Translated by Jaimey Fisher

This conversation among writer/director Christian Petzold, senior programmer Robert Fischer, and Prof. Jaimey Fisher of University of California, Davis was part of the “Filmmaker Live” series at the 34th Munich Film Festival and took place on June 26, 2016. For the 2016 Munich festival, Robert Fischer had programmed a complete retrospective of Petzold’s work and invited Jaimey Fisher to introduce the various programs, as Fisher has written the only English-language book about Petzold.1

The evening before, on the occasion of Petzold’s being feted with a gala celebration, the festival had premiered Petzold’s then most recent work, Wölfe (Wolves, 2016), a feature-length episode for the Polizieruf 110 series.2 The conversation was held in the “Black Box” theatre in the Gasteig in central Munich.

Jaimey Fisher: I had a question about your collaboration with Harun Farocki, since this must be a transitional phase in your career in light of his death in 2014. You collaborated with Farocki on all your work through Circles, but I have not so much heard from you what he contributed to your films, which themes, for example. You’ve explained how you worked together, how exactly you collaborated, but not so much what his cinema has meant for you in general

Christian Petzold: It’s true, it’s a good question, because I always tend to explain only how we worked together. But what is most important is how we would go places together and float things to each other, that is, we would go for long walks, miles upon miles, and look at architecture together and, at the same time, discussed stories.

Sometimes they were just galvanizing observations [Auslösesätze], for example, he would pose a question like “Which American novel takes up class struggle in the US?” Everyone immediately thinks of Grapes of Wrath, but Harun came up with James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. He also thought that Visconti understood how the Cain novel engages homosexuality and racism as well, insights that Visconti then worked into his film Ossessione (Obsession, 1943). Harun believed that American B movies work through these great themes by having them truly unfold between the people. Whereas on German television, even in primetime, we have commentators standing around with those advertisements on the collars of their shirts, for example during sport shows (Mercedes, champagne, or whatever). But the working through of real material is definitely there in tradition of the US B movies.

That kind of observation got us to thinking, and out of that we developed Jerichow (2008). We had made Yella (2007) in this area in Wittenberge, and we were walking around once again, and you could see just how broken the working class was there, in this former railroad town, but now the unemployment is like 80% in the city – it’s a ghost town. This had us thinking of Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), also a film about the disappearance of an industry, the steel industry in Pittsburgh. What do you do with all the young men who used to work in it? You send them to war, just as has been the case for 1000s of years: when there is no work, just send people to fight. And then you’ll get a new economic miracle [Wirtschaftswunder] afterward. And Cimino tells us exactly this story, but without even mentioning unemployment, etc.

From these kinds of conversations we would derive the scripts. I had a public conversation with Rosa von Praunheim at the film school in Potsdam, and he was saying Harun is so cold and you’re so warm, as if we were like hot and cold water, red and blue on the faucet. I replied, “that’s a totally wrong theory.” It would seem to suggest that the documentary is cold and feature film warm. But in our work it was always so: I was the one who would want to create order, and he was the one who liked to play around with the romantic dialogue.

For Wolfsburg (2003), for example, he wrote the first dialogue when the man forgets his wife in the living room. He turns the light off, and she complains. He doesn’t have any empathy, he doesn’t think of others. This is where the audience can get a sense of how he could leave a child lying, dying on the ground.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Petzold’s Wolfsburg and its isolated, car-bound protagonist

Robert Fischer: But the work method was that you wrote the scripts after your conversations and your walks and then gave it to him when the script was done, to read, and he offered advice on its overall shape, no?

CP: Yeah, that’s true, but it certainly was work to finish the writing, and, to be honest, I would have been happy to give it to Harun to do [audience laughs]. I usually started by writing the first seven, eight, nine scenes, maybe 30-40 pages, and he would read them. And we would think about how it was then supposed to go, how the yarn could be spun further. I would write some more, and then he would say, now you have to throw the first seven scenes out, it just does not work.

After all, he is the master of ellipses – I really learned that from him. Cinema is what you leave out [das Kino ist Auslassung]. But then I would still have the impression, when writing, that nobody is going to understand this or that; but what you simply omit, the audience will understand.

With Polizeiruf, too, the viewer would have to work more. For example, viewers might get: “detective gets out of the car, right door, short dolly, rings, ‘Come in!’ door opens, through living room, down the stairs” – that kind of thing takes nine and a half minutes [audience laughs]. If one were to leave that out then one has a lot more room to explore, has more to do. Of course, to shoot that kind of meaningless minutia is also a lot of work, at least for the camera man [Petzold gestures laughing at Hans Fromm, his long-time director of photography, in the audience.]

