While most filmmakers use movement as their primary currency, Christian Petzold seems to favors stasis. In Petzold scholarship, movement has received a fair amount of attention. One undertheorized aspect is this fascination with stasis. In specific instances, the camera frees the image from eventhood, affecting what Martin Lefebvre refers to as a “spectacular mode of viewing.” In these moments, the shots captured by the static camera adopt qualities consonant with the static arts, painting, and photography. Although Lefebvre focuses on landscape and setting, his argument can be stretched to include portraiture. The camera shows how things are and it raises awareness of what the images do, rather than what they are and what they mean as a chain of cause and effect. It encourages the viewer to recognize and at the same time investigate the historically constructed relations with images as signifiers, and connotes complex associations. This brings Petzold’s filmic projects close to what Paul Arthur calls filmic portrait practices associated with the American avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s. The aim of this essay is then to show connections with the visual arts by focusing on filmic strategies that previous scholarship excluded and that operate outside of narrative theory to present a means of re-enchanting cinema.

When I consider Christian Petzold’s body of work, I first note the arrangement of faces. I was struck early on while watching films like Jerichow (2008) and Barbara (2012) by how much the cinematography gestures to aesthetic qualities of the other arts, such as painting and photography. The camera often lingers on faces for no discernible reason, creating portraits in time. While the films present the viewer with particular facts surrounding the characters’ lives, these facts reveal little about the characters’ emotions and any particular outcome of their lives. When it comes to describing the emotional complexes of the characters, the films employ descriptive pauses through the use of frontal close-ups, static framing, long-take cinematography, understated performances, and sound design that renders environmental ambience equal to character dialogue.

Consider, for example, Jerichow, Petzold’s reworking of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). Petzold transposes the story from the oppressive shadows of film noir to the context of unified, multicultural Germany. War veteran Thomas starts an affair with Laura, the wife of Ali, a Turkish-German entrepreneur who had hired Thomas as a driver. The three main characters are defined by an endless repetition of actions that leave them immobilized in a mediocre present, from which it is difficult to escape. In many ways, the film is about the physical intensity of the solitary figure. Such intensity, for example, is staged in the final stand-off amongst the three at the end of the film in a series of shot-reverse shots of faces, cutting from one character to the next. Ali realized Thomas’s and Laura’s betrayal. The characters’ silence focuses attention on what the viewer sees. It also halts the story time while narrative discourse continues. Occasionally, the characters appear to break the fourth wall to look at the camera and by extension the film viewer. Yet, we cannot easily read the faces. The faces are up-close and removed at the same time. This is not simply a means for expressive value; it involves the viewer, turning her from subject of the gaze to its object.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold, Jerichow (2008). Series of portraits.

The most remarkable quality of these images is their ability to display various tensions between stasis and movement, surface and depth, description and narration, and closeness and distance. These qualities are also key categories in photography, and portrait photography in particular. Scholarship to date has primarily focused on the aspects of social and economic mobility in Petzold’s films and his dialogue with genre cinema. Less has been said about the use of older, half-forgotten traditions of portraiture, landscape, and still life – genres that have a peculiar relation to storytelling as they traditionally have been considered non-narrative. Indeed, Petzold is well versed in the history of art. When asked about the look of his films, he references a great variety of art genres that feed into his work. For instance, discussing Etwas Besseres als den Tod (Beats Being Dead, 2011), his contribution to and first segment of the Dreileben project for German television, a trilogy of 90-minutes features that circle around a manhunt as single event, time, and place from different perspectives, Petzold refers to recent portrait series by German artist Tobias Zielony.1 Zielony set out to portray young people in their given environments, mainly in public spaces at the margins of urban environments: the service stations and car parks of the shrinking eastern German city of Halle, the banlieues of Marseille, and the vast desert wasteland of California. Compiled in the photo book Story/No Story, the resulting portraits blur together. The sitters become a global community of nocturnal youth, searching for meaning on the geographical and social fringes of their respective urban environments.2 Rather than simply documenting the groups, Zielony gives them space to pose and model their own images. They imitate the types of the film and music industry with its staged dreams of self-determination, resistance, and the good life. Indeed, Zielony is highly aware of the cinematic quality of his images, though he insists that the portraits evoke numerous possible narratives. As he explains to Petzold in a conversation featured in the photo book: “There’s a latent narrative. It’s in the situations, in the youths’ imaginations. You can’t say that nothing is happening.”3 And it is precisely this notion of revealing the surface construction and offering a story, yet never conforming it, that connects Zielony’s collective portraits to Petzold’s filmmaking.

