or a language without conversation?
There are a few things that Mein Satz feels and looks like. In its flat, evenly-lit compositions and the often anodyne spaces in which Schwarz moves and speaks, everything feels like the corporate modernism of Christian Petzold, whereas its absurdist setpieces have the dialogic texture of Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021). We’re also not very far from the declarative use of language in Godard and Gorin’s cinematic experiments during the early 1970s, as part of the Dziga-Vertov Group. Schwarz, in an attempt to use or recover her “lost” language, repeats, intones, and “performs” a sequence of statements, some of which “make sense,” some of which do not. She does so alone, to a makeup artist, to two men who have come to her house to dismantle a bookcase (very pointed, that), and in a classroom, where the children laugh at her because she, unlike them, can’t make sense. “It seems quite obvious,” Handke has observed, “for an artist to deal with questions of influences within family structures.” For Schwarz, this film was “an opportunity to find a level of familiarity and exchange with Amina that is only possible in serious collaboration.”
Elsewhere in her work, Handke has performed site-specific artistic interventions in holiday apartments (spaces where home, work, and travel are blurred), created an “actionist collective” (AAA!; an artist’s self-help group developing and exchanging ideas that can be put into practice), and a film in which a woman stands by the side of the road, waving down cars (“Is she a hitchhiker, a prostitute, seeking help, fleeing, displaced, lost or deranged?”). Frequently, Handke has approached conditions of ambiguity and ambivalence within social and artistic contexts — what we might reasonably refer to as the “liminal.”
As in these earlier works, Mein Satz also explores another corrugation of the ambiguous: of speech and language itself. Schwarz’s loss of language operates across a raft of valences, from the speculatively fantastical to the fear of mental (and linguistic) decline. Just as she attempts to emancipate herself from the language of her parents, she expresses a very relatable angst toward them as social and emotional subjects; as persons. It’s for this reason that language utterances, or “speech acts” themselves, form the basis of much of the film. Jolts of unintelligible gibberish pour from a phone. Schwarz turns to speak with two girls on a train, and her voice can produce only disarticulated sounds. Walking along a forest road, entering a forest, she repeats phrases: “as I was, I am, when I am, I will be.” While we understand these words, they fail at the level of conversation, feeling more like elementary language exercises than flows of dialogue.
There are moments of montage, of 3D displays of planets and worlds intercut with close-ups of household items and domestic rooms. Items are labeled with sticky notes; the world as a mnemonic. “I will have been so that I was.” Eventually, the world of modernity — apartments, offices, train carriages — is abandoned for a forest track. Schwarz, leading a donkey, walks away from the camera. It’s here that the alienating effect of the film’s early absurdism expresses a newly emotional register. Empty forest, empty language: the tragic loss of the self as a social animal. Schwarz is shot, medium-distance in the undergrowth, her head resting on her own chest. Slips of the world return: a clucking chicken, a car’s horn. But when she speaks, her voice is supplanted (through dubbing) with the voice of a child and a piece of nonsense: “Why are all these black worms flying about”?
It’s perhaps quite pointed that the title sequence drops only at the 40-minute mark. “I am invariably kind, I make no great demands, I can deal with everything.” Schwarz speaks at people, but they have no capacity to reply; in turn, they stare at her, shake their heads, or laugh bemusedly. Later, we switch to a swaying POV shot — an eerie, repetitious drone picking up on the soundtrack. This is quite effective, even disorienting.
We’re on compelling ground here when emotional stakes and consequences are clarified. We’re on less interesting ground, however, when the absurdities — a stage performance, spectators in masks, things that seem too shallowly “surreal” — come to the fore, never quite plumbing the aural or textural derangement that might really stem from a loss of language. But when we see Schwarz on crutches being aided by a nurse who helps her to cross the flat, gray expanse of what looks like a hospital ward, and when she remarks that she can “finally be left alone,” Mein Satz formally treads away from the “conceptual artist film” and toward the heft of narrative drama. It benefits from these slippages, reminding us of the real, existential stakes at play in language and its loss, not as cause, but as effect (aging, mental decline). Handke seems to comment on her own difficulty with holding the subject matter, clinically, at arm’s length. After all, this is her mother, and the “play” is her father’s. “I can make sense of everything”; we cut to an empty forest, filled with insects and birdsong and rays of sunlight; we cut back to the hospital ward. Schwarz is still crossing it.
Later, Schwarz chides a security guard who enters the frame: “You are being filmed!” Turning to the woman to her right, she observes: “Having once only spoken when asked, I can now speak by myself.” Are these the words of Amina Handke, addressing her emancipation from the language of her parents, an escape from the anxiety of influence itself? Emancipation and terror — Handke operates between these two possibilities, these two poles of linguistic breakdown. But how successfully does it carry us back again to language?
At night, Schwarz walks through a dark forest — the lights of cars seen passing beyond the trees — with the voice of another (the director?) giving unheeded instruction. Moments like this feel more capable of bearing the weight of Handke’s thesis, just as the final scene, where Schwarz delivers a melancholic monologue from her bed (rueful, hesitant, ambiguous), feels freighted with a real depth: “each noise fooled me. I could not follow.” It reveals a distrust that language might ultimately be the bearer of a shared reality, that it is always-already expressive only of our most private worlds. Regardless, it (language, or conversation) is the thing that structures all of our relationships in the world, even if they fail (as they often do); be they parent-offspring or art and influence, with Handke striking the tuning fork of both. Elsewhere in Mein Satz, the effect is flatter, less convincing, and abstruse. “I learned to fill everything empty with words.” At times this emptiness really is the film itself. “I enjoyed not understanding.” This writer isn’t sure they could always say the same. But the effort feels meaningful; it arrives at an understanding of something.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 27