The Cinema of Identification Gets on my Nerves: An Interview with Christian Petzold
by Marco Abel
German cinema seems on a roll these days. It can lay claim to a series of international film festival awards, including four Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film—and two wins—since the turn of the millennium. Perhaps the world has finally rekindled its interest in a national cinema it essentially ignored since the demise of the New German Cinema of the early 1980s. Yet films such as the two Oscar winners, Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa, Caroline Link, 2001) and Das Leben der Anderen (Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006), as well as the runners-up, Der Untergang (Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004) and Sophie Scholl (Marc Rothemund, 2004), represent little more than reasonably well-made mainstream films that tend to pander to preexisting conceptions of German culture. It is hardly a coincidence that all four films deal in one way or another with the “big issues” of the German past: the Hitler years and the sinister activities of East Germany’s secret police. American audiences especially seem to love such German films, as if to perpetuate the stereotype that German culture can essentially be reduced forever to its totalitarian legacies of the twentieth century.
Under the radar of these nationally and internationally celebrated “heritage films,” however, flies an altogether different filmmaking movement, one which is known in Germany as the “Berlin School” and constitutes a significant part of what Cahiers du cinéma has coined nouvelle vague Allemande.1 Most recently, directors such as Christoph Hochhäusler, Benjamin Heisenberg, Valeska Grisebach, Ulrich Köhler, or Henner Winckler have made a series of features that have attracted the attention of film critics in Germany as well as in France and England.2 Often considered the second generation of the “Berlin School,” their films’ esthetics and attitude towards their subject matter—the depiction of post-wall Germany on the level of micropolitics rather than of “big,” macro-political issues—can be considered in close conjunction with those of their “older siblings” of the first generation of the “Berlin School”: Angela Schanelec, Thomas Arslan, and Christian Petzold, all of whom began making their first feature-length films in the early to mid 1990s. Of this entire group of “Berlin School” directors, Christian Petzold has arguably received the most attention in Germany, not least because he has made more feature-length films than any of his peers to date (eight). Furthermore, his film Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000) has thus far been the only film that can be considered a modest box-office success, having attracted roughly 120,000 theatrical viewers in Germany.3 And his films consistently receive some of the most prestigious German film awards.4
Yet except for German film critics, a group of French cinéastes, and connoisseurs of film festivals across the world, hardly anyone has heard of what might arguably be the most important German director of the post-wall era.5 Other than the fact that German cinema at large has struggled for recognition for the past twenty years, Petzold’s relative obscurity has to do with the sheer difficulty of accessing his films outside Germany. Of his eight films only three were released theatrically: his “Ghost Trilogy” consisting of Die innere Sicherheit (The State I am In), Gespenster (Ghosts), and his latest film, Yella. The other five films—Pilotinnen (Pilots, 1994), Cuba Libre (1996), Die Beischlafdiebin (1998),6 Toter Mann (Something to Remind Me), and Wolfsburg—were all made for German TV and had theatrical screenings only at film festivals; none of these films are available on VHS or DVD in any language and are unlikely to be released commercially due to copyright issues. To this day, then, Petzold’s fourteen-year career as a director has yielded only three proper commercial releases—and of those, even the subtitled version of the much-celebrated Die innere Sicherheit is not easily available for home consumption. Despite this problematic situation—which is further exacerbated by the fact that even in Germany his theatrical films don’t necessarily bring down the house—Gespenster attracted a mere 40,000 theatrical viewers—Petzold is seen in Germany and France as something akin to the godfather of the “Berlin School.”7 And he remains undaunted by the size of his audience. Mr. Petzold is currently preparing his ninth feature, Jerichow, which he describes as a kind of remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946). Shooting is scheduled to start in early 2008.
That Petzold assumes such a crucial place in the critical assessment of contemporary German cinema has, I think, to do with the fact that he makes films about people who, by and large, populate in-between spaces—real and dreamlike—indeed ghostlike spaces that constitute, for him, the real heart of post-wall Germany. In some sense Petzold, born in 1960 and married to filmmaker Aysun Bademsoy, does not make films about outsiders or marginalized people; instead, he is interested in investigating the immanent borderscapes that make up the heart of late capitalist Germany. More precisely, Petzold’s films are almost always concerned with characters who are on the move—usually against their will—and who are driven by the double desire to find their way home and to maintain a certain amount of independence and autonomy. These desires rarely reach fulfillment precisely because of the socio-political circumstances at which Petzold’s films take a close, patiently observed, clinically precise look. In other words, Petzold’s cinema is about the possibility and demand for mobility in post-wall Germany. This issue has been of central concern to the country’s public sphere since the mid-1990s, as evidenced by the fact that two of the last three German Presidents explicitly admonished German citizens to become more mobile in order to improve the country’s ability to compete in the changed world order dominated by post-Cold War, neoliberal finance capital market economics.8 In short, as the following interview suggests, Petzold’s cinema is of great interest precisely because it engages post-wall Germany on the level of the country’s own socio-political terms.9—Marco Abel
Cineaste: How did you develop an interest in film?
Christian Petzold: I grew up in Hilden, a small town that did not have any movie theaters, at a time when West Germany had only two or three TV channels. So there were very few movies and images in my childhood. Towards the end of the 1970s, when I was still in high school, I began to drive to larger surrounding cities to watch films. My parents had given me Hitchcock by Truffaut (1967), a book of interviews of Hitchcock by Truffaut. I was fascinated by it. So even without having seen Hitchcock’s films I already knew a lot about them. But I also recall two or three films I saw on TV. And then there was the Hitchcock retrospective at the Cinemathek inside the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, which is today the Museum Ludwig, located in Köln, the largest city of the region where I grew up. I think I watched forty-one Hitchcock films! I was seventeen. Subsequently I saw a retrospective of Fritz Lang’s films. And I also began attending a small film club in Solingen or Wuppertal, which was run by a homosexual who loved to show F. W. Murnau’s Tabu (1931). Tom Tykwer, who also grew up in the region, told me that he knew that guy as well, as he was in the same film club; he recalls also having seen Tabu there. So that’s how it started.
As an adolescent, I did not have a narrative for the place where I lived. These suburbs—these German suburbs, which are quite different than American suburbs—lack a narrative. Germany did not have its Neorealism, nor did we have an early Michelangelo Antonioni whose films talked about how a country builds itself, crumbles, and falls prey to an increasing individualism. I think out of a need for just such narratives, which I also failed to find in German literature, I began to become interested in the cinema, for I did find such narratives there. Subsequently I discovered the films by Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in which I found something that allowed me to see and explain my own world in a proper manner.
Cineaste: Nevertheless you initially decided to study German literature rather than film at the university. Only after you received a Master’s degree with a thesis on Rolf-Dieter Brinkmann did you enroll at the dffb [German Film and Television Academy of Berlin] to study filmmaking.10 Why did you eventually decide to switch from literature to film?
