The Benjaminian Writings on the Wall and Petzold’s Archaeology of Genre1

In an early scene in Christian Petzold’s 2015 Phoenix, protagonist Nelly Lenz lies in a hospital bed as her friend Lene Winter lists family and friends who have been murdered in the Holocaust. This staging foregrounds two central themes of this, Petzold’s twelfth feature-length work and its surprising turn to the time during and shortly after the Nazi regime2: first, the violence visited upon Jews by Germany and even ordinary Germans coupled with, second, the peculiar afterness of Phoenix’s postwar 1945 temporal setting. Petzold’s characters are here, as they frequently are, left to navigate a confused and confusing context after the marquee events of an era or a place.3 During this disturbing scene, on the wall next to Nelly’s bed hangs a small print that recalls another recurringly related aspect of Petzold’s work, even though these historical surroundings are, for his work, entirely new. Paintings and prints frequently carry particular meaning within Petzold’s films, as examples of the ancient tradition of ekphrasis, probably none more so than in Phoenix’s immediate predecessor Barbara (2012) with its conspicuous Rembrandt print, but likewise in much earlier works like Die Beischlafdiebin (The Sex Thief, 1998) with a Gerard Richter on the wall – another artist conspicuously engaged with multiple forms of peculiarly German afterness.4

Here, however, the small image looms large, as the print it reproduces is Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, one of Klee’s most famous works and one that links the film and Petzold to the writer-thinker Walter Benjamin. Benjamin owned Klee’s aquarelle during the rise and rule of the Nazis, at least up until his 1940 suicide fleeing them, and he wrote one of his best known short texts about it – his “Über den Begriff der Geschichte: These IX.”5 The image, as a modernist angel hovering above Nelly, as well as what Benjamin wrote about it, underscore the abovementioned lateness as well as Phoenix’s particular narrative moment.

Christian Petzold

Nelly with the Paul Klee aquarelle Angelus Novus over her shoulder in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix.

Perched over Nelly’s shoulder, the Angelus likewise seems to listen to Lene’s litany of disaster, recalling how Benjamin described the angel’s looking backward as the rubble of history accumulated, but simultaneously being driven forward by the storm winds of a past paradise, a storm called “progress.” Like many of Petzold’s characters facing the burdens of afterness (most famously in Die Innere Sicherheit [The State I Am In, 2000], but also in Gespenster [Ghosts, 2005], Yella [2007], Jerichow [2008], and Barbara), Nelly will also push on in ostensible “progress” as she looks back, a progress that, like many films about this era, parallels Germany’s own stuttering progress in the reconstructive late 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, this image, looking backwards rather than forward and registering the rubble of history, would seem to fit Nelly better than the film’s title Phoenix.6

Klee’s Angelus Novus, as described in its famed Benjaminian text, is actually an image that Petzold has invoked before. In one of the most reproduced shots from Barbara, the eponymous title character, also played by Petzold regular Nina Hoss, looks back from her bicycle with the wind likewise blowing against her body and her alert, mildly surprised eyes, a shot that Petzold has explicitly tied to Klee’s/Benjamin’s Angelus Novus. In fact, Petzold’s films are full of such female characters, usually the protagonists, as Benjamin characterizes the Angelus Novus, looking backward. Given Petzold’s somewhat surprising turn to historical drama with Barbara and Phoenix,7 the image is all the more telling and recalls the Benjaminian sensibility of which I have written in Petzold’s work generally. Like the work of his mentor, collaborator, and friend Harun Farocki, as well as his major influence in Alexander Kluge, Petzold’s films undertake what I term an “archaeological” approach, archaeologically excavating and reconstructing in order to understand the past and its crucial transitions.8 This archaeological approach is reminiscent of Benjamin’s self-consciously excavating technique, especially in the latter’s magnum opus, the Passagenwerk and the essays to come out of that mammoth and multifaceted research. Benjamin was a writer and thinker thoroughly engaged with his own contemporary moment, but his major work was an Urgeschichte of modernity, focusing on cultural artefacts of nineteenth-century Paris to comprehend the transformational emergence of that modernity. It seems all the clearer, I would argue, that Petzold is taking an archaeological approach to the past, an approach present in his cinema throughout, but all the more telling now that he has so emphatically turned to history and historical dramas. Just what Phoenix excavates will be the focus of this essay.

Petzold is convinced that genre – or, as he likes to say, “B-movies” – can work through important themes at the core of a culture, and that is certainly true in Phoenix, where he not only excavates the challenges of the early postwar reconstruction, but also acknowledges the stunning level of personal and collective betrayal and then self-serving lying about such betrayal. In this way, Phoenix takes up a topic on which both early postwar culture and post-1990 historical dramas have tread suspiciously lightly. The means for this exercise are particularly telling: Petzold’s films, as I have argued elsewhere, work archaeologically with past genres (like film noir or horror), whose more challenging forms he regards as having faded in cinema. With Phoenix, Petzold has cited classic films noirs (not least Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo [1958] and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past [1947], while Delmer Dave’s Dark Passage [1947] also seems relevant), but I will focus more on Phoenix’s excavation of postwar melodrama and on how melodrama serves Petzold’s turn to historical period pieces. Petzold’s films aim to reconstruct the intelligent film genres of the past, though always with the aforementioned self-conscious afterness: with his repeated reconstruction of genre, there is a self-awareness that the films are coming late in the genre cycle.9 This historical self-consciousness within the genre and generic cycle is deliberate: the Benjamin references above demonstrate how Petzold’s cinematic citations come to constitute not merely a cinephilic echo-chamber – filmic invocations made merely to raise the ante in an insider’s inane game (cf. Tarantino or de Palma) – but, as with Benjamin, they comprise a considered attempt to understand the past archaeologically, particularly its transitional and transformational moments, and the present’s relationship to them. Thus, the use of melodrama here illuminates both the postwar period as well as the understanding of it today, a dialectical image colliding in Benjamin’s sense. At the end of the essay, I take up the question of Phoenix’s realism and its basic plot premise of Johnny’s not recognizing Nelly, which has raised numerous critical hackles.10 Foregrounding Petzold’s post-genre generic approach and, in this case, melodrama helps elucidate this aspect of the film. It is worth noting that no one criticizes Yella, or even the earlier, similarly very Vertigo-influenced Toter Mann (Something to Remind Me, 2001) or The Sex Thief, for their lack of realism, because the genres with which Petzold is playing therein (horror-fantasy and noirish crime) often work beyond cinematic realism and/or common-sense plausibility. Melodrama, to explore psychological states and social restraints, also regularly departed realism in the intimate relationships it arranges. To understand the issue of the plot’s realism or plausibility, one would do well, I think, to understand what Petzold has undertaken in his second historical film and its relationship to melodrama.

