Christian. A popular name for people of his generation. The competitive ambition to make a name for himself is a defining feature. He has curly hair, black Medusa-snakes for which, as someone who has rather blonde and straight hair, I envy him, even if it is never allowed to rise up. He wears his hair so short that one sees the veins above his temples pumping when he is upset. 1
Christian has high expectations of himself. There is much that comes together. He wants to be fair, in solidarity with others, left, but he also wants to be fast. First. He likes telling others, who struggle more, who have less clarity, how many pages he writes per day. Before he starts shooting one film he always has already finished the script for another one. He presents this as an advantage, but perhaps he can simply not bear not doing anything at all.
And he writes well. Beautiful, springy prose. American school. He has read more crime novels and short stories than, I don’t know, people who live in Hilden (his hometown) or Haan (where he grew up).2 I think he is attracted to the criminological gaze. He does not want to know who the murderer was; rather, he wants to let the clues build a case for life, and love.3
Listening to him is pleasant. To prepare for one of his shoots, everyone has to attend “pro-seminar Petzold” – as some detractors like to put it. He wants to teach his environment, impress with insights. With references. He desires consonance. But he does not want to be a guru. Feelings are not allowed to rule.
There are those in German film who want to see him fall. If only to protect themselves. For he seems to succeed with everything. This can sometimes get on one’s nerves. He knows this, too. Perhaps he wants it like this. He fears his fall at least as much as others wish it upon him. There is a deeply felt anxiety and desire to stare into the abyss. “Why, I thought, does the vault not crumble, given it has no support? It holds up, I answered, because all stones want to crumble at the same time.” He has often cited this sentence by Kleist.4 Remainders of his German literature studies.5 Does society work like this? Do we all desire to fall?
Sometimes we go for a walk, and he tests his new stories out on me. Talking, he fine-tunes narrative or argumentative points. He is capable of enjoying being mean, an aspect that you wouldn’t know from watching his films. Perhaps not quite as cuttingly mean as his teacher and friend Harun Farocki, but certainly as entertaining. A former class clown who today desires to distinguish himself.
His metaphors are somewhat circular. His poetics, so it seems to me, is not really open for reality. It feeds off of his, yes, demons, which reveal themselves in the forest of references.
Each film is a painting-over. Following multiple models, which he deconstructs, he tells stories about unsuccessful escapes. Just like his parents’ escape, from the Zone [East Germany] to the West, was perhaps in vain.6 Just like the nonchalance of the Kreuzberg idyll in the Lausitzer Straße can never quite cover over the fear of formlessness.7 For you cannot escape your own reality. You can never go far enough into the West to really shed the ghosts that live in you.
Rainer Knepperges once wrote that film noir is an “art form of the post-war era that has pity for people who have lost their souls.”8 One could write the same about Christian’s films. And it is no coincidence that, among the films he selected for the Vienna retrospective of his work, many are noirs.9 He did not select a single comedy. “Films are about laws or criminals who did not obey the law. You can convert this into plot. There must be a law, and one has to be able to rub oneself against it. That’s what it’s all about,” he said in our first interview in 2003.10 For a season or two, he was a role model for me. By now we are friends, which is even better.
Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000) has remained a key film, the wonderful construction, the harshness of the cuts …. finally a film, so I thought at the time, that is accessible without relinquishing ambition. That can be used as a dialectical tool to interrogate history and the present. That is not coquettish.
After seeing the film, I called him, enthused; I remember it was 2001, for I used Revolver, our then still young film magazine, as a welcome pretence. Christian’s children were still small at the time and made noise in the background; his life as a filmmaker in this country was still in its design stage. For our fifth issue, he wrote about model trains and to what degree social vibrations leave their traces in the models, in the arrangement of the tracks. His Polizeiruf 110 entitled Kreise (Circles, 2015) was a beautiful echo of this text, just like two scenes he described in his interview with us eventually reappeared ten years later in Etwas Besseres als den Tod (Beats Being Dead, 2011), his contribution to Dreileben, and in Barbara (2012). Circles here as well.11
I do not know of anyone so realistic when it comes to our conditions of production in Germany. He knows precisely which stories, which scenes can be realized in the context of his budgets. As he was shooting his Dreileben film, I saw how he prepared: he thinks through each shot long before he actually shoots it. His work can be considered the art of the possible. He always prefers the more compact, doable solution. I don’t mean this in the sense of confection or lack of ambition. But whereas I always bang my head against the wall because my designs regularly are too big for my budgets, he assesses and works with exactitude. Like a Japanese carpenter, he combines the elements without having to force things. I very much admire this, and even if my baroque temperament sometimes misses excess in his films: it is this precision that makes him the best German director of the present.
Part of Christian’s protestant method is definitely also the “well-rehearsed” team, the stable working family. He had almost always the same collaborators who were responsible for production, camera, editing, set design, and costume, and even for positions such as assistant director or script there are regular collaborators. And, of course, the repeated collaboration with Nina Hoss (Toter Mann [Something to Remind Me, 2001], Wolfsburg , Yella , Jerichow , Barbara, Phoenix ) also suggests a certain hermetic environment.
In our email exchange with Dominik Graf about the “Berlin School” and German cinema, Christian argued that our films narrate the “melancholy of the new bourgeoisie” and had in mind, I believe, not just his films but also his way of making films.12 Public monies, responsibility, exemplary working hours. To bring the children to school by bicycle and then off to the set. The Scandinavian model. But one shouldn’t be taken in by him in this regard. Just as one should always be suspicious of what directors say about their films.