Petzold: When I moved to Berlin to study literature I already knew that I would eventually turn to film. But literature had the capacity to make the world complicated for me, which I liked quite a lot. It offered me the world in such a way that I enjoyed looking at it. I also felt that you couldn’t make good films without also knowing something about life. Even today I maintain that no film school should admit students who are not at least twenty-six years old. Most film students are simply too young. You can tell this because most films continue to be about some teenagers struggling against their parents—which simply is a boring topic if it is told from the perspective of a young filmmaker. Nicholas Ray once told such stories much better than today’s young directors. So when I moved to Berlin I knew it was too early for me to make films. I nevertheless made a few short films [such as Mission (1987), Weiber (1989), and Süden (1990)] with my own money, but they were no good; something was simply missing in them. Perhaps humility. These films were merely sketches; they were small, arrogant movies. I did not like them one bit. So instead of making features I simply went to the movies all the time. I also audited classes at the film academy, while simultaneously studying literature. I worked then for four or five years in the theatre before applying at the dffb towards the end of the 1980s, when I was twenty-seven years old.
Cineaste: And when you seriously began to study filmmaking at the dffb?
Petzold: It was a shock! I thought that because I had studied literature—and I had also written a lot, short stories and such—I thought it would be really easy for me to make narrative cinema. I thought I would write a script, cast some actors, get the production in order, and direct the film myself. But during the first year at the academy, I found out that I was not capable of doing this. We were three groups of six students each, but even with only six members we were a rather complex group. I was in a group with people such as Jan Ralske and Christian Frosch with whom I am still in touch today.11 We watched a whole bunch of films and ceaselessly discussed them, so much so that my head was spinning. It was a permanent state of crisis for me. I had once experienced a similar state of crisis when I was still in high school, when I listened to new music toward the end of the 1970s—Punk, New Wave, Talking Heads, etc. With this music everything was confused as well. And I experienced just such confusion at the dffb, too. Of course I knew Robert Bresson, films by François Truffaut, etc., but at the moment when I tried to make films they were of no help to me! I was simply incapable of making a film. For more than two years I did not make a film. I merely watched and thought about what I saw. I really went through a serious crisis—a crisis that affected the entire group. Eventually we thematized this crisis situation.
Cineaste: Were Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky already your teachers then?
Petzold: Yes. But they don’t help you get out of such a crisis: they are the crisis! But, no, this was great. They were the key to our development. We simply sat there and watched films; we were bombarded with a wealth of images, and I simply could not take a camera into my own hands. The standard myth of the young filmmaker—who always says, “I took the camera into my hands and started shooting what was there”—this romantic idea of filmmaking was not available to me. But of course this had to do with my biography: I had acquired a graduate degree, and I was an intellectual, so any form of playing innocent would have meant lying to myself. I had no choice but to make films by reflecting on them. Once I began assisting Bitomsky and Farocki on some of their productions [on the documentaries Die UFA (1992) and Ein Tag im Leben des Endverbrauchers (A Day in the Life of a Consumer, 1993), respectively], I gradually began to understand; and when I was allowed to work with them at the editing bay, that’s when I really began to comprehend something.
Cineaste: You were taught by filmmakers who cannot be said to make narrative cinema, yet your films qualify as narrative cinema. Was following Farocki and Bitomsky into the avant-garde or documentary tradition never really an option for you?
Petzold: Only briefly. During my time of crisis I made two shorts, which were more or less ‘essay’ films. But I quickly realized that I could not work that way. In this kind of filmmaking the editing bay is like a desk; you essentially collect material to work on it later, in isolation. The loneliness of Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, Farocki, and Bitomsky—which in many ways is self-imposed by them—that was not the kind of work environment I desired. I cannot work this way. I did this for five years as a literary scholar; I did not start making films to emulate this experience. But it should be noted that both Farocki and Bitomsky love narrative film. If you look closely at their films you see that theirs are films that actually desire narrative cinema, while perhaps simultaneously being about the impossibility or crisis of narrative cinema. But I did not want to pursue their path. I still learned more about the art of narrative from them than from people who are so-called storytellers, but do not interrogate themselves. I also learned more about American cinema from Godard films than by watching American films themselves.
Cineaste: Since you received formal training at the dffb, I wonder whether you also had to take courses in film theory?
Petzold: Yes, some. But since I had already studied film theory when I still worked on literature, I had sworn to myself that I would never study this again! I don’t think highly of film theory. I don’t say this because I want to be revisionist about my intellectual biography. But the theories of Christian Metz, Pier Paolo Passolini, or whomever else we studied simply did not grab me. I always thought that Roland Barthes was right when he argued that a film, an image, is not a sign. But of course we did study film theory at the academy, for you can’t simply say, “Now I take the camera and shoot.” In any case, you have to become theoretical at the very moment when you begin to edit. You constantly have to explain yourself as a director. You have actors whom you have to tell things. You can do this in a military style, where you do not allow objections, where you merely follow a certain grammar. But that’s not how I work. I require more explanation, both of myself and others; I have to collectivize this process. For this reason alone I was involved in film theory, but not because I believed that the great film theoreticians would advance my abilities to make films. They did advance me in other areas, however. Gilles Deleuze’s books on cinema are brilliant as philosophy, but they are not something that helps me make films. And I do not expect this of them.
Cineaste: Volker Schlöndorff argues12 that the crisis of German cinema in the 1990s—by which he primarily meant the yuppie comedies that Harvard film scholar Eric Rentschler labeled the German “cinema of consensus”13—had to do with a general resistance among German directors to theory. In his opinion, the problem continues to be that German film academies do not offer enough theory for their students.
Petzold: I’m not sure about this. I don’t think we will improve filmmaking in Germany by offering more film theory seminars. We were in need of instructors who could think cinema rather than divide it into neat, teachable categories. The latter approach began, and dominated film teaching, in the 1980s, and the German Autorenkino is at least partially to blame for this. They participated in this pigeonholing—art house over here, mainstream over there, nonstars vs. stars, etc. Those who participated in divvying up cinema this way were the death of cinema. And the cinema for which Schlöndorff stands was involved in this process because it began to focus on adapting great German literature. Hitchcock said that you couldn’t film a great novel, only a bad one. I find myself agreeing with this, for cinema is not literature. But towards the end of the 1970s, all of a sudden everyone made films based on novels by Uwe Johnson or Thomas Mann, and this was the most boring and impoverished cinema imaginable.14 Thus by the end of the 1980s we had two kinds of cinema: the miserable cinema of literature and an escapist, lowbrow cinema, which wanted to be the opposite of this literary cinema. And before you knew it someone like Dominik Graf, for whose attempt at making intelligent genre films I have the utmost respect, found himself in an incredibly lonesome position.15
Cineaste: Your films have many genre elements that you take from crime stories, mysteries, even melodramas. Graf, who is a relentless proponent of genre cinema, publicly bemoans with great regularity the apparent inability of German directors to make good genre films.16 I don’t know what he thinks of your films, but it’s clear that your way of dealing with genre fundamentally differs from his.
