Who is Petzold?

If one were to pose this eponymous question – a self-evident one at the start of this Dossier on the German director Christian Petzold – the year 2016 might help bring an answer into notably sharper focus. For it was in 2016 that two of the key institutions of the German-speaking film world, the Austrian Film Museum and the Munich Film Festival, ran near complete and complete (respectively) retrospectives of Petzold, probably the best-known filmmaker of the Berlin School. Moreover, the first (German-language) anthology of essays on Petzold, for which its editors solicited our contributions, was supposed to be published that year.1 This Dossier aims to catch this new wave of interest and respond to it in an Anglophone context, offering timely ruminations on a celebrated director in many ways still mid-career. Born in 1960, Christian Petzold has just finished shooting Transit, his 15th feature-length film, with his first being Pilotinnen (Pilots, 1995), a made-for-TV film with which he graduated from the dffb (the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin or German Film- and Television Academy Berlin), arguably Germany’s most politically-minded and left-leaning film academy, which was founded in 1966 during the heady days of the emerging student revolts in Germany and elsewhere across the globe. One of the original dffb students was the late Harun Farocki (1944-2014), who over the course of nearly half a century of filmmaking produced an oeuvre that simultaneously ranks among the greatest produced by any filmmaker and nevertheless is still very much ripe for discovery. “Who is Farocki?,” Cahiers du Cinéma asked in 1981 – and we suspect that even today this is a question most readers are not able to answer.2

In homage to this great filmmaker, we title the introduction to our Dossier “Who is Petzold?,” both to acknowledge the profound influence Farocki had on Petzold’s career as a teacher when the latter studied with the former at the dffb between 1988 and 1994 and as a long-time friend and collaborator who advised Petzold on all of his scripts through his 2015 made-for-TV film, Kreise (which translates as “Circles”), a film Petzold made for the longstanding German crime television series Polizeiruf 110 (Police Number 110).3 For notwithstanding some recent recognition cited above, Petzold, well into the third decade of his career, is still a relatively obscure filmmaker when compared to peers such as the Dardenne Brothers, Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, and other world cinema luminaries whose early feature-length efforts more or less coincided with Petzold’s.4 To be sure, films such as Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014) gained Petzold attention on the international film festival circuit, as those showed at prestigious international film festivals in New York, Toronto, Rotterdam, and elsewhere; the former even earned Petzold both a Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival and a nomination as Germany’s entry for the best non-English language film at the 85th Academy Awards (ultimately, the film was not selected for the final group of films competing for the award, which Haneke’s Amour [2012] won). But even if we can acknowledge that among cinephiles a certain measure of recognition exists these days when Petzold’s name is mentioned, his is far from a household name even among the more cine-literate crowd that attends screenings at their local arthouse theatre or seeks out such offerings on their preferred streaming providers. Not surprisingly, then, in terms of box office earnings, Petzold’s films hardly leave a mark, with Phoenix earning little more than $3 million outside of Germany and Barbara not quite $6 million, which, it should be said, is not an altogether unrespectable amount for a film that was made on a rather miniscule budget of approximately 2 million Euro.5

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold (© Mike Wolff)

We are therefore excited that Senses of Cinema has afforded us the opportunity to present its readers the first collection of scholarly work in English on this important filmmaker. Our hope is that the contributions to this Dossier introduce a wide variety of readers to a filmmaker whose work is ripe for discovery by cinephiles across the globe and not just those who already harbor an interest in German cinema; moreover, our hope is, too, that the essays in our Dossier will help sharpen our ways of seeing and thinking about Petzold’s work and, thereby, about cinema in general. Petzold’s oeuvre lends itself not only to thinking, from a more or less auteurist perspective, about its internal development but also to reflecting more broadly on the possibilities for narrative cinema in the age of “post-cinema.” This multifaceted positionality of his work results in part from how his films self-consciously aim to occupy one of the most fragile of artistic positions, namely, the very tipping point where a joyful affirmation of narrative, indeed genre, filmmaking is tenuously counter-balanced with a rather austere – or, as Christoph Hochhäusler puts it in his contribution herein, “protestant” – insistence on a rigorously intellectual and political approach to the medium.6

