The essay discloses Petzold’s interest in the ways in which the planned obsolescence integral to regimes of neoliberal production and consumption is inscribed onto the function of the female body within a heteronormative economy of male-gaze pleasure. In films such as Pilotinnen (1995), Die innere Sicherheit (2000), Gespenster (2005), and Barbara (2012), Petzold depicts and complicates the bifurcation of female characters into functions of reproduction (sexuality, maternity) and production (professional and/or intellectual accomplishment) according to their youth or age, explores the haunting losses that this either-or denial of erotic/maternal and intellectual/professional potential inflicts on the subjectivities of women, and gestures toward an unrealized emancipatory politics of queer female desire and economic solidarity that would fuse female erotic and intellectual life.

In a 2011 interview, Christian Petzold, describing a formative cinematic moment in his childhood, makes an entirely startling leap:

I was six or seven and in a small town where I went to the cinema with my friends and without our parents – that’s probably why I can remember it. That is why cinema will never die out: it is a place without parents…. [T]here was a trailer beforehand for a film called Liane, The Girl from the Jungle [Liane, das Mädchen aus dem Urwald; 1956]. Liane was rather like Tarzan, and there was a scene with her, this young woman probably twenty-one or twenty-two years old, very beautiful and with hardly any clothes, and she was being roasted in a cage over an open fire by cannibals. She was screaming for help, and, from that moment on cinema has always been for me a sexual space.1

That images of a tortured young woman initiated the cinema as a sexual space for young Petzold stunned and intrigued me, particularly insofar as I am a passionate admirer of his films – for had I, as a young female child, been watching the film trailer for Liane at the age of six or seven, naively identifying with its protagonist via gender, cinema might well have become always for me a terrorized, desperate space, a space where one’s trapped body is tormented before being consumed, a space where one’s mortal struggles are prolonged for the visual pleasure of others. But as a straight white boy, Petzold was free to accept the film’s invitation into the fantasy experience of a violent white male colonial eroticism, to peruse with pleasure the sight of a caged and struggling, scantily clad, beautiful young woman both available and vulnerable, her potential rescue a site for white male heroics.

On the other hand, since I was a bookish child already schooled by adventure stories – all of which then had male protagonists – to identify fluidly across gender, there’s also a chance that I would have been equally susceptible to the film’s titillating designs upon its intended straight white colonial male viewer: that I might have crossed, in my imagination, the boundary of gender and sexual identity in order to enjoy objectifying Liane’s erotic beauty as much as any straight white boy-child.

Yet perhaps – and most likely – I would have simultaneously felt both ways, my empathy with Liane direct, immediate, and visceral (as it still is now with female characters when I see their suffering enacted on film), and my sense of her struggling body as erotic a secondary but still powerful perception, mediated by an imaginative leap across gender/sexuality identification into a zone of queer desire. Yes, she is a subject, my psyche would have effortlessly known, but look: she is an object, too, one to be consumed and enjoyed, at once the cannibal and the devoured flesh, as women are trained to be by all forms of visual culture and by the lived reality of their experience – their subway commutes, their campus rapes, their routine sexual harassment in the workplace. That feeling-both-ways-ness might have characterized my experience, and perhaps, if I’d been sitting in the same cinema where young Petzold sat, the trailer of Liane would have precipitated a different but equally important formative moment for me vis-à-vis cinema as well, a moment that might have initiated my child-mind into the order John Berger describes in Ways of Seeing, a doubled consciousness for women under patriarchy (structurally akin to the double-consciousness W.E.B. DuBois describes as inescapable in black psychic life under white supremacy2):

To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such a tutelage within such a limited space…. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.3

Petzold’s depictions of his female protagonists capture this sense of their awareness of omnipresent surveillance, and my own sense, drawn from his oeuvre, is that he, too (whether then or subsequently), experienced a similarly doubled consciousness, but one that moved in the opposite direction, from that inciting moment of primary, visceral, and immediate eroticization of a beautiful, struggling woman to a leap of imaginative empathy with women’s desperation and fear – together with the suspicion that, despite being desirable objects, they were also quite possibly subjects as intelligent, sensitive, real, and driven by their own desires and agendas as Petzold himself.

While identifying and empathizing with the Other is a move in which women, people of colour, and queer people are routinely instructed via literature, film, and life (an education we ignore at our peril), it’s an imaginative move that straight white men typically enjoy the luxury of performing only voluntarily. Cultural productions that result from their doing so are far less common than those that do not, as most mainstream movies’ endless parade of flesh-bot women, mystical people of colour, and queer-people-as-comic-relief amply demonstrates. In this larger context, Petzold’s willingness to explore across gender and imagine the subjugated and objectified Other as fully alive subject is compelling and noteworthy. Perhaps even more radical is the fact that he dares to posit and problematize his own kind – the voyeuristic, consuming, socially empowered male – as fundamental to the suffering that women experience.

It is this doubled movement toward women that animates Petzold’s both-and depictions of female characters in his films. While they serve as standard-enough beauty objects, shot in ways that emphasise their attractiveness and sexuality (all standard-issue male-gaze cinematic fare: pretty faces, conventionally attractive figures, etc.), they also rule the screen as three-dimensional, thinking beings with complex, rational, and resistant logics – “ingenuity,” in Berger’s formulation – of their own. Petzold imagines possibilities for girls and women beyond the “allotted and confined space” of patriarchal, sexist, objectifying logic, beyond inherited sociopolitical structures. We watch the world from over their shoulders and from their points of view, and we watch them watching it.4

Particularly interesting is the way in which Petzold maps this doubled depiction of female characters onto an economic narrative. Within neoliberal capitalist regimes, the economic engine of endless, ever-increasing production and consumption depends upon the principle of planned obsolescence: even if an object continues to work, we must cease desiring it and transfer our desire to some newer model so we can be induced to continue purchasing. Petzold’s cinema highlights the ways in which this obsolescence is simultaneously inscribed onto the function of the female body within a heteronormative economy of male-gaze pleasure. While men are forced to surveil themselves within capitalist regimes of production vis-à-vis their viability as workers and earners, Petzold’s films explore the doubled challenge for women of doing the same yet with the added burden of knowing that not only their labour but also they themselves – their faces and bodies and beauty and fertility and sexual attractiveness, as consumer commodities – are under constant scrutiny and that they will, sooner or later, be deemed obsolete.

In films such as Pilotinnen (Pilots, 1995), Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000), and Gespenster (Ghosts, 2005), Petzold depicts girls and women allying with one another against the very patriarchal-gaze order that would reduce them to their attractiveness, sexuality, and fertility. In so doing, he depicts and complicates the routine bifurcation of female characters into functions of reproduction (sexuality, maternity) and production (professional and/or intellectual accomplishment) according to their youth or age. The films explore the haunting losses that this either-or denial of erotic/maternal and intellectual/professional potential inflicts on the subjectivities of women. Remarked for his utopian political vision writ large,5 Petzold also gestures toward an unrealized emancipatory politics of queer female desire and economic solidarity that would fuse female erotic and intellectual life. In the films, this potential goes unrealized, but it is imagined, gestured toward, sketched out.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Nadeshda Brennicke and Eleonore Weisgerber in Petzold’s Pilotinnen and Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat handcuffed together in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps

Jaimey Fisher has examined the ways in which Pilots riffs upon Hitchcock’s classic spy thriller The 39 Steps (1935), in which an initially combative man and woman are handcuffed together, go on cross-country political hijinks, bicker, earn each other’s trust, and end by falling in love. Time unwillingly shared in automobiles and a hotel features largely in the progress of the couple’s relationship in The 39 Steps – Fisher notes that both Petzold and Slavoj Žižek see “the film as exploring how the couple’s desire is produced not from within the individual(s) but from without” – that is, by circumstance and action6 – and the same essential structure obtains in Pilots, in which Karin (Eleonore Weisgerber) and Sophie (Nadeshda Brennicke), competitors forced together by corporate circumstance, spend much of their screen-time bickering while in transit, eventually earn one another’s trust, and end as allies. Once Sophie has violently dispatched her boss/lover Junior (Udo Schenk) after he betrays her, moreover, she adopts a far more masculine style of dressing, standing, and moving. However, Pilots’ sexually transgressive potential as a queer alternative to heteropatriarchy is contained and neutralized by the frame narrative of Karin’s love affair with a man, Michel (Gilles Papelian), and their mutual dream of a place of their own. While the film’s structure invokes Hitchcock’s romance plot, raising the possibility of homoerotic desire and solidarity between Karin and Sophie, Pilots ultimately suppresses that alternative, eliminating Sophie and installing Karin in a domestic haven of heterosexual romance.

The brief opening scene of Pilots focuses on a map, a man whose face remains unshown, and finally the protagonist Karin as the two characters plan their next romantic tryst. “Someday,” Michel promises her, “we’ll have a place of our own.” And indeed, by the film’s end, he has, through theft, provided just that. The primary action of the film – the realm of Karin’s work and the arc of her developing relationship with Sophie, the part that echoes the plot of The 39 Steps – is thus framed by a controlling narrative that promises (and delivers, with caveats) heteronormative domestic space.