Petzold: I feel closely related to Dominik, even though we most certainly work and think differently. I think that it does not make much sense to demand, as he does, genre cinema in Germany because genre cinema requires existing genres; you cannot artificially make it or revive it as a retro-event. German comedy of the late 1980s, early 1990s was genre cinema, and perhaps one should have responded back then. Perhaps we should have worked through the genre issue when genre was available to us. Of course, television has absorbed genre cinema, which is why you can’t revive it in the cinema as a retro-event. The traces of genre are like echoes. Graf loves English directors such as Mike Figgis and Nicholas Roeg who went to America out of love for Hollywood, which is genre cinema, to continue the tradition of genre film. Graf likes directors who want to revive and rediscover the conventions of genre. Graf’s Sisyphus work is to keep making a film here and there that reminds us of how wonderful streets used to look in cinema, of how great nights used to look, and of how awesome women looked. I am fascinated by this labor, in which he invests enormous, almost suicidal energy, because each of his films goes beyond well-established boundaries. I have the feeling that I make films in the cemetery of genre cinema, from the remainders that are still there for the taking.
Cineaste: Of late there appears a revival of German cinema. Perhaps it’s too early to call it a new golden age of German film, but the signs—I’m thinking here also of the so-called “Berlin School”—point towards something like a renaissance of filmmaking in Germany.
Petzold: Indeed, German cinema has become much more interesting of late. It has become really a very rich cinema—but cinema as such does not exist anymore. There are films, but there is no public for them. We have to face this without illusions; and you can’t change it either. You cannot invent a film infrastructure with films, since this infrastructure is determined by television, which rules everything, certainly in Germany. The large trusts and monopolies homogenized everything; as a result, one makes films in niches. But if you dwell too long on this fact you go crazy. Gespenster had about 40,000 viewers; that’s not encouraging. But it would have been presumptuous to believe that we would have reached more viewers in the theaters with this film. It’s just the way it is.
Cineaste: Certainly, it would have been delusional to expect Gespenster, an esthetically reduced film, to attract a larger audience. I assume you were even surprised that Die innere Sicherheit managed to attract more than 100,000 theater viewers.
Petzold: Around 200,000 even. We were able to make some money with it! It did profit from the fact that at the time Germany witnessed another debate about the RAF.17
Cineaste: Your graduation film, Pilotinnen, commences in Paris, with an image of the protagonist’s hands. As we see them, she says: “at some time a place will belong to us.” Then you cut to her driving in a car on the Autobahn, and you set a reduced piano score to this scene. This is your very first scene in a narrative feature film. Two questions: Was the decision to begin this film in Paris a conscious gesture, a nod to the Nouvelle Vague, to the cinéma des auteurs? And, looking back, is it correct to see in this scene already somewhat of a paradigm for your films: the automobile landscape, the industrial environment, the grey-blue and green-blue colors, the piano score that is always extremely minimalist, etc. Christoph Hochhäusler calls this esthetic “technological lyricism.”18
Petzold: Yes, that’s right. But Paris has less to do with the Nouvelle Vague than with the fact that the protagonist is a saleswoman for cosmetics. On every cosmetic bottle are the names of Paris, Milan, or London, so the film was supposed to begin in one of these cities. As well, I am interested in transitional spaces. Modern capitalism has created them. And cinema, like the car and the car radio, always existed to provide a mythos for these spaces: the solitariness of driving, road movies, all of these things derive from this. And in the 1950s these transitional spaces were rendered in hedonistic terms, with teenagers driving in Nicholas Ray’s films: driving, drive-in movies, sex in cars, etc. And I thought, when I began the film, right now this mythos is in the process of dissolution: people are no longer on the road in order to find themselves but because they cannot find an exit, because there are no more cities. This is why the film starts in Paris, because its name is on the perfume bottle, which suggests Paris is still a city, which is where I want to go. The woman who keeps driving on the Autobahn-net desires a real city, and Paris is a real city, and the man with whom she is driving is French, even though we never see him. This was the initial situation. And the path to get there, via a process of criminalization, that’s always of interest to me: not in the sense that people have machine guns but that the everyday things that surround us can acquire criminal energy.
Cineaste: What is interesting is that as a male director you chose to make a first film that is as much about female rivalry, friendship, and solidarity as it is about the early effects of globalization on reunified Germany.
Petzold: I wrote the story together with Harun Farocki. But the simplest explanation for the choice of subject matter is that women are foreign to me. Focusing on a female character prevents me from getting too biographical. Focusing on men driving on the Autobahn would inevitably have something to do with me (search of self, etc.). When telling a story about women, the danger is of course that one desires them, that the storyteller desires his own characters, but I’m aware that I am not 100% neutral. Nevertheless, the choice of protagonists enabled me to assume greater distance from the narrative. I was able to see from a greater distance the mechanisms of dependence and exploitation that prevail: the men still own the companies, while the women have to work. The women want to be free, so there are no children: they immediately get rid of them if they don’t function. I was able to film all of this from a point of greater distance than I would have been able to if the characters had had too much of myself in them. The “cinema of identification” gets on my nerves, so I made a film that was not about identification, or, in any case, a film in which the degree of identification is lower than usual. I wanted to see the world, not merely the subject (through whom one is invited to see the world in the traditional “cinema of identification”).
Cineaste: This strategy seems to be part of all your films: most of your primary protagonists are women, and even in films such as Cuba Libre and Toter Mann men are, at best, in positions equal to the female characters. In this respect your films almost seem to evoke the cinemas of Pedro Almodóvar or Douglas Sirk, that is, melodramas—films in which women have big roles.
Petzold: Exactly. These directors are also somewhat like fathers, as is Hitchcock.
Cineaste: In your early films, many of the characters seem to share the desire to leave Germany. Do you share this dream without ever having realized it?
Petzold: That’s true, although the direction of this dream then reverses itself in the more recent films. I think most great narratives are travel narratives in one form or another. In the final analysis, such narratives only pretend that people set out on a journey into the foreign. In the end it’s all a version of Homer’s Odyssey: mostly, such narratives are about getting home. So when my characters talk about some islands, Bora Bora [in Die Beischlafdiebin] or whatever, that’s actually a synonym for finding one’s place in life. The point is not even to get to know that which is foreign, or to cross some threshold; the point is to get back home, to find one’s home. That’s the subject matter for me. And Bora Bora merely represents something like a metaphysical home. But eventually I stopped taking this route: Die innere Sicherheit is about Germany, and from then on all of my films are about Germany, not about escaping it.
Cineaste: Since the mid to late 1990s, a public debate has been going on about this very issue: that Germans are immobile, that the country is paralyzed (psychologically as well as materially and culturally), that we need change. It was hardly a coincidence that two of the last three German Presidents, Roman Herzog (1994 - 1999) and Horst Köhler (2004 - present), respectively, delivered well-publicized and controversial speeches in which they explicitly admonished citizens to embrace neoliberal ideas of mobility. Given this context, it is interesting to see that you make films about mobility—transformation and change—at the very moment when such mobility is absent in the social reality of Germany.
Petzold: The entire neoliberal nonsense began in the 1980s. Its political impetus was always to destroy all well-established social institutions, even though the reunification in 1990 momentarily disguised that trend. The polis, the public space, the common, all sexy terms such as the “lean state”—all of these were merely synonyms for the essential desire of neoliberals to destroy the political society. Like in the U.S. And in this context talk began to turn to the issue of flexibility; that’s when a discourse appeared that turned against those people who were unable to move, who wanted a permanent home. At that time I read novels by Georges Simenon, which are all about individuals who want to be modern but fail to accomplish this, for Simenon, like Anton Chekhov before him, believes that people are poorly prepared for modern life and always carry archaic remainders of another life. It is these people who are being pushed out of societies or are put in motion, but they do not even know where to go, where all of this is supposed to lead. They consequently end up in transitional spaces, transit zones where nothingness looms on one side and the impossibility of returning to what existed in the past on the other. These are the spaces that interest me.
