Credit: © Fredi Themel
by Michael Sicinski Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

Complexities of Oedipus: A Conversation with Angela Schanelec

June 26, 2024

Since the release of her 1995 debut feature My Sister’s Good Fortune, Angela Schanelec has become recognized as one of the most unique and significant directors working today. With a background in acting for the theater, Schanelec turned to cinema when she studied at the DFFB, Berlin’s prestigious film and television academy. While at the DFFB, Schanelec studied with Harun Farocki, Hartmut Bitomsky, and Peter Nessler.

In recent years, Schanelec’s films have displayed extreme precision and a rather unconventional approach to narrative and exposition. Some viewers may have trouble following the sequence of events in Schanelec’s work, but this could be by design. Story is but one element in these films, and other components such as onscreen and offscreen space, the organization and movement of bodies, and the unexpected impact of editing are given equal if not greater attention.

Her latest film, Music was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at the 2023 Berlinale and is now releasing in U.S. theaters on June 28. In anticipation of this, Schanelec and I spoke about Music, with the conversation also turning to other films of hers.

Michael Sicinski: What drew you to Oedipus Rex as a jumping-off point for Music?

Angela Schanelec: After I Was at Home, But… [2019], I was interested in working on an existing narrative. I did this only once before, with Afternoon (2007), but that was long ago. The thing about using an existing narrative is that you do not question it. There’s something there that’s just a fact. I thought, I can remain with several points of the Oedipus narrative, simply as a starting point. The Oedipus myth came to mind because about 20 years ago, I saw a production of the play that impressed me a lot. And so, I read Oedipus Rex again, and from there I started to write.

MS: One thing I noticed while rewatching Music is that in addition to your writing and directing, and the myth itself, there perhaps could be an unspoken third term, which is the work of Freud. Was that on your mind while making Music?

AS: Now when we think about Oedipus, we think more about Freud and less about the myth itself. This was a problem for me. I’m more interested in the fact that some things one just has to accept without explanation.

MS: Maybe my question was poorly phrased. In terms of your use of the Oedipus myth, you don’t follow it to the letter. But certain touchpoints emerge again and again. Some parts of Oedipus are absent, others are combined. This reminded me of the “dream work,” condensation and displacement. And in that regard, I meant that perhaps Freud was present as a formal structure.

AS: If you want to call it “formal,” that’s fine. But for me the myth is more elemental. To grow up without knowing your parents, to be found as a newborn and raised knowing nothing about your past. What follows from this? And then there are very concrete questions that struck me when I read Oedipus. I knew that I wanted to set Music in the present day. And it was interesting to me to take Oedipus and see what I could do with it. Or what it would do to me. For example, the beginning of the story — how could this happen today, that a child is found without parents?

In Music, we begin with a storm, then an accident, and a man encounters another man and kills him, without meaning to. Like in a play, these events happen. As I wrote, I recognized that some things had to follow other things, and I could go back to Oedipus and see what came next. And then decide what that means for my writing.

MS: I read an interview you gave a few years back, talking about I Was at Home, But…. You said that you were interested in creating images for their own sake, rather than using them to convey a specific narrative. Looking at I Was at Home, But… again, and there’s a close-up of the young boy’s injured foot. It was an image that seemed like a logical start for considering Oedipus in Music.

AS: Actually, Music was already completed when I noticed that both films feature hurt feet. I don’t know what I can add as an explanation. We walk on our feet. They carry us. They tell about us.

Credit: Faktura Film and Shellac

MS: In addition to that attention to bodies, I was really struck by the depiction of landscape in Music. The film seems to insist on the undeniable presence of space, and what happens when bodies enter or exit those spaces.

AS: That’s the work. Imaging and creating a space, and then to imagine the human or animal moving through that space, entering and leaving. I imagine it and then try to find the space. That describes how I see my work.

MS: There’s an extreme care and attention to subtleties of performance in your films. Several of the performances in Music, especially Aliocha Schneider’s, feel like natural speech, but at the same time seem very controlled. How do you direct actors, and what are your primary interests with respect to performance?

AS: The way the text is presented depends on the situation, and what role the text plays in that situation. If we look at the long scene in I Was at Home, But…where Maren Eggert is talking with Dane Komljen, the situation is that she cannot stop talking. She doesn’t want that to be happening to her, she didn’t plan it. She didn’t prepare herself for that. She meets this person by chance, and his behavior is affected by his situation. He wants a job in her academic department, and this happens to her, this inability to stop talking. I was interested in a situation in which this person, who doesn’t talk that much, who is introverted, encounters someone who allows her to explode. She’s able to express herself, and she can’t stop it.

MS: And the situation seems overdetermined. Dane’s character seems like a quiet person anyway, but his character is also not entirely fluent in German. So that creates an exaggerated space for Maren’s character, where she’s not getting back the responses she wants.

AS: It was important that he’s not fluent. There’s an imbalance. He tries to find the words, and her words flow so quickly. That imbalance is crucial for the situation I wanted to create. On the other hand, the children at school, speaking Shakespeare — it’s a completely different situation. Someone gave them Hamlet. And the text is doing something to them. They’re not able to interpret it. They’re 13 or 14 years old. But their bodies somehow… not “understand,” but their bodies are able to present it. And the text is strong enough to be transported into this new situation. You hear their words, and you understand them. This different kind of acting, if you want to call it acting, is based on their specific situation.

MS: And in your most recent films, those situations seem a bit more extreme: the man addicted to heroin in The Dreamed Path (2016), the young boy’s disappearance in I Was at Home, But…, and the murder and suicide in Music. Do traumatic situations produce these unique kinds of behavior?

AS: All the situations you mention, these traumas, they all relate to a wish to escape our society. You can do it in different ways. One way is death. I think it’s all about becoming aware that you are part of a society, and you are also a result of it. If you think about what happens to Iro (Agathe Bonitzer), she sees this man, she’s drawn to him, and she can’t understand it. She just reacts physically. And at some point, she learns the consequences of that action.

But part of it happened by chance. She meets Ion (Schneider) in the prison, but he could have easily gone to a different prison. There are aspects of life that we simply can’t explain. And I want to accept this. That’s what we must live with.