“This won’t come back clean. I can’t promise you anything.”
“Will you try?”
In Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But, the teenage son of protagonist Astrid (Maren Eggert) goes missing. When the boy comes back, his yellow jacket is soiled beyond repair. The drycleaners try to clean it up without promising much. It is a strange, angry time in Astrid’s life, but Schanelec tries to show things as clearly as she can, but without promising much.
As viewers, we are used to films having stories with obvious meaning. While experiencing I Was at Home, But, one may go in search of meaning but find none, as there seems to be no real story that moves the narrative along. The film is not a joyride (set in a cloudy Berlin), yet Schanelec masterfully plays with light and sound to keep audiences engaged with the beauty and starkness of her images.
There are no explanations as to why I Was at Home, But features bookend images of animals in an abandoned shed. In the beginning, there is a donkey, a dog and a rabbit; the camera patiently looks on as the dog tears open the rabbit and devours it. Soon after, the camera moves towards the city to show Phillip (Jakob Lassalle) and his yellow coat, with Astrid sitting at his feet and crying in relief. In another such tableaux of seemingly disconnected imagery, Astrid holds her daughter Flo (Clara Möller) in a Pieta-like pose. There is a repeated recalling of various religious visuals of motherhood, as Schanelec plays a word and image association game with the audience. The “meaning” of the images may be uncertain, but the images themselves will make one’s mind work.
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In another scene, Astrid climbs the walls of a cemetery and lies down next to her husband’s grave, clutching onto the earth. She is in a constant state of mourning, and her grief gets magnified with the disappearance of her son. Even after Phillip returns, her whole being is overcome with a shock and fear that often manifests itself in sudden fits of anger. Most shots of Eggert show a deadpan face, but sometimes the facade shifts a bit to expose the sea of tumultuous emotions that lie underneath. And then sometimes, very rarely, Astrid smiles. It causes her an immense amount of pain to be grieving, to be present for her children and to be holding everything together. And it shows.
There is a long sequence where Astrid meets a filmmaker in a supermarket and passionately debates his artistic choices. “It is your personal truth, and you don’t want to be alone in your truth,” she tells him. Maybe this is the crux of Schanelec’s argument, too; everyone has their versions of truth, and all art is essentially a way to propagate that truth. But here, too, these assumptions are sticky because Astrid says she hasn’t watched the whole film but was making an impassioned judgement of it anyway. Only a few minutes before that, Astrid had paid a visit to her son’s teachers and told them “Any judgement is wrong” when the teachers were wondering if Phillip should be expelled from school.
While it is hard to cast the events of I Was at Home, But, into plots, a few strains of narratives emerge. In one such storyline, the children in Phillip’s school perform Hamlet. A girl, playing the Player Queen, says, “Nor earth to me give food, nor heaven light!,” and one can automatically make a connection between Shakespeare’s Gertrude and Schanelec’s Astrid. In its elliptical nature, I Was at Home, But gifts its audiences serendipities after serendipities. In life, we don’t know how much of the story we create by connecting and creating objects in our heads and how much of it is really being told. Schanelec does not make that connection, but it’s easier for the audience to imagine Astrid as Gertrude: a woman who spends her entire life grieving, first for her husband and then her son. It gets even easier when Astrid looks at Pedro Roldan’s “Mater Dolorosa” in a museum: the portrait of a mother so sad that even the stone seems to be moved to tears.
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In another parallel plot, one of Phillip’s teachers, Lars (Franz Rogowski), speaks to his girlfriend while the couple undergo a breakup. He wants to have a child who will survive him, as a reminder to the world that he existed. But his girlfriend feels the need to remain unmarried and without children because she sees the need to be alone and lonely. Again, Schanelec does not explain why. One wonders if the film begins to venture into the larger debate about legacy, children and death. What did Phillip and Flo’s father leave behind, and what will Astrid leave behind for them? Does her anger and grief emerge from her ineptitude to leave behind a meaningful legacy? I remember Gertrude’s lines from Hamlet: “O Hamlet, speak no more! / Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct.”
A film like I Was at Home, But tests its audience and never tells them if they’re right, and therein lies the challenge. The point is not to “get” the film but to have thought about it and come up with a whole array of personal truths. To take a universal emotion as grief and yet create a narrative that is largely opaque takes a special kind of mastery over one’s art, and Schanelec is a proven auteur.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.