JF: I wanted to ask you a bit about Phoenix (2014) and about Barbara (2012) as well. Can you say something about the decision to make this kind of historical film? And how you, in these films, work with genre – which, as you know, I think is a recurring key question with your work. But it seems to me that these historical dramas that you have recently made are simultaneously critiques of the sort of historical films that have recently been produced in Germany.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Petzold’s Barbara, set in early 1980s East Germany; Petzold’s Phoenix, set in the early post-war

CP: I read a very beautiful sentence by Truffaut as he was criticizing Jean Renoir about how the historical film has to be produced in a studio. If the winds in such a film are from today, wrote Truffaut about Renoir’s La carosse d’or (The Golden Coach, 1952), that simply does not work. Renoir had shown a carriage in La carosse d’or outside, and Truffaut said that just did not work: we have to create a completely artificial world for such films to be persuasive.

And I believed that for a good while, thinking that I could not make a historical drama because I simply cannot bear to be in the studio. But then I started to think maybe Renoir had been right, after all: that we, today, with our contemporary winds and in our contemporary sunlight, should think about the past from that perspective.

There’s a beautiful sentence that Dominik [Graf] said about his lovely film, The Beloved Sisters (Die geliebten Schwestern, 2014): the question is not what does [Friedrich] Schiller have to say to us today, but rather what do we mean to Schiller? And I agree with this: the question is not what the GDR [East Germany] in 1980 means to us, but rather what do we, the future, mean to the people in the GDR in 1980, who were living in a system in utter collapse. How are they keeping it together? I think that we, from the perspective of today, have to be humble. That’s what interested me in this historical drama.

Phoenix had much more of a laboratory character, much more of the studio. With Barbara, the GDR still exists in many ways; you just have to drive 5 minutes from Berlin, and the GDR starts in certain ways. I remember something Hans [Fromm] said when we were there: we were back in Wittenberge, and we saw a street that had been repaved in the most expensive way, with new asphalt and bus stops with LED lighting, and then this street just ends. And Hans got out of the car and said: I want to have my solidarity tax back!3 [audience laughs]

With Phoenix, the sort of fascism in Germany during the Nazi period does not exist anymore, so we really had to recreate it in the laboratory, so to say, in the studio.

JF: Yesterday evening, I mentioned [in my talk at the gala on Petzold’s behalf] how differently Phoenix was received in the US than in Germany. I wanted to ask you if you had a theory about this divide in how the film was seen here in Germany versus how it was seen in the US, especially since it was widely praised in the US.

CP: Yeah, first, that really did bolster my confidence a bit [hat mir gut getan]. The Americans are okay with me, as are the French [the audience laughs].

That was certainly harder in Germany. For me, the distance between colportage and fascism is not so far apart. I think that Visconti had a similar insight when he staged the murder of Röhm, with Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” etc., in The Damned (1969). The gay, orgiastic group depicted in the film is then slaughtered by the SS people. It’s an amazing scene.

And The Damned is also not loved in Germany – it is the hardest to locate of all of Visconti’s films. Otherwise, Germans love his films. Fascism is colportage, and that is not looked upon positively here in Germany, as we have to have films [on fascism/Nazism] to which we can send our school classes. And Phoenix is just not appropriate for such a thing.

And there’s something else that is relevant that we discussed on the second-to-last day of shooting. We thought that after Nelly sings, she goes out the door and into the light, and the others [her long-time friends] stay back. We discussed what the camera should do, whether it should go with her, because we, the audience, certainly want to go with her as she leaves.

But we thought, “No, we should stay,” because we belong, indeed, to those who stayed. In Phoenix, in this way, we have, so to say, dismantled and destroyed our own culture. We do not allow the viewers to go with the remnants of the culture to Tel Aviv [as Nelly might – JF] and pretend we’re going to be happy in a Kibbutz. And that was a big decision for us during the shoot on that second-to-last day. I think it is probably something that Germans did not want to hear, that they had to stay back.

JF: And, with Phoenix, I was also curious whether you worked with rubble-films, the films made at and about this time, that is, shortly after the war.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Nelly thinks someone will ask about the camps in Phoenix; Johnny believes no one will bother

CP: Only the one, Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Among Us, Wolfgang Staudte, 1946), in part because, I have to admit, I’m just a Hildegard Knef fan. I really find it interesting what she ended up doing during the 1950s.

