The essay examines how Petzold evokes an embodied mode of spectatorship as part of a strategy to counter the approach to history taken by von Donnersmarck. Critics have observed that Petzold’s first historical film seems to be a response to The Lives of Others, and the director has in fact confirmed this approach in an interview. Von Donnersmarck employs techniques intrinsic to writing to produce a filmic text that presents an explicit history of the GDR. By contrast, Petzold’s Barbara purposefully does not constitute such a text, but rather lets the film image stand more autonomously, such that a texture of history unfolds of its own accord

One common feature of the independent German film movement known as the Berlin School is its almost exclusive focus on contemporary life in the Federal Republic. The avoidance of films set in Germany’s past, and in particular in turbulent times such as the Nazi period, the years of divided Germany, or the accelerated unification process, reflects the group’s aversion to the way postunification cinema has addressed this national legacy in popular historical dramas that have come to be known as German heritage film.1 Bucking this trend in 2012, Christian Petzold, one of the three directors whom critics and scholars have identified as original members of the Berlin School, released his first film that explores one part of Germany’s troubled national history. Barbara tells the story of a doctor who in 1980 is stripped of her position at the prominent Charité hospital in East Berlin because she had applied for permission to emigrate to the West. She is sent to work at a regional hospital in a rural area on the Baltic Sea. There she is paired with André, another young, promising doctor, who for a different reason had also lost a prominent research position in Berlin and been relegated to work in the provinces. The film tells of her plans to flee East Germany and join her affluent lover in West Berlin. As she starts working with André (Ronald Zehrfeld) and becomes involved with patients, she begins to question her decision to leave the GDR.

Critics have observed that Petzold’s first historical film seems to be a counterpart to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 feature Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), which attracted relatively large audiences both at home and abroad and won numerous awards, including the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.2 Although Petzold has avoided characterizing his film as a countereffort directed against von Donnersmarck’s, he draws a stark, critical distinction between his approach to reconstructing life in the GDR and that employed in The Lives of Others. The difference is not in the attention to detail. Both filmmakers have stressed how they went to great lengths to recreate the look, feel, and reality of life in the East, tracking down genuine GDR materials and goods to use in the film and reproducing the forms of social interaction that developed in the oppressive totalitarian state. Acknowledging this similarity between the two films, Petzold describes the portrayal of the GDR in The Lives of Others as “merely a studio reconstruction – an artificial setting for a story that never took place there.”3 He declares a dislike for films that create settings in this heritage mould to serve as a mere backdrop for stories (Kulissen). Citing this facet of von Donnersmarck’s work, he asserts that The Lives of Others is not a “GDR film” but rather a Hitchcock-like movie that uses its detailed, authentic reconstruction of the physical world to present a nightmarish view of the former East.

In drawing this distinction between the two films, Petzold touches on two intertwined aspects that figure prominently in the critical literature on The Lives of Others: genre and heritage-tinged mise-en-scène. The reference to Hitchcock recalls Jaimey Fisher’s account of how von Donnersmarck combines different genres effectively to produce a compelling historical drama that is able to generate empathy not only across disparate cultural and political contexts but also with a Stasi perpetrator.4 He examines how The Lives of Others incorporates elements of the police thriller in conjunction with melodrama to create a film more in line with the international tradition of heritage film. His analysis ascribes its effective use of pathos more to the combination of genres than to a nostalgia-fuelled setting replete with fetishized material goods and objects, such as those featured in Wolfgang Becker’s Good-Bye, Lenin! (2003). By shifting the critical focus away from the more typical heritage concern with setting and mood and toward narrative trajectories, Fisher “illuminates how the film forecloses potentially political moments.”5 His detailed discussion of the interplay of genre and mise-en-scène demonstrates how von Donnersmarck’s film engages the viewer in dramatic story lines at the expense of critical investigation into the historical conditions that led to divided Germany. However, I would contend that the mix of nostalgia and dramatic narrative does more than merely foreclose potential political content. As Petzold’s critique of using setting as mere backdrop implies, genres are adopted and combined not merely to eclipse the political through story but rather to represent the history of the GDR from a point of view that conforms to prevailing conceptions in the West (its nightmarish view of the East [West-Albtraum]).6

