Somewhere halfway through Angela Schanelec’s Ich war zuhause, aber… a discussion arises between a man and a woman about a film the man has made. The woman mounts fierce criticism against the film, in a bout of film analysis that probably will not be bettered this Berlinale. That film, which we as viewers don’t get to watch but which apparently stars professional actors opposite real people in dire conditions, strikes her as a confrontation between real and fake, a confrontation that delivers nothing of worth. Acting is a lie, she says, because it is always preceded by a rational decision. This is the paradox between everyday reality and the calculating world of film (the woman is probably a fan of Chantal Akerman’s work, who similarly found her stories in the realm of the mundane). This meta-conversation can also be applied to Ich war zuhause, aber… itself, and is the entryway to Schanalec’s film, in which the German director also plays with the antithesis between the mundane and the unexpected, between the roles we play and the people that we really are.
The woman in the conversation is Astrid (Maren Eggert), a mother of two and a widow. One day her oldest son Phillip (Jakob Lassalle) disappears, only to return after a week, which is the starting point of the film. It remains a mystery where he has been although his clothes show he must have camped out in nature.
This event deeply affects the world around him, not in the least his mother and the structure of her family. Phillip himself calmly picks up his life again, but Astrid starts to realize that her role within the family and her control over Phillip have changed because of what happened. She has lost control over him because Phillip has now entered a phase where, as she says, he is at once becoming a man and IS a man. And this loss of control changes her perspective on the world and her career within the Berlin art scene, which ties into the aforementioned conversation about the contrast between the real and the fantasy.
This contrast is something Schanelec continuously shines a light on in Ich war zuhause, aber… Phillip’s mysterious disappearance and return in itself is typically an event that is the catalyst for a film, and in a way an ‘unreal’ event. But the ensuing change in Phillip’s role within the family is a grounded one: kids grow up and our relationship to them alters. It is very common for mothers to have problems with their children leaving the nest: it means their own role and the influence they have on their children changes, and the structure of the family is thoroughly shaken up. That is the light in which we should see the problems Astrid has in adapting after Phillip’s return.
Schanelec mixes Astrid’s struggle with scenes that also play somewhere on the line between the banal and the unreal, scenes that constantly pick at playing a role when we interact with others instead of being our true selves. In a separate storyline which only superficially interacts with the story of Astrid, we follow Lars (Franz Rogowski), one of Phillip’s teachers, and his girlfriend. Lars wants to have a child to conform to what society expects of him, but his girlfriend does not. She feels lonely, she says, even feels this deeply, but she also feels that it is necessary, as if it was her part. As opposed to having a child, which would feel like a ‘task’ she is burdened with, something she would ‘have to’ do but that wouldn’t be true to herself.
Phillip in the meantime picks up his role again in a school staging of Hamlet. In scenes from Shakespeare’s seminal work that thematically are connected to Ich war zuhause, aber… Schanelec enhances the idea of acting as the non-realistic and less interesting option. Shakespeare’s archaic language and the static, emotionless acting of the children lend a sterile and distancing tone to the scenes. Real life, like when Astrid tries to buy a bike and later gives it back, is a lot more interesting to watch and observe, Schanelec seems to say.
This yearning for the everyday can also be seen in the title, which sounds like somebody starting a story that won’t be too exciting. It is also a nod to Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, in itself a film wherein there is a contrast between a man just being a father and this same man playing a role in a film. Schanelec’s film is not the most accessible, and it deliberately holds the viewer at arm’s length for most of its runtime, but it does show us the truth in reality. As one of the characters puts it: “No one wants to be alone with their truth. One would like to share it, the truth.” That is exactly what Ich war zuhause, aber… does. The truth may seem a little boring, but at least it’s real.