Berlinale competition film “Music” opens with gray clouds racing across the face of a Greek mountain as a storm prepares to break. It is a suitably dramatic prelude to the tumultuous events that will unfold, albeit rendered in an understated manner by German director Angela Schanelec, who won the Berlinale best director award in 2019 for “I Was at Home, But.”
As the storm lifts, an abandoned baby boy is rescued a paramedic, who names him Jon. Years later, Jon, now a young man, kills another man, accidentally, and ends up in prison. Here, he is tended to by a female guard, Iro, as his eyesight begins to deteriorate. When he is released, the two get married and have a child. But several years later, his wife discovers a terrible secret.
In the film, the myth of Oedipus is reworked freely. The action mainly takes place in Greece, starting in the 1980s, but concludes in present-day Berlin.
The Greek myth struck a chord with Schanelec. “There are questions in my life, and thus also in my films, to which I have no answers,” she tells Mikhail Ratgauz in an interview published by Shellac, the film’s international sales company, which has sold the film to Cinema Guild for its theatrical release in North America. “They relate to family and family relationships as well as to fate, or mere chance, that determines us and to which we must bow. The myth of Oedipus encompasses all of this, including the pain of it all.”
In the 1980s, when she was in her 20s, Schanelec worked as a theater actress for several years, before she went to film school. She says that period in the theater had a strong influence on her work as a filmmaker.
During that time, she saw the Friedrich Hölderlin version of Sophocles’ “Oedipus,” directed by Jürgen Gosch, and this made a huge impression on her.
“The cast played with cothurns [platform shoes that Greek actors wore on stage] and large masks,” she explains to Ratgauz. “The stage consisted of a staircase leading up to a tent with a simple slit for an entrance. Oedipus forced himself out of this slit at every entrance, and then back again through it at the end of the scene. Due to the limited and restricted movements, which were made even harder by the cothurns, this production was very physical. It made you physically feel his pain. His whole existence seemed painful to me.”
While she follows the Oedipus narrative in a loose sense, she is not constrained by it. “It’s so strong, I can do whatever I like with it,” she tells Variety. “My hope was that by working on this narrative – by asking myself: ‘How could that happen today?’ – I could just see what develops.”
Fate is a strong force in the film, with characters having little opportunity to determine their own future. They don’t deserve the terrible things that happen to them. “I wanted to show that all the characters are innocent; that things just happen to us. They happen to us, and we react – we do not act – and we try to survive somehow.”
Because of the mythical nature of the film, it is tempting to read metaphors into the images and events. Schanelec cautions against this approach. She says she simply sought out images that “felt right” to her, in an organic, instinctive way, rather than constructing the film in a premeditated manner.
Throughout the film, music brings solace to Jon – played by Aliocha Schneider – as fate buffets him this way and that. In prison, Iro, played by Agathe Bonitzer, assembles a playlist for him on a tape cassette, filled with baroque music by composers such as Monteverdi, Bach and Pergolesi.
“Music for me is an incredible gift – I don’t understand where it comes from, and how and why we can have this incredible ability. We have this voice, and then this voice is able to sing. So, I thought: ‘What if someone discovers that they can sing. What would follow from that? What would that mean for him?’”
Over the course of the film, music enables Jon to heal, express his feelings, and establish a connection with others, previously missing. The final part of the film is filled with songs sung by him. It took Schanelec two years of searching to find the right music.
“I do not think that I’m able to describe music before it exists, which would mean I could ask someone to write something,” she says. “This is not a way I can imagine would work. I can write what he says, but I could not write what he sings. So, I listened to music endlessly, and then, on the internet, I found Doug Tielli.”
She met the Canadian musician in Toronto in 2019, and he then sent her the songs that Jon sings in the film, providing him with a “language” through which he can express his pain.
When searching for locations in Greece Schanelec rewatched the films of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, who had been a major influence on her at the start of her career as a filmmaker. “I can’t say in what concrete way that influenced me, but it was somehow present,” she says.
Schanelec is now working on her next film, whose title translates as “Thomas the Strong One.” She has finished the script, is now casting, and hopes to go into production this year, although it’s too early to say for certain.
Arthouse filmmakers like Schanelec find it tough to secure funding for their films in Germany. “This has to do with the attitude towards film in Germany… actually, there is no interest,” she says, with a laugh. “Funding is connected to television and is very complicated. There is a lot of money [for film] in Germany, but the interest is more in how you can use this money to earn money. It’s definitely getting more difficult.”