Cineaste: Normally, when films deal with mobility, they rely on a style made up of quick cuts, short takes, lots of action, and various clichés that somehow try to represent mobility or movement. Your films, however, treat “mobility” in fundamentally different ways, for your films, stylistically speaking, are rather static. So if your films can indeed be said to be about mobility, do you see yourself consciously resisting the impetus to “represent” mobility? Do you see yourself putting the concept of “representation” as such at stake?
Petzold: Indeed! When you’re in an airplane and then get out, you suddenly notice an enormous mobility among businessmen and tourists, who get out their cell phones and run like crazy people to cabs, who slam doors as if they want to say, “we are mobile.” But in the end, if you take a closer look, you notice how all airports look alike, that all airports have a Burberry store, a Rolex store, a Bulgari store, and everyone carries a two-liter bottle of water, everyone wears suits or leisure wear and sleeps with his or her head on a carry-on in some corner. So on one hand there’s an enormous mythologizing of mobility, which is shown with the help of quick cuts and cars in advertising; on the other hand, the more mobility is represented in films or is demanded by advertising the less it actually exists. Nothing is moving! This unmoving movement, this immobile mobility, I think, is something, a place, an uncanny place, that has emerged as a fundamental condition of life in the present: a new form of loneliness of the traveler. And this new loneliness has not even been researched. That’s why those road movies in which some people want to see the ocean one more time, or which show handicapped people just before dying, get on my nerves. That’s eighteenth century, or the worst of the nineteenth!
I am interested in the mobile immobilities, the so-called transit zones, these no-places: that’s where something modern is happening. And they expand in a metastatic way. Today I met a friend who told me that most recent horror films, with their scenes of torture and mercenary characters, take place in Eastern Europe, in CIS countries.19 This is because the capitalist map has become so vast that everything is homogenized. There are but a few spots left where we can still imagine horror, an outside, but it is in this outside where horror occurs, where capitalism is in the process of intruding, where in three years it’ll all be over, where cheap labor, low taxes, low cost of employment essentially are already destroying everything. That’s why horror does not even come anymore from countries in Asia or Africa, but rather from Kazakhstan, Georgia, the Ukraine, etc. This is quite fascinating. I think this has to do with the fact that today films are not really made by studios anymore but by humongous, publicly traded global corporations. And they know that they cause capital to deterritorialize the entire world, that they force the world to become ever more flexible, but also that they force the world into paralysis. That’s why they have to push ever further to the margins, but soon no more margins will exist. I am not so much interested in the margins—Bora Bora, etc.; I am interested in the center, what happens there.
Cineaste: The sensation of movement that your films set loose functions on the level of affect. Movement is rendered sensible as something intensive rather than extensive. In patiently lingering on an image, you depict change on an affective, haptic level. Your camera is not interested in looking beyond what is occurring. It’s not a matter of depicting a drive to the ocean, which almost always tends to evoke transcendence, a utopian mobility beyond the here and now. Instead, your camera tries to inhere in the event, to give us the event and to push it to its limit, to the limit of what is visible, and thus to effect the moment of transformation that occurs from within, immanently, rather than from without, caused by a clearly delineable object-cause. It is these immanently produced moments that for me constitute in principle the opposite of the neoliberal version of mobility. You once said that we are still far away from making political films. But could we not say that your films are political precisely because your images put into question one of capitalism’s most important aspects: that of mobility?
Petzold: Yes, I absolutely agree. I once talked with Christoph Hochhäusler for a long time about the question of political filmmaking. Both of us had read a book by Peter Nau on the issue of political filmmaking.20 Nau explicitly demands that films have to be made politically. In our case, production circumstances for films are of course capitalist, which is why film has to reflect its own conditions of production. Each great filmmaker—be it Truffaut, Godard, or Fassbinder—has made films about making films. That is, they placed themselves and their conditions of production center stage. These are political films for me. That kind of politics inheres in my films too, yet most of the time what is political about my films occurs to me mostly after the fact.
Cineaste: Yours are not thesis-driven films.
Petzold: Exactly. Something happens in the telling; something emerges out of its complexity. When the film is done, I sometimes realize that there is a thought that I have not even finished thinking; even though it is somehow realized in the film, it was not there at the beginning. There are always a lot of philosophical texts that accompany the shooting process, but they are more something that I read to the actors, just as I play music, which leaves a mark on the shooting process. Sometimes all of this becomes a web that fits together, and at other times it has nothing at all to do with the final film.
Cineaste: Your films are characterized by a certain esthetic asceticism, or sternness. Do you have models for this?
Petzold: When I was eighteen I saw John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). That was a major filmic event for me, which left its mark on me to this day. It’s a film with mental, subjective images, as well as objective ones; their alternation creates the sensation of horror. You never really know whether what is on screen is objective or subjective. And sometimes the possessor of the gaze suddenly steps into what appears as a point of view shot, thus appearing as an object, not subject, in front of the camera. This comes as a shock every time anew. I think this really formed me. Hitchcock does this frequently as well, so that you are never sure of the identity of the agent of the look: is it Hitchcock, a narrator, or the character? And in Edward Hopper’s late paintings he stopped painting figures in borderline situations and instead painted the borderlines themselves, as look. I think that toward the end of his career Hopper painted like Yazujiro Ozu made films.
I always discuss with my cinematographer, Hans Fromm, when we have rehearsed a scene with the actors for a long time, how we can cinematically realize this scene. How can you film it? Who does the looking here? And what comes before, what after? I always try to forge a connection between the mental and the objective image. This may be the source of my esthetic style. At times my figures are part of a spatial psychology, a spatial rhythm, whereas at other times they appear as if in a portrait. That is, sometimes it’s the space that is being rendered as a portrait with people, at others it’s the figures themselves who make up the classic portrait. This composition of the frame changes, depending on how the characters themselves feel. That is, sometimes they are beaten down by their environment, and sometimes the environment exists merely because of them.
Cineaste: You just mentioned Hopper. Do you have other extracinematic models that conceptually influence you? For instance, in Die Beischlafdiebin a poster of Gerhard Richter’s “Betty” (1988) hangs on a wall. And then there are a number of scenes that almost appear as if you restaged the German artist’s seascape paintings such as the “Seastuck” series (1968-1969) or “Iceberg in Mist” (1982). I’m thinking here, for example, of various scenes in Cuba Libre, Die Beischlafdiebin, or Wolfsburg. In general, it seems that your images have a lot in common with Richter’s blue-grey tones as well as his particular use of “focus” (which so often is just a bit “off”).
Petzold: Yes, Richter was a really important painter for me. He still is! I like that his paintings are simultaneously turned toward and away from the beholder. This relates to the issue of subjective vs. objective that I just discussed. American actors are superior to all others in the world because they act, that is, they are next to themselves while concurrently remaining identical to themselves. Look at Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). He plays a dirty G. I., and we see the pleasure he takes in acting, but simultaneously he also is this figure, he identifies with it. I like this simultaneous identification and stepping-out-of-himself a lot, which is something like an American way of Brechtian acting. I try to get this from my actors: I want them to give themselves totally over to the characters they play and simultaneously step outside of these figures.
