After Tragedy: On Angela Schanelec’s Music

Angela Schanelec’s Music

By Phil Coldiron

It is, by now, a given that Angela Schanelec’s films involve insoluble tarrying with opacities at every available level. Consider Blake Williams in Cinema Scope 68: “Like Godard, Schanelec presents us with only enough narrative so that we feel our desire for narrative,” a situation through which “the primacy of interpretative thought in the face of the unknown is, again, affirmed.” Or Giovanni Marchini Camia, in issue 76: “The notion of searching for something essential yet impossible to describe or even fully conceive represents an existential longing that has afflicted all of Schanelec’s characters to date, and which drives the films themselves.” For a some viewers, this is maddening, even unbearable—the work remains remote, a series of finely polished surfaces lacking the usual signifiers that provide points of human attachment. For others, those who are more comfortable dwelling in failure and ignorance, Schanelec’s films sit at the current peak of narrative sophistication. Both positions are captured by a line from Manny Farber on the other director invoked above: “In short, no other film-maker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass.”

This apparently elliptical approach is not exactly novel; Williams, for example, convincingly places it within the lineage of gaps and ruptures dating to the earliest days of cinematic surrealism. The compositional tropes of various high modernists, Bresson above all, loom large. Schanelec’s invention, instead, is tonal, a chording of irony and earnestness which allows her to handle the hottest emotions without ever being burned. Taken in other terms, this too looks more like refinement than invention: she is alone among her contemporaries in her capacity to reconcile the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Numbness and distance are not virtues, nor aesthetic ideals, they are simply the cost of something like honesty, both with herself and with her audience.

While this Nietzschean conception of tragedy would provide a tidy frame for Schanelec’s project, its use is complicated by the work of another Germanic philosopher. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin sets out on his excavation of the history of the baroque trauerspiel—the courtly play of sorrow or mourning—from the position that the defining silence of tragedy was, by the 17th century, no longer viable: “Only antiquity could know tragic hubris, which pays for the right to be silent with the hero’s life.” Schanelec’s most recent features—The Dreamed Path (2016), I Was at Home, But… (2019), and now Music—sail between these two rocks, desperate to hear, at once, the song of tragedy and its disenchantment, a noise out of which might yet emerge a form capable of acknowledging the particular experience of pain in our time. In light of her commitment to an understanding that language does not demand speech to communicate effectively, this is the rare occasion in which a festival prize is worth noting: at the Berlinale, Music was awarded a Silver Bear for screenwriting. 

The film’s promotional material refers to it as “freely inspired by the myth of Oedipus,” and so it is. Compared with the incidental narrative constructions of the prior two films, this ordering use of myth ensures that however opaque an event may seem in the moment, its place in the logic of the story is equally present, rather than graspable only upon reflection. Schanelec proceeds through four acts of roughly equivalent length (between 20 and 30 minutes), softening the disorienting temporal effects achieved in the prior two films by reintroducing some of the usual markers of time’s passing (a child, for example, now ages naturally across the ten years of narrative time she inhabits). 

As with the mute fable of the hare, the dog, and the donkey that bookends I Was at Home, But…, Schanelec again opens on a scene which dramatizes its own artifice. In the first image, the only she has made to date which could properly be called Romantic, a bank of clouds or fog moves in atop a rolling green expanse. After more than two minutes, the white of the atmosphere has blotted out the landscape entirely. There is a single crack of thunder, and, some seconds later, a sudden cut to what seems at first pure darkness, and is then quickly revealed (when a figure enters the left of the frame) to be an overhead view of a clearing within the forest. A man in a red jacket struggles to carry another body in his arms. Panting and sobbing, he collapses, laying down what appears to be a woman in a white dress. Another abrupt cut, to the same space at dawn from a slightly different angle, returns the film to the daylight it will inhabit for its remainder.

An ambulance arrives, discovering first this bloodied and dishevelled man, his glasses broken, and then, tucked in a stone manger, an infant. The child is taken in by one of the medics, and we see his wife washing the baby’s injured feet amidst the surf of a rocky shore (the first direct sign that we are dealing with the Oedipal myth). Rhyming the ambulance’s journey up the switchbacks of a mountain, a small car races into view along a dirt road through another hilly landscape, this one barren, eventually spinning out and sending a tire rolling. Four teenagers emerge, the raw and bleeding feet of one establishing that we have jumped in a matter of seconds from the foundling’s infancy to his young adulthood.