The critical literature on Barbara has emphasized how Petzold went about creating an alternative view of the GDR by deconstructing paradigmatic views of it as a failed state and making the warmth and appeal of everyday life visible. Not unexpectedly, the contrast to The Lives of Others has played a prominent role in these discussions. In particular, they have pursued the focus on genre to draw key distinctions. These scholars have described Petzold’s GDR film as a fusion of melodrama with the “slow realism” of the Berlin School,7 simply as a moving love story,8 or, in reference to the cinema of the GDR, as an afterimage of the DEFA Alltagsfilme (films of everyday life) of the 1970s and 1980s.9 These treatments illuminate important aspects of Petzold’s alternative style of German historical drama and his unique approach to working with genre, which he has described as making “films in the cemetery of genre cinema, from the remainders that are still there for the taking.”10 However, the concentration on genre and story can also divert away from the more difficult task of describing the specific aesthetic techniques and strategies that appeal to an alternative sensibility and produce the unique look and feel of the GDR in Barbara. Taking this approach also risks relegating Petzold’s commitment to precision in the reconstruction of the GDR to the same function he rejects in The Lives of Other, that is, mise-en-scène as little more than the backdrop for a story.

What I find missing in the discussions of Barbara is indicative of what has often been said about Berlin School filmmakers; that is, it is easier to determine what they oppose than to describe the defining features of their filmmaking.11 This holds for the directors themselves as well as for film scholars. It is evident in Petzold’s attempt to explain why he took great pains to find genuine material objects so that he could reconstruct the GDR as it was at the time, or why he sought out locations that remain much the same today, such as the village of Kirchmöser and the old hospital there: “I don’t like constructed settings (Kulissen). I want to have the characters open a bookcase from the GDR that has books from the GDR in it. I want the viewer to get a sense of the actual places through the experience of the actors. The windows they open are East German windows. And they drink actual East German coffee.”12 He goes on to explain that he wanted to convey a kind of “sensual experience” (Sinnlichkeit) that was possible in the GDR, and to do so in a positive, even seductive way that would make fleeing to the West difficult. This kind of sensual filmmaking that engages all the senses of the spectator and not just the eye is a hallmark not only of Petzold but also of Berlin School filmmaking as a whole. Daniela Berghahn’s account of Barbara as a latter-day Alltagsfilm stresses this aspect, referring to “the film’s effervescent physicality,”13 its devotion to “the sensuous experience of everyday life,”14 and its “sensory reconstruction of the everyday.”15 But there she provides little analysis of how this works or, more specifically, how it functions differently than the atmospheric reconstruction of the GDR in The Lives of Others. In the following, I pursue this question from a mediatheoretical perspective that distinguishes between the film image as a physical medium and the film as a text to be read. In doing so, I hope to unpack in some small way what it means to call the political thrust of the Berlin School a “politics of the image”.16 Those writing about the Berlin School have frequently relied on this fruitful formulation by Marco Abel to suggest that this mode of filmmaking exerts a political effect without explicitly engaging such themes. Often, however, they have let this phrase stand on its own without digging deeper into the workings of the image. Comparing Barbara, a film that has opened up new perspectives in the critical debate about German heritage cinema, with The Lives of Others will serve here as a means for exploring how Petzold’s filmic images constitute a politics without resorting to either an overt message or an explicit vision of the GDR.