Christian Petzold

Tobias Zielony, “Fur” (2008). From the series “Zielona Gora.”

In Etwas Besseres als den Tod, Petzold moves the trilogy’s central manhunt to the periphery to focus on the romance between the young medical student Johannes, who dreams of moving to Los Angeles, and the Bosnian immigrant and chambermaid Ana. The close-ups of faces emphasize poses and mask-like expressions rather than fantasy of inwardness. The couple’s first encounter takes place at a petrol station. Separated by the shop window, Ana blows Thomas a kiss. Confronting the camera directly, she projects a sexualized femininity. But her depiction is much more complicated. Her face at once highlights and covers her sensuality. Shortly after, a cut to a large billboard reveals Ana’s imitation of a pose: an advertisement for coffee with a woman blowing a kiss. We see a face that combines the real and the posed, up-close and removed, as a reaction to being looked at.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold, Etwas Besseres als den Tod (2011). Ana imitating an advertising pose

A historical reference to Zielony’s and Petzold’s consistent thematic concern with subjects at the periphery (young adults, workers, immigrants, and women) is August Sander and his approach to photography as social documentarism. A few decades earlier, Sander set out to portray a whole society. In the late 19th century and into the 20th, photographers, scientists, and social historians gathered photographic images into archives, cataloguing people, places, and natural phenomena according to the belief, as Wolfgang Brückler suggests, that cultural and social conditions could be read on the surface, such as the face.4 At the time, typology was a troubling obsession in the political context, particularly evident in the global development of an interest in eugenics, physiognomy, and the classification of facial types as a mode of surveillance and social judgment. According to Richard Gray, in Weimar Germany, physiognomy became a “super-discipline,” a “universal theory of knowledge, perception, and instinctual understanding that present[ed] a powerful counter-model to the Enlightenment narrative of rationally endowed, historically progressive humanity.”5 Physiognomy offered photographers a powerful means by which to probe the tangible human body and reject the Freudian explanations of psyche based on dreams and sublimated feeling that had gained in popularity since the end of the 19th century.6 For his portrait series, Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century), Sander defined a system of classifications by social groups that he sorted according to social types as urban, rural, class, trade, and gender – types or models of individuality that were already considered obsolete at the time Sander took the photographs. Ninety years later, this system seems even more antiquated. But the immense success of international exhibitions and retrospectives confirms the ongoing fascination with portraits.7

Sander’s staying power lies in this first endeavour to find archetypes to represent every possible type, social class, and vocation of a society and to document them in a similar manner, remaining sensitive, rather than sentimental, to the ways individuals reveal themselves in little personal details. His portraits underwrite rather than question the social role of the individual subjects; and yet, details, faces, and poses are also judged in light of that given type. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that Sander’s portraits have been important for succeeding generations of artists and filmmakers, including Petzold, whose works have become increasingly conceptual rather than representational. For example, artists associated with the straight photography of the Düsseldorf School, most notably Hilla and Bernd Becher and their students Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Rineke Dijkstra, and Candida Höfer, take on photographs and archives as subjects of their own work, re-examining and re-interpreting through methods like imitation and appropriation. Struth also made real-time, one-hour video portraits. The sitters of their portraits confront the viewer with a direct, confrontational gaze, turning the viewer into the object of the portrait’s gaze. From this point of view, any interpretation or story of the sitter’s identity and character is merely speculation and projection on the part of the viewer, rather than presentation by the artist. What is striking about the work of artists who use the medium of photography for portraits is the emphasis on the mask-like, neutral quality of faces that do not show strong emotions.  In many ways, the faces are turned into stylistic fetishes to accompany the viewer’s critically distant way of seeing.