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss on the set of Barbara (2012)

Our own work, to be sure, was among the earliest attempts to shed light on Petzold’s project, one that we might perhaps best describe as an effort to think with and in images and sounds about the contemporary, specifically neoliberal, state of affairs, German or otherwise. In Christian Petzold, the first monograph on the director in any language and to date still the only one in English, Jaimey Fisher systematically unpacked how Petzold’s films must be considered as part of the long tradition of genre filmmaking; and in The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, the first monograph in any language on the most important German filmmaking movement since the New German Cinema of the 1970s, Marco Abel situates Petzold’s work as central to the Berlin School at large precisely due to the director’s affirmation of Jean-Luc Godard’s famous quip that it is necessary to make films politically rather than merely to make political films. Both of our contributions to this Dossier are extensions of our respective monographs. Fisher’s essay foregrounds multiple connections between Petzold’s post-World War Two film Phoenix and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterpiece, Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979), as a means to see what Petzold’s second film not set in the present moment is trying to do; and Abel’s essay closely examines Petzold’s student short films and shows how, at least from today’s vantage point, these “finger exercises” reveal themselves as remarkable seismographic recordings of the very transformations Germany underwent in 1989-1990 (the years when the Berlin wall came down and the two countries unified), precisely by rendering visible the transformational moment of the Wende (as 1989/90 is known in Germany) itself as, ultimately, the point when neoliberalism takes hold of Germany.

Two other contributors to this Dossier can be considered seasoned scholars of the Berlin School. Roger Cook draws our attention to the differences between Petzold’s Barbara and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Academy-Award-winning Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) by approaching the films from a media-theoretical perspective that “distinguishes between the film image as a physical medium as opposed to the film as a text to be read” and argues that Petzold’s film “evokes an embodied mode of spectatorship that resists the representationalist approach to history found in heritage film” in ways that, according to Cook, cannot be claimed for The Lives of Others. Intriguingly, Brad Prager also focuses on these two films – Barbara and The Lives of Others – but offers a decidedly different take on what has often been considered as Petzold’s response to von Donnersmarck’s film. In so doing, Prager’s essay is bound to raise some eyebrows among Petzold scholars and aficionados because its central argument cuts against the grain of the consensus view that Petzold’s first film set in a past historical moment is a superior “counter-film” to The Lives of Others. Beyond the sheer contrarian, even polemical, force of Prager’s intervention, we also believe his contribution to be of great value to Petzold scholarship because of how he puts the director’s effort to negotiate present concerns with the desire to image the historical past in conversation with Siegfried Kracauer’s film theory – a theory with which Petzold was clearly familiar, as both Prager’s and Abel’s essays demonstrate.

In conceptualizing this Dossier, we were also keen to add new voices (and thus perspectives) to the ongoing conversation about Petzold’s work. Jasmin Krakenberg’s contribution discusses a heretofore unrecognized connection between the director’s work and the history of portraiture.  She shows how his “films approach portraiture from the tradition of typological depiction and draw attention to vision” and in so doing adds an important aspect to discussions of the role of mobility in his work, arguing that the “most remarkable quality of the portraits as pictorial choice is its blatant stasis, even though the characters are constantly moving” (due to the neoliberal social and economic circumstances that permeate Petzold’s films). Will Mahan, in turn, considers the intersection of Petzold’s widely cited but under-investigated interest in surveillance with Jonathan Beller’s notion of the proto-image to postulate a trajectory and refinement over the course of his early films: for Mahan, Petzold’s early focus on surveillance of workers within neoliberal economy and society expands to include alternative forms of governmentality. Last but not least, Joy Castro offers what is to our knowledge the first queer reading of Petozld’s work. While many have commented on the fact that Petzold’s films are populated with strong female protagonists, to date it has gone unnoticed that his films’ utopian potentials are imbued in their female characters. As she writes in her provocative concluding paragraphs, “If Petzold’s fundamental cinematic gesture is one of utopian futurity – that of the ‘promise’ of a shared and perfect future home – then his inclusion of maternal and queer desire within his reworkings of Hollywood genre cinema enhance his films’ resistance to narrative and political closure, for maternal desire is always forward-looking […] and queerness’s focus on and longing for the world yet-to-come functions” as a way to actively fight the debilitating circumstances in the here and now. We believe that each of these three new voices introduce us to productive and exciting new ways of seeing and thinking about Petzold’s films, and we are looking forward to observing how those perspectives will shape future conversations about his work.