Yet the bulk of the narrative devotes itself to anatomising Karin’s realm of work and competition, and, though simply phrased, the question Karin asks her male supervisor Junior, younger than she, at the Blue Eyes cosmetics company – “What’s going on here anyway?” – resonates with the entire film’s complicated inquiry into planned female obsolescence and disposability under a regime of consumer capitalism. Issues of women, aging, and marketability are immediately at stake: though she is a profitable and experienced sales rep, adept at selling the very means by which women make themselves more attractive and thus more competitive in the sexist-exploitation capitalist economy, Karin is almost immediately marked by the film’s subtitles as “[older and tired].” Junior codes her as being past her professional competitive prime, onto which her attractiveness prime is mapped, and tasks his girlfriend/subordinate Sophie with Karin’s surveillance.

As a younger, more visibly sexualized woman (blond, curvy, flirtatious in manner), Sophie also functions, with her mere physical presence, to tacitly pressure Karin into realizing the socially constructed truth of her situation: obsolete, over the hill, destined for the chopping block of corporate redundancy. The two women are thus immediately pitted against one another in both the economic realm and the beauty market. Both kinds of worth or value are simultaneously at stake, and Karin – a washed up, feminized version of Willy Loman, homeless, living out of hotels and her car – initially seems to occupy the losing end of the equation.

While late 20th century capitalism opened up professional and economic opportunities for women, the film’s action – Karin’s decline, Junior’s summary rejection of Sophie – demonstrates the hollowness of that promise of equality, and Petzold has acknowledged that he “chooses to foreground women because he regards them as more problematically disempowered – they have it harder…in that they still have to rely on men…as the perpetual owners of the means of production.”7 Pilots’ larger temporal setting foregrounds the possibility that Frank Sinatra, nicknamed “Old Blue Eyes” and glamorously totemic of old-school masculinity, has died. “Is he dead?,” asks Karin. “I think so,” Sophie replies, but the film troubles the issue, leaving Sinatra’s actual status ambiguous and unresolved.8 As the characters move from location to location, Sinatra is ever-present on TV screens. Pink-uniformed saleswomen at one shop claim that this ubiquity is occurring precisely because he’s dead now: all the television stations are nostalgically commemorating him. Even after Sophie strips the Blue Eyes cosmetics logo from the car in which the two women travel, the male-gaze shadow of an older regime, panoptic as T.J. Eckleberg’s billboard eyes in The Great Gatbsy, haunts Karin and Sophie’s options. The old order has ended – or has it?

Like the circumstances of The 39 Steps, the economic situation of Pilots initially structures Karin and Sophie in oppositional, roles, bifurcating women into older, wiser producers and younger, attractive, reproducers (Sophie is later revealed to be pregnant). At first, both characters have the illusion that one of them – Sophie – is more powerful than Karin within the economy of sexist-capitalist exploitation because she’s younger and thus coded as more sexually attractive, but this gradually unravels, and we see (they see, Sophie comes to see) the structural similarities between them. When Junior simultaneously breaks up with Sophie and informs her that the company has been sold to the Americans, she has to relinquish the keys to the apartment they shared, becoming as homeless as Karin; what must once have been, for Sophie, the realized dream of a place of her own with Junior evaporates along with his sexual and professional interest in her. Once Sophie realizes that she and Karin are essentially the same – and cannot win a losing game – she allies with Karin against the oppressive system. Sophie learns that their vulnerability is ultimately, eventually, and inevitably the same. Their only distinguishing factor is the points they currently happen to occupy on the temporal continuum – their “sell-by date.” Like consumer objects destined for the landfill or workers destined for the layoff in a precarious economy, women’s romantic/professional viability is temporally finite.

While some critics note in passing the fact that Sophie is pregnant, none explores the way that the film codes the suppression of maternal desire as a minor tragedy. Pilots includes no discussion of keeping the pregnancy – there’s none of the moral or emotional anguish over the decision that most American mainstream films would dramatize – yet it’s clear that Sophie dreads the experience of termination. She asks Karin to come with her to Holland for the procedure, indicating that this abortion won’t be her first: “It’s sickening there all alone,” she says. Yet she entertains no other options. To survive under late capitalism – to succeed as both productive worker and beautiful sex object – she must defer or abjure entirely the pursuit of maternal desire.

Pilots does not answer the question, but it poses the question precisely: how can Sophie and Karin overcome the systemic obstacles they face as women within a system that maps the principle of planned obsolescence onto women’s bodies? Petzold begins to experiment with answers. Solidarity? (The two women stop infighting and begin to plan and act together.) Resistance? (They disable Junior; they plot robberies.)  A rejection of the female role? (Sophie abandons her femmed-up appearance and physical micropractices, donning male garb.) Martyrdom? (Sophie, close to dying, leaves Karin all the money and leads the police off her trail.) Petzold anatomizes the problem and various potential responses.