* * *

In Petzold’s reconstructive project, especially in Phoenix, I would highlight two aspects of Benjamin’s archaeological approach that reappear throughout Petzold’s films: first that Benjamin consistently recovered and then refigured discarded objects or people, castaways like the rag-picker (Lumpensammler), in short, the marginal and remnant aspects of a historical period to comprehend its core.11 Second, in Benjamin’s understanding, the subsequent thought-images (Denkbilder) of the past should flash up and collide with the present moment to conjure moments of insight into both past and present, particularly the transition between them. With Phoenix, I think both of these Benjaminian métier are at work once again in Petzold’s cinema. Petzold foregrounds the remnants of, and fragments of, a specific historical moment that are to be found in the culture both form and about that time. In fact, he quite frequently takes such fragmentary remnants as his key characters (Cuba Libre [1996], Ghosts, Jerichow, etc.). Nelly is, of course, herself a castaway, a remnant of an earlier moment: she is in many ways, as Petzold has emphasized repeatedly, the ghost-figure with which he often works, someone abiding beyond her context with hopes and dreams befitting another time (cf. the couple in The State I Am In, Yella, Barbara, et al.). From her mummy-like bandage in Phoenix’s early scenes – from the outset, she is another of Petzold’s recurring undead – to her nocturnal yearning and searching for former husband Johnny, Petzold associates her with cinematic ghosts, including with the figure of Nosferatu, from one of Petzold’s favourite films.12 Nelly’s friendship with Lene, which dominates the early parts of the film, serves to highlight how Nelly insists on living, ghost-like, in an outmoded past, when the love between her and Johnny could still define and defend them against an increasingly hostile world. As is often the case with Petzold’s ghost figures (the couple of The State I Am In, Yella, Barbara), the individual’s commitment to outmoded plans makes them all the more sympathetic even as viewers watch how such plans conspicuously contravene the context.

While Phoenix marshals remnants and fragments of a particular historical moment, Petzold’s historical films are also montages recalling Benjamin’s wide-ranging bricolages of the past. The diversity of these fragments and remnants allows, per the second aspect of Benjamin’s work above, the collision of the past with the present, not least in a manner parallel to Barbara’s emphatic critique of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006). With Phoenix Petzold offers a film about Germany’s best known historical moment: the Nazi regime, its nefarious crimes committed in the name of Germany and Germans, and their aftermath. As with Barbara, the film seems to take aim directly at recent understandings of this historical past, especially prevalent in German television and cinema drama. Barbara takes direct aim at a film like von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, while Phoenix lodges an unrelenting critique of the so-called Versöhnungsfilme of the mid to late-1990s and the 2000s.13 An important current within the wider stream of consensus cinema that Eric Rentschler has described,14 these Versöhnungsfilme do conjure literal consensus for mass audiences where, historically speaking, there was hardly any, that is, hardly any consensus between gentile Germans and German Jews during the Nazi years. Particularly in films like Joseph Vilsmaier’s Comedian Harmonists (The Harmonists, 1997), Max Färberböck’s Aimée & Jaguar (1999), and Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstraße (2003), this wave has been extended in the more recent, very popular television series concerned with this era, including Dresden and the other television dramas made under the influence of Guido Knopp.

As Lutz Koepnick and Johannes von Moltke have described in these myriad works, tales of private friendship and even love between German gentiles and Jews foreground a Germany at stark odds with the Nazi regime and its racist, biopolitical, ultimately genocidal agenda.15 In these films the private relationship between gentile and Jewish Germans is usually eventually overcome by the historical moment, but the films tend to establish a purer sphere of human relationships beyond that history: they carefully cultivate a sphere of privacy that promises a better Germany, presumably one to be recovered once the Nazis are banished. It is, of course, not that these stories are not “true”, but rather, as with Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), they invoke, historically speaking, highly exceptional, even distorting cases. As one looks back, they are simply not representative of what happened to the vast, vast majority of Jews under the Reich. Some gentile Germans did act to help and protect German and/or European Jews, but that was a small minority, especially in light of the breathtaking scale of the ubiquitous complicity, incalculable enslavements, and implacable murder.