Cineaste: You once wrote that you would not be interested in making films about the German past because film, for you, is about the present. You quoted Truffaut on the problem of the sky in historical films, that for him the sky in an image always points to the present…
Petzold: That was in an essay I wrote on Romero.21
Cineaste: In some sense, one might be able to read “Betty” (and many of Richter’s paintings) with recourse to Walter Benjamin’s angel of history: there is nothing but the present, yet the angel’s gaze, in its radical presentness, directs us to history, to the question of the past.
Petzold: Yes, what I want to do with my films has a lot to do with this. Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” was an important text for me during my time as a literary scholar.22
Cineaste: Earlier you mentioned Deleuze, his books on the cinema. Are you also familiar with his book on the Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon?
Cineaste: Deleuze argues that for Bacon, in terms of his painterly practice, the canvas is initially full of images, which is why his first task is to abstract from this only apparently empty canvas all pictorial clichés.23 How does this work for you when you start a new film? Do you also face the problem that the cinema’s projection surface, the screen, is a priori full of moving images? I am thinking, for instance, about your approach to locations, as in Gespenster, where at the beginning the camera almost crawls across the ground of some not-yet-specified forest—a forest that does not immediately announce itself to the viewer as the famous Tierpark in Berlin. The film does not immediately provide viewers who know Berlin only from film and TV images with the ‘meaning’ of the image. The film does not immediately announce that we’re in Berlin by, say, showing an image of the city’s TV tower or whatever other cliché-like images of Berlin you could have used. It seems almost as if you abstracted our stale ideas of Berlin from the screen in order to find, or invent, new possibilities for rendering this space visible.
Petzold: Yes, exactly. I would love to work in a studio. What would be of interest to me about working in a studio is the ability to go there at 9:00 a.m. and return home at 5:00 p.m., every day; that is, I would love to work in a more industrial manner. I also think that the cinema does not belong in museums. Hence, I don’t think it should be something akin to a nineteenth-century artist cinema; rather, cinema ought to be serial in some form or fashion. I would love to work serially. Which is why I think that the images that are currently being produced in the U.S., their TV series, are the most interesting laboratories. What HBO does is fantastic. But this is not television. That is, people buy or rent the series on DVD and essentially watch them as if they were cinema. This is a new form of watching movies that is currently approaching us. You sit together and escape into some world: it’s ersatz cinema. I would be interested in serial work in the cinema itself; that is, I would be interested in a studio, though the studio itself would be less interesting to me. I am not interested in being faced with empty rooms, which I then have to fill. Rather, I have to find a point in a room, which is the present, from which to look out, and I need to find a second point that I relate to the first. I have to discover segments, fragments, that narrate the space at hand in a way that is larger than it would appear if I merely shot it in an establishing shot that shows everything at once.
Cineaste: All of your films take place in real space, which is emphasized by the way you photograph these spaces. We can really sense the realness of your spaces, which seems a direct effect of the insisting gaze of your camera. André Bazin once affirmatively described “true realism” with recourse to what he identifies as Erich von Stroheim’s operational filmmaking principle: “Look precisely at the world [and] keep on looking.”24 This ongoing process of looking, this ceaseless staring, has something to do with duration, with enduring, with singularity, and with intensity; in this manner, your camera renders sensible the singularity of a space that, consequently, cannot be replaced with another space.
Petzold: Exactly. You have to behold the most everyday space until it looks back, until it becomes mysterious. This takes work: you have to select segments, and you have to manipulate space; each light is a manipulation of space. In Germany you have furniture stores that learned this only because of the success of IKEA. IKEA furniture looks ugly. But in their catalog it is beautifully photographed: there’s always a rising sun, there’s always a diagonal sun light, a Hopper light that shines through the room. This light tells us that this room, the day, is only at its beginning: everything is still ahead of you, everything is free. But once you got IKEA furniture at home everything is over; that’s when the long night begins! Every setting-into-light is an act of pushing something into the foreground while letting other things drift into the dark. So one renders space colorful. This isn’t merely a matter of representing the preexisting space along the lines of traditional realist esthetics. But even though this is not representational realism everything of what you do to the room has to be derived from within the room itself, immanently, if you will. There are so many people who suddenly stare at something and thus see something—this staring means duration, and we have to insist upon doing this. You have to stare and find a second view, and then things begin to become mysterious and complex. Bad cinema merely provides us with things that we are asked to decode: one object means richness, another old age, yet another youth, etc. But to find youth in old age, or death in morning, as with IKEA’s commercial images, that is of interest to me.
Cineaste: What you’re saying is that one stares and stares, and suddenly the object one stares at metamorphoses in your eye. This once again returns us to the issue of immanent transformation or movement, which is not being generated by some form of decoding operation or extensive force, but...
Petzold: This is what you said at the beginning about the cinema of mobility, with its rapid cuts, etc.: it does not need space anymore, as it almost exclusively appears to work with time.
Cineaste: In your films, families assume an important role. You often talk about your interest in in-between spaces. And the families in your films often find themselves in such spaces and assume a ghostlike quality: the attempt at forging a home by the saleswoman in Pilotinnen, the failed attempt of the two protagonists in Cuba Libre to share a life together, Petra’s desire to return to her family home and live with her sister in Die Beischlafdiebin, the ex-terrorists on the run with their teenage daughter in Die innere Sicherheit, the violent destruction of a family’s togetherness in Toter Mann, the car accident in Wolfsburg, which destroys one family and momentarily seems to forge the potential for creating a new one, the orphaned children (and parents, if you will) in Gespenster, and most recently the undoing of family life as a result of devastating economic postreunification circumstances in Yella. Where does your interest in this subject matter come from?
Petzold: My generation was taught by all these leftist teachers whose consciousness was shaped by the events of 1968. At that time the family was seen to be the smallest cell of the state, of fascist structures, that is, as the biggest piece of shit imaginable. It was the site where discipline and training was implemented. In this context Deleuze’s essay on control societies impressed me immensely when I began making films in the mid-90s, just before Deleuze’s death.25 Deleuze argues that the extrafamiliar institutions that cropped up everywhere, those hedonistic communities, the patchwork families, the communes, and the shared apartment-living situations, which were established in direct opposition to the traditional father-mother-child neurosis—that these new forms, which were and are perceived as libratory, actually embody the modern control society, that is, are modern forms of oppression that suddenly exert their force upon people. I was impressed by this insight, and subsequently I began to examine what happened to the traditional family. This family really does not exist anymore. It is being subvented by the state: couples now get money so that they produce children. But the desire to have children does not come out of desires immanent to couples’ relationships anymore; the reproduction of society does not work anymore, which is why I took an interest in the family. This is quite pronounced in Die innere Sicherheit. But even in Toter Mann do we see a rest of this family, and my new film, Yella, is also about this issue.