Christian Petzold

Thomas Struth, “Portraits – 1 Hour, 1996-2003, Thomas Gutt.” Video projection, Sprengel Museum Hannover (1997). Courtesy of Max Hetzler Galerie, Berlin.

The surge of European photographic portraiture in the 1980s and 1990s centred around the Düsseldorf School provides a crucial context for filmmaking at the time, particularly the Berlin School – a key development in German cinema since 1995, most notably represented by Petzold, Angela Schanelec, and Thomas Arslan. Films associated with the Berlin School, according to Marco Abel, do not ask who the characters represent; instead, they confront the viewer with images that bring about a momentary suspension of habitual readings.8 Abel concludes that the films should be regarded as “counter-cinema,” not because they are message-driven films but because they perform what French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls a “redistribution of the sensible” through vision and sound.9 Indeed, this notion is closely related to the conceptual work associated with the straight photography in the late 20th century and also with the American avant-garde in the 1960s – a relation that has yet to be acknowledged and explored.10[

Petzold studied at Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb, or German Film- and Television Academy), founded in 1966 as West Germany’s first film school and recognized for its independence from the influence of commercial interests. His mentors included filmmakers, media artists, and media theorists Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky, who are both known for their non-narrative films, video work, and film installations in galleries and museums. The influence of his mentors is most obvious in the student work. Farocki’s theoretical discourse on images met with response also on a narrative level when collaborating with Petzold on feature films, such as Barbara. Student work, non-narrative shorts, and experimental films associated with the avant-garde that developed outside the awareness of commercial history of film remains, for the most part, outside the awareness of both viewers and scholars alike. But these films are nonetheless interesting for their connection to pictorial art genres. A.L. Rees observes that the avant-garde “has sought ‘ways of seeing’ outside the conventions of cinema’s dominant tradition in the drama film and its industrial mode of production,” and further, “has taken over the traditional genres of art – rather than those of the cinema itself. These have been central to the language and rhetoric and have shaped its subject-matter. They include still lifes (Hollis Frampton’s Lemon, 1969), landscape (Michael Snow’s La Région Céntrale, 1971), and portraiture (Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, 1964-66).”11 For Paul Arthur, Warhol’s Screen Tests are paradigmatic examples of portrait films.12 The films focus on the sitter, drawing attention not through action but through the lack thereof. Rather than an unfolding of “microdrama of personal identity,” as Arthur explains, portrait films are nonfictional character studies that exhibit “presentness” in a nondramatic form, eschewing biography in favour of a more presentational, but also performative immediacy.13 What emerges in these films, then, is a creative principle that combines the different elements film theory tends to separate: documentation and narration, recording and staging, observation and artifice, and presence and change.

Christian Petzold

Andy Warhol, “Ann Buchanan” (1964)

The duration of the recording of each portrait prolongs the moment of observation and has the potential to strengthen the viewer’s affective, even empathetic response. Using Juliane Rebentisch’s concept of encounter as a framework for talking about the aesthetic experience in relation to an object, Justin Remes explains that the aesthetic experience of Warhol’s Screen Tests resides neither in the films nor in the viewer but in an open space characterized by experiential inexhaustibility between the two.14 This encounter as a space of illusionistic projection is always affective, unstable, and unpredictable. “Cinematic stasis,” according to Remes, “does not produce a single coherent effect but rather an unstable and unpredictable series of effects” by “challenging widespread essentialist conceptions of cinema and [thereby] broaden[s] the viewer’s conception of what a film can be or do.”15 Take, for example, the well-known portrait of Ann Buchanan. Rather than conforming to expectations, her portrait denies access to the world around and within her, which causes inexhaustible viewing experiences, ranging from enjoyable to painful and even uncanny. This is precisely the reason why the Screen Tests continue to inspire discussion, illusionist projection, and imitations.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold and Aysun Bademsoy in Thomas Arslan’s 19 Porträts (1990).