In Phoenix’s relationship between Nelly and Johnny that obsesses the ghost-like Nelly from the outset, Petzold has created a private relationship at deliberate odds with those of the Versöhnungswelle. Instead of providing a redoubt of secluded benevolence, the private relationship itself is thoroughly interwoven and complicit with the crimes of the Nazi regime, the German state, and, the film deliberately emphasizes, many ordinary Germans. It is a shocking betrayal and then nakedly self-serving lying about it that most jolts anyone looking, like the archaeologically minded Petzold, back – and it is a lying that Petzold seems to regard as continuing in the Versöhnungswelle. In this way quite different from the Versöhungsfilme, but in line with Petzold’s other work, Phoenix engages (in a self-reflexive mode) on the very fantasy that drives the Versöhnungsfilme: that is, the film investigates the very fantasy that private life of love and/or family can provide a hermetic space of resistance sealed off from public events. In many ways, this fantasy – of a sanctuary comfortably sealed off from history, society, and economy – has been a central motif throughout Petzold’s work (be it the private houses of The State I Am In and Jerichow; or hotel rooms of Ghosts, Yella, and Barbara; or, perhaps most often, the automobile in almost all of his films). In these works, and perhaps even more so in Phoenix, Petzold investigates this constellation of a fantasized private sphere by taking up the sort of Benjaminian fragments with which he often works: the remnants of literature, other films, and other film genres. Above all, he works in Phoenix with the longing and blockages of melodrama, elements of which he draws from the Hubert Monteilhet novel, La Ratour des cendres (1961), on which the film is loosely based, but then, more tellingly, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). Phoenix’s engagement with Maria Braun in particular demonstrates the affinity of historical period pieces for melodrama and how the genre negotiates historically transitional moments – but it also highlights Petzold’s different, more reconstructive project with melodrama, even as he cites Fassbinder’s anarchically playful dismantling of the genre.

Fragments of Literature and of Fassbinder

Petzold recounts how Farocki gave him La Retour des cendres in the 1980s, but that they had a hard time imagining adapting it to film, not least for the budgetary challenges imposed by a historical period piece.16 The basic plot of the novel offers a doubtlessly melodramatic approach to a complicated, historically transitional moment. Monteilhet traces the postwar return of a suddenly wealthy Jewish woman (Elisabeth Wolf) to her home in Paris, but depicts this complex experience via domestic travails and conflicts. At the centre of the narrative is a woman committed to her marriage but who encounters significant challenges and obstacles in realizing her increasingly ambivalent love. Except for a brief framing device, the novel assumes the form of her diary, thus offering the reader Elisabeth’s innermost, highly conflicted emotional reactions to her experiences. The novel foregrounds the melodramatic gap between self and social role by having a woman play a version of herself – a theme shared by Vertigo, which Petzold also cites as an influence (but one I do not elaborate here, since I have discussed its influence on his work elsewhere).17 Despite these similarities in basic plot and tone, Petzold varies Monteilhet’s novel and its subsequent adaptation in J. Lee Thompson’s film considerably, variations confirming Petzold’s deliberate bricolage with Fassbinder, as well as with Helmut Käutner’s Unter den Brücken (Under the bridges, 1946) and the longer tradition of rubble films. For example, La ratour des cendres depicts Elisabeth’s marriage not with musician Johnny but Monteilhet’s sexy chess grandmaster Stanislav Pilgrin (!). Like Petzold’s Johnny, Monteilhet’s Stan fails to recognize Elisabeth as his own wife and subsequently rehearses her (renamed for him “Julia”) as his inheriting spouse, a rather incredible development that can be read as a self-servingly ignorant coming to terms with the past.

It is particularly noteworthy that the Monteilhet novel does not have anything resembling the film’s female friendship between Nelly and Lene. The character of Lene allows Phoenix to explore more of the historical context of displaced persons and returnees than the novel does; she also serves an important narrative function to offer a contrast to Nelly’s (initially) single-minded reaction to the Holocaust. Her plans for Nelly to leave Germany also hints at the possibility of solidarity – an emancipatory potential often hinted at, but then lost in Petzold’s films. In Monteilhet’s novel, however, female homosociality functions very differently than in Phoenix: much of the novel’s later tension arises from Elisabeth/Julia’s competition with her own daughter, Fabienne, for Stan’s sexual attention. It turns out that the plan to use Elisabeth/Julia to secure Elisabeth’s inheritance actually originated with her own daughter Fabienne, who is carrying on an affair with her stepfather Stan (they did, in notable good taste, wait a couple of months after the liberation of the camps to start sleeping together). Beyond these significant plot/character differences, the spaces explored in the novel are entirely different from those offered by Phoenix: the eponymous nighttime haunt of Petzold’s film, a venue that becomes important both plot wise and atmospherically, is missing entirely in Monteilhet’s work. The novel favours instead upscale hotels, quick excursions to Cannes, and French chess clubs.

On both of these deviations from the novel, the influence of Fassbinder’s Maria Braun and the German tradition of rubble-films seems quite relevant – Petzold admitted to having had Maria Braun in mind and has engaged with the work of Fassbinder before.18 Phoenix’s character of Lene – of a close female friend to the female protagonist – would seem to invoke Maria’s friendship with Betti in Maria Braun. Although Fassbinder’s Betti is obviously quite different than Petzold’s Lene, like Lene, Betti functions primarily to highlight the women’s divergent response to postwar dilemmas as well as the frustrated and then lost potential for deeper solidarities. Early scenes in both cases establish women’s common pasts and shared foundations, with very similar images offered in both films.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Lene and Nelly visit the rubble of their childhoods in Petzold’s Phoenix; Maria and Betti visit the rubble of their childhoods in Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun.

But from that shared past their responses to postwar challenges diverge considerably, highlighting the unusual responses of both films’ female protagonists. Whereas Betti questions Maria’s compromising determination to commit herself to rebuilding, Lene questions Nelly’s compromising commitment to Johnny, and the friends, in both cases, end up quite far from one another, with Betti increasingly distant from Maria, who commits suicide (wilful or not), and Lene increasingly distant from Nelly and finally committing suicide.