I like Staudte a lot, but even he makes an angel out of a survivor coming back from the camp. These camp inmates, after all, had been selected, killed, completely destroyed, their culture annihilated – and they have to come back [to Germany] to save us! I wondered if the postwar Germans had all gone crazy. And I thought that I’m not going to watch any more of this, I’m only going to read about it.

JF: To follow-up on Staudte’s The Murderers are among us, I think Fassbinder also worked with that film when he made Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979). I thought of the Fassbinder film when I saw Phoenix, for instance, with the kitchen and the table as a particular space of conflict in this time.

CP: Well, I have seen a lot of films in my life and will continue to see a lot, simply because I like watching films. But with certain films I avoid seeing them around the time I am working on a project because I worry that they will become too close to the film I am making. For example, I notice now that in Jerichow there is plenty of the Tay Garnett film [The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946], which I did not even realize at the time. It is the same with the cellar scenes in Phoenix and the Fassbinder. But these are souvenir pictures [Erinnerungsbilder] of Fassbinder. That is what the cinema for: it is a warehouse of memory.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Petzold’s Phoenix and Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun

JF:  There are references in both Barbara and Phoenix to Walter Benjamin. In Phoenix, for example, there is a picture on the wall, the Klee picture Angelus Novus.

Christian Petzold

Petzold’s Phoenix, Klee’s Angelus Novus

CP: Yeah, and it cost me 900 Euro! [audience laughs] You are right, I absolutely wanted that picture in the film: it’s the angel that is being pushed forward but that looks backs at us. I think that’s the historical drama, that we are driven forward but that we do look back. That’s how the historical drama should be.

JF:  It’s that way in Barbara, too, I think, when Barbara looks back from the bike, against the wind.

Christian Petzold

Petzold’s Barbara

CP: Yes, exactly, that is the same look back.

RF: Last night, we had here at the festival a world premiere of Polizeiruf 110: Wolves; if I’m counting correctly, that was the 14th long-form film, and the second Polizeiruf that you have made. The first was Polizeiruf 110: Circles, made one year ago, and another one, a third, will follow, as we heard yesterday.

Your last film for the cinema was Phoenix in 2014, but now two Polizeirufe, one after the other. The question would be, of course, what attracted you to contribute episodes to an ongoing television series?

CP: At first, I was approached by Cornelia Ackers, the producer of Polizeiruf, to see if I would have any interest in doing something in this direction. Harun was still alive at that time, and we worked together some on Circles before his death. At first, Harun said: we can’t do something like that! He meant: an 8:15pm detective show (Tatort), something like, “Let’s drive over to Dr. Smith’s now, the man interests me” – we couldn’t even begin to write such sentences. But then, three weeks after Cornelia Ackers had raised it, he said to me, “I’ve now watched a whole bunch of Polizeirufe and Tatorte, and they have been getting better.” I asked him which he had seen, and he said this and that, but I don’t want to name names!

RF: Please, go ahead and do!

CP: Okay, Rostock was really great, well made, one with Edgar Selge not as detective, but as a Berliner at Alexanderplatz, we watched that one. And then we discovered Matthias Brandt, and we both found him great. So, we thought, let’s give it a shot.

I wrote it all alone, because Harun was on a trip around the world with his art installation. He came back one week before the soccer World Cup final in 2014, and I read it aloud to him. Then we chatted about it during the half-time of the Germany-Argentina final, and he approved it. A week later he died.4

It really was fun, this work on the Polizeiruf; I mentioned this yesterday, because one does not have the pressure of producing a major “art work.” With Phoenix, I had to travel all around the world for a whole year to premieres, to North America, etc., because this kind of art work is a product belonging to the whole word.

But television is just an everyday B-movie, in the best sense of the expression, and that was just a lot of fun – from this Toronto and San Sebastian world [of major festivals] to some screening in a Berlin courtyard for the local press.

RF: How great was the freedom in your making it? And what were the parameters on which you had to build – was the figure of Matthias Brandt the only one?

CP: We really had a lot of freedom. At the beginning, I thought, uh oh, there will be rules, and I’ll have to fight for what I want to do – but the producers were loyal to the directors, at least in my case. With Brandt, yes, there are inspectors who have been investigating since World War II [laughter], and they have considerable influence on the scripts, they can demand rewrites, etc. I prepared for complaints like “no one is taking this sentence away from me!” But with Matthias Brandt and Barbara Auer – it was a true ensemble, with the greatest facility and concentration.