But Pilots forecloses the possibility of any real escape. Despite the ways in which the film is structurally suggestive of queer desire and female solidarity, its final scene elides these possibilities, providing for Karin a happily-ever-after ending within a heteronormative romantic economy, complete with plenty of cash and a view of the Eiffel Tower, its structure both phallic and delicate, the most romantic symbol in the Western world. Sophie’s self-sacrifice, and the sacrifice of her potential maternity – the apparently fatal gunshot wound, strikingly, is marked by blood on her abdomen – is nowhere visually mourned or commemorated; it has been effectively erased by a scene that is “arguably the most overtly optimistic in Petzold’s oeuvre,” as Abel claims.9

Yet Petzold complicates even this heteronormative fairy-tale ending with incompletion. While all the symbols of romantic and financial happiness are spread across the screen (and the sound of running water suggests that someone, likely Karin, is elsewhere in the flat), what we see is an empty room, a place without people. The implication is that Michel is still incarcerated, serving his three-year term, while Karin steadfastly waits and yearns for his return, a modern-day Penelope, feminized and passive, no longer pressured by the necessity to earn her living, freed from the responsibility of work – a freedom that Barbara (2012) will question and ultimately reject. If a happy ending to the Karin-Michel romance is what viewers have been structured to desire – “from without,” by the film and its many predecessors – then the film’s final scene satisfies. If, however, the structural pressures of the 39 Steps­-esque plotline have provoked us to desire the possibility of queer romance, together with women’s economic solidarity and the cessation of the regime of women’s commodification and planned obsolescence, then the film forces unwelcome and premature closure upon the possibilities it raises.

“Is he dead?” the characters ask about Sinatra, crooning symbol of old-school romance, from an era when men were still men and women knew how to create the perfect cat-eye. Is the old era over?

Pilots’ answer: Not yet.

Christian Petzold

Julia Hummer and Bilge Bingül in Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit

As in Pilots, the promise of a future home is invoked in The State I Am In within the context of heterosexual desire. Again, a male character narrates the promise of home into being, and again the female protagonist buys into and desires the dream of home he articulates. Romancing the teenaged protagonist Jeanne (Julia Hummer) on the shore, Heinrich (Bilge Bingül) narrates a story of his purported former home, which Jeanne vividly, hyperrealistically envisions in a scene.10 Later, when her family is desperate for a place to stay, she finds the villa Heinrich described, and it conforms precisely to the vision she’d had earlier. Though she eventually learns that Heinrich’s story was a lie produced by his own desire – that the villa had never belonged to his family, and that he instead lives, unwanted and parentless, in the Anne Frank Home, dwelling within the memory of Germany’s history – she and her parents are nonetheless able to inhabit (for a while) the actual sheltering structure Heinrich described and of which she dreamed.

While most scholarly commentary focuses upon the film’s larger political context, the family drama, Jeanne’s romance with Heinrich, and the fact that Jeanne ends up alone, apparently freed from the burdens of history – “the utopian potential of the child,” as Homewood puts it11The State I Am In makes two gestures toward the possibility of queer female romance. While these gestures go unfulfilled within the film, they open a new space for alternative channels of desire.

In this reading, it’s important to note that Jeanne’s relationship with Heinrich is initiated when, smoking alone near the shore, she is approached by a good-looking boy, a stranger, who asks for a cigarette. When she gives him one, he joins her, and they begin to converse. This gesture – the asking for a cigarette, the smoking together – initiates the progress of their desire.

In two other moments in the film, Jeanne smokes or shares her cigarettes with a stranger her own age. Each time, it is a girl. Yet in analysing these moments, critics have remarked only upon Jeanne’s desire for consumer goods and her bafflement in the face of German history, not upon Petzold’s evocation of the possibility of queer desire.

The first such evocation occurs when Jeanne accompanies her parents to the home of their old friend to seek financial help. While the grown-ups talk, she drifts alone upstairs, where she discovers another teenaged girl, the old friend’s daughter, Paulina (Katharina Schüttler). We first see Paulina via a mirror as Jeanne watches her. Jeanne, unseen, hovers in the doorway of Paulina’s bedroom while Paulina dances and smokes, wearing a snug and fashionable Diego Maradona t-shirt. We then see both girls in the mirror, smoking and moving to the music (dancing together, if awkwardly – a stilted foreshadowing of the way Nina and Toni will dance together in Ghosts). The girls share, however briefly, a potentially romantic moment, until Jeanne is called away.