Petzold’s depiction of the eponymous Phoenix club also confirms the influence of Fassbinder and the longer tradition of rubble-films like Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers are Among Us, 1946), Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948), or even Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948). In Maria Braun, the school gymnasium turned nightclub where Maria meets Bill provides for a crucial turning point in the plot, as many such venues had in many rubble films. In Murderers, for instance, Mertens frequents such a club to forget his wartime woes (similar to Edmund’s sister Eva in Germany Year Zero, which Petzold also cites as an influence), while, in Gerhard Lamprecht’s Irgendwo in Berlin (Somewhere in Berlin, 1946), the club similarly distracts the Heimkehrer protagonist Gustav Iller desperate for diversion. In Maria, the club signals something similar, as it accelerates Maria’s departure from the home context. Maria’s abrupt flight to the GI’s club simultaneously signals the end to her abstinent waiting for husband Hermann to return from war/POW camp and brings her into contact with the director himself, shown in a way quite parallel to the blind man whom Nelly asks for (literal and symbolic) directions to the Phoenix club. The introduction of the club echoes Fassbinder’s, with Phoenix’s blind man bearing a clear resemblance to Fassbinder’s sunglasses-wearing cameo as a black marketeer selling Kleist as well as revealing dresses to would-be hostesses.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Nelly approaches a bespectacled blind violin player in the rubble of Petzold’s Phoenix; Maria approaches a bespectacled Fassbinder in the rubble of Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun.

In both cases the protagonist abandons classical culture for the lower-brow pleasures of the anarchic postwar nightclub.

Historical Period Pieces and The Genre, or Mode, of Melodrama

If these aspects of Phoenix confirm the influence of Fassbinder’s Maria Braun and the rubble-film tradition of which it is part, Petzold undertakes a similar yet divergent engagement with the genre of melodrama. Both of Petzold’s historical period pieces seem to reconstruct the genre, or, as Linda Williams put it, the melodramatic mode, as had his earlier film Wolfsburg.19 A number of constitutive attributes of melodrama predispose it to the historical period piece, and vice-versa. First, in looking back and selectively narrativizing the past, period pieces tend to project a clear, even reductive moral legibility on the inevitably complex, multi-causal historical past. Scholars from Thomas Elsaesser through Peter Brooks and Linda Williams have highlighted how the melodrama conjures moral legibility in complex emotional circumstances, something that aligns it well with the reductive historical tendencies of popular period films. As with the success of historical films stretching from Schindler’s List to Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012), to take two historical blockbusters from the paradigmatic Hollywood filmmaker, but also including popular German films like Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, a clear moral logic is useful in marketing the past to mass viewers – even if the moral logic chosen/created is historically distorting and/or inaccurate. Second, the fundamentally temporal mechanisms of melodrama, including the too-lateness of agnition and the genre’s emotionally (over)wrought sudden reversals, also correspond well to the historical drama: the foundational temporal operations of melodrama can be conveniently lined-up with the ineluctable march of historical time (for example, Oskar Schindler cries when it is too late to buy more Jews’ freedom with his luxury wares; Georg Dreymann cries when it is too late to save Christa-Maria Sieland from Stasi encroachment). Third, the importance of mise-en-scene to melodrama – where the displacement of emotional conflict to objects and particular spaces – fits the mise-en-scene heavy historical genre.20 A fundamental aspect of the historical genre’s proposition to viewers is, as Andrew Higson has argued, spectacularly authentic mise-en-scene (period objects, historical architecture, even costumes, hair, bodies).21 Melodrama renders this historical mise-en-scene meaningful by displacing on to them the melodrama’s constitutive emotional conflicts and travails.

These various mechanisms and operations fundamental to the generic syntax of the melodrama underscore, I think, why films about history often utilize the genre to structure narrative conflict. Certainly, this seems true of the German genre in the 1990s and 2000s, where even the comedies have strong melodramatic elements, with the very popular Goodbye Lenin as a prime example. It is telling, though, that both Fassbinder and Petzold deploy one other central aspect of melodrama that suits sophisticated melodrama, namely, their ability to navigate historically transitional periods. As Elsaesser outlines in “Tales of Sound and Fury,” this more “intellectually demanding form of melodrama” navigated different historical periods, like that away from feudal society and toward bourgeois social norms in the eighteenth century.22 Melodramas serve the narration of such transitions well, I think, because the genre traffics regularly in the internalized conflict between subjective desires and normative social roles, a conflict perennially useful to register historical change and transitions: the conflict between the individual desires and social norms and scripts foregrounds those very norms and scripts as they change historically. In both Maria Braun and Phoenix, an individual’s somewhat outmoded marital desires are at odds with a metamorphosing social context, and this gap and resulting conflict register as melodrama’s familiar emotional struggles. In both cases, the tension is between an ego-ideal image of love and marriage in drastically transformed socio-historical circumstances, namely, the economic recovery (and interpersonal exploitation) for Maria and the Holocaust (and personal betrayal) for Nelly.