Christian Petzold

Barbara Auer as Constanze Hermann and Matthias Brandt as Hanns von Meuffels in Circles

RF: With such a B-movie, with which aspects could you do exactly what you wanted – or perhaps what you always wanted to do – and how do such conditions influence the final form of the work? Did you just sit down with Hans Fromm and say, “Okay, now we’re going to make a Polizeiruf”?

CP: No, not really. We had been shooting 35mm the last few years, since we feel more at home in this analogue, celluloid world. Phoenix was also 35mm – it is just a lovely material, it is so humane (menschlich) and has a certain place in the cultural history of the image. The Kodak colour palette could be from Goya, I always say.

So, I have tended to avoid shooting in digital, but then we had a podium discussion of Dreileben, the three-part film I made with Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler,5 with whom I’m good friends. Christoph is always so pointed. I’m only that way when alone with a couple of others, but he can be that way in public. And when I said that about 35mm, how beautiful it is, with a Goya-like colour palette, etc., he said: you’re so from yesterday – that kind of comment about me in front of everybody!

It didn’t offend me so much as brought me to thinking about, for example, how vinyl might also be a beautiful material for records, but is it what we need right now?

We realized that the Polizeiruf episode could not be shot in super-16 or something like it. Those times are over, so we decided to do it in digital, and I thought: two cameras in an interrogation situation, that interests me, especially because I regard as a key difference between film and theatre. Of course, Justus von Dohnanyi, Matthias Brandt, and Barbara Auer have all studied theatre, as have almost all German actors. Many German films fail for this reason, I think: they are simply too theatrical in front of the camera.

So, I set out to explain to them what the difference is: above all it’s the reverse shot [Gegenschuß], whether it is in an interrogation or in a love story. In theatre, one speaks out over the fourth wall, to the audience, and that’s why a lot of these horrible TV films have a kitchen with the range and dishwasher in the middle, an open kitchen as with the rich, so the actors can sit on one side of a kitchen island like a stage, with lines like: “Did you pick up the kids?” and “Yeah, and I saw the corpse.”

And the reverse shot really is cinema, meaning that the cinema holds itself in the in-between spaces, that’s where there is tension and pressure. And so I said to Hans [Fromm]: “Let’s shoot with two cameras,” and not just letting them run, but in the interrogations, of which we have a lot in Circles. We even used three of them, “Black Magic” they’re called, small little black cameras like a cell phone, that was an interesting experience.

I discussed with the actors this notion of the reaction shot in the interrogation, and they were enthusiastic. I explained how the interrogation is like a seduction and raises questions about whether the shot should be over the shoulder or should be purely frontal, whether it observes or breaks the axis – those are all big discussions in both interrogation and love.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Interrogations in Circles

Indeed, that was the theme in Circles: the interrogation of the truth as well as the interrogation of love. Anyone who has suffered from jealousy – and that would be more people than there are voters for Brexit6 – knows that a jealous conversation sounds a great deal like a police detective doing an interrogation.

And a camera can do a great deal in such a situation. That’s just fun for me. That kind of reaction shot is the foundation of television: the interrogation, the police detective, the love story – that is television [in Germany] at 8:15pm.

That we have to invent again, we have to make our approach to the genre precise, pure, and clear – that was my thinking. Not invent the newest in crime and policing of it, be it serial killer, psychological profiler, all this nonsense from the new shows. I don’t want this focus on the evil ones from outside; I want to focus on those coming from our own imaginations.

RF: The central image in Circles is the model train. The title “Circles” refers, among other things, also to the circles of the model train. But then, intriguingly, the character explains that it is not a circle, but rather that it goes in the underground and then comes back out in the open. t’s the most petty-bourgeois image that one could think up: that is the 1950s Economic Miracle trains in postwar Germany, that is Märklin in the fug of the 1950s, also a dream, a dream of children, of young people, also a status symbol.. How big was the model train in one’s childhood? How rich were one’s parents – there’s a lot that plays into it. And one goes in the cellar, such trains are usually in the cellar. That interests you, no? To dig down into the German mentality in this Polizeiruf.

CP: Yes, I would only do things that interest me, I would never just make fun of something. Horst Seehofer in Beckmann,7 he had a model train in the cellar, too, although not built to the end. One sees suddenly that he’s 14, that is, how he was when he was 14: that the model train is also there in the desires and dreams of the adults. Many of them make a career out of being the guardians of a certain order. They build worlds, rather similar to how the Brexit voters imagine England: everything in this circle is completely harmonious, border closed, maybe once in a while a little bicycle accident, but then the society rises to the occasion, and Dohnanyi explains the train always travels the same route, around and around, the same mountain, the same market square, and nothing changes. And that calms us, of course.