Cineaste: In Die Beischlafdiebin, too, we find a rupture within the family: the two sisters permanently lie to each other. And the men, who barely show up but who are constantly being talked about and fall for Petra’s criminal schemes, are desperately searching for something—something that they do not have at home but that they believe they should have. The film suggests this socio-psychic wasteland, this boredom—which might very well be merely a medially produced suggestion, a feeling instilled by advertising that tells people how their lives should be—is characteristic of life in the post-wall era.
Petzold: I always like it when people play something, when they believe that they have to play the role of father or daughter, but then they lose control over the staging. Those are the best moments.
Cineaste: One of the most fascinating moments in Die innere Sicherheit is that for the daughter, Jean (Julia Hummer), the idea of a normal family is almost something utopian, something positive, something that she does not partake of in her real life. It’s a complete reversal from what her parents’ generation believed, even though her terrorist parents decided to try out life with a child.
Petzold: What I liked about the film was that the terrorist family in the film is a model family. They negotiate problems and conflicts with their child in a totally open manner. Yet, there is also discipline and strictness, and the people Jean meets outside, they are mostly remainders, children of divorces, orphans, etc. who are lost and already destroyed before their life ever had a chance to begin. It is as if the people who ended up in the transit spaces of international terrorism wanted to maintain, like immigrants, something that really does not exist anymore.
Cineaste: Your most recent film, Yella, also incorporates the notion of the “family,” albeit more on the level of the film’s subtext: her caring, loving relationship with her father, the absence of any trace of a mother, her marital breakdown. In Germany, and for a much longer time of course in the U.S., the institution of the family has fallen victim to capitalism’s imperative for citizens to be mobile, individual, and workaholics; on the other hand, there is the family values discourse, which, it seems to me, is going through a renaissance in Germany these days.
Petzold: Indeed. This is the kind of contradictoriness that is in Yella. She sheds herself off everything; she makes herself lean, streamlined. She has no ballast. She carries remarkably little with her and lives in hotels, in transit zones. On the other hand she is plagued by ghosts that are pursuing her—ghosts that come not only from outside but are within her and want to pin her down, to ground her. And communism—“A ghost is haunting Europe . . .”—all of this has something to do with family issues. Nina Hoss, who plays Yella, physically understood this right away. She could not even explain this, but she understood physically what Yella’s turmoil is.
Cineaste: Recently I found what I think is the first critical essay in English dealing with one of your films, in a volume on psychoanalytic readings of contemporary European films.26 It would appear that your most recent film, Yella, might also be of great interest to psychoanalytic film critics, given the importance of dreaming in this film. What is your relationship to psychoanalytic thought?
Petzold: When making Yella, I reread a good number of key texts. When I was a student I took a number of courses at the Free University in Berlin on the philosophy of religion, and in this context I also examined the relationship between Freud and Marx, which really interested me when conceiving of Yella. From the beginning, we premised the film on the notion of dream work, for the film is about a woman who works on her dreams, which is why I revisited some of the literature I had read as a student, including two of my favorite texts, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) and Marx’s essay, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.”27 I am certain that we would have won a few revolutions if Marx and Freud had ever met!
Cineaste: By now, most critics discussing your work talk about your “Ghost Trilogy,” comprising of Die innere Sicherheit, Gespenster, and now Yella. Did you conceive from the start to make such a trilogy?
Petzold: Originally no. But during preproduction for Die innere Sicherheit the concept of “ghosts” was very much present in my conversations with Harun. We almost worked one full year on the film, and during that period we often discussed the idea of people who have fallen out of history. The left has fallen out of history, too. In the autobiography of German communists in the 1930s, for instance, we frequently find that they feel not needed anymore: National Socialism is in power, Stalinism is not an alternative, so they end up in a no-man’s land. For instance, Georg K. Glaser, author of the autobiography Geheimnis und Gewalt,28 moves to Paris as a coppersmith in 1935, where he initially hid and eventually lived the rest of his life. He invented the concept of “the silence of history” for himself. He suddenly realizes, as if on a sailboat on the ocean, that there’s no wind anymore: a ghostly atmosphere, where no one needs you anymore, where there is no drive left. Based on these conceptual issues I began to think whether it is not the case that the cinema does not always tell stories about ghosts anyway: stories of people who have fallen out of love, out of work processes, people for whom there is no use anymore. Through these reflections we ended up moving from Die innere Sicherheit, which concerns the political left and terrorism, to the girls in Gespenster who have no biography, no genealogy, and for whom the generalized labor process has no use, to, finally, Yella, which is a film about a woman who exists in a twilight zone between death and life.
Cineaste: We already noted that you are not interested in making films about the (German) past. But it seems to me that one could argue that you are making films about the lingering consequences of the past in the present, as evidenced by the “ghost trilogy” but also Cuba Libre, Toter Mann, or Wolfsburg. Given that Yella’s obvious subtext is the German reunification, I wonder how much this event played a role for your conception of the film?
Petzold: Initially I could not come up with any image for the reunification. Jean-Luc Godard once spoke at the dffb and told us that if he were to make a film about the German reunification then it would be a film about the loneliness of Germany. He would have Erich Honecker, the GDR’s second to last Chairman of the Council of State, drive in a car across the West German Autobahns. This is pretty much as lonely as it gets! But initially I had no thoughts on this topic. I only began thinking about it when I started making films in the East,29 when I discovered the mythological location of so many German legends—the river landscapes, etc.—as a place abandoned by the women who used to live there. All the women gone: this was the first moment when I thought, this is movement, this is an image, and I can make a film about this! Then I watched Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953), for I was always curious about these women who, in the 1930s in the U.S., live together in large urban environments, working as phone operators or in department stores, who are nineteen, twenty years old, and who all came from the country, from Arizona, Texas, Montana, who now sit in bars and become protagonists in gangster stories, who are there to find millionaires. And I thought: where did all the girls from the former East Germany go? Which dreams do they have? What kind of fortune hunters are they? Then I read a lot about Irish women. And when you watch John Ford films, you notice how women always seem to sit in the front of stagecoaches. Of course it is the men on whom the films focus—they fight, shoot, scream—but it is the women who are the real agents of movement. One always has the feeling that it is the women who leave because there is no place for them anymore, no riches, no one who can take care of them. And this was the starting point for Yella: we narrate the topic of the reunification as a story about a woman who is looking for fortune.
Cineaste: You just referred to John Ford’s Westerns. Which role does the notion of genre play for Yella? The film takes some of its conceits from Herk Harvey’s cult B-horror movie, Carnival of Souls (1962), and Ambrose Bierce’s much-anthologized short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890). But it also has elements of Japanese horror/ghost stories. What, in your view, does the element of the “unreal,” which you seem to take from these sources, add to Yella that the film otherwise would not have if it played exclusively on the level of “normal” reality?
Petzold: The infusion of the unreal into the real is of course also a crucial part of the German cultural tradition. For instance, a few weeks ago my children and I watched F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Phantom (1922). You can really sense how the German black romanticism of the nineteenth century suddenly appears in the scripts of the 1920s. That such things happen always has something to do with the fact that a part of communal life, of the social, has been destroyed. Everything is being privatized; people are not being used anymore; they are left staggering about. This is already thematized in E.T.A. Hoffmann and Hugo von Hofmannsthal:30 a social class is in the process of dying, and like ghosts they relive their lives one more time. This interested me, but because this is so German, so close to me, I never had any real access to this idea, except through literature. In terms of cinema, I started relating to this issue only through American films—Carnival of Souls, The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)—which is capable of dealing with it much more naturally because it does have the very genres German cinema does not have. I simply enjoy the way American cinema deals with American mythologies: rather than poking fun at them, they continue working with them. In Germany, however, cinema stopped working with mythologies ever since the fascist period, when the Nazis appropriated German mythology. Which is why American cinema is something like a home for me in this respect.