Given this confluence of melodrama and historical period piece, I focus on two aspects of the genre or mode in Maria Braun and Phoenix, aspects that archaeologically recover the melodrama for their respective historical moments. As Petzold has suggested, Fassbinder exaggerates elements of the melodrama to dismantle the genre, not least to show, I think, how the historical transition he is navigating nullifies aspects of melodrama: are love and commitment to it possible in a time when economy becomes the predominant focus and force in life? Petzold, on the other hand, also works with fragments of melodrama, but he recovers and reconfigures them, mostly without Fassbinder’s playful variations.23 One could track any number of excavated fragments, but I would concentrate on two: the importance of domestic spaces like a family’s dining table and the telltale cut to the close-up of the suffering protagonist’s face. On the former count, the kitchen or dining table is the place where the family meets and metes out its social norms and scripts, for example, in Douglas Sirk’s films like Imitation of Life (1959) or even the great male melodramas of the 1950s like Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955). For example, in Imitation of Life, the make-shift family reassembles regularly at the kitchen table to discuss family roles and to register the changes in them; in East of Eden’s cinemascoped combination of western landscape and family melodrama, the old-fashioned father Adam Trask clashes histrionically with proto-teenager (and soon teen idol) Cal (James Dean), above all at the dinner table, where the father insists that the highly distracted Cal be duly disciplined by reading from the Bible.

On the second aspect, deliberate close-ups of the suffering protagonist’s face were central to the emergence of melodrama in the silent era and have remained so ever since. One of Griffith’s central innovations (or at least that for which he was credited, even at the time) was the narratively motivated cut to close-up, which he deployed to arresting psychological, and especially emotional, effect. A canonical melodrama like Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, as Flitterman-Lewis argues24 demonstrates the representational power of the face in close-up as it intersects melodrama’s affective, emotional, and moral operations: the brutally abused “Little Girl” (Griffith favourite Lilian Harvey) is, narratively speaking, the paradigmatic innocent victim that Elsaesser, Gledhill and Williams trace25; she is the key player in the film’s larger system of victim, victimizer, and (too late) saviour; and Griffith renders the depiction of her overwrought by cutting at key moments to close-ups of her terrified and then pained face. Mary Ann Doane has traced the many different theories of the face in close-up, a tradition stretching from Epstein and Balazs to Bazin and Barthes and Deleuze, but it seems curious to me that Doane and many of the other theorists do not consider the genre specific deployment of the facial close-up.26 For example, the silent melodrama highlights a tendency that has extended, as Elsaesser notes, well into the sound era: the recurring undercutting or nullification of dialogue in favour of emotionally emphatic bodily performance, conveyed very often via tears that, after all, one can only see in a close-up of the innocent’s face.27 To highlight the internal conflicts with which melodrama replaces the external conflicts of most other genres – and to foster empathy and sympathy with these conflicts — a close-up of the suffering protagonist’s face remains a stylistic sine qua non of the melodrama.28

In Maria Braun, the film’s very first scene after the credit sequence establishes the film’s melodrama milieu by combining these elements of the domestic sphere, the dining table, and emotionally evocative close-up. Maria’s mother is shot nibbling scraps of bread in front of a photograph of the uniformed but missing Hermann, and Maria enters with a knapsack of firewood and other provisions that she lays out on the table for her mother. Maria has just ventured out to trade household items for food, but she also admits that she was unable to trade Hermann’s shaving kit for more useful wares because, with millions of German men newly dead or missing, the market is flooded with such accoutrements of masculinity. Although the family dining table here serves to mediate the relation between daughter and mother – and foreshadow Maria’s provider status within the family – for now, as the useless shaving kits recalls missing Hermann, she turns away from the table abruptly. As she does so, Fassbinder offers viewers a close-up of her tears, such that the table and tears both register the loss of Hermann, a melodramatic jumping-off point for a film that goes on to dismantle the genre it invokes.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Maria with her mother in the kitchen and at the table in Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun; Fassbinder cuts to close-up of Maria’s tears in the kitchen in his The Marriage of Maria Braun.

Fassbinder redeploys this melodramatic combination of family table and Maria close-up across the plot to register the film’s broader narrative arc. For instance, as Maria prepares to interview to become a hostess at the club for US GIs – signalling her departure from the family milieu and even, eventually, Hermann – she is imaged standing on the family table with a close-up of her ankles, lower-calves, and dynamic hemline. Her new social role will (in good melodramatic fashion) require new clothes, but it is a new role and look of which her mother disproves: her mother takes shots of Schnapps from the same table to ease this refiguring of the family.29

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Maria advances to the table top in the kitchen in Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun; Maria’s mother elevates her hemline on the kitchen table in Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun.

The dining table is now serving up a new Maria and schnapps to make it go down more easily; Fassbinder replaces the close-up of her face with a fetishistic close shot of her ankles and calves, being conspicuously ogled by “Opa Berger,” who has been banished from the same, family table. Much later in the film, Fassbinder returns to this constellation, but, by that point, it has been almost entirely dismantled: the melodrama, like her marriage, is in increasing ruins, even as the 1950s reconstructive overcomes the rubble. When Maria’s patron-paramour Oswald dies, Senkenberg his accountant enters and informs Maria of the death in her office: the work desks of Maria’s business success have replaced the family table, and it is Senkenberg and Maria’s secretary who offer their tears to the departed Oswald, while Fassbinder denies the viewer the expected close-up of Maria’s reaction to the death of her lover. Instead, the film cuts abruptly to an upscale restaurant she frequents, where she often eats alone.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Maria comforts Senkenberg over Oswald’s death in Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun; Maria mourns alone at the table in Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun.

The film has replaced the family dining table, present throughout the film’s first hour, with the lonely patron at the expensive restaurant, and, again, viewers are denied a melodramatic close-up of her reaction.

