Surreality: Jan Schomburg’s Above Us Only Sky
“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
It would not be unfounded to presume that a German film with this thesis would reckon with its national history. In fact, when Marx wrote these words he was referring to how revolutionaries eventually succumb to the same failures of the leaders or ideologies they are rebutting. We do not learn from past mistakes but unknowingly fall back into them with the same logic. Given Germany’s history and residual alt-right sentiment in certain corners of the country, it is therefore somewhat surprising to find Jan Schomburg’s Above Us Only Sky (2011) to explore this hypothesis on a purely interpersonal level. Schomburg’s film is about the emotional and habitual trappings we attempt to evade within relationships and their unintentional replication. What results is a film of near surrealist nature in which the political and personal become inextricable and stem from the same emotional impulses.
Schomburg’s film follows an English teacher, Martha, who plans on moving to France with her boyfriend, Paul, after he is offered a position as a neurologist. The couple is in bliss. Paul has just successfully completed his dissertation and Martha seems delighted by the prospects of moving to a sunnier locale. They celebrate a goodbye dinner with close friends and, soon after, Paul leaves for France while Martha stays behind to clear out the apartment. After not being able to reach Paul for a few days, Martha greets a pair of police offers on her doorstep who inform her of Paul’s suicide. Martha remains expressionless as she steps aside to call him; no answer. She leaves a nonchalant voicemail informing him about a mix-up the police must have made; the officers ask her to identify the body. Eager to clear up the misunderstanding, she agrees. As Martha is shown the photographs of the body, she confirms that it’s Paul. She exits the room to leave him another voicemail.
Martha’s cool disposition is the result of her incomprehension. She insists that Paul would never do such a thing, yet, based on the evidence, the police refuse to investigate further. In a state of denial, Martha proceeds to carry out bureaucratic responsibilities: signing documents, selecting a coffin, etc. Martha visits the professor who oversaw Paul’s dissertation who tells her that he hadn’t been a student of his in five years, the registrar confirms. As she investigates further, Martha realizes Paul had been living a double life.
Dumbfounded, Martha is incapable of coming to terms with Paul’s death. She moves on without processing her grief. She meets Georg, a professor at the university Paul was supposed to be studying, and they begin dating. Martha and Georg immediately begin an intimate partnership as if they had known each other for years. For Martha, however, she is regaining what she had with Paul. Under the guise of a “fresh start,” she begins living with a stranger. Whereas her relationship with Paul was built on lies, Martha’s partnership with Georg is built on anonymity. Slowly we begin to realize parallels. Martha’s scenes with Georg begin to play out identically to those we saw earlier with Paul. The editing and direction become self-referential as a means of comparison. The Marx quote applies. Whereas Martha’s relationship with Paul was “tragic” by virtue of Paul’s manipulation, her relationship with Georg is “farce” since they are knowingly committing to each other as strangers. But do the political implications still apply?
While at a bar, a drunken patron tells Martha and Georg that love is a form of fascism. He describes how forcing the other to become more like oneself instead of accepting them for their difference is akin to fascist ideology. Martha argues love is the antithesis of fascism. Her argument is however complicated by the nature of her relationship with Georg. If they don’t know each other, can they ever accept one another? Is their solution — an adherence to niceties and the trajectory of the nuclear family — a sustainable one?
When a colleague of Martha’s shares his condolences, Georg asks about who in her life has died. Martha replied: “my mother.” This becomes the first instance in a string of lies surrounding Paul and her previous life. Martha has unintentionally assumed Paul’s role in her new relationship. She leads a double life and keeps her partner in the dark. When Georg becomes the offer to move to France, he asks Martha to join him. Together they live out their life the way she and Paul intended to. However, with large amounts of unprocessed grief and a relationship built on lies, how long until Martha succumbs to Paul’s fate?
Suppressing a difficult past is a theme that becomes implicitly political in a German context. However, Schomburg’s film, skirting any overt political content, considers how the same logic applies to our most intimate relationships. The surreal quality of Schomburg’s film is effective in abstracting the unintentional duplication of harmful emotional (or political) conditions. The film’s structure achieves deja-vu visually and implicates the viewer. We are left to ask ourselves: Are we in the midst of tragedy or farce?