By focusing on the materiality of life and sensory experience in the GDR, Petzold evokes an embodied mode of spectatorship that resists the representationalist approach to history found in heritage film. This stands in stark contrast to The Lives of Others, which subordinates cinema’s affective force as an audiovisual medium imbued with presence to the textual semiotic of literary narrative.17 For von Donnersmarck, cinema serves as a medium that enables written texts to be transformed into a stream of visual images whose coherence is supplemented by synchronized sound. Digesting the film much like a reader, the viewer sees the images as signs in a narrative system that must be pieced together into a coherent whole. In The Lives of Others, von Donnersmarck reinforces this mode of reception by incorporating a diegetic network of literary texts into his story. What they say about the narrative is not open to interpretation, and the film leaves little room for letting them work freely on the imagination. To the contrary, the written texts that appear onscreen or are read in voiceover function to ensure that the viewer interprets the film in accordance with the director’s intent.18

In a pivotal moment in the film, we see the Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) gazing into a book of Bertolt Brecht’s poetry while we hear his voiceover reading the poem “Die Erinnerung an Marie A.” (“The Memory of Marie A.”). The verses themselves are of little importance. The shot of him reading the poems signals that he has gained a new perspective on the relationship between Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) that leads him to try to protect them. The diegetic written texts in The Lives of Others, both literary ones and others (Dreyman’s Spiegel article, Wiesler’s typed reports of his surveillance, the Stasi files Dreyman reads after the fall of the Berlin Wall), highlight the notorious political realities that dominate discussions of the GDR in the West, such as Stasi surveillance, censorship, corrupt government officials, and state control of the arts. Von Donnersmarck works them into the plot in such a way that the extra-diegetic context of German literary history also comes into play to support this picture. As Wiesler is lying on the couch reading from the book of poems, the single word “Brecht” on the cover affords a discursive engagement with literary culture in the former socialist state. Namely, it invokes images of Brecht as the director of the Berliner Ensemble theatre company and the most prominent literary figure in the early years of the GDR, one whose international fame helped legitimize the socialist regime. However, by having an early poem written before Brecht’s turn to political activism influence Wiesler to reject the East German police state, the film casts a critical light on state control of the arts and the role theatre in particular played in the East.

Christian Petzold

Wiesler reading the poem by Brecht in The Lives of Others

With Die Sonate vom guten Menschen (The Sonate of the Good Person), Dreyman’s novel that recounts the episode with Wiesler from the confines of unified Germany, von Donnersmarck alludes to another prominent genre in German literary history. It is of course a diegetic work of which we see only the cover and the dedication page, but its context in the narrative provides enough information for the viewer to conclude that it is a Bildungsroman. It tells the story of a good person trapped in a malignant social order who learns, with the help of literature, to change himself. This fictional Bildungsroman also puts the final touches on the film’s construction of the East-West divide. With its ability to atone for Wiesler’s life lost in service to the GDR, it stands in contrast to the state-dictated literary production of the GDR. It also serves to redeem the now disenfranchised subject of western capitalism, the new Wiesler, the door-to-door distributor of commercial printed matter. These diegetic references to literature are an integral part of the film’s construction as a text that is to be read by the viewer in a specific way and with a prefabricated message. Just as the fictional novel functions diegetically to instruct and redeem Wiesler, the film, too, is a Bildungstext. Its lesson is meant primarily for the former citizens of the GDR who must make sense of their complicity in the evils of the East German state in order to come to terms with their new lives in the Federal Republic. Not only is the viewer told what to see, what to hear, and how and what to think, but also, and perhaps most importantly, what to feel. Affect is channelled primarily through the meaning constructed by the narrative.19

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Wiesler looking at shop display of Dreyman’s book and the dedication page.

As The Lives of Others references written texts to guide the audience’s reading of the film, it does so at the expense of film’s medium-specific capacity to engage the viewer in a more embodied manner. Von Donnersmarck constructs his film as a discursive text that presents complexly structured arguments about life and culture, and particularly literary culture, in the two Germanys. In Barbara, in contrast, the viewer has more autonomy with respect to these forms of response. At the story level, Petzold’s film avoids clear-cut decisