My World and I. On Corinna Schnitt’s Film Works

y Barbara Pichler

In static black-and-white shots a woman can be seen cleaning while messages on an answering machine play off camera. They are monologs from the building’s excessively worried owners, who use words in a manic attempt to block any source of uncertainty, any change in the existing order. “As I said, it would be unthinkable if this key were lost, because there’s nothing a locksmith could do about it.” These comments, directed at no one in particular, are juxtaposed with a minimalistic scenario. The meticulous cleaning almost seems inspired by these words, and at the same time an ironic commentary on them. The rigid structures of this life seem so absurd that not laughing is virtually impossible.

In Hello Ms. Schnitt (Schönen guten Tag, 1995, 5 min.), Corinna Schnitt’s debut film, the basic constants of the artist’s work had already taken on a clear shape: This is a look at daily life, routines and the structures we set up around us, at rules and the communication of these rules, perfection and ideals, desires and especially communication in general. The stories are staged micro-scenarios of everyday life, exaggerated to achieve a sense of irony. The images have been composed with utmost precision, the camera serves as an objective observer.

Although Schnitt alternates between a number of different mediaseries of photographs, installations, films, etc.all her works show the same attentive observation and empathy in certain scenes, clear structuring of space and the bodies within them. Schnitt, who was born in 1964, studied at art academies in Offenbach, Hamburg and Dusseldorf, which could be the reason she sees herself in an art context. In the films she has made so far, a unique signature has been developed, one which works wonderfully in the interweaving of narration, space and rhythm, including in film.

In an interview Schnitt claimed that her first film provided her with an occasion to think about text in film and the combination of sound and image. Her precise work with the text, the exaggeration of lives into the absurd, lives which are recognizable and sometimes comprehensible, characterizes her scenarios. A story is told, and evoking irritation is an important part of that: “At certain moments viewers should ask themselves whether the speaker really means everything he or she says seriously.” The story has no real conclusion, and what remains is indefinable, left for the audience to interpret.

In Between four and six (Zwischen vier und sechs, 1997, 6 min.) everything revolves around the organization of everyday life. The voice-over commentary runs throughout the film, beginning with the words, “We have a precise daily plan at our house.” This is said without a trace of negativity, a woman talks with satisfaction about her childhood and how her time was structured by her parents and school. Her monolog seems authentic, though the viewer’s suspicions about the perfection of this life are aroused at some point. Ever since she began working, she has visited her parents every Sunday, and between four and six in the afternoon everybody moves out to clean. They clean the neighborhood’s street signs, and something that holds a family together, a joint activity, is nice. In Out of your clothes (Raus aus seinen Kleidern, 1998/99, 7 min., 30 sec.) a woman stands on a balcony of a high-rise building, shaking out a red blouse. Her movements are repeated again and again, and a few moments pass until the viewer realizes that this is a loop. We hear her story at the same time, and unsurprisingly, she too lives according to a rigid set of rulesat least when dealing with her laundry, which she does obsessively. “You have to be careful as you get older, in my opinion. When you turn eighteen, I would say it’s important to do your laundry in the proper way.”

Schnitt wrote all the texts in her films, and she did the voice over in the latter two works. The fact that she can be seen and heard constantly in her early films matches her work ideal well. Of course jobs involved in producing a film are divided up, at least to some extent, and the people she worked with have left their mark. But these works above all represent the realization of her artistic vision, as she regards herself as an artist more than a filmmaker. This homogeneity of an artistic plan can be sensed in Schnitt’s work, and everythingin the most positive sense possibleis seamless.

The combination of narration and filmic space, the attempt at a concrete “determination of location” often blended with conscious ambivalence and failure, is a second constant in her work. In Next time (Das nächste Mal, 2003, 6 min.) two children lie in meadow, talking about love. Such conversations, it seems, always make use of clichés, and the text, though written by Schnitt, is familiar from innumerable films and books: “I think you’re really something special.” “Do you really mean that, or are you just saying so?” They talk without really saying anything, and the chirping of birds on the soundtrack is louder than normal. But, contrary to the cliché, in this case the boy is the one who loves more, who is filled with uncertainty. Then the conversation ends and the audience is left with the picture, which gradually reveals something completely different: The camera pulls farther and farther back until the romantic setting turns out to be a meridian between two lanes of a heavily traveled highway. Private life cannot be separated from the public space, a non-place which can no longer be occupied and permits the existence of this idyll only when a tiny detail is examined.