In the 1990s, at the very height of European photographic portraiture, Warhol’s observational camera finds its way into the filmic work of Petzold and his fellow students at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin. Together, they work on Arslan’s repetition from Warhol’s script in the portrait film 19 Porträts (1990). This repetition aligns them with the avant-garde tradition and simultaneously marks a difference. Different from Warhol’s mobility and openness of aesthetic encounter with the single films, and more akin to his compilations, as well as August Sander’s portrait book, Arslan confined his sitters to succession into a 20-minute long, 16-millimeter black-and-white film. Arslan extends Warhol’s silent and collection practices by adding off-screen sound. While Warhol’s fascination with the act of looking is still apparent in Arslan’s portraits, the central difference is the way in which the film further seduces the viewer into constructing a story around – and gaining psychological insights into – the sitters. Both choices, sound and succession, can be understood as steps toward narrative integration. As demonstrated by Sanders, the organization of the portraits based on the ordering of similarities and differences, combined with the sequencing of portraits, has the potential to represent a narrative in its own right. And yet, surface, sequence, and detail do not guarantee knowledge. Petzold himself emphasized this in an interview with Monopol. In order to prepare the actresses and actors for their roles, Petzold explains, they create rooms full of portrait photographs. For his film Barbara, for example, they created “August-Sander-Räume” [August-Sander-rooms] for the actresses and actors to step into, look at the portraits, and imitate.16 The effect of such imitation is twofold. It heightens the awareness of stasis, duration, and vision, and it also evokes a sense of empathy.

In terms of viewer responses to narration, scholarship differentiates between emotional empathy or involvement in the psychological aspects of the performance and rational criticism. Bertold Brecht’s disregard of empathy in favour of estrangement (Verfremdung) has had a lasting legacy. Filmmakers nonetheless draw on empathy in the form of motor mimicry. One of the narrative techniques that offer viewers access to a character’s perception is the point-of-view shot. Adopting someone else’s perspective takes an act of imagination and a reach of understanding, and the depth of engagement with screen characters is an important aspect of this process. In his work on character engagement, Murray Smith argues that the divide between empathic and distancing work cannot be made, or at least not in the words that Brecht provides. Smith distinguishes between “imagining from the inside,” as if an experience happened to oneself or to a person or character with whom one has a close connection, and “imagining from the outside,” from a more impersonal, objective standpoint.17 In line with these imaginative acts of emplacement and position taking, Smith notes that the “film also provides the viewer with visual and aural information more or less congruent with that available to characters and so are placed in a certain structure of alignment with characters. In addition, spectators evaluate characters on the basis of the values they embody and hence form more-or-less sympathetic or antipathetic allegiances with them […] Allegiance, with its connotations of alliance and loyalty, refers to the audience’s ethical and ideological judgments concerning characters and their actions […] It is a cognitive evaluation that does not involve replicating the character’s emotions.”18

Smith’s work offers a means of analysing how the viewer is positioned in relation to characters on screen and how this affects ways of navigating through the emotions terrain thereof. However, his analysis is restricted to the conscious emotional understanding. Petzold, in contrast, suggests an alternative way of understanding how the viewer might establish empathy with the characters on screen by means of imitating portraiture. Portraiture in filmmaking provides a technique for arranging bodies, faces, and looks within the frame to create tensions between individual and type, depth and surface, and description and narration. It also introduces stasis in movement, while stillness in turn calls the viewer’s attention to the physical and bodily rhythm of the subjects on screen rather than their emotional state – a state that cognitivists like Smith, who draws from cognitive psychology, deem necessary for empathetic engagement.19