But then the new generation of model train builders that I know form Berlin – they break this circle, this stability, deliberately. They stage demonstrations, for example, women’s demonstrations against sexual harassment in the workplace, right on the model train set. And they also build into the model tricks of the eye and mind, for example, that one train disappears and a new one appears.

And I liked that, the struggle of new generation against the older one. The Dohnanyi character tries to escape these circles, tries to find the train that would take him out of the circle, and he notices at the end that his act he has committed closes the circle. I should have written that back then in the press materials!

RF: With Wolves, that’s the first time that Harun Farocki did not work on the script at all, did not have any influence.

CP: With Circles, I wrote it all alone, and he just approved it. That was an important moment for me, since sometimes I really did write nonsense, and then would sit with him in his kitchen, and he would make an espresso – always over-cooked, by the way, for twenty-five years in his stove-top espresso maker, the coffee was totally burned! And then the rubber seals not really put on so that the brown stuff would flow out of it onto the stove. Harun was also king of putting the coffee spoon in the sugar so it was all clumped up.

And I sat there waiting for his reaction. “Circles is great,” he said. He said, make sure you build the model train set carefully, and Hans [gestures at Hans Fromm in audience] really did a great job here in the Bavaria Studios with a special camera from Hamburg. We had these tiny figures on the model, so the special camera is cantilevered.

That was actually the first day of shooting of Circles: no actors, the team really getting its first chance to work together, we have the big train set – the boys really have, for the last time, control; Barbara Auer has not appeared yet. We had a model train expert, I did not understand a word he said, he was from Altötting,8 so he spoke with in a Bavarian dialect [Petzold’s imitates the Bavarian dialect], I just pretended by nodding. I have no idea what he was talking about and still do not know, but he built an incredible train set. He was so happy, he did not care if I understood him, I think [audience laughing]. Of course, he would not allow me to leave while he worked on it.

So, it was the first day I was on at the Bavarian lot, a mythical lot, where it says everywhere “Das Boot, Das Boot, Das Boot” was shot here. Munich, if I may say it, is a bit stuck in time [audience laughs], as if they are still shooting Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen, 1981). All the cantinas were closed, and it reminded of Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) by Jean-Luc Godard: Cinecittà in Winter, with Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli, but, of course, all in the Bavarian style. The actors came the next day. So, we had the team from Berlin, meeting the personnel from Munich. And you know how Berlin and Munich do not always get along perfectly, the people from Munich were a bit mouthy [hatte eine Schnauze], as were the Berliners. For example, when the Berliners flew down here, the Munich team picked us up with cappuccinos at the gate – in Berlin one would never do such a thing. We were shamed by how nice they were to us, and within five minutes we were all friends.

RF: There is so much surprising in Wolves. In that film, we have someone who has been mocked as a child due to his cleft palate. How did you research this? Did you anticipate any kind of protest from the disability community [von den Betroffenen]? Especially since you have people running around with masks, depictions of murder, and, in the end, putting a bullet in his head.

CP: Well, when I started elementary school at six years old, my best friend was Peter Lauchs from Haan, whom I still know well. And he had a severe cleft palate, which was later surgically repaired. When we were kids, it was never a problem for me, I don’t think children really contemplate that kind of thing. His parents owned a large factory, and they had a lovely house in Haan, the town where I am from. There were big rooms upstairs, with all the family photos of this traditional Haan industrialist family, with a genealogy or family tree. And the photos with Peter, they were always covered over in some fashion, often with the lower half of his face covered so that one could only see his eyes. He suffered incredibly, as he explained to me much later. He somehow just didn’t belong.

I do not think that just because someone shows someone with a disability who becomes a murderer that all people with disabilities will feel accused. Here, similarly, with the Turkish fascists, the Gray Wolves as I call them, that does not mean that I am accusing Erdogan or something.

Sometimes a small insult causes lasting consequences. What was that, in Wim Wenders’ Der amerikanische Freund (The American Friend, 1977) at the beginning: just one time, Bruno Ganz won’t shake Dennis Hopper’s hand, and that means that Dennis Hopper wants to kill Bruno Ganz. There are people who are wounded by such trivial things.

If you hear what Dr. Biesinger in Wolves recounts, that he had to sing a song whenever the others were bored because he had hissed all the ‘s’ sounds, and they fell over laughing. And he sang nonetheless, even if they laughed, because the laughter was more important to him than his own pride, that it would bring him closer to happiness, even though it also made him unhappy – this kind of thing just destroys people. And he emigrates to Denver to start his life – it’s the people who leave who return with double the vindictiveness, or with double the longing. Often it is the sons who leave to find themselves who return as the prodigal sons asking their fathers why, why?