The change of table scenery and disappearing close-up mark Maria’s trajectory toward an emotionally cold, even cruel businesswoman who cannot reconcile with her husband in the film’s memorable conclusion. This trajectory makes clear how the film has dismantled the melodrama suggest earlier, when Maria turned away from the photo of missing Hermann and family table for a tearful close-up. Petzold has remarked on how Fassbinder and Godard could work with genre in an entirely different mode from he because they could rely on film viewers’ familiarity and affinity with established genres.30 Indeed, by the time of Maria Braun, Fassbinder’s dismantling of melodrama seemed different from his earlier, more Brechtian working through of Hollywood genre (as in Der Händler der vier Jahreszeiten [The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1972] or Der amerikanische Soldat [The American Soldier, 1970]). As Perlmutter observes, perhaps under the influence of Godard in part, Fassbinder turned increasingly to what she, following Bakhtin, terms “character hybridization”: unbounding or unleashing characters from their usual, somewhat oppressed roles within melodrama. After all, Fassbinder saw, melodrama in particular as a genre in which roles and their restrictions and strictures figure centrally. Characters in this mode “contest their traditional roles as realizers of the fiction, they mock the power of their creator as well as the manipulations of editing and mise-en-scene that invite viewer identification.”31 Petzold has remarked on how Fassbinder and Godard could uncover hidden energies within genres and use them to simultaneously enjoy and dismantle the conventional genre. This would certainly seem to be true of Jean-Luc Godard’s influential post-genre genre films such as À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, 1962),  and Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), as well as later (and more conventionally entraining Fassbinder) films such as Maria Braun and Lili Marleen (1981).

Phoenix’s Reconstruction of Melodrama and its Unrealistic End

Phoenix does not contextualize its female protagonist within the intergenerational, familial milieu central to Maria Braun, not least because Nelly’s family has been murdered. But Phoenix nonetheless deploys this same combination of dining table and close-up of the protagonist’s suffering face to navigate its melodrama, to reconstruct with the remnants of genre, as Petzold has put it, and to register historically transitional time. Even if the film pointedly emphasizes that there are no surviving family members, Lene, the housekeeper Elisabeth, Johnny, Nelly and their friends are all remnants of a pre-war and pre-Holocaust sociality that comes together at the dining table in key scenes, not least, as in Maria, to melodramatically negotiate individual desire versus ascribed social role. For instance, the first watershed scene after the film’s opening transpires at around twenty minutes into the film, at the dining table in Lene and Nelly’s new apartment, where viewers learn of Lene’s very different reaction to the events of the Holocaust. This scene’s significance is underscored as well on the audio track, as it offers the first diegetic comment on the film’s recurring musical motif, Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low.”32 Lene recounts how she played the exile composer’s song often in London, as she could not listen to German-language songs anymore. As the “melos-” in the compound word, music is, of course, central to melodrama’s effects, both for its affective and mnemonic mechanisms, and Petzold chooses a song that resonates with the themes of make-over, secrecy, and exile.33 Of course, the soundtrack in Maria Braun is likewise revealing, as it uses music but also radio announcement voiceover to further dismantle the genre. It is in the exile context of Weill – accompanied by the first single-shot close-ups of Nelly’s post-surgical face34 – that Lene informs her that they have to arrange matters with her new wealth. Lene insists matter-of-factly that they have the duty (“Es ist das Geld der Ermordeten, und es verpflichtet uns” [It is the money of the murdered, and it obligates us to a certain duty]) to build a new state in which Jews can live safely, to which Petzold, for the second time in the scene, cuts to close-ups, of both Lene’s insistence and Nelly’s inscrutable thoughts on Lene’s proposal to emigrate from Germany.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Lene informs Nelly of plan to immigrate to new Jewish homeland in Petzold’s Phoenix; next shot of Nelly as she hears more of Lene’s plan in Petzold’s Phoenix.

Nelly’s lack of legible response and then Petzold’s cutting from dinner to her first nocturnal search for Johnny underscore her divergent reaction. As melodrama often does with the dining table, the scene balances collective duty with subjective desire, with the Weill song signifying at once Lene’s sense of (abiding) duty to the dead but also the irresistibility of Nelly’s (fantastical) desire for Johnny.

This scene and the subsequent divergence between Lene’s and Nelly’s reactions ease the viewer into the film’s second part, when Nelly finds Johnny working in the Phoenix club and then works with him as “Esther” to recreate the Heimkehrerin Nelly. The rehearsals to recover a woman already present take place in Johnny’s basement abode, one recalling at once a bomb shelter and the cosy barge cabin of the late war-time Käutner film Unter den Brücken, which Petzold cites as one of his favourite films about Germany and an influence on Phoenix.35 The intimate spaces of Under the Bridge’s barge and Phoenix’s basement apartment conjure more hermetic spaces yearning to be closed off from the world around: in both cases, the protagonists try to exert control over these spaces, to keep outside forces at bay, but are ultimately unable to do so. In Phoenix, Johnny does his best to keep Nelly/Esther in the basement, so others do not see her before her staged return – an explicit parallel to the hiding place, not coincidentally on a barge like boat, that he and Nelly used during the war and Holocaust. As I noted above, Petzold has repeatedly investigated such fantasy spaces, spaces that his characters fantasize as separate and secluded but that prove more porous than they could have imagined. As with these “pressure-chamber” (Druckkammer) spaces in Under the Bridges and Petzold’s other films, Johnny and Nelly seek an isolation impossible to attain: if Johnny aims to keep the outside, and their own past, away, Nelly/Esther’s own memory means that they cannot be.