The quartet sets out for a swim, but, unable to bear the terrain, the young man turns back to bandage his wounds. His high brow and fine nose betray no suffering. The idyll of this seaside excursion is ruptured as the remaining three return from the water to discover him being led up a hill by a long-haired punk, who delivers him to the man from the opening scene. He pins the younger man to a boulder, and, it seems, moves in for a kiss, which is met with a sudden shove. The older man, Lucian, falls, cracks his head; the younger man, joined by his companions and his captor, stands staring at the aftermath, the group’s gazes directed downwards and offscreen in a typical Schanelec composition. It is only now that we learn his name, as the young woman calls from offscreen, “Ion!” (The English-language materials for the film typically refer to him as “Jon”; I’ll use the Greek, for reasons which will become clear below.) 

Ion delivers himself to the police, and the second act begins. Held in a small jail staffed with women guards, he goes about his days alongside his cellmates, all of them clad in rather stylish outfits of woven vests and slacks, both cream, and, more strangely still, the raised platform sandals typically worn by tragic actors on the ancient stage. In a languid series of events, one of the jailers, Iro, who sports an equally aquiline face, takes a liking to Ion: she visits a pharmacy for remedies to soothe his feet, and delivers him lists of music to learn. He sings a fragment of Vivaldi. The guards play table tennis. Ion seems to take up a position teaching children. 

Now free and with child, Ion and Iro return to Ion’s village home. Their days are bucolic, farming pomegranates as a family, glowing in Mediterranean light. (One shot, of Iro content in the back of a moving pickup, brings Schanelec surprisingly close to the lyricism of late Malick.) As Ion sits watching a soccer match (the semifinal of the 2006 World Cup, Italy and Germany, which sets the historical timeline of the whole film), Iro is suddenly moved to call someone (the relationship is not articulated), and ask after Lucian. She learns from his mother that he is seven years dead, killed by a student on the road. Iro coaxes out the name of his killer, confirming that it is, as we know, her husband. Burdened with this knowledge, she departs for the rocky cove near the family home, hides her clothes beneath a stone, and takes to the water. Husband and daughter come looking. Shown in the same wide, long view that introduced this space, they wait for her, Ion on the shore as his daughter swims. Finding no trace—we see that she is hiding in the cliffs—they depart, and Iro emerges. After gathering her clothes, she arrives at a height, seen only from the waist down. As a lizard scrambles onto her foot, she jumps. 

A brief funeral gives way to the fourth and final act, in which the film’s construction loosens from the severe rhythmic geometry of the first 80 minutes to a slacker, moodier lope. Ion now works as a musician in Berlin. After a rehearsal, a woman who sings with him encounters the body of a man, just struck by a car; she takes his briefcase, which Ion attempts to deliver to the police. Sitting in a waiting room, he seems to suddenly lose his vision, and wanders into the street. Then a long scene of musical performance, two songs of tepid, sentimental soft rock, which led me to wonder whether my experience of the film would be any different if I found them listenable (I suspect not; Schanelec seems to prefer music whose sentiment outruns its quality). And, finally, a pastoral conclusion, as Ion, his daughter, the woman, and a fourth musician visit a river, swimming and lazing. The film’s closing shot returns to the fairy-tale artifice of its opening: a long lateral track as the quartet walks along the water singing, “Oh gods! You can leave me. Oh gods! Why?”

From this sketch, it’s clear enough that Schanelec’s latest can be taken as a more conventional narrative than The Dreamed Path or I Was at Home, But…; a summary of either would look far less like a legible story than the paragraphs above. In comparison, Music seems schematic—Homer, after all, needed only 11 lines to recount the Oedipal saga. But considerable complications emerge both within and beyond the film’s simple structure. To begin with, there is the matter of naming, which allows Schanelec to fold in a range of resonances. Oedipus is now also Ion, the musician whose tale, as told by Euripides, markedly downgrades the standing of the gods. Jocasta is now also Iro, whose doomed romance with Leander remains archetypal (she is also here roughly the same age as her husband-son).