Running away does not help. That is the terrible experience that he has trying to flee. So he can, for the first time, speak and understand life with Barbara Auer – understand that it was all pointless. He couldn’t realize his longing. Now that I understand that, he thinks, it is too late – and this, I think, also is one of the fundamental topics of film, that it is always too late.

RF: The connecting element of this trilogy for Polizeiruf is the love story, the love duel, and the growing closer of these two wounded figures, Barbara Auer and Matthias Brandt. That is the foundation, but then there are many additional elements to this foundation. One could also say that’s the actual story, and then there are the peripheral stories.

In Wolves, the case that Matthias Brandt is handling is initiated at the beginning, but that does not end up being the core of the story. And there, instead, you rely on genre cinema, on giallo elements, also in the staging as well as in the colour palette, in classic giallo scenes and sequences, especially at the end.

And one thing that puzzled me, particularly for a Sunday evening detective show: there’s a masked killer, as in an Edgar Wallace film.9 Dr. Biesinger is standing there at the end, the Dario Argento light disappears, then we find ourselves in the cold light of the present (although that does come up in Argento, too). And the guy pulls the mask off in this genre mode, as in Der Mönch mit der Peitsche (The Monk with the Whip, released in English as The College Girl Murders, 1967)] or Die blaue Hand (The Blue Hand, released in English as Creature with the Blue Hand, 1967), suddenly pulling the mask from his head They are really audacious things for an 8:15pm detective show. What was the idea, and what was your goal with such things?

CP: He actually pulls the mask 15minutes earlier off. But, in any case, I think you are right. It was only yesterday that I first saw the colour-corrected copy, done by Hans [Fromm] and his team, and I also thought that this green light is a Dario Argento touch. But the great thing is that when this bright neon light of the laboratory comes on, it usually renders the people under it extremely ugly. But here they become, for the first time, beautiful. I like that: that laboratory light is supposed to see the truth, to uncover what is beneath and make it visible. Then, through the dialogue and through their bodies, we see that they are of a regular body temperature, are full human beings. That pleased me.

I also have to say that I find that both Barbara Auer and Matthias Brandt really are beautiful people, in a cinematographic sense. There’s a mistake that is often made that one has to recognize or one is doomed to repeat it: we watched Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) by Jack Arnold, and I had the sense that we had to stage a dance, a kind of erotic dance, between Barbara Auer and Sebastian Hülk as the creature.

RF: Yes, it’s the classic confrontation, the beauty and the beast, the innocent and the monster . . .

CP: Yes, exactly, and I did that from the point-of-view of the monster as he circles around Barbara Auer, just as in Black Lagoon – but then I realized that was wrong. I had to narrate it from the view of Barbara Auer: it was her delirium, after all. We ended up shooting a lot of garbage, but then by editing we saw the truth – thus under the laboratory light of editing, so to say, we could see more clearly.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Barbara Auer as Constanze Hermann and a wolf in Wolves

RF: You did do a theatre piece at the Deutsche[s] Theater [in Berlin], Der einsame Weg (The Lonely Way) by Arthur Schnitzler, in 2012 with Nina Hoss and Ulrich Matthes – was it difficult for you to do?

CP: No, no. That was a time – well, I came home, and my family said to me, theatre? When are you going to do a music CD? I should have taken more of a break; it is very stressful making films. One has to take breaks, I think. Not to lounge in the spa or anything, but to read, to go for walks, and not to always be thinking of using every minute.

And I went from the shooting of Jerichow direct to the theatre to direct that production. Nina [Hoss, who is in a theatre ensemble in Berlin] had always said to me that I rehearsed just as they do in the theatre, but they have more time. They really work on eliminating the clichés of the body and movement, as I like to. And I was envious about theatre and its long rehearsals as she described it. So, I took a really difficult play and worked with them and really learned a great deal. I also learned a lot if I ever want to make a comedy, namely, in the cafeteria of a theatre you learn all about the art of intrigues [audience laughs]. They are so smart, these theatre actors.

JF: Did you also offer those seminars that you put together before films for the theatre actors?

