A stylized, cubist portrait of a mini-family in severe crisis, writer-director-editor Angela Schanelec's I Was at Home, But... (Ich was zuhause, aber...) is surely one of the most divisive films ever to contend for the Berlin International Film Festival's top honor, the Golden Bear. Where some saw a devastating masterpiece, others perceived pretentious garbage. In a quiet year, however, this audaciously enigmatic enterprise actually has a solid shot of scooping the big award. Berlin-based Schanelec would, remarkably, be the very first German woman to do so since the Berlinale began way back in 1951, with Maren Ade (later of Toni Erdmann fame) having come closest by sharing the runner-up Grand Prix in 2009 for Everyone Else.

Any recognition from the official jury would clearly make a major difference to the Germany-Serbia co-production's fortunes going forward. But this belated debut in one of the "big three" European festival competitions — Schanelec vied for the Golden Leopard at Locarno in 2016 with another elliptical conundrum, The Dreamed Path — has already expanded the filmmaker's renown far beyond the coterie of admirers she's been slowly building up since the 47-minute I Stayed in Berlin All Summer (1994).

Her eighth full-lengther emphatically deserves art house exposure, ideally in the context of career-surveying retrospectives, and at the very least further festival play can be confidently predicted. An awkwardly angular work full of alienating technique and disorienting ellipses, one which really requires at least two viewings, it's a cumulatively brilliant achievement which may still be talked about — and ardently debated — long after nearly all of this year's flashier Berlinale titles have been forgotten.

The story, in retrospect, is essentially a simple one, albeit drastically refracted into opacity and mystery by Schanelec's preferred mode of non-linear editing. Two years after the death of her beloved husband, fortyish Astrid (Maren Eggert, superb) is still in the throes of emotionally unstable bereavement. Her young teenage son Phillip (Jakob Lassalle) runs away from home and lives wild for a week, during which time he suffers a foot injury which ultimately results in the amputation of a toe.

His little sister Flo (Clara Moeller), unable to connect properly with her brittle mother — now seeing a youthful tennis instructor (Jirka Zett) — turns to Phillip to provide parental love. Dramatic incident is intermittent and mainly occurs offscreen. A significant subplot revolves around Astrid's purchase of a used, supposedly reconditioned bicycle from an elderly stranger of ambiguous motives, Mr Meissner (Alan Williams), which reveals her inability to navigate life's straightforward tasks.

There are long stretches without dialogue — eight full minutes, including a prologue featuring a rabbit, a hare and a donkey (who later reappear in the epilogue), elapse before a single word is spoken. And much of that dialogue is written by Shakespeare rather than Schanelec. Phillip has been cast in the lead role in a school production of Hamlet, and rehearsals for the play take up a significant (some will say excessive) amount of screen time.

Exchanges are generally gnomic and freighted with significance: characters often seem zonked-out, stunned by life or perhaps even something akin to quasi-human pod people. Teutonic gravity weighs heavy. Something is rotten in the state not only of these characters, but in their entire society. If the whole film were like this, I Was at Home, But... would be truly unbearable. Fortunately, this is very far from the case. True, Schanelec does wear her debt to revered French master Robert Bresson proudly on her sleeve. But she adds a crucial element which Bresson carefully avoided: humor, sprinkled sparingly but invaluably, both visually and verbally, across a handful of scenes.

These include the most dialogue-heavy interlude in a picture which is otherwise laconic to a tight-lipped degree, when Astrid bumps into a filmmaker (acclaimed Serbian director Dane Komljen) while out shopping. She had previously attended a screening of his latest work and, presented via one long unbroken take, treats the visibly bemused auteur to a devastating intellectual critique of the piece (one which she didn't actually watch until the end). This then turns into a rapid-fire rumination on the nature of art itself. Acting is "always a lie... isn't natural... How hollow and empty [it] is... The truth only reveals itself when you're forced to lose control."

The viewer may of course elect to apply such tenets to Schanelec's work, a self-aware affair whose prevailing air of arch severity certainly won't be to all palates. It's an uncompromising, sophisticated, multi-layered work of art which demands to be met at least halfway. The 1932 silent Japanese classic by Yasujiro Ozu, I Was Born, But..., likewise a chronicle of wayward youth experiencing problematic father issues, looks like Disney in comparison. Cinematography by rising Serbian lenser Ivan Markovic is mostly chilly and distanced, a matter of crisp autumn-wintry light and precise compositions. But this aesthetic approach emerges as a neutral backdrop onto which Schanelec boldly applies a scattering of poetic touches via visual and aural grace notes.

Audiences able to meet the film's demands for the first 45 minutes are rewarded by a remarkable sequence soundtracked by Oregon folk-rocker M Ward's low-tempo cover of the David Bowie standard "Let's Dance." Astrid sprawls on the ground in a cemetery at night, her hands on what we later deduce to be her husband's gravestone; cut to Astrid, Philipp and Flo performing a choreographic routine at the foot of a hospital bed, which we also later deduce to be the father's; cut to a nocturnal forest with a single bright star twinkling between the trees. It's a breathtaking display of simple cinematic virtuosity — from here on in it's clear that we're not merely in safe hands, but that the hands are those of a modern master.

Production companies: Nachmittagfilm, Dartfilm & Video, ZDF, 3sat
Cast: Maren Eggert, Jakob Lassalle, Clara Moeller, Franz Rogowski, Dane Komljen, Lilith Stangenberg, Alan Williams, Jirka Zett
Director-screenwriter-editor: Angela Schanelec
Producers: Angela Schanelec, Natasa Damnjanovic, Vladimir Vidic
Executive producer: Jana Cisar
Director of photography: Ivan Markovic
Production designer: Reinhild Blaschke
Costume designer: Birgitt Kilian
Casting: Ulrike Muller
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin

In German
103 minutes