Whereas Pilots furnishes the plot structure of romance but no evidence of desire between the two female characters, in The State I Am In desire is expressed vis-à-vis Jeanne’s gaze. But is it desire to be with the other or to be the other? The fact that Jeanne and Paulina exist together in the mirror rather than directly face each other in a less mediated, traditionally romantic shot (as Jeanne and Heinrich do; as Karin and Michel do at the beginning of Pilots) complicates interpretation. Thus far, critics have not entertained the possibility of the former, reading Jeanne’s only desire as the latter: her longing to be like Paulina, to become Paulina, domestically rooted and financially comfortable, a normal teenager in possession of the pleasurable accoutrements of youth: music, cool clothing, a nice bedroom, and so on.12 “Petzold’s films are constantly looking at and fashioning images of ethical dilemma,” observes Kurt Buhanan, arguing that “crucial to his treatment of images is their dialectical multistability, the image-ethics of the double-premise.”13 The valence of the image of the two girls dancing and smoking together in the mirror may be ultimately undecidable.

Yet reinforcing the possibility of queer desire is the shot that follows, in which Petzold deploys character blocking from one of the most classical romantic scenes in Western literature. After the altercation between their fathers truncates her interlude with Paulina, Jeanne leaves with her family through the forest. Paulina comes out on the balcony and looks down at her; Jeanne gazes back – which is to say, their physical positions precisely echo those of a Romeo-and-Juliet scene, possibly theatre’s ur-scene of adolescent romantic love. Their gaze has become mutual, a look of longing. It’s their feuding families, moreover, that thwart the possibility of any development of desire between the girls, further echoing the romantic situation in Shakespeare’s play.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Katharine Schüttler in Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit and Julia Hummer in Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit

A second possibility opens for queer female desire after Jeanne and her parents have settled in the villa. When Jeanne journeys alone into town, she is approached by a red-haired girl her own age who asks for a cigarette, just as Heinrich did. The red-haired girl looks speculatively at Jeanne and asks if she’ll be attending the same movie; in the theatre, the girls sit next to each other. That is, the structure of the action is that of a conventional date. Yet history descends with full educative force in all its brutality, for the film, being shown for a class, is Alain Resnais’ Holocaust documentary Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956). While the red-haired girl seems subversively to resist the burdens of history – she smirks at the teacher’s post-film tirade – the possibility of pursuing desire is foreclosed when the teacher mistakes Jeanne’s identity, haranguing her, and Jeanne rushes away. Soon afterwards, she spots Heinrich, renews their romance, and is reincorporated into an economy of heterosexual desire. She subsequently learns that Heinrich has fabricated the story of his family’s ownership of the villa: he never knew his parents, he works in a pizza place, he lives in an institutional home named after the Holocaust’s most famous child-victim, and he is just as rootless as Jeanne.

In this reencounter, when Heinrich mocks her dowdy clothes, Jeanne adopts a superior air, retorting that she’s sick of “supermodels and poses,” “exterior shit” – yet she later wears a Maradona t-shirt of the same design Paulina wore. Now Jeanne lives in a big villa, shoplifts cool clothes, and listens to popular music: she has transformed herself into an ersatz Paulina by sheer force of will and by imaginatively and literally inhabiting Heinrich’s dream. While critics infer that the Maradona t-shirt signifies only Jeanne’s longing for Paulina’s bourgeois lifestyle of consumer capitalism, a queered reading would argue that Jeanne desires the shirt – and wears it to inspire desire – precisely because she once gazed upon Paulina with desire.

When she shows up in her new, cool, stolen clothes, Heinrich – who had swallowed her above-the-fray rationale for not participating in the typical feminine economy of body-display to provoke male desire – expresses his surprise, saying, “I thought that was outfit shit.” Jeanne replies, “I made a mistake in my thinking.” They embrace, and she goes to bed with him. The trace of desire-for-Paulina has been subsumed and incorporated into Jeanne herself, now the successful object of Heinrich’s desire.

As with Pilots, the structural suggestions of queer desire are foreclosed by the narrative of heterosexual romance and the (temporarily) fulfilled desire for a home. Heinrich’s narrative – however counterfactual – provides real, if fleeting, shelter for Jeanne. Combined with Jeanne’s fierce imaginative inhabitation and pursuit of his vision, Heinrich’s yearning brings into being a real home, much as Michel’s promise does in Pilots. But in Die innere Sicherheit, the promise does not, cannot, last.