Petzold moves the portrait practice from straight photography and the avant-garde, where he found it, into a narrative cinema on the fringes of commercial mainstream. Storytelling and psychological crisis have become increasingly prevalent in the portrayal of a subject in an era that privileges spontaneity, living in the moment, uncontrolled self-expression, and personal idiosyncrasy. Petzold’s films approach portraiture from the tradition of typological depiction and draw attention to vision. For example, his film Barbara, a quiet but tense drama about an individual in an oppressive society, engages the problem of knowing in its relation to vision. Set in 1980, the film tells the story of a physician from a prestigious hospital in East Berlin who, having applied for an exit visa, has been banished to a small country hospital near the Baltic Sea. The department of paediatric surgery, where Barbara must now work, is led by chief physician André Reiser. In order to gain knowledge on Barbara, the official state security service Stasi has ordered André to observe her. Barbara has a lover in West Germany who prepares her escape, and therefore she refuses André’s advances and any emotional connection with him. The two physicians are nevertheless excited in their passion for their work and their dedication to their patients. Barbara takes special care of a young pregnant woman who has escaped from hard labour in a youth detention centre. At the end of the film, Barbara abates her plan to escape and lets the young woman take her place. Commentators attribute this to her growing love interest in Reiser. For this reason, critics regard the film as one of Petzold’s most accessible. And yet, it is told through an elaborate choreography of faces and looks that engage our own experiences as film viewers.

The film commences with a woman’s arrival by bus. The camera captures her in a medium close-up standing on the bus, which is followed by a distant higher angle long shot showing her stepping off the bus. The next cut shows a physician standing at an open window, looking at something outside. Another cut. Through the higher angle, presumably the point-of-view of the physician, though now closer in focus than the first higher angle shot, we look at the woman walking up to a bench and sitting down. In a noticeably stylized gesture, she crosses her legs and lights a cigarette. This gesture is at once open and suggestive as well as closed and defensive. The next shot is again of the physician, this time in a two-shot with a second man sitting on a chair. The stillness of each shot recalls the formal qualities of portraiture that foreground the physicality and performance as descriptive qualities of the subjects and their relations to the viewer. Within a few minutes and through the act of looking, the film establishes the central conflict of the film as the relationship between the three main subjects – Barbara, her new colleague, Reiser, and the Stasi officer Schütz – and the various viewpoints involved in terms of subject presentation, representation, and perception.

Christian Petzold

Barbara as the object and subject of the gaze in Barbara (2012)

More specifically, the opening sequence establishes Barbara as the object of observation, yet quickly turns to make her the bearer thereof. Her dress, her vibrant blue cardigan, her shiny blond hair that reflects the light, her blue eye-shadow, the crossed legs, and the cigarette create a pose reminiscent of iconic actresses of the golden age of Hollywood movies, most notably Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall, and Rita Hayworth. For the viewer, the pose as cliché embedded in the cultural imagination triggers familiarity and recognition. The shot from the higher angle, Reiser’s point-of-view, establishes her position as a visual spectacle of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the “male gaze,” popularized in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Within this work, Mulvey poses that mainstream cinema is profoundly patriarchal. And due to its patriarchal nature, the active gazes – that being the look of the subjects within a scene, the camera that captures the scene, and the viewer who watches the scene— is that of the male gender. “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance,” she writes, “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”20 Yet, the opening also reveals that Barbara is fully aware of being watched. The pose gives her a certain confidence, rather than an expression of stubbornness as commentated by Schütz who explains that “if she were six, you would say she was sulky. Since her incarceration, her group of friends has been destroyed. She won’t come in a moment before it’s time.” When we look closely, though, we actually see Barbara turn her head slightly to confront the gaze of her onlookers and, by extension, the film viewer. This is an obvious inversion of Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze. The film, however, goes beyond the reversal of gender binaries. It quickly moves beyond that diminishing position of the woman as visual spectacle or “other” to become an expression of her precariousness and awareness of the historical backdrop of the social system and the monitoring that structures her life as well as life in the GDR more general.

