The Chamber Play — Space of Hyper Intensity of Feelings

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We live in a world where space and time create the foundation of our lives. When the place we are in and the time we act in tend to change, so will our reality and with it our actions and the story we tell. What would happen if place, time and action always acted as one?

“Hey Jack, do you remember Mouse? 


“Yeah? Do you know where he is?” 

He shakes his head.

“Mm. I do. He’s on the other side of this world.”

“What other side?”

“Jack, there are two sides to everything.“

— Ma and Jack in a scene from Room (2015)

When we take a look at the drama Room published in 2015 — directed by Lenny Abrahams — we will hear the dialogue mentioned above. It is the story about Joy — a young mother called Ma in the film — who has been living locked up in a single room with her son Jack for years. This room represents the only reality of life for the two of them and especially for Jack. To save her son from the worst she keeps up the pretense that their room is the only real world and everything that happens on the other side and on TV is not reality. After Jack’s fifth birthday however, Joy decides to tell Jack about the real world outside the room. In the wake of this revelation, they make a plan to get to the other side of the wall in order to escape their reality.

Scene from Room (2015), photo from Le Blog Du Cinéma ©

In most cases films feature different places and times of a plot which among other things serve as pillars of the stories to be told. Thus the change of place and time also affects the plot itself. Countering this concept however, there are also various films that make use of a fusion of plot, place and time as a stylistic device. So in the film Room, whose action continuously takes place in one single room during the first half of the film. Such integrated stylistic means point to a film that can be considered as a chamber play.

The term chamber play originally stems from the theater tradition and refers to plays whose acting always takes place in a very intimate setting including only one location and reduced means. In reference to a chamber play, one often speaks of the three Aristotelian unities. These represent the maxims for the conception of drama and were derived from the Greek philosopher Aristotle who appears as the founder of these maxims. The three unities however, were not titled as such until the Renaissance. They describe the three components time, place and action which are unified in effect. The unity of place means the persistence of the setting and that of time relates to the correspondence of play time and acted time. A fusion of the three components thus leads to a drama best possible.
The chamber play as a film genre became established in the 1920s and especially within the silent film era. It back then described a type of German film which provides an intimate insight into the life of the middle class. In particular the English screenwriter Carl Mayer is the representative and most important co-founder of the chamber play film. He wrote the books of relevant films that were to be considered classics of the chamber play. Films such as Shattered — directed by Lupu Pick from 1921 for example — being considered the first German chamber play film. These films are mostly determined by inescapable and decisive conflicts which are negotiated in often closed as well as intimate spaces.

Scene from Shattered (1921), photo from flickr ©

Therefore spaces are created in which we as recipients are able to become part of the emerging confrontations through striking proximity to the actors. This closeness mostly is created by stylistic means within the camera work. The immovability of the setting and the resulting focus on the few characters and their conflicts in a small space conveys an often claustrophobic feeling to which we as viewers are exposed. Such a claustrophobic feeling also finds place in the drama Juste la fin du monde, published in 2016 and directed by Xavier Dolan. In this film we accompany a young man who visits his family for years of absence and within this increasingly finds himself in a distress fulfilled with discomfort. The drama almost exclusively takes place in the protagonist’s parental home and represents a space inherent in the abundance of trauma and emotional wounds that go back in the past. Stylistic means of a chamber play appear here by drawing attention to the insecurities as well as the life realities of individual characters. The chamber play as such is often used to illustrate and reproduce interpersonal conflicts in a concentrated form. It features spaces which tend to potentiate conflicts. Thus chamber plays are often called social problem films in which social conflicts between its characters are negotiated. Since the focus is very much on the inner states of interrelationships, the acting and the kind of representation are of particular importance. Due to the always psychological orientation within the story told there is a great emphasis on the effect of the conversations between the individual characters.

Scene from Juste la fin du monde (2016)

Chamber plays also tend to charge certain objects with symbolism. This can be seen in the previously mentioned film Room in which the objects not only function as such, but rather are personified and represent companions for the boy Jack, to whom he builds an emotional bond. Just as the objects stick to an inherent symbolism, the room itself functions as something that represents the only living space and thus the only reality of life.

“Good morning, Lamp. Good morning, Plant. Good morning, Eggsnake. Good morning, Rug. Good morning, Wardrobe. Good morning, TV. Good morning, Sink. Morning, Toilet. Morning, everyone.” — Jack in a Scene from Room

The chamber play holds a huge potential of wyperemotionality inherent. Within such intimacy — often presented in the style of psychological realism — chamber plays create a possibility of various character studies and psychoanalyses. A chamber play’s focus on interpersonal interactions of the acting characters as well as their conversations also emerges as very relevant in the film Freunde (transl. to Friends), published in 2021 and directed by Rick Ostermann. The film tells the story of Patrick, a man in his fifties who is willing to end his life — now that the last anchor in his life faded away due to the death of his wife. In the house of his deceased parents — slightly before realizing his intention — his old friend Malte suddenly appears. Due to not seeing each other for over 30 years, Malte tries to build on the old friendship while Patrick remains distant at first. While Patrick — the son of a veneer manufacturer — earlier was supposed to take over his father’s business and married his wife Anja, Malte has been traveling after he disappeared. Malte always envied Patrick for his safety and all the luxuries that the house was holding inherent. But Patrick who could never really escape his preconceived plans also envied Malte for his freedom.