At the end of the film, after the explosion that apparently kills her parents, Jeanne is thrown free of the family cage of the car, released from both the heteronormative nuclear family and the economy of heterosexual romance, from the roles of both daughter and straight girlfriend; the film’s final frames depict her as the last one standing. None of the people in the dark cars that caused the conflagration remains to exterminate her, so she is also free of the political plot and the necessity of living in hiding in which her parents’ long-ago acts had embroiled her. While having suffered a brutal loss, Jeanne no longer has to live underground, in any sense of the word. No repressive forces remain to police her desires, whatever those might turn out to be.

Christian Petzold

Julia Hummer and Sabine Timoteo in Petzold’s Gespenster

In Ghosts, which also stars Julia Hummer (five years later) as its young protagonist Nina, the earlier films’ structural pressures and feints toward lesbian desire find realization: two young women temporarily become lovers and allies. The film mobilizes maternal-daughterly desire and queer female desire in order to explore both as possible alternatives to a male-gaze heteronormative economy of love and family. Nina’s actions with Toni (Sabine Timoteo) chart an outside, an alternative to the heteronormative romance plot: they become economic allies, like Karin and Sophie in Pilots, yet they also fulfil the promise of the earlier film’s 39 Steps framework and the hints in The State I Am In by pursuing and consummating their erotic attraction. But when Toni returns to the heterosexual economy, Nina seeks her estranged mother, trying to address a buried, perhaps more primal longing – a daughterly-maternal desire. Such a premise, however, Nina ultimately rejects.

In Ghosts, visionary agency – the ability to narrate an imagined love/home into being – is located with Nina, rather than with a male character like Michel in Pilots or Heinrich in Die innere Sicherheit. Unlike Karin or Jeanne, who long for homes but simply fall in with the vision of home described by the men they want, Nina, a sincere fantasist of desire, articulates her own vision, first on the page in her embellished journal and then aloud in her dream-story at the casting call. Like Jeanne at the end of The State I Am In – like Petzold, however briefly, as a six- or seven-year-old at the cinema – Nina is a child “without parents,” free to conjure and pursue alternative configurations of desire. When events fail to produce what she wants, she eschews the forms of fulfilment that are offered in a move that has been recognised by Abel as “Nina’s refusal to join what others consider normalcy. Instead, the normalcy she desires is the one that she imagines….”14

As with Pilots’ robbery and embezzlement and The State I Am In’s failed heist, Ghosts is permeated by the motif of theft. As a toddler, little Marie has been stolen from her mother Françoise (Marianne Basler) in a supermarket. (Visually reinforcing that incident’s connection with theft, moreover, is the fact that Françoise remains haunted specifically by surveillance-footage images of the kidnapping, since through surveillance footage is also how we witness the girls shoplifting.) Toni has stolen jewellery from the mother of a former boyfriend. Nina and Toni shoplift clothing together, and Toni steals Françoise’s wallet. While Toni codes this last theft as driven by injustice and class consciousness – she steals from Françoise, she explains to Nina, “because we’re hungry and she’s wearing Prada” – what she fails to acknowledge is what the film dramatizes: that the mother has already been stolen from, and far more profoundly.

Yet Françoise, driven by maternal desire, operates from within an entirely different economic framework: unconcerned with the loss of her wallet, she wants not money but her child. Similarly, near the film’s end, Nina is fundamentally uninterested in – even uncomprehending of – the money with which Pierre tries to make her go away, as he has routinely paid off other girls Françoise has disturbed. “What’s this for?” she asks, rejecting his attempt to assign a cash value to the relationship or her relinquishment of it. Struggling physically with Pierre, she cries, “I don’t want it. I want my mama.” It is flesh, not cash, that she desires: embodied love, not the technology of symbolic exchange.

Connected to this focus on the body and desire is the vehicle the film offers us, a physical mark, for determining Nina’s true parentage. When Nina first meets her, Françoise claims that her stolen child had – in addition to a scarred ankle, which we are shown15 – a heart-shaped mole on her back. Because of its location, Nina must rely on others – in a fundamentally Lacanian take on desire – for confirmation of her identity. Like Nina, viewers are denied the opportunity to see for ourselves whether or not her flesh bears it.

While Buhanan catalogues four images in Ghosts that “specifically pose[ ] the problem of pictures as part of the ethics of the social relation,”16 and Abel provides probing close analyses of two other noteworthy images in the film,17 perhaps most striking to me is Petzold’s careful and provocative juxtaposition – a juxtaposition that could only have been created in the editing process – of two visually similar images that contrast two economies of desire. The first, an image of Françoise’s search for fleshly confirmation of Nina’s identity as her daughter, articulates maternal desire. The second, a shot of Toni’s theft of Françoise’s wallet, jolts us into the world of money. Following immediately upon the heels of the first and initially creating the illusion of a successive action, the second shot instead creates a defamiliarizing montage effect that results for viewers in a brief moment of cognitive dissonance.

