Passing Summer (Mein langsames Leben, Germany 2001)

In the opening scene of the film Valerie (Ursina Lardi, left) and Sophie (Nina Weniger) meet in a café – with an unhelpful waiter in the foreground

Writer-director Angela Schanelec trained at the ‘Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin’ (DFFB – German Academy of Film and Television Berlin) in the early 1990s which means that she has been seen as part of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of filmmakers. In the UK the best known names of this group are Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. Valeska Grisebach trained at Vienna’s Film Academy but returned later to Berlin and has self-identified with some of the directors in the Berlin School. MUBI has started a streaming programme of Schanelec’s films, none of which I’d seen before. From my viewing of this first title, I can see some resemblance to Arslan’s early films, but Schanelec seems much more austere and eschews a conventional plot altogether. She doesn’t appear to be aiming at the kind of international festival attention that Petzold and Grisebach have achieved, though research suggests that she has found it on some occasions. Wikipedia’s entry suggests that she belongs alongside more avant-garde directors such as Chantal Akerman. Schanelec herself has mentioned the influence of Robert Bresson. A very useful account of the development of the Berlin School can be found on this Senses of Cinema page.

Passing Summer is an odd title. What on earth does it mean? Did Schanelec decide on the English title? Is there a careful play on words – a summer that literally ‘passes’, a summer of no consequence or a period of time ‘passing’ as summer? The German title is much more direct in translating as ‘my slow life’. The narrative comprises a series of ‘encounters’ of a group of people over six months, largely in Berlin. There is one character who seems to be at the centre of the group and seemingly it is Valerie who has the slow life. The other characters are friends, one of whom seems to be her current partner and at one point Valerie travels south to meet her brother and to go with him to see her father who is ill in hospital. There are children in the group and their care is one strand (as far as I can see, the two children are both moving between divorced/separated parents). There is also the marriage of one character. We know that six months ‘pass’ because the narrative begins with a meeting in a café between Valerie and her friend Sophie who then leaves for Rome. At the end of the film she returns to Berlin after her six month contract has been completed.

Marie (Anne Tismer) keeps an eye on one of the children in this Long Shot

The focus is on the seemingly inconsequential details of daily life for the group and it is here that the aesthetic of the Berlin School suggests we will find some kind of insight into ‘reality’ rather than in the artifice and contrived narrative set-ups of conventional mainstream genre cinema. Having excised any conventional narrative devices from her film, Schanelec distances us from her ‘characters’ further by careful camerawork. The camera is nearly always static, though the shot sizes vary considerably. Within the compositions, figures are often placed closer to the edge rather than the centre of the frame and our view of them might be obscured by windows, doorframes or other characters/objects in the foreground. The static camera also means that characters will move out of frame but still be talking. In the image below Valerie arrives back in Berlin by train to be met by Thomas. We hear her voice over the static shot, presumably talking to Thomas, but we don’t see them meet. This is perhaps the most extreme example. Earlier the little girl swimming in the image above asks Marie to dance for her. We hear the music and assume Marie is dancing but the camera stays on the image of the girl listening – we never see Marie dancing.

Valerie, off-screen, talks about her father.

What to make of this aesthetic and how much we learn about Berlin life – and about cinema – seems to be the question. The first point to make is that I didn’t feel totally alienated. The static compositions are often strangely beautiful. Perhaps that’s not quite the right word, but looking at them for what seems like a minute or two is not annoying and I felt engaged throughout the film without the need for narrative drive. The camerawork is by Reinhold Vorschneider whose work I admired in Thomas Arslan’s Helle Nächte. He has worked with both Schanelec and Arslan on several projects and has presumably developed this ‘Berlin School’ technique with the directors. I should also note that the lack of artifice on the shoots extends to the use of diegetic sound only. The sequences in which characters dance have music from a disc, a DJ or a live performance. The actors in the film are a mixture of the experienced and inexperienced. Angela Schanelec was herself an actor first and she appears in the film in a minor role. Ursina Lardi as Valerie was in her first film but she has since gone on to significant roles in films like The White Ribbon (2009) and Lore (2012). The performances, the cinematography and the editing (by Schanelec herself and Bettina Böhler, a Petzold collaborator) work seamlessly. I’m happy to watch more Berlin School work and certainly more films by Angela Schalenec. But I’m not sure what I’ve learned about German culture or about cinema. Mostly. I think, I’ve got a sense of a calmness about watching ordinary lives. I’m puzzled though at the difference between the drama of Christian Petzold’s films and the approach of Angela Schanalec. It’s difficult in Schanelec’s film to follow the individual characters and how they relate to each other and there are frustrations in the way in which we find out something interesting about characters that is not followed up in any direct way – much like in ‘real life’ I suppose. I need to find out more about Berlin film culture. For a more detailed analysis of Angela Schanelec’s “notoriously evasive films” look at this paper by Blake Williams in CinemaScope.

MUBI also carries an essay on Angela Schanelec to accompany the season which extends to June 3rd with several films to come.

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