Finally, our Dossier includes Marco Abel’s translation of a brief homage Christoph Hochhäusler wrote on his colleague and friend on the occasion of the aforementioned retrospective of Petzold’s work at the Austrian Filmmuseum in 2016, as well as Jaimey Fisher’s translation of an edited transcript of the “Filmmakers Live” conversation that Robert Fischer and Jaimey Fisher held with Petzold at the Munich Film Festival in the same year, as part of the Festival’s complete retrospective of Petzold’s work. Considered together, the nine contributions constituting this peer-reviewed Dossier offer a broad variety of fresh perspectives on Christian Petzold’s work that, we hope, will foster discussion of his films beyond the confines of German film studies circles, stimulate future research projects, and, perhaps, help answer the question we used to title this introduction.7

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold with Ronald Zehrfeld on the set of Phoenix (2014)



  1. The volume’s publication has since been delayed and is now forthcoming in 2018. See Ilka Brombach and Tina Hedwig Kaiser, eds., Christian Petzold. Filme (Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk 8, 2018). We subsequently approached Senses of Cinema to see whether the journal would be interested in publishing the English-language versions of the essays we contributed to this German-language volume. Out of this idea arose the larger idea to co-edit this dossier. We want to thank Alexandra Heller-Nicholas for her support of this project.
  2. Louis Skorecki, “Qui est Farocki?,” Cahiers du cinéma 329 (November 1981).
  3. According to Petzold, just days before his death “hat Harun Farocki das Drehbuch als dramaturgischer Berater noch abgenommen” (Harun Farocki, as dramaturgic advisor, approved of the script). Frank Arnold, “Interview mit Christian Petzold über seinen ersten ‘Polizeiruf 110,” http://www.epd-film.de/meldungen/2015/interview-mit-christian-petzold-ueber-seinen-ersten-polizeiruf-110, accessed 17 June 2017.
  4. Haneke, of course, started making films in the 1970s; however, his international breakthrough films, his so-called “glaciation trilogy” consisting of Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989), Benny’s Video (1992), and 71 Fragmente einer Chronology des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, 1994), are temporally close to Petzold’s debut. Likewise, though the Dardennes had made a number of documentaries prior to the mid-1990s, it was only with La Promesse (The Promise, 1996) that they gained international renown. And von Trier’s stock as an arthouse auteur skyrocketed in the late 1990s as a result of the Dogme 95 manifesto and his Idioterne (The Idiots, 1998). Jaimey Fisher has mapped out connections between the Dardennes’ career and Petzold’s in “Ghosts at an Early Age: Youth, Labor, and the Intensified Body in the Work of Christian Petzold and the Dardennes,” in The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art-Cinema, eds. Marco Abel and Jaimey Fisher (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2018).
  5. See The Numbers http://www.the-numbers.com, accessed 17 June 2017. Amour, for comparison, earned over $30 million internationally.
  6. For more on the notion of “post-cinema,” see Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film, eds. Shane Denson and Julia Leyda (Falmer: REFRAME Books, 2016, http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/post-cinema/), as well as Steven Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2010).
  7. We want to thank the two peer reviewers, also on behalf of our contributors, for the time and effort they put into reviewing this Dossier and their excellent feedback.

About The Author

Jaimey Fisher is professor of German and of Cinema & Digital Media at the University of California, Davis. Fisher has written four books: German Ways of War (about German war films), Treme, Christian Petzold, and Disciplining Germany: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after the Second World War. He has also edited and co-edited several books and special issues.

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