Fragmentary memories act like a common thread, taking us through the works of Sylvia Schedelbauer as they oscillate between experimental and essay-film genres, and which could also be called “filmic memories”. On viewing her films – which are as sensitive as they are experimental – the feeling quickly arises of delving deep into the filmmaker’s world of thoughts and ideas, even if only small, well-chosen excerpts from her life are revealed therein.
Sylvia Schedelbauer grew up in Tokyo and moved to Berlin in 1993, where she has lived and worked since then. She studied fine arts here under Katharina Sieverding at the University of the Arts Berlin. In this academic environment with its openness to experiment, her first encounters with the film medium occurred. And her experimenting with ever-new technical possibilities has accompanied her to the present day, as analogue and digital recording technologies converge in her works. The child of a Japanese mother and German father, the friction points between these two cultures represent the places and locations she gently examines in her experimental films, permitting her to speak about collective memories that question transnational relationships above and beyond her own biography, and that across the generations. With her distinctly unique cinematic style being defined by carefully selected and composed scenes, abstractions and the utilisation of various rhythmisation techniques. In 2019, Sylvia Schedelbauer was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Cambridge, USA. There, she worked on a project that positioned her own origin story in a larger context of European-Japanese history. Her films have been screened internationally at numerous festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, the London Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, and have won awards such as the VG Bildkunst Prize and the Gus Van Sant Award for the Best Experimental Film. Indeed, already back in 2008 she received the German Film Critics Award in the Best Experimental Film Category for FALSCHE FREUNDE (“False Friends”).
ERINNERUNGEN (“Memories”), one of her earliest filmic works from 2004, is a personal insight into the life of her grandfather on her father’s side, who served as a soldier in the Third Reich and met his end in Stalingrad. Her grandfather’s story is reconstructed on the basis of filmed photographs that he had kept in an album and which act as anchor points for Sylvia Schedelbauer to recount his story. Having no memories of her own about her grandfather, only these photos provide information about his past. After the end of World War II, this past was collectively hushed up for a long time, with complicity being denied and formative experiences cloaked in silence. And this was also the case with her grandfather’s past, which can only be revealed to some extent through the preserved photographs.
Via her grandfather, the filmmaker then also progressed to her father, and was finally able to speak about her own childhood. From an early stage in her life she was accompanied by the feeling of not really belonging, of finding herself between her parents’ worlds. The longing for a cultural affiliation, one that promises a sense of security, permitted the desire to arise within her of being born in a different time. Like many of her generation, as the child of the first post-war generation, Sylvia Schedelbauer has been preoccupied with examining and coming to terms with her family history, about which few words were even spoken within the family. In this way, perhaps ERINNERUNGEN (“Memories”) can be understood far more as an attempt to name and reveal an existing gap and its impacts on one’s own identity, rather than wanting to actually close this gap.
In addition to what she herself shoots, the filmmaker repeatedly avails of archive material and found footage. This is the case in FALSCHE FREUNDE (“False Friends”, 2007), for instance, in which various found footage is interwoven, with a further rhythmisation element added to it by means of deliberately inserted black frames. Glimpses of a prison, a baby ward, ideas about relationships between couples – these are arranged kaleidoscopically and take us deep inside the filmmaker’s world of thoughts and ideas. The sequences, which are disrupted by short inserted images, are accentuated musically in such a way that they seem to be reaching a climax. Again and again, bodies in movement can be seen, heading along stairs, across snow-covered pastures, paths and battlefields to an unknown destination. The film ends when a man eventually disappears into a building. And the hoped-for catharsis remains an unfulfilled place of yearning.
In 2018, Sylvia Schedelbauer was represented at that year’s Berlinale Shorts with her short film WISHING WELL (2018). The flickering of the images here is reminiscent of a steady pulse, with various images overlapping each other, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, as the camera slowly tracks backwards. The flickering is contrasted yet again with black frames as deliberate breaches that break up the linearity of the narrative. Digital shots of a forest, which are disrupted by a piercing sound, are superimposed with short sequences shot on 16 mm film. Sequences that show a boy who seems to be exploring the forest. In mythology, the forest has a unique position, being a setting of myths and legends just as it is a place of longing romanticised in painting and literature. In the reversed movement of the scenes, an attempt then occurs to proceed to such hidden thoughts and the forest thus becomes the place of personal yearnings and desires.
LABOR OF LOVE (2020) begins with the memory of a pagoda that cannot be allocated to any real, physical place or assigned a context. Initially, the camera focuses on a flickering circular shape whose contours constantly change. An off-screen female narrator’s voice tries to put order on the jumbled memories, linking them associatively with other memories and thoughts, while the flowing stream of images grasps the wandering thoughts visually. Her flickering technique, the partially stroboscopic sequences of images first explored by Sylvia Schedelbauer in 2007 in FALSCHE FREUNDE (“False Friends”), is utilised yet again here. As the digital transfer of the 16 mm footage at high-definition standards yielded only inadequate results, the filmmaker experimented with various techniques, such as slowing down and image blurring, in order to countervail the differences in the recording quality, until she arrived at the overlapping, superimposing technique that ultimately led to the flickering. In “Labor of Love”, together with the digitally created colour overlays, she has taken this flickering to the extreme. As images emerge sporadically then submerge quickly once more in a sea of colours.
Where can memories take us? This constitutes one of the contentual questions that “Labor of Love” poses about the use of filmic means. Which places lie dormant and hidden within us, capable of opening up new perspectives? Assembled like a managed mediation, the depiction turns increasingly to inner states of consciousness and counterbalances the unknown with the known. The image of a human brain – the place where all the strands of our consciousness converge – sets itself apart from the colour progressions that thrust themselves across the screen in harmony with the music. From there we descend into the entangled confusion of the mind, with a moth flashing up briefly like a deja-vu, before it also disappears into a sea of colours. Just before the end, every reference to our surroundings completely dissolves, with squares flying hypnotically across the screen and every relation with reality ultimately slipping into abstraction.
Films are capable of changing our thoughts, as Sylvia Schedelbauer says. Yet here, not only does she refer to the contentual level, but also to the interplay of the image, sound and edit. Her recourse to archival footage is suggestive of this when it is a question of awakening memories that she herself has not experienced directly but which have an influence on her own ego. The interlacing of the old and the new, and the process of abstraction that the film material undergoes during post-production, deliberately leaves many questions completely open. But it also make clear that only in this way can the possibility first arise of exploring one’s own world of thoughts and ideas, that for Sylvia Schedelbauer incessantly moves between differing worlds and temporalities.
LABOR OF LOVE, 11 min, 2020
WUNSCHBRUNNEN (Wishing Well), 13 min, 2018
MEER DER DÜNSTE (Sea of Vapors), 15 min, 2014
SOUNDING GLASS, 10 min, 2011
WAY FARE 7 min, 2009
FALSCHE FREUNDE (False Friends), 5 min, 2007
FERNE INTIMITÄT (Remote Intimacy), 15 min, 2007
ERINNERUNGEN (Memories), 20 min, 2004