Berlin Rory O’Connor

Berlin 2019: I Was at Home, But review

★★★★☆

Angela Schanelec’s latest film I Was at Home, But opens on some reassuring farmyard animals. A dog chases a rabbit. Another dog lies sleeping. A donkey looks out the window of a weathered old house. Life is simple and time is slow.

More than you can say, however, for the film’s protagonist, a woman who recently lost her husband and who now finds herself in the early throes of depression. In other words Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But is a mood and a rich one at that, a meditation on how quietly absurd and incoherent the world seems when we are out of whack with it.

The tremendous Maren Eggert plays Aistrid, the widowed mother of a teenage boy named Phillip (Jakob Lassalle) and his younger sister Flo (Clara Möller). At the beginning of the film Phillip returns home, having been missing for over a week. It soon turns out he’s got blood poisoning. Aistrid then buys a bike from a man who speaks through an electrolarynx (apparently that’s what they’re called) but the rear wheel keeps jamming so she takes it back. She takes a class in something or other. She sleeps with her son’s tennis coach. Later she loses her cool while critiquing the work of an old acquaintance.

The man, who has just been grocery shopping, stares at her through baffled eyes.
This is Schanelec’s tenth film as director and that experience shows, not just in the story’s thematic depth but also in the patience with which it allows for its characters’ quiet meltdowns to occur. The cast members are largely somnambulant, almost like they’ve walked out of a Yorgos Lanthimos film – although that Greek provocateur has always been more interested in the awkwardness of stilted conversation; Schanelec, on the other hand, seems to be suggesting that the world itself has had the life sucked out of it.

Aistrid’s existence is one of cultured affluence, from her high-ceiled Berlin Altbau apartment to the Lacoste clothing that her children wear. I Was at Home, But is about how empty those things can feel to grieving people. Just take a look at what Schanelec has called her marvelous new film, the intrinsic disorientation of that final “But”. Schanelec also peppers her film with exemplary vignettes including a mesmerizing scene late on in which Phillip and his classmates act out a sword fight for a production of Hamlet that his school is putting on (Schanelec’s film playfully echoes that Shakespeare play without getting too bogged down by it). DOP Ivan Markovic also finds untapped beauty in Berlin’s lesser-filmed locales.

Some moments, it should be said, are decidedly less fluent. Indeed, there is “on the nose” and there is cutting from Aistrid and her children performing a dance routine at her husband’s bedside to an image of her breaking down at his grave. The sequence plays out to an acoustic cover of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. Ouch. In another director’s hands this might all have been a bit of a slog but there is a quiet humor and lightness of touch to Schanelec’s direction and a self-effacing irony to Aistrid’s rambling the saves it from pure maudlinism. And we haven’t even got to the sleeping dog or the donkey looking out the window.

The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.

Rory O’Connor | @Roryseanoc