CP: Yeah, and I showed them some films. For example, I showed them Love Streams (1984) by John Cassavetes. In that film, Cassavetes plays a writer who has burn-out, and that fits perfectly the burned-out cultural zombies in the play by Schnitzler. He has money and success, but he is also drinking all the time and womanizing. Then suddenly, he has to take care of a child, so he goes to Vegas with the kid. He takes off with some woman and leaves the kid alone in the hotel room for three days. The child is only six, and he doesn’t know how to get food or something to drink – he could have ordered something, but he ends up totally starving. And then the character that Cassavetes is playing realizes that he is totally at the end. It is such a great and sad film. Love Streams, the love flows. Geena Rowlands plays his sister, and what a great, incestuous relationship that is, one that cannot be requited, of course.

I showed that to the actors. And then I showed them Amando de Ossorio’s El ataque de los muertos sin ojos (Return of the Evil Dead, 1973), which is one of my favourite films. In a little village in northern Spain, some Templars, from the order of medieval knights, are buried in a mausoleum in an old stone fortress, but then, at full moon, they climb out and get on their ghost horses. The villagers have to sacrifice a virgin to them, whose blood they suck so that they can live another week. So, I showed that scene to the actors to drive them, for the six weeks, totally crazy.

The scene has so much intelligence in it. They, of course, undress the young woman, as these kinds of films made their money in train station theatres [Bahnhofskinos], with beautiful women, models, showing their breasts, etc. They attack her body with whips and drink the blood from her breasts – and this idea, naturally, is a sick idea rooted somewhere in Catholic iconography. But it was still Franco fascism at that time, and one has the sense that the old dictator was sucking the blood out of the country’s young people. That these people were nourishing themselves on the maimed body of the future mother – it’s really an interesting film.

So, this kind of thing we discussed, because the three authors in Schnitzler are sucking the blood out of young people, as a lot of older artists do, a lot of older artists and a lot of people in general.

JF: And you tend to do these seminars even before the rehearsals start?

CP: Yes, for Wolves, around the tenth of September when it was pretty warm, we had two days in Berlin, then watched some things and discussed some. Usually, we read the script through again, but it is just a table read so I can hear the voices again, and then we watch films and listen to music. We go for walks and look at photos from the settings that Hans and I have already scouted, explaining why we choose them, how they relate to one another, etc.

Then, four days before the shoot starts, we rent a coach, and I’m in front with the microphone like a tour guide for Munich who has absolutely no idea [laughs], and we drive around to the settings with the actors, where they will be acting. And then they have a couple of days alone, so they have some time with the material – and, as they contemplate their characters, they now have a sense of the spaces in which they will be acting, something real.

And then on the day of shooting, I say that we should not wake up the actors before 8am, because, on TV, they very often look as if they have been woken up at 4am. And the make-up looks terrible, especially now with the HD TVs. Anyway, then we meet around 8:15am or 8:30am on the set – at that point, it is just the assistant director, the actors, and myself as director. In costume, but not yet in make-up. And then we rehearse what we plan to do that day, so we really have some time. Hans [Fromm] comes at 10:00am or 9:30am to watch the final rehearsals and think about the lighting, and we start to discuss how we will film what we just saw, where the camera will be, etc. We make a plan for it, and then, after all that, we shoot pretty quickly.

The thing is that it means that we do not shoot until after 12 noon. If a producer comes by at 11:00am and sees that nothing has been shot yet, they get suicidal tendencies [all laugh]

RF: Because it is, indeed, getting so late, I would ask at this point for any audience questions.

Audience member: When one sees you in person, here at “Filmmakers Live” or at a press conference, you’re extremely funny [saulustig], but often the films are very serious. I was wondering if you ever considered making a comedy. For example, what Maren Ade has recently managed, with melancholy and humour [with her 2016 Toni Erdmann].

CP: Well, let me first say I am very happy about Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, which represents a kind of film that I just cannot manage – I like it a lot. I have to say that at press conferences or here, I worry that I’m completely boring. In any case, I would like to make a comedy. I was sitting around with friends, and we could come up with only fifteen or so good comedies. I have two favourites: Bringing up Baby (1938) by Howard Hawks, and the remake by Peter Bogdanovich, What’s up, Doc? (1972). I would be absolutely delighted to be able to make such films.

I find that Toni Erdmann is not a comedy – I cried quite often in the film. Maybe it’s close to a sentimental tragedy. If I made a comedy, I would love something like Väter der Klamotte and Hans-Peter Hüsch,10 this kind of Hal Roach approach. And I can still watch Laurel and Hardy for hours, for example, in Big Business (1929) in which they sell Christmas Trees door to door in the summer in Los Angeles – there is a knock-down, drag-out battle with someone who doesn’t want to buy one, with a complete destruction of his house, it is so wonderfully anarchic.