Within the film the place of action is limited to Patrick’s parental home and the surrounding area. In the film, which can be classified as a chamber play, the house holds symbolism of old memories and past legacies inherent in which both the past and the present merge. As in the film Room, many objects in the house hold important symbolic meanings inherent for the characters, such as the jukebox which plays songs associated with old memories or the football table that Patrick and Malte often played with back then. While the two characters spend the day and one night together the audience becomes the observer of a dialogue between two old companions in which already experienced injuries as well as losses are negotiated.

Ulrich Matthes und Justus von Dohnányi as Malte and Patrick
in a scene from Freunde (2021), photo from Film Rezensionen ©

In order to have a more precise idea of what it is like to work on a chamber play, we asked the actor Ulrich Matthes — who embodies the character Malte in the film — as well as the cinematographer of the film Leah Striker for an interview. The chamber play as a film genre therefore will be illustrated by two perspectives — both the work in front of and behind the camera.

The only place of action in the film Freunde — Patrick’s parental house and the surrounding terrain — first seems to bring limitation and challenges within the play. Ulrich Matthes is opting for another view by saying that this reduction would not limit one. He points out that „it is an incredible luxury and privilege to be picked up every morning, to be brought to the same place, to find the same people, the same colleagues. You are in absolutely familiar territory and can focus much more on the atmosphere of playing together.“ He also tells us how wonderful this reduction to one colleague is because it would lead to a very intimate, trusting and open play. According to the working process he mentions that first of all in his profession — their inherent fantasy as well as their empathy and focus — would be independent of a place.

But as Leah Striker is telling us, the chamber play — especially here where only two characters appear — brings up possible challenges as well. „The biggest fear of everyone in a chamber play is that the audience will get bored. You have to keep it varied without randomly changing cadrations. Everything should always happen for a reason and at the same time it must not happen too rarely.“ Referring to that Leah Striker points out the importance of giving space to the director as well as to the actors for developing their roles. She mentions that for her as a cinematographer it would be integral to work with the director and and by that also leaving room for his own vision of the characters state of mind to find the right rhythm and framing. In addition to that she mentions that „what the chamber play allows is that the director — and Rick Ostermann did a great job of that — is giving a lot of space to the actors due to reducing the external influences.“ Thereby it would be crucial to not have a preconceived vision but still be open to a emotionality, because according to external conditions there is no spontaneity. Striker brings up that within her work she has „to decide to not make random camera movements or changes in size but always to make sure that what actually counts in a chamber play — the character’s state of mind — is always portrayed correctly. Otherwise it would be tempting to integrate euphemisms.“

Ulrich Matthes in a scene from Freunde (2021), photo from Film Rezensionen ©

In Freunde the audience is taken on a journey of the two characters. A journey that drives deep into the past but at the same time is always relating to the present. In our interview Leah Striker is paying attention to the fact that „the chamber play offers a fixed framework and in that sense doesn’t distract from the journey that the actor or actress is taking internally. Things that are usually not that important — like framing and size — are extremely present. In a film in which the motifs change or which is set outside, the movement often adapts to the external circumstances. While in a chamber play the movement and also the size of the image are almost exclusively determined by the states in which the actor or actress finds himself or herself.“ With regard to the use of acting devices, Ulrich Matthes emphasizes that these are chosen entirely depending on the situation in which the character finds himself. The stylistic devices would depend in particular on the mental and inner situation of the character. But he also mentions that „it is most likely that my acting means are bigger in some way — metaphorically louder, thus more expressive and extroverted — when it is not just one counterpart but 20 counterparts.“

As Freunde takes us on a journey of the two friends and their stories, the second part, which is called 2 Freunde (transl. to 2 Friends), certainly will too. Shot earlier this year as Ulrich Matthes tells us, it will continue as a type of chamber play as well since the story takes place only in a caravan and its surroundings on a shore of the Baltic Sea. In the sequel 2 Freunde Leah Striker will not take part as a cinematographer again but in course of this, Striker brings up she truly enjoyed working on this project as well with the director Rick Ostermann who will direct the second part of Freunde as well.

If we take a look at the last few years within the film industry we can see that chamber plays —along with their modes of action and effects — continue to make an appearance. Well-known films such as Carnage from 2011 thus provide a wonderful example. They give us as an audience the opportunity to identify with individual characters by becoming observers of their suffering, inner processes as well as individual stories. In our talk Leah Striker mentions that her belief is that „a film has to create a transcendence towards the audience. To take along people to a place, a feeling and an event that they haven’t experienced before and open that up to them.“ She points out that it would always be an emotional journey whether it is a chamber play or not. The chamber play, though, would hold many possibilities due to having much time developing the roles. „But in both cases it is about taking the audience along and offering them experiences that they haven’t had themselves.“

By Ida Hensel

* All the quotes of the interview were translated from German to English.

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