Christian Petzold

Françoise’s right hand preparing to enter the neck of Nina’s shirt, so Françoise can seek the heart-shaped mole in Ghosts (2005).

Christian Petzold

Toni’s right hand entering Françoise’s handbag in order to steal her wallet in Ghosts (2005)

The positions and angles of the hands are similar; their size on the screen is comparable, with the second shot appearing to be a close-up, inviting viewers to look for the mole. It takes the eye a moment (and the subsequent shots of Toni’s absconding with the wallet) to understand what’s being shown.

Buhanan’s image-logic of the double premise, the ethical dilemma, obtains here. One legitimate reading of Petzold’s juxtaposed images would visually equate Françoise’s quest for fleshly certainty with Toni’s theft, implicating Françoise in a kind of hunger to exert ownership over Nina. Yet another, equally viable, and perhaps stronger interpretation of Petzold’s montage-effect is a critique of the attempt to commodify and monetize a primal, intimate human connection – as Toni does here, as she does when (falsely) narrating the inception of her relationship with Nina in a casting call for a reality show about friends, as she does in performing her erotic relationship with Nina for the show’s director, as Françoise’s husband Pierre (Aurélien Recoing) does when he wants Françoise to accompany him to a business meeting, and as Pierre does when he tries to pay Nina off. Toni and Pierre, constantly transforming desire into economic terms for their advantage, destroy and diminish human relationships, while Nina and Françoise are aligned in their refusal to commodify their relationships for the spectatorship of others (the director, Pierre’s business associate).

The “ambiguity and multivalence” of images that Buhanan remarks in Petzold’s work18 becomes particularly laden in Ghosts’ final scene. When Nina goes to the park and retrieves from the trash bin Françoise’s wallet, stripped of cash by Toni, it contains a photo of little Marie at three years of age, together with a series of age-progression simulation images, the sort produced by police investigators – images that, in Toni’s estimation, held no value and were thus discarded. The most recent age-progression image, however, resembles Nina to a striking degree, suggesting that she is, in fact, the long-lost Marie. For Buhanan, the assumption that “Nina simply has no real recourse for establishing a relationship” with Françoise “effectively renders the photograph blank for her eye, devoid of meaning. Thus, Nina drops the photographs back into the waste basket where she found them and remains alone as the film closes.”19 I disagree with this reading of Nina as singularly obtuse and passive, unable to perceive the photographs’ meaning, for the film has presented her as keenly observant throughout. Rather, I see her as coming to comprehend, as she unfolds the age-progression images one by one, the now-incontrovertible truth of her status as Françoise’s and Pierre’s daughter – but as being simultaneously and fundamentally aware of Pierre’s grief-stricken rejection of the possibility of her existence (“Marie is dead,” he bursts out) and his wife’s acquiescence (she allows herself to be led away) to his version of Françoise as mentally unstable, hallucinating daughters all over Berlin. Nina knows that Pierre does not want the emotional complication of a resurrected daughter and that Françoise will not fight him – but this does not “render[ ] the photograph blank,” “devoid of meaning” for her. Rather, Nina recognises the hopelessness of pursuing a relationship within a configuration that disempowers, dismisses, and misdiagnoses Françoise’s persistent maternal desire, just as she sees the hopelessness of pursuing a queer romantic relationship with Toni, an inveterate (if sympathetic) thief who commodifies their eroticism in capitulation to a male-gaze economy.

Christian Petzold

Nina Hoss and Jasna Fritzi Bauer in Petzold’s Barbara

More could be argued. In Barbara, for example, women are again bifurcated, like Karin and Sophie, into experienced older professionals – producers – and younger fertile reproducers. Yet in contrast to Karin, whose triumphant ending leaves her ensconced and waiting in the Paris apartment, Barbara (Nina Hoss) sends Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) in her stead to enjoy (possibly) the world of luxury consumer goods and financial dependency that her West German lover Jörg (Mark Waschke) has promised. Barbara chooses to stay behind in an ethically vexed political state that nonetheless offers her rewarding work and a heterosexual romance rooted in mutual professional respect; in dismissing this potential motive as “superficial romanticism,” Buhanan fails to comprehend the lived political reality for women permitted to choose only the domestic or the professional sphere.20 In Phoenix (2014), the possibility of queer desire exists but fails: in a decision that the film figures as a devastatingly tragic mistake for both women, Nelly (Nina Hoss) emphatically rejects Lene’s (Nina Kunzendorf’s) impassioned offer of a personal and political place of their own (a home together in Palestine) in favour of the husband who betrayed her for economic gain.