The watershed scene in this regard and, indeed, for the film as a whole, comes at an hour and transpires, melodramatically, at Johnny’s dining table and with (for Petzold) unusual close-ups of the protagonist’s face. As Johnny explains how she is to behave upon her staged return at the train station, Nelly/Esther breaks down, apparently under the weight of her own memories: she insists on having some answer to any questions their friends might pose about her time in the camp. Johnny is sceptical and asks her somewhat aggressively what she would explain – the table, in this case, also suggests an interrogation, certainly another arrangement familiar from the family dining table (as in the aforementioned East of Eden). In his resistance to hearing about the camps, Johnny utters one of the crucial lines of the film, declaring matter of factly to Nelly that “no one will ask about it.” The implication is clear: no one will want to hear about the camps into which they helped put Nelly, will want to help her overcome these memories, will want to integrate them into their postwar and post-Holocaust experiences or relationships. As Nelly sits at the table and recounts a specific episode from her work in the camp – one apparently found in the Shoah foundation archives, of a daughter’s discovery of her mother’s belongings among the clothes of the murdered – Petzold cuts to close-up again, a crucial melodramatic moment in a film that, like the context, generally avoids details from Nelly’s camp experiences. The scene, with its melodramatic trappings of struggling marriage, dining table, and close-ups, works largely by contrast, with Nelly’s searingly suffering reaction to her experiences versus Johnny’s coldness. His is a coldness of non-recognition, both literal and figurative, that covers over his own complicity and compounds her conspicuous suffering.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Nelly suggests that someone will surely ask her about the camps, in close-up (in Petzold’s Phoenix); Johnny sceptical, suggests that no one will ask, in Petzold’s Phoenix.

In contrast to Fassbinder’s dismantling of melodrama in Maria Braun, Petzold has gone further in reconstructing the genre and its effects: the contrasting coldness of Johnny’s (and Germany’s) reaction only compounds the melodrama of Nelly’s suffering as camp survivor. The film’s final sequence also deploys the constellation melodramatically, this time, for the first time, with Nelly actually singing the Weill song it introduced at the dinner table above. Whereas music memorably fades in favour of football commentary at the end of Fassbinder’s Maria Braun, Phoenix’s musical motif crescendos to great melodramatic effect at the film’s conclusion: Nelly finally sings the song that has been haunting the film (like her obsessive, melodramatic desire) from early on. After her train station “return” goes almost precisely as Johnny had predicted – no relevant questions at all from their friends – the group retreats to a restaurant. The restaurant, inside and out, invokes but also recasts the dinner table arrangements tracked above.

Christian Petzold

Nelly sings again at a table in Petzold’s Phoenix.

The focus is again on the community forged at the table, as well as on the roles within the group one expects individuals to fulfil, but now the collective has grown, more overtly symbolic of the postwar society into which the camp survivors were returning. The scene thus extends the theme first explored when Nelly revisits her hiding place and then in the train station return, namely, how the postwar collective would cope with the survivors, not least as constant reminders of their own complicity and criminality. In these melodramatic endings, there is one telling similarity between Maria Braun and Phoenix: like Fassbinder, Petzold denies viewers a melodramatic parting close-up of Nelly, although here, unlike Maria Braun, the lack of the close-up indicates Nelly’s rising above those around her.

Christian Petzold

Nelly flies away, angel-like, in Petzold’s Phoenix.

In fact, at the end of many Petzold films, the female protagonist escapes, evades a fetishistic/voyeuristic shot and the film narrative in general, for example, in Pilotinnen (Pilots, 1995), The State I Am In, Ghosts, Barbara, etc. But this ending, as the too-lateness of Johnny’s recognition sinks in, is another deliberate reconstruction of melodrama for emotional effect, even if Petzold has knowingly departed the self-abnegation of the woman haunting the film throughout.

It may be perplexing, and to some critics problematic, that Johnny only recognizes Nelly as he hears her sing and then catches glimpse (in almost clichéd fashion) of the tattooed numbers on her arm, but I hope the archaeology of melodrama foregrounded above helps explain this conclusion to Phoenix’s generic bricolage. For example, melodrama is certainly not beyond using clichés in its reductive moral legibility and logic deployed to emotional ends. More fundamentally, the psychological implausibility of the plot only emphasizes how melodrama, for emotional/affective motives, works beyond, even contra, realism.36 Melodrama regularly arranges unlikely plot scenarios to play out emotional effects, and satisfactions, of such situations. How probable, really, are the histrionic scenarios of Sirk’s 1950s melodramas (for example, in the narratively convenient introductions of sudden illnesses late in the plots)? How probable is it that one would blow up your house in a murder-suicide when your country, in loud audio track, just won the world cup? For an even more relevant example, in Petzold’s previously most melodramatic film, Wolfsburg, the hit-and-run killer of a child comes to desire the child’s mother from whom he also has to conceal his crime – not too likely or logical, but, narratively and emotionally, highly provocative and effective. The implausibility of Johnny’s failing to recognize Nelly serves the reconstructed melodrama well, not least in the agnition of his finally realizing, finally recognizing her too late as his own spouse, too late for the end of the war and too late for postwar reconstruction. Despite this obvious lack of realism, the emotional efficacy of the implausible conclusion only underscores the power of the melodramatic set-up and the canny generic reconstruction Petzold has again undertaken in Phoenix.