Cineaste: I once read an interview with, I believe, Japanese director Takashi Shimizu, who remade one of his Japanese horror films, Ju-on (2000) for the American market as The Grudge (2004). Explaining the difference between these two versions of the same story, he argues that whereas for a Japanese audience he does not need to explain the supernatural aspect of the story because ghosts are a component of everyday life in Japanese culture, for an American audience he had to provide more “realistic” explanations precisely because the supernatural is not part of their daily culture.
Petzold: There is some truth to this. I think it has to do with the fact that in the U.S. Christians have occupied mythologies. In Germany, like in Japan, ghosts connote phantoms, dark forests, uninhabitable nature, Rübezahl [a legendary spirit of the Sudeten mountains]. The country is full with such stories, and so is Japan. I think American cinema remade films such as The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002; orig. Ringu, Hideo Nakata, 1998) and Dark Water (Walter Salles, 2005; orig. Honogurai mizu no soko kara, Hideo Nakata, 2002) because the U.S. horror film, which used to be fantastic, was completely destroyed as a result of all these awful, ironic horror-film parodies. This was a result of the ratings system: if you can laugh about monsters even fourteen-year olds can go to see the film. Japanese films are much harder hitting, though. But through remakes such as The Ring, U.S. cinema has found back to mythologies that are serious and heavy, and which are not Christian! I find this quite interesting as a social history of U.S. cinema. But this has also something to do with capitalism—with the fact that people do not understand something essential anymore: that their houses have suddenly lost their value, that there are no securities anymore, that they are being forced into a terrifying independence. That is the moment, of course, when stories begin again; that we now see the reemergence of films about the civil war and the nineteenth century—Jesse James, etc.—that has a lot to do with this.
Cineaste: To me Yella is really one of the great films about capitalism in general and finance capitalism in particular. What makes this film so great is the way it takes seriously how this economic system really operates.31 The film shows, to me compellingly, how this latest stage of capitalism is much “lighter” than its predecessors, which were still characterized by “heavy” labor. And Yella has understood this, whereas her husband hasn’t, which, presumably, is why his company went bankrupt. He still mourns for an earlier, “traditional” stage of capitalism (and, in a last-ditch effort to get his wife back, even promises her again to become what he thinks Yella wanted him to be all along: a regular blue-collar worker), whereas Yella immediately understands that the venture capital environment functions on the level of images, gestures, rumors, surfaces, attitudes, games, etc. Given how precise this film is about finding “proper” images for twenty-first-century capitalism, I wonder how you went about approaching the question of imaging venture capitalism?
Petzold: To start with, there was Harun Farocki’s film Nicht ohne Risiko (Not without Risk, 2004). For three days he filmed a venture capital negotiation like an ethnographer. Harun’s premise was the insight that we do not even have any new images of capitalism yet. Sure, we have these airport boarding zones, where we see modern people with laptops, reading high-gloss magazines, wearing Rolexes and Burberry clothes. All this is only a surface, but we do not have images for how this new form of capitalism operates. We have books about it, but we do not find those images in films. In cinema, capitalism is still being imaged as Charles Chaplin did in Modern Times (1936). Because Harun approached his task ethnographically rather than assuming a priori a denunciatory perspective, the film managed for the first time to render visible the flexible, modern people who are involved in these operations: we gain insights into their lust for victory (as this is now also described a bit in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism ) and where the cheekiness and posing of new “Chicago Boys” comes from. In Yella each sentence of the negotiation is from Harun’s film: none of this was invented, everything is based on real negotiations, including the vocabulary.
I think you can only make a film about someone who is concurrently young and old, light and heavy, who wants to flow with modern capitalism but also dreams of owning a house, and who wants to move about but also wants to be rooted. And this inner turmoil is probably why Yella is so successful. For I think its success here has to do with the audience understanding this conflict when they see it in the film. In Germany they have been parroting neoliberal ideology for the last ten, fifteen years: endless chatter about the lean state, the need for citizens to become independent, and the need to give up the belief that issues such as health, schooling, or prison are the responsibility of the state. The only task for the state now seems to be the executive, whose only job appears to be to regulate the field in favor of capitalism. So the simultaneous occurrence of this lean, sexy language on one hand and the incredible impoverishment, destruction of wage labor, the total loss of security on the other leads to a remarkable regionalization of people. As well, in Germany we are now witnessing an uncanny return of racism: the now “useless” working class beats up asylum seekers, people from foreign countries, gays, etc. That is how you notice the contradictions of the system, which are precisely the contradictions of Yella.
Cineaste: Earlier, you briefly touched on Nina Hoss’s performance, for which she received the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007. To bring this interview to a conclusion, could you talk about how you worked with the actors, especially Nina Hoss and Devid Striesow, who plays the venture capitalist, Phillip—that is, how you designed and developed their roles? For instance, how did you instruct Ms. Hoss to play Yella, a role that is very much ambiguous in terms of who she “is”: both a ghost and a real person, and which at what moment in time?
Petzold: Nina reminded me a week ago of an interesting story. Like Jean Renoir used to do, I stage “Italian rehearsals.” That is, initially we merely read the text, coldly: I instruct the actors simply to read the text, to talk and think about it, but not to play right away. Then, during the first two days, I rehearsed without the main actors, that is, with everyone—those who participate in the negotiations, the one who plays Yella’s father, etc.—but not Nina Hoss, Devid Striesow, and Hinnerk Schönemann [who plays Ben, Yella’s soon-to-be ex-husband]. I simply wanted that at first the so-called supporting characters would not merely be supporting characters. I wanted them as characters to obtain a certain “richness” of their own, especially since I was afraid that they—the capitalists, if you will—would otherwise be in danger of seeming ridiculous. Only then did I begin working with the three main actors. For three days we essentially talked only about venture capitalism. After that we drove to Wittenberge [in former East Germany, the place Yella leaves to find her luck in Hanover, the host city of the World Expo 2000 in former West Germany] in order to take walks there. We strolled through this astonishingly beautiful landscape, which is, however, also characterized by many industrial ruins. We had our conversations about venture capitalism in our heads, as well as Harun’s film. The actors even went to their tax accountants in order to observe their poses. That’s how it was. So the actors had both: an impression of the beautiful landscape, where one simply gained the feeling that one ought to make a nineteenth-century movie, and an incredible quickness of mind necessary for taking over companies only to quickly sell them for profit. In other words, we did not really do much acting work in the traditional sense. Only later did I work with Nina and Devid on how to walk, how to look at and past each other, how one seizes up another person. But mainly our work oscillated between the two extremes of being in a mythical landscape and immersing us in the process of venture capital negotiations.