If Petzold’s fundamental cinematic gesture is one of utopian futurity – that of the “promise” of a shared and perfect future home21 – 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 (a mother’s desire is not only for her child but also for her child, that is, on her child’s behalf: that the child may have a safe and beautiful future, even if or after she herself is gone), and queerness’s focus on and longing for the world yet-to-come functions, as José Esteban Muñoz argues in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, “to combat the devastating logic of the world of the here and now,…a version of reality that naturalizes cultural logics such as capitalism and heteronormativity.”22 Like the fulfilment of maternal desire, queerness is always “not yet here” but rather functions as “the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.”23

It is his female protagonists in whom Petzold imbues this utopian potentiality, and I end by returning to his formative cinematic moment as a young boy, hypnotized by the central figure of Liane dominating the screen – caged, beautiful, struggling against terrible odds – and would argue that one major achievement of his cinema has been to create sites of (sights of) female struggle that move beyond the purely voyeuristic into a space of radical empathy and inquiry, inducing viewers to take a formal pleasure in the complicated beauty of watching his protagonists resist their circumstances and explore new modes of living. Repeatedly centering female characters, Petzold endows them with subjectivity, complexity, and agency. We see them think, we see them act, and we see why.

This article has been peer-reviewed.



  1. Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold (Urbana: U of Illinois, 2013), p. 148.
  2. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903), p. 4.
  3. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972), p. 46-47.
  4. Max Nelson, “Christian Petzold’s ‘Ghosts’ Trilogy.” Film Comment (2014), p. 3. http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/christian-petzold-ghosts-trilogy/ Accessed 10 Feb. 2017. Nelson persuasively describes the ways Petzold’s camera angles and quiet, lingering shots work to induce viewers’ curiosity about and investment in the subjectivities of his female characters.
  5. In the chapter devoted to Petzold’s cinema, “Christian Petzold: Heimat-Building as Utopia,” in his study The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Rochester: Camden House, 2013), Marco Abel discusses at length the role that characters’ longing for home plays in the films.
  6. Fisher, p. 24.
  7. Fisher, p. 23, drawing upon Petzold’s interviews with Ertl and Knepperges (Filmwärts, 1995) and Abel (Cineaste, 2008).
  8. Though the original title was “The Summer When Frank Sinatra Died,” Petzold, by renaming it, removed the film’s only definitive statement on the matter, opting for undecidability (Fisher, p. 21).
  9. Counter-Cinema, p. 77.
  10. The diegetic status of this scene is problematized by the film itself and has been further problematized by critics: Abel, Counter-Cinema, p. 82-85, and Fisher, p. 43-44.
  11. Chris Homewood, “Von Trotta’s The German Sisters and Petzold’s The State I Am In: Discursive Boundaries in the Films of the New German Cinema to the Present Day,” Studies in European Cinema 2.2 (2005), p. 97.
  12. Fisher, p. 55, and Chris Homewood, “The Return of ‘Undead’ History: The West German Terrorist as Vampire and the Problem of ‘Normalizing’ the Past in Margarethe von Trotta’s Die bleierne Zeit (1981) and Christian Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit (2001),” German Culture, Politics, and Literature into the Twenty-First Century: Beyond Normalization, eds. Stuart Taberner and Paul Cooke (Rochester: Camden House, 2006), p. 132.
  13. Kurt Buhanan, “What’s Wrong with this Picture? Image-Ethics in Christian Petzold’s Films,” The German Quarterly 89.4 (2016); p. 481.
  14. Abel, Counter-Cinema, p. 104.
  15. Petzold’s apparent allusion here to Oedipus’s ankles, scarred when he was abandoned in the mountains as an infant and a definitive marker of his identity as an adult, lends credence to the argument that Nina is in fact Marie.
  16. Buhanan, “What’s Wrong with this Picture?,” p. 485.
  17. Abel, Counter-Cinema, p. 103-05.
  18. Buhanan, “What’s Wrong with this Picture?,” p. 481.
  19. Ibid., p. 486.
  20. Ibid., p. 493.
  21. Abel, Counter-Cinema, p. 69.
  22. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York UP, 2009), p. 12.
  23. Ibid., p. 1.

About The Author

Joy Castro is the author of two memoirs, two crime novels, and the fiction collection How Winter Began (Lincoln, 2015). She teaches at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and her criticism and essays on questions of class, gender, sexuality, violence, and race and ethnicity have appeared in Salon, Women’s Review of Books, Brevity, Gulf Coast, and The New York Times Magazine.

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