Portraiture and vision are particularly stressed in the following scene. Shortly after her arrival at the hospital, Reiser involves Barbara in a conversation about Rembrandt van Rijn’s painted group portrait depicting a public dissection of a dead body of Aris Kindt in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). He asks if she notices any peculiarities. Barbara identifies a number of inconsistencies. She points out that Dr. Tulp has not, contrary to common practice, begun the dissection by taking out the intestines. Instead, he started with the hand, which is also is disproportionate. Rather than seeing the inaccuracy as a mistake, Reiser reads this inaccuracy as a clue intentionally placed by Rembrandt to indicate the violence done to Kindt. He points out that if we trace the eye lines of the seven physicians, they seem not to see the body at all; instead they look toward the anatomical atlas in the bottom right corner of the painting. And it is because of the physicians’ curious visual relationship to the atlas that we notice something else: the “doctoring” of the left hand of the corpse. We come to realize that Rembrandt has taken an anatomical picture from the atlas and superimposed it directly on the left hand. Reiser remarks: “Rembrandt paints something into the painting that we cannot actually see.” The “we” can be understood as including all the viewers, within and outside the diegetic world. The inclusion of address is undefined by the fact that the viewer looks through the eyes of Barbara and Reiser both literally – we share their position and point-of-view at mutual eye level – and symbolically – we see the body, unlike the physicians in the painting. And here Reiser adds a moral aspect: “Due to this mistake we no longer look through the eyes of the physicians, we are with him, Aris Kindt, the victim.”

Christian Petzold

Looking at Rembrandt’s painting in Barbara (2012)

This isolated moment contains the fundamental moral question contained within Barbara’s plan and at the same time encompasses the values and systems that structured life in the GDR. Taking over the didactic role held by Dr. Tulp in the painting, Reiser explains Rembrandt’s intention, yet remains quite enigmatic about what the painting means. Barbara leaves the room without much reaction to it. Nevertheless, the viewer understands that Reiser invites Barbara not to act like the physicians in the painting – they choose to look at the anatomy atlas rather than at the body. The fact that we see physicians in the painting highlights the likeness to Barbara and André. In the GDR, everyone watches and monitors everyone, and no one actually sees the other, leading to isolation. This can be seen as an allegory of the dictatorial ideology in the GDR, where a system of rules neglects and represses the individual. In this respect, the painting works as a mise-en-abyme both within the diegetic world, where Reiser wants to open Barbara’s eyes to see human beings beyond the system, unlike the physicians in the painting, and also for the film viewer, giving her a key to gaining knowledge about the characters. The fact that the Rembrandt painting now hangs in a laboratory of a hospital still highlights humanistic values and moral agency. It parallels Barbara’s situation and suggests what she should do: instead of escape to the West, she should stay and acknowledge the meaningfulness of her labour. And yet, folding the scene into a situational context dictated by the narrative cannot do full justice to the film’s formal choices.

The Rembrandt scene takes its cue from W.G. Sebald’s novel Die Ringe des Saturn (The Rings of Saturn, 1995). In the novel, the narrator asserts that the physicians overlook the body in favour of theory, to the point that they mentally superimpose the drawing from the atlas onto the left forearm of the body on the table. The physicians’ determinedly theoretical view of what the body represents ends up causing the body to vanish altogether. Rembrandt critiques the faulty vision and values of the scientific gathering that reduces the body to a machine or scientific diagram. That the physicians portrayed look past the body is evidence of their moral failure. And yet, the body does not disappear for the reader of Sebald’s work. At the end of the chapter we see the painting again, this time without commentary. The reproduction simultaneously zooms outward and crops Dr. Tulp, the physicians, and the atlas out of the image, as if taking a step backward and narrowing the viewfinder on the camera. The image of the body is, to say the least, complicated; it is now reduced in size, Xeroxed, in black and white. When Sebald cuts, he distorts the image even further and, as Carol Jacobs rightly observes, thereby “unsettles the analysis of representation he has offered in relation to moral conscience. While professing the thoughtful gaze, the narrator practices distraction.”21 Petzold’s film does likewise. While we listen to Reiser analyse the painting through a montage of point-of-views, the film shows a series of extreme close-ups of the painting. When he points out that every single physician in the painting looks at the atlas, the film isolates faces from the group into a series of portraits. Having gained autonomy from the group, one physician in the image looks straight at us, the film viewer. Rather than imitate the verbal description, the film marks a distraction. Is this Reiser’s point-of-view? Barbara’s? A third perspective? Detour and distraction in the form of narrative wandering is, of course, the path of Sebald’s prose, when one thing leads to another. But what about the film? Even though the camera seems to enter Reiser’s perceptual vision, it never clearly confirms it. The strength of this scene lies in film’s affective power to shift the viewer between different perspectives to experience a complex form of inter-subjectivities and point-of-views.