Architecture, constructed space as an expression of a social order, and a desire for warmth, security and possession are the subjects of The sleeping girl (Das schlafende Mädchen, 2001, 8 min, 30 sec.). The camera effortlessly glides in a long, controlled pan along a row of vacation homes. This empty resort seems extremely artificial, almost like a model. The picture alone speaks of desires and the realities of life, there is no commentary. Then the camera approaches a house, it peers through a window and spies Vermeer’s painting A Girl Asleep (1656/57). Two time frames meet here, and the monolog begins. An insurance salesman has left a message on the answering machine, he provides information about different retirement insurance plans in prefabricated phrases suitable for a number of different situations. The camera makes a single continuous and precise movement, from a closeup to a long shot and back again; symmetry is the predominating element.

Nothing is arbitrary about Corinna Schnitt’s universe, in neither the sounds nor the visuals. The picture was designed with a static or steadily moving camera in mind: slow zooms, tracking shots and pans. All of the camera’s movements are carefully coordinated with the narration, timing is everything and it all works perfectly.

The narration in Schnitt’s work often moves in a direction opposite that of the picture for a while. In Between four and six the voice over about the structure of family life is accompanied by a tracking shot through a middle-class urban residential neighborhood: rows of houses, front lawns, sidewalks. The private has disappeared behind the façades and is distinctly separate from the public space, which is empty and interchangeable. The pictures are in a loop, the radius of action is visibly limited. The camera glides along the row of houses twice, finally stopping at a group of three people who were easily overlooked the first time. Then picture and soundtrack coincide. “I find it fascinating,” claimed Schnitt, “to consciously develop filmic movements and narratives in the opposite direction as fiction film. The action is normally associated with a face, but in this case it happens in reverse: Not until the end are the faces which permit this association briefly visible.” Before that the viewer is forced to grapple with words in an “empty” space. This conscious game with filmic narrative structures is part of Out of your clothes too: While the voice-over commentary is being spoken, the camera withdraws farther and farther in a zoom. “I liked this movement into the distance. In most films the camera comes closer, which is followed by some kind of action. In this case it moves away constantly until the end, when the speaker appears briefly, recreating an apparent proximity.”

Schloss Solitude (2002, 10 min.) also consists of a continuous tracking shot which interweaves the various time frames in an architectural space. A woman dressed in Baroque clothes continually sings, “I’m something special,” and the camera retreats in a continuous straight line, through the castle’s rooms. The associations with fairy tales and neurotic egocentricity are clear. Then, in answer to the woman’s song, men’s voices declare, “Yes, we love you.” By the time the camera exits the building, we have unexpectedly returned to the present. The singers, members of a police choir, are dressed in uniform, and as a final punch line a bus drives through the picture. Considered in retrospect, the composition’s artificial quality seems like an ironic commentary on historical buildings and structures in “contemporary” space.

In her latest film, Living A Beautiful Life (2003, 13 min.), Schnitt worked for the first time with real actors, who recite her text directly into the camera. An attractive couple talks about their perfect life in a perfect house and also their desires. “How do you imagine a beautiful life?”: Corinna Schnitt has American teenagers provide their answers to this question, using them as a starting point for her text. There are the normal clichésthey want security, health, a harmonious family lifeand with something like alarm we register the gender-specific differences. While the males dream of life as heroes and scientists, the females are satisfied with more modest dreams and seem less firm in the belief of their own perfection. “Everyone wants a lot of things, but it’s because it makes them happy. My life is simple, because it’s the little things that are most important. For example, I love to sing, I love to hear and play music everywhere I go: in the car, when I wake up. I start singing a song and my husband joins in and sometimes we sing a duet, complete with harmony….” A gap is revealed in which the sexes can never meet, and this realization is reflected in the woman’s slightly melancholy mood. As always, the camera assumes the position of an objective observer. The speakers are positioned in front of it precisely, the static images resemble the glossy photographs in architecture magazines, and advertisements intended to instill desires for a different, better lifestyleand this idyll turns into a quiet, mean parody.

Corinna Schnitt reduces monologs and images to their most essential elements. Her stories are constructed from a mixture of documentary observation and the fictional, a precise balance of observation and irony, the settings and protagonists are borne of social structures and relationships. These attempts to come to terms with daily life invite identification and inspire laughter at the same time, thereby maintaining the viewer’s distance. They subtly question reality and demand that we examine our own clichés and utopias. You laugh, but not too loud, just in case. Originally published in, special edition 3/2005.

Thanks to the publisher for permitting publication of this text.

Translation: Steve Wilder