Not that his argument would be wrong. But it is not everything, and it is not the essential. This was one of the reasons that I was happy about Phoenix.
The sterling quality of Barbara, its narrative classicism, had disappointed me a bit. What happened to the modernist shine, where were the “bad parents” of the blueprint? Barbara appeared to be entirely an “A-picture,” pedagogically worthy. Phoenix, in contrast, does not hide the Frankenstein-technique that characterizes Christian’s best films. The film attacks the speculative blueprint with vigour, moulds it into a risky metaphor about the two-fold misrecognition [Verkennung] of one’s own guilt. A German story, in which the ghosts of other stories – real, imagined, filmed – appear. A space in which a sense of disquiet [das Unbehagen], of homelessness [Unbehauste], is allowed to resonate.
Harun Farocki’s death has torn a gap.13 Observed from afar, their friendship seemed very constructive. Substitute father, substitute son, and narrative cinema as the shared “toy.” Down the road, we will be able to assess whether this loss will have also meant an artistic caesura. Christian’s next film for the cinema, Transit, a modern adaptation of Anna Seghers’ novel of the same name (English: Transit Visa, 1944) that is currently in pre-production 14, is definitely a new start. I am very curious.
Translated by Marco Abel.
- This essay was originally published as “Die protestantische Methode” in ray Filmmagazin (Vienna, Austria) 4 (April) 2016, p. 42-48, www.ray-magazin.at. All endnotes added by the translator. For more on Hochhäusler, see Marco Abel’s two interviews with the director, “Tender Speaking: An Interview with Christoph Hochhäusler,” Senses of Cinema 42 (February 2007), http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/cinema-engage/christoph-hochhausler/, accessed 23 February 2017, as well as “It’s a Battle of Stories: An Interview with Christoph Hochhäusler about The City Below, The Lies of the Victors, and Political Cinema,” Cineaste 41.1 online (winter 2015), https://www.cineaste.com/winter2015/christoph-hochhausler-interview/, accessed 23 February 2017. ↩
- Both relatively small towns in the western state of North Rhein-Westphalia and located near Dusseldorf, Hilden’s population is about 55,000 and Haan’s 30,000. ↩
- This last sentence is a slight deviation from the German original, based on Mr. Hochhäusler’s suggestion (personal email, 18 March 2017). ↩
- Heinrich von Kleist, Letter to Wilhelmine von Zenge, Berlin, 16. November 1800. ↩
- Petzold received an MA in Theatre and German Literature from the Free University in Berlin. ↩
- Petzold’s parents moved from East to West Germany but continually returned to their old home to visit their family – visits that have deeply shaped Petzold’s state of mind, as is evident from the many films he has set in the territory of former East Germany. ↩
- Petzold’s office is in the Lausitzter Straße in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. ↩
- Rainer Knepperges, “Auf der Türschwelle: Über Martin Scorseses Inspirationsquellen,” Film-Dienst 1 (January 2013), p. 6, https://issuu.com/filmdienst/docs/film-dienst_1_2013, accessed 23 February 2017. ↩
- The Austrian Film Museum in Vienna dedicated a retrospective to Christian Petzold and also offered him a carte blanche, allowing him to screen a number of films of his choosing. For the program see https://www.filmmuseum.at/jart/prj3/filmmuseum/main.jart?j-j-url=/kinoprogramm/schiene&schienen_id=1453389109273&ss1=y, accessed 23 February 2017. ↩
- “Interview: Christian Petzold.” Revolver 10 (2003), http://www.revolver-film.com/hefte/heft-10-petzold/, accessed 23 February 2017. ↩
- Polizeiruf 110 is a longstanding German crime television series. Petzold has contributed a second episode to it, Wölfe (Wolves, 2016). Dreileben is an experimental collaboration among the three prominent German filmmakers Petzold, Hochhäusler, and Dominik Graf. Each of the three contributed one feature film, all responding to the same basic story event. For more on this experiment, see Marco Abel, “The Agonistic Politics of the Dreileben Project,” German Studies Review 36.3 (2013), p. 607-616, as well as the special section of which Abel’s essay is part and which was edited by Christina Gerhardt and Marco Abel. For more on Dominik Graf, see Marco Abel, “‘I Build a Jigsaw Puzzle of a Dream-Germany’: An Interview with German Filmmaker Dominik Graf,” Senses of Cinema 55 (July 2010), http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/“‘i-build-a-jigsaw-puzzle-of-a-dream-germany’-an-interview-with-german-filmmaker-dominik-graf”-2/, accessed 23 February 2017. ↩
- “Mailwechsel ‘Berliner Schule’: Graf, Petzold, Hochhäusler,” Revolver 16 (2007), p. 7-39. The second part of the mail exchange is published on the magazine’s Web page: http://www.revolver-film.de/Inhalte/Rev16/html/Berliner.htm, accessed 23 February 2017. ↩
- His former teacher at the dffb (Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin), career-long mentor, and long-time friend, Harun Farocki collaborated with Petzold on the scripts of all of his films until Farocki’s untimely death (July 30, 2014). The scholarship on Farocki’s work continues to grow. For a recent essay, see “Harun Farocki (1944 – 2014), or Dialectics in Images,” Senses of Cinema 73 (December 2014), http://sensesofcinema.com/2014/feature-articles/harun-farocki-1944-2014-or-dialectics-in-images/, accessed 25 February 2017. ↩
- Petzold has by now finished shooting this, his fifteenth feature-length film. ↩