  1. This essay is a slightly modified version of the essay in Christian Petzold. Filme, Ilka Brombach and Tina Kaiser, eds. (Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk 8, 2018). I thank the editors and publisher for allowing me to share the English version of my essay as part of this dossier as well as the readers for their constructive feedback and suggestions.
  2. Petzold once suggested he would never direct a film about the Nazi time because he could not imagine himself running around with a bullhorn ordering actors in Nazi uniforms to take up their places on set; It is worth noting, I think, that the only scene that actually transpires during the Nazi regime here is in an oneiric flashback of Nelly’s and includes no uniformed Nazis
  3. Jaimey Fisher Christian Petzold (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), p. 53, 83-84, 86-87
  4. On Petzold’s use of ekphrasis, see Fisher, Christian Petzold, p. 139-140.
  5. Walter Benjamin, “Über den Begriff der Geschichte,” in Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, in eds. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, vol. 1.2 (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/ Main), p. 697-698.
  6. Petzold suggests that the title “Phoenix” does adequately refer to Nelly’s struggles with her experiences, “ganz im Gegenteil,” in José Garcia, Christian Petzold, and Nina Kunzendorf, “Texte zum Film: Phoenix Interview,” p. 18. September 2014, http://www.textezumfilm.de/sub_detail.php?id=1418, accessed July 30, 2017.
  7. Peter Ostereid and Christian Petzold, “Interview Mit Christian Petzold über Phoenix,” 26. August 2014, http://www.kritiken.de/interview/christian-petzold-ueber-phoenix-26-08-2014.html
  8. Fisher, Chrisitan Petzold, p. 15-20.
  9. See Fisher, Christian Petzold 14-15. With Phoenix, he declares his love of genre film and his effort to reconstruct it as well in Anke Westphal and Christian Petzold, “Ich wollte kein Guido-Knopp-TV: Christian Petzold Phoenix Interiew, Die Geschichte schaut uns an,” in: Berliner Zeitung, September 8, 2014, http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/kultur/interview-mit-christian-petzold-ueber–phoenix—ich-wollte-kein-guido-knopp-tv-,10809150,28348818.html, accessed November 30, 2016.
  10. The strongest of a number of critiques along these lines came in Die Zeit’s second review (after an initially more positive one by Julie Dettke). See Peter Kümmel, “Phoenix: Nelly kehrt heim,” Die Zeit 29 (18 Sept. 2014).
  11. For example, Walter Benjamin, “Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire,“ in Gesammelte Schriften, eds. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, vol. 1.2 (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt/Main), p. 520-522.
  12. For Petzold’s admiration of German films from this era and Nosferatu in particular, see Khouloki, Rayd, and Christian Petzold, “Schwebezustände: Gespräch Mit Regisseur Chirstian Petzold,” in Film-Dienst 56:20 (2003), p. 43-45.
  13. Fisher, Christian Petzold, p. 140.
  14. Eric Rentschler, “From New German Cinema to the Post-Wall Cinema of Consensus,” in, Scott MacKenzie and Mette Hjort, eds., Cinema and Nation (Continuum: New York 2000), p. 260-77.
  15. Lutz Koepnick, “Reframing the Past: Heritage Cinema and Holocaust in the 1990s,” New German Critique 87 (Autumn 2002), p. 47-82. See also Johannes von Moltke, “Heimat and History: Viehjud Levi,” in New German Critique 87 (Autumn 2002), p. 83-105.
  16. Jenny Jecke and Christian Petzold, “Ein Interview with Christian Petzold: Kino darf keine Schule sein,” 26. September 2014, http://www.moviepilot.de/news/petzold-uber-phoenix-kino-darf-keine-schule-sein-136284
  17. For the influence of Vertigo on Something to Remind Me, see Fisher, Christian Petzold, p. 11, 60-67.
  18. See Nicholas Rapold, “Interview: Christian Petzold,” in Film Comment 26. (February 2015).
  19. See Fisher, Christian Petzold, p. 69-71.
  20. Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama,” in Christine Gledhill, ed., Home is Where the Heart is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (London, BFI: London, 1987), p. 43-69, here p. 52-53.
  21. Andrew Higson, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastische in the Heritage Film,” in Lester Friedman, ed., Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 109-129, here p. 119-120.
  22. Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury,” p. 46.
  23. As Elsaesser notes, Maria Braun invokes a number of different genres and form. See Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder’s Germany (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 1995), p. 101.
  24. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “The Blossom and the Bole: Narrative and Visual Spectacle in Early Film Melodrama,” in Cinema Journal 33: 3 (1994), p. 3-15, here p. 8.
  25. See Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury,” p. 64 and Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revisited,” in Nicke Browne, ed., Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 48
  26. Mary Ann Doane, “The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema,” in Differences 14:3 (Fall 2003), p. 89-111.
  27. Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury,” p. 51.
  28. To further underscore the importance of the face in Phoenix, the manipulation of facial close-up also recalls another fragment that Petzold has cited, that from Jacques Tourneur’s classic noir Out of the Past (1947), whose manner of shooting faces he mentions. See, for instance, Anke Westphal and Christian Petzold, “Ich wollte kein Guido-Knopp-TV: Christian Petzold Phoenix Interview, Die Geschichte schaut uns an.” But those ever-changing female faces and elusive psyches would move a reading of Phoenix in a different, noirish direction for which I do not have space here.
  29. Doane traces the close-ups of objects in addition to those of faces, and the debate about them, especially whether such close-ups are merely so-called facializations of objects. See Doane, “The Close-Up,” p. 94-95.
  30. See Jaimey Fisher and Christian Petzold, “Interview,” in Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold, p. 153-154.
  31. Ruth Perlmutter: “Real Feelings, Hollywood Melodrama, and the Bitter Tears of Fassbinders Petra von Kant,” in Minnesota Review 33 (1989), p. 79-98, here p. 80.
  32. Jenny Jecke and Christian Petzold “Ein Interview with Christian Petzold: Kino darf keine Schule sein,” 26. September 2014, http://www.moviepilot.de/news/petzold-uber-phoenix-kino-darf-keine-schule-sein-136284. Accessed July 30, 2017.
  33. Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury,” p. 50-51.
  34. Petzold emphasizes the importance of this sequence in the Pressehefte.
  35. Norbert Thomma and Christiane Peitz, “Regisseur Christian Petzold: ‘Uuuuuh, die Sache wird nicht nur unangenehm,’” in Tagesspiegel 23 September 2014.
  36. Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury,” p. 49.

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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