Berlinale 2023 review: Music (Angela Schanelec)

“Schanelec is a master of unusual narrative architectures, and in Music, she perfects her style to bring an unforgettable Oedipus to screen.”

Music, Angela Schanelec’s luminous return to the Berlinale following the success of I Was at Home, But… (Ich war zuhause, aber), walked away from the festival with the prize for best screenplay. This is a richly deserved recognition since the way Schanelec positions her film in relation to a source text (the myth of Oedipus) is nothing short of revolutionary. Music is not a straightforward adaptation (nor would anyone expect a work of that kind from as distinctive an auteur as Schanelec). But it cannot be categorized as a loose reworking or reinterpretation, either. In Music, Schanelec treats the Oedipus myth as a key to finding an affective path through a series of elegant, superbly controlled tableaux. This is arguably the filmmaker’s most accessible and moving work, but not because she makes any compromises in her vision. Instead, the recognizable template of the myth brings an additional layer of emotional resonance to Schanelec’s uniquely enigmatic, conceptually daring formalism.

The film begins with a majestic view of desolate hills, gradually covered in an otherworldly mist.  If this opening sets a mythical tone, further fragments quickly strengthen this impression. There is a striking outburst of emotion (a tragic shout), seemingly at odds with the calm surroundings. This nod to tragedy is followed by sensual scenes set in Greece, with sparse dialogue uttered primarily in Greek. While the common perception about Oedipus usually focuses solely on the violent and controversial aspects of the story (a son unknowingly killing his father and marrying his own mother, leading to the mother’s suicide and the son’s self-inflicted blindness), the more complete version in Greek mythology also includes Oedipus’ childhood (he is abandoned after a prophecy unsettles his father, saved by a shepherd, and adopted by a king) as well as the aftermath of the tragic revelation (he continues to rule his kingdom after his mother’s death, but is tormented by the knowledge of his fate). Schanelec introduces her Oedipus (named Ion, for Ionathan in the film) as a baby and depicts this early period in static, carefully choreographed scenes. We also briefly see the father figure (Lucian in the film, Laius in the myth), whose thick glasses become a significant symbol later in Music. Schanelec jumps to several years later in characteristically elliptical fashion, showing Ion as a young man as he spends time with his friends on a rocky, idyllic beach. Ion’s injured feet establish his connection with Oedipus (whose swollen feet are a significant feature of his story), recalling omitted events from the myth, and this sensual episode culminates in a pivotal accident. The beach sequence, with its unusually framed close-ups, nonchalant camerawork, bright color palette and detailed sound design, beautifully creates a rhythm that the rest of the film adheres to.

Following the accident, Ion is sent to prison and meets Iro, a female warden who embodies the mother figure Iocaste from the myth. The prison segment presents an extraordinary demonstration of Schanelec’s ability to distil complex ideas or feelings into rigorously staged situations, which, despite appearing inconsequential or quotidian at first, have a certain musicality to them because of the director’s attentiveness to bodies in motion. A simple game of table tennis turns into a dance and rituals of prison life become almost poetic in their monotony. The second major ellipsis carries the film seven years forward, with Iro and Ion living with his adoptive parents in the mountain house from the first part. The silence that defines most of the film heightens a significant phone conversation involving Iro, leading to another pivotal event set on a rocky beach. This repetition of locations is central to conveying an important theme in the myth, the inescapability of fate, or rather the cyclical nature of its cruel ways.

Perhaps the most radical rupture in the film arrives when Ion and his daughter Phoebe settle in Germany. Schanelec includes another violent accident here, as a distant echo that triggers Ion’s guilt, and introduces a new set of characters. These scenes are examples of what one can call “narrative digressions” or deviations. They might frustrate viewers who expect to identify with a clearly defined protagonist as the story moves towards a neat resolution. Simply put, such scenes featuring “strangers” or “unrelated occasions” make it difficult to map out the connections between the characters or understand which events are significant for the plot. But Schanelec does not use these strategies merely to design an austere, confusing game in which identification with the characters becomes virtually impossible. She is interested in isolating her characters in their own experiences and allowing the audience to find something truthful in a collection of such “non-stories.” In his 2019 profile of Schanelec, film critic Jonathan Romney observes that she “offers fragments of other lives in her protagonists’ orbits, a reminder that we all only imagine we are at the center of our own universes,” and notes that what emerges from this unique approach to film narrative is an “impersonal truth.”

In Music, this concept of “impersonal truth” informs the scenes set in Germany. The last part of the film is made up of self-contained sequences whose relation to one another is intentionally left vague. There is a lovely scene of Ion singing a song (this follows several earlier instances of singing in the film), a superb tracking shot depicting a long walk in the forest, a gorgeous swimming scene (perhaps reminiscent of the beach in Greece), and a quietly tense part set in a police station. All these events (or non-events in many cases) do not add up to a linear story centered around a singular protagonist in obvious ways. They do, however, contribute to an exploration of Ion’s suffering, regret, and tentative healing. By avoiding direct identification, Schanelec opens up the possibility for this exploration to act as a mirror for the audience, who themselves may engage with similar questions about life, fate or guilt on a deeper level than a traditional narrative usually allows.

With its mythical origins, detached stylization, and narrative omissions, Music feels almost dreamlike in parts. But this graceful reverie is also rooted in deeply humane ideas and feelings, if not a familiar sense of realism. A small moment in the film, when a character suggests that dreams are an alternative form of mirrors, becomes especially poignant when seen in this context. Schanelec is a master of unusual narrative architectures, and in Music, she perfects her style to bring an unforgettable Oedipus to screen.  

(c) Image copyright: faktura film / Shellac