This mixing extends to the action as well. The meeting of Ion and Lucian, the Laius figure, departs from any of the traditional tellings of the myth and presents at least three overt possibilities, depending on the context in which it’s understood: Laius is attempting to defy the gods by reuniting with his son, his overbearing performance of patriarchal affection misinterpreted as sexual advance; Lucian, as a character, condenses the Laius-Chryssipus and Laius-Oedipus dynamics into a single image of violence; or, most simply, Lucian-Laius seeks to finish the job he failed to complete when he left Ion-Oedipus in the manger. And where is the Sphinx in all this? She may be a humble crossword puzzle, stumping the guards. Ion and Iro first meet when, passing in a corridor, she asks, “A six-letter word for mirror?” A brief pause, and then he offers “όνειρο”—that is, “dream.”

All of the preceding are arbitrary choices, and they contribute little, if anything, to the mechanics of the film as it plays out. Instead, here we find the retrospective function which has been deferred from the narrative itself. Teaming again with cinematographer Ivan Markovic, Schanelec crafts such reliably precise compositions, both iconic signs and diffuse atmospheres, that the film remains uniquely available in memory, its images serving as frames within a vortex of potential significance. The Peloponnesian light whose clarity seems to mock the opacity of the story radiates in the mind, where it demands that we account for what it is that makes one picture memorable while another fades. Is it only a question of language, that Schanelec’s frames tend to contain a single thing which can be named, a kernel for recreation? Or do they impress themselves otherwise, in a place apart from words? “Scene: a prison shower. Close-up on two hands clutching a raised wooden sandal, holding it above an unseen head, trembling with restraint.” This hardly seems to capture the talismanic power this image holds, of condensing some ancient sense of injustice, directing it towards new ends. Or does that power flow from the reverse shot: a pair of mute, showering faces gazing upwards, with what we could call either horror or reverence? 

Given that the language of criticism, or even description, remains too crude to account for the rightness of Schanelec’s montage—the active and compelling relationship by which a given image interacts not only with those adjacent to it, but also with the work as a whole—we might simply call this harmony. But this too seems insufficient, as the image has yet to achieve the pure form of the note. Still, I do think that music is what she’s after. In this case, that aim is manifest in the arrangement and oscillation of two areas of signification. On the one hand there is the myth, which comprises both a series of historical local occurrences—the lines from Homer, the famous telling by Sophocles, the fragments of Euripides, etc.—and what we might call the metanarrative, its existence freed from the bounds of authorial responsibility. On the other, there is a film called Music, a series of sounds and images which are not mythic—we can be as sure of their existence as anything else available to our senses—but which aspire to that state of freedom where individual cause dissolves into collective memory. The tension between these two levels is severe, the risk of dissonance high. This is the place where modern music resides.

Any possible resolution rests upon the question of belief. Schanelec’s Oedipus is innocent; he never arrives at knowledge of the curse of his birth. There are no oracles, no prophets. There do not seem to be gods, or, for that matter, God. There is, however, the state, though an allegorical reading which positions Ion as the sorrowful figure of Greek ascension to German demands strikes me as brittle, at odds with the robust emotional core of the work. This would seem to leave us with the matter of belief as such, with the question of its possibility in a secular, thoroughly disenchanted world. 

Schanelec is working at a moment in which various forces of reaction are working to re-enchant the world through the power of unifying fictions like the nation and God. With Music, she asks us, calm in the throes of misery and ruin, to look clearly at our broken world and acknowledge the fullness of that experience. Who, or what, would we rebuke? The real abstraction called capital seems more remote than Olympus. As such, the silence of her characters and her film is not tragic, heroic, monumental; it is not one that will instill a sense of emergent unity among its audience through the irresistible experience of art. Instead, it is modern, acutely European, the silence of the individual whose faith in communication is tested daily. If Schanelec proposes the creation of actual music, the communal endeavour of a band, as one possible image of reconciliation, of joining voices in a way that they might be heard, it seems relevant that when we see Ion perform, he alone is visible and in focus. Is this a kind of tragedy?