Christian Petzold

Rembrandt’s spectator addressing the film viewer in Barbara (2012)

The scene has no connection to any other, with one exception. The film, akin to Jerichow, ends with a series of shot-reverse shots of the main characters. Wearing the distinct blue eyeshadow and lipstick, she returned to the hospital. Now at eye level to suggest a mutual awareness, the camera separates both characters, Barbara and Reiser, into single shots, rather than a double. The fact that both remain silent underlines the non-significance of dialogue, emotion, intent, and explanation for the character and narrative. Instead, the last shot directs the viewer’s attention to the frame composition, linking her portrait to the Rembrandt scene rather than a controlling narrative. Unlike the expressive faces in Rembrandt’s painting, Barbara’s face is an impressive, aesthetically compelling mask. Closer in focus and now looking at the film viewer, the image of Barbara maintains a certain autonomy and surface quality – open enough for the viewer to see with new authority. Why did she return? The strength of this last portrait lies in its meditative and critical quality of not-knowing and how “moving” that can be. And yet, the image is still structured and regulated, containing determination. Above all, it is controlled by the generic characteristics of a traditional picture type, bringing Petzold’s filmmaking close to the art of portraiture that offers an appreciation of the unknowable.

Christian Petzold

Barbara’s final moving portrait in Barbara (2012)

In his films, Petzold approaches portraiture from the tradition of typological depiction. At times, the faces of characters resemble expressionless surfaces and thus resemble projection screens for the viewer. The serial juxtaposition of individual portrait shots of characters within the narrative structures of their films turn the faces into interchangeable motifs somewhere between person and typology – types or stereotypes that the films call into question. By means of imitation and introduction of minor changes they consciously play with perception and draw attention to the mechanism of character depiction and picture production. In nascent form, this approach is already present in the typology of August Sander in photography. The proposed framework makes available a more flexible and responsive method for approaching Petzold’s films as a relationship between a work and its viewer. His filmmaking explores that fundamental condition of contemporary art. Taken together, the films return to representation and depiction, imitation of representational conventions, and display of poses and clichés, and thereby shift the emphasis from a dialogue about art and cinema back to the image and issues of making and seeing pictures that are part of a larger text and narrative. The films not only engage art in a dialogue but also reconsider the varieties of aesthetic experiences within the paradigm of art to embrace its meaning as both representation and a way of seeing. Understanding the films through the framework of art history, and portraiture in particular, allows us to consider some of Petzold’s other films, such as his recent film Phoenix (2014), a melodrama about a Holocaust victim returning to Berlin in the aftermath of WWII, who undergoes reconstructive surgery to repair her damaged face. It also allows us to connect out to the work of the Berlin School more generally and, beyond the German context, to film and the visual arts more broadly.

A second and broader conclusion to this case study is that issues of art, actually, need more attention than they have already received in the studies of art cinema. The films remind us that art is indeed central to art cinema, even if the latter is narrowly defined by its slowness, excessive stylization, and complicated relationship with the commercial film industry.

This article has been peer-reviewed.