That’s what I have in mind. But one can’t do that alone – it takes studios, it takes ten or twelve writers, five actors who have worked together for years, as in an ensemble. I just do not have those kinds of production conditions – one is more alone than one thinks. I cannot write that kind of thing alone. To create a “writers’ room,” I would have to rent a loft, employ three people – it would be like a welfare job creation program [ABM], and I’m sure nothing very funny would come out of it.

Audience member: I wanted to go back to this question about Truffaut and Renoir, and the comparison between Truffaut and Renoir. How do you see that relationship?

CP: For Truffaut, Renoir is the great director. But he criticizes one small detail, as sons often do, saying “you’re the best father in the world, but you can’t have white wall tires,” or “you can’t have an Opel.” And I think Renoir is the director for historical films: he can make a film in a studio, but you have the feeling that the films have been made today. He avoids that the actors speak too theatrically and that the costumes are too heavy, because even in the Middle Ages, one could move in a fleet-footed way, spoke funny dialects, had a sense that they are living now and for today. They didn’t stand there theatrically declaiming this or that. This kind of vivaciousness, this kind of physicality – and that’s what I have in mind when I think of historical things.

The shadows of the past live between us today, and that is what I try to film, not to act as if we are in the eighteenth century. That is what I find really great with Dominik Graf’s The Beloved Sisters – it is sensuous, the water, the being cold, the three fantastic actors. Ronald Zehrfeld at the end giving a slap – it’s a modern slap that he gives. It is not any kind of theatre, it’s cinema – the cinema is a real kind of active looking.

Audience member: You often have fantastical elements in your films, can you discuss that? How do you think about such elements and their plausibility?

CP: Yes, it’s true, I have some fantastical elements in my films, but I always aim to have everything make sense. For example, in Wolves, even though while watching you might think it is all supernatural, by the end it all makes logical sense, without any kind of magic. I have this on-going discussion with Christoph [Hochhäusler]: what is more important, the plot or the atmosphere. And I find that the plot has to be in order. I love American and Australian detective literature, because it all has to make rational sense – and, if it all makes sense, then you can do what you want. If you just let yourself work just with feelings and with atmosphere, then I think it’s too easy. I, as author, have to work with the laws of plausibility, just as the police detective represents certain laws. It gets interesting when that law is broken, but the law has to be established first.

RF: I think that was our last question, we have now been talking for an hour. I want to thank everyone who came, and thank you for your questions, and thanks to Jaimey for his reinforcing me here, and then especially thank you to Christian Petzold!



  1. Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013).
  2. In Germany, detective shows are among the most popular and longest running television series, including especially Tatort as well as the series in which Petzold made Kreise (Circles, 2015) and Wolves, Polizeiruf 110, which has been broadcast since 1971 (!). The shows usually run during primetime, which is referenced herein, per the original German, as “815pm.”
  3. Petzold recounts that Fromm called it “Solidaritätsbeitrag,” a reference to a tax paid by Germans to support the post-1990 absorption of the former East Germany into “new states” of the Federal Republic.
  4. Harun Farocki died 30 July 2014, shortly after Germany won the 2014 FIFA World Cup against Argentina 1-0. Petzold’s reference resonates in part with the role that soccer played in their friendship, as they apparently met playing.
  5. See the contribution by Christoph Hochhäusler to this Dossier at http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/christian-petzold-a-dossier/the-protestant-method/.
  6. The Brexit referendum had been held three days, on June 23, 2016, before the conversation.
  7. Horst Seehofer is an important right-wing German politician, at the time of the conversation the head of the conservative CSU party and governor of Bavaria. He had displayed his train set on the television show “Beckmann” shortly before the conversation. See “In Seehofers Eisenbahn-Keller,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 9, 2016, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/das-spielzimmer-des-csu-chefs-in-seehofers-eisenbahn-keller-14223321.html, accessed 30 July, 2017.
  8. A town in Upper Bavaria, some 50 miles east of Munich.
  9. Genre films, usually somewhat campy crime thrillers, based on the work of the British author Edgar Wallace (1875-1932). The most important were made between 1959 and 1972 and many produced by the Berlin-based production company Rialto Film. Many did, indeed, offer a masked criminal, as Robert Fischer suggests.
  10. Comedy series from the 1910s and 1920s, primarily of single-reelers, tending to physical comedy. Hüsch (1925-2005) was a cabaret performer who later did voice-over commentary for them when they were rebroadcast on German television, especially in 1960s and 1970s, when Petzold was a child growing up in West Germany.

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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