Cineaste: Do you have already a sense of how many people have seen the film in Germany, where the reviews of the films have been overwhelmingly positive, with some, like Georg Seeßlen, calling the film a “masterpiece”?32
Petzold: I stopped calling the distributor after the first couple of weeks. It’s too embarrassing. But the film started its run with thirty copies, and I think it is enjoying a really good run. I think that it will eventually cross the 100,000 viewers mark, which for such a film in Germany is a really good number.
Cineaste: If the film ended up reaching this number, it would become the second most successful “Berlin School” film, after Die innere Sicherheit. To date, it has been seen by slightly more than 70,000 viewers.
For more on the “Berlin School,” see my essay, “The State of Things: More Images for a Post-Wall Reality—The 56th Berlin Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema 39 (April-June 2006). <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/festivals/06/39/berlin2006.html>.
See, for example, Sight & Sound’s December 2006 issue, which features a special section on German cinema, including various “Berlin School” directors.
In Germany alone, Toter Mann (2001) and Wolfsburg (2003) won the Adolph Grimme award, Gespenster (2005) and Yella (2007) were nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and Die innere Sicherheit won the German Film award. Yella was nominated for four German Film Awards (known as “Lolas”), for best film, best director, best actress (Nina Hoss), and best cinematography (Hans Fromm), and Nina Hoss won.
This may be in the process of changing, given the upcoming U.S. release of Yella and the recent attention lavished upon the film in the U.K. (cf. especially Sight & Sound 17:10 (October 2007), which features not one, not two, but three pieces on Petzold—a review of the film by Demetrios Matheo, a critical introduction to Petzold’s oeuvre by Olaf Möller, and an interview with the director by Jason Wood).
Literally translated, the title means “Intercourse Thief.” The female protagonist makes a living of luring unsuspecting men into having sex with her; before it ever comes to a moment of intercourse, however, she renders the men prostrate and steals their money, credit cars, and jewelry.
It should be pointed out, however, that millions of TV viewers see Petzold’s films. This is quite typical of German film culture today. Many of its nonmainstream films find their real audience only once they are screened on TV, which functions as one of the most important financial backers for the production of these films.
German Presidents Roman Herzog in 1997 and Horst Köhler in 2005 argued for the need of Germans to increase their mobility.
I conducted the interview in German. It took place in Berlin in August 2006 and, the parts dealing with Yella, on the phone in October 2007. Thank you to Alex Jenkins for transcribing the original recording of the “Berlin” part of the interview. The translation of the German transcription is mine.
Brinkmann, a novelist and poet, was one of the enfant terribles of the German literary scene in the 1960s and 1970s. He died in a car accident in London in 1975. The dffb—the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin—is one of Germany’s leading film schools and certainly its most intellectual.
Ralske, born in Texas in 1959, has worked on several German film productions as a sound engineer and also directed the feature film Not a Love Song (1997) and a TV documentary. Frosch, born in Austria in 1966, has thus far directed three features and a full-length experimental film.
Volker Schlöndorff. “Schluss mit der Anpasserei!” Die Zeit May 22, 2003. <http://www.zeit.de/2003/22/CannesSchl_9andorff>.
Eric Rentschler. “From New German Cinema to the Post-Wall Cinema of Consensus.” Cinema and Nation. Eds. Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie. New York: Routledge, 2000: 260-277.
Mann, of course, is one of German literature’s all-time giants; and Johnson, author of what many consider one of German literature’s greatest postwar novels, Anniversaries: From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl, was one of the key writers in Germany of the 1960s and 1970s.
Graf has arguably produced some of the best German television of the last twenty-five years, but he has also made cinema films such as Die Sieger (The Invincibles, 1994), Der Felsen (A Map of the Heart, 2002), and Der rote Kakadu (The Red Cockatoo, 2006).
The most intriguing document of Petzold and Graf’s (friendly) disagreement on this issue is a thirty-page e-mail exchange involving them and Christoph Hochhäusler. The exchange took place in lieu of Graf’s participation at a public panel session on this new German film movement. In the fall of 2006, the dffb had invited most of the directors associated with the “Berlin School”; Graf was asked to participate as someone who is overtly critical of the film aesthetic associated with, and promoted with the help of, the label “Berlin School.” The German film magazine Revolver, which is edited by, among others, Christoph Hochhäusler, features the exchange in its sixteenth issue (2007); the second part of the exchange can be accessed online at http://www.revolver-film.de/ by following the “Mailwechsel ‘Berliner Schule’” link in the sixteenth issue.
Around the time of the film’s release, a public debate raged about the past of German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who, in the 1960s and 1970s, belonged to the extra parliamentary opposition. Around the turn of the millennium, when he was a respected politician in power, photos became public in which he was shown to participate in acts of violence. Fischer, like other then governing left-leaning politicians, had (mostly innocuous) contact with the larger circle surrounding the Red Army Fraction, the leftist guerilla organization that terrorized the West German state throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Marco Abel. “Tender Speaking: An Interview with Christoph Hochhäusler.” Senses of Cinema 42 (January-March 2007). <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/07/42/christoph-hochhausler.html>.
The Commonwealth of Independent States encompasses eleven former Soviet Republics.
Peter Nau. Zur Kritik des politischen Films. Ostfildern: DuMont Reiseverlag, 1982.
Christian Petzold. “Nie mehr Himmel, nie mehr Tag.” Die Zeit September 1, 2005: 45.
Walter Benjamin. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969: 253-264.
Gilles Deleuze. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Trans. Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
André Bazin. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema.” What is Cinema? Vol.1. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005: 27.
Gilles Deleuze. “Postscript on Control Societies.” Negotiations 1972-1990. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995: 177-182. Deleuze died in 1995.
Ralf Zwiebel. “Reparation and the Empathic Other: Christian Petzold’s Wolfsburg.” Projected Shadows: Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Representation of Loss in European Cinema. Ed. Andrea Sabbadini. New York: Routledge, 2007.
In this essay, one of Marx’s most famous statements appears that undoubtedly must have been central to Petzold’s thinking when making the film: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it of their own accord, not under self-chosen circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (http://www.openlibrary.org/details/eighteenthbrumai017766mbp, p.15, translation modified).
Translated, the title means “Secret and Violence.”
Toter Mann, for example, takes partially place in former East Germany. The female protagonist is shown to cross the river Elbe from West to East—in reverse direction of Yella, who crosses the same river in Petzold’s latest effort. Interestingly, the same actress, Nina Hoss, plays both female protagonists.
E.T.A. Hofmann was a writer, composer, and painter during the age of German Romanticism. Hugo von Hofmannsthal was an Austrian dramatist and lyricist of the German-speaking Fin de Siècle.
For a fuller development of this argument, see my “Imaging Germany: The (Political) Cinema of Christian Petzold,” The Collapse of the Conventional: German Film and its Politics at the Turn of the Century, eds. Jaimey Fisher and Brad Prager, Detroit: Wayne State UP, forthcoming.
“Die Anti-Erzählmaschine.” Freitag 37. <http://freitag.de/2007/37/07371301.php>.
Marco Abel is an Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Nebraska. Author of Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique after Representation (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), his current research focuses on contemporary German cinema. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as PMLA, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Senses of Cinema, Angelaki, Modern Fiction Studies, South Atlantic Review, and Electronic Book Review.