  1. For more on the Dreileben project, see Christina Gerhardt and Marco Abel, eds., “The Berlin School (1): The DREILEBEN Experiment,” German Studies Review 36.3 (2013), p. 603–642.
  2. Mark Schlüter, Florian Waldvogel, and Jan Wenzel, eds., Tobias Zielony: Story/ No Story (Ostfildern: Hantje Catz Verlag, 2010).
  3. Ibid., p. 116.
  4. Wolfgang Brückler, “Face-Off in Weimar Culture: The Physiognomic Paradigm, Competing Portrait Anthologies, and August Sander’s Face of Our Time.” Tate Papers 19 (Spring 2013) http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/19/face-off-in-weimar-culture-the-physiognomic-paradigm-competing-portrait-anthologies-and-august-sanders-face-of-our-time.
  5. Richard Gray, About Face: German Physiognomic Thought from Lavater to Auschwitz (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004), p. 180-181.
  6. Sergiusz Michalski, Neue Sachlichkeit: Paintings, Graphic Arts, and Photography in Weimar Germany, 1919-1933 (Cologne: Taschen, 1992), p. 188.
  7. In 2016, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired a complete set of 619 prints of Sander’s photographs. According to a recent article in the New York Times, scholars at Columbia University have undertaken a five-year re-examination of Sander’s work, with annual conferences planned at MoMA. See, for example, James Estrin, “A New Look at August Sander’s ‘People of the Twentieth Century’,” New York Times (15 November 2016), https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/a-new-look-at-august-sanders-people-of-the-twentieth-century/?_r=0.
  8. Marco Abel. The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Rochester: Camden House, 2013), p. 19.
  9. Ibid, p. 1.
  10. I use the term avant-garde with regards to P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film (1974) as a definitive account of a particular phase of American avant-garde filmmaking.
  11. A. L. Rees, A History of Experimental Film and Video: From the Canonical Avant-garde to Contemporary British Practice (London: British Film Institute, 1999), p. 2.
  12. Paul Arthur, “No Longer Absolute: Portraiture in American Documentary and Avant-Garde Films of the Sixties,” in Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema, Ivone Margulies, ed. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 93-118.
  13. Ibid, p. 95-97.
  14. Justin Remes, Motion(less) Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), p. 26.
  15. Ibid., p. 28-29. Filmmaker Benjamin Heisenberg, in an unpublished interview with Marco Abel, emphasizes a similar point. Heisenberg remarks that what the films associated with the Berlin School have in common is “that the camera does not allow the viewer to identify with the characters, but it’s not really distancing us either. Instead, it creates and positions us in an in-between space that pulls us to and fro, ultimately holding us suspended in the middle space that is quite akin to the characters’ own subjectivity/subject position” (Abel, p. 16.).
  16. Jens Hinrichsen, “Eingetrübte Romantik: Christian Petzold im Interview,” Monopol Magazine (6 March 2012), http://www.monopol-magazin.de/eingetrübte-romantik.
  17. Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema, (Oxford: Claredon, 1995), p. 18.
  18. Ibid., p. 20-21.
  19. In his essay “Embodied Simulation, Empathy and Social Cognition: Berlin School Lessons for Film Theory,” Roger F. Cook focuses on recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience to reassess the role of empathy and embodied social cognition in viewing films associated with the Berlin School. Roger F. Cook, “Embodied Simulation, Empathy and Social Cognition: Berlin School Lessons for Film Theory,” Screen 56 (June 2015), p. 153-171.
  20. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Screen 16.3 (1975), p. 11.
  21. Carol Jacobs, Sebald’s Vision (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), p. XVI.

About The Author

Jasmin Krakenberg is a Visiting Lecturer of Germanics at the University of Washington, where she recently received her Ph.D. in Germanics with a graduate minor in Film and Media Studies. Her dissertation, entitled "Art, Cinema, and the Berlin School," is an interdisciplinary study that offers a conceptual framework for thinking the history and aesthetic of the Berlin School – a key development in German cinema since 1995 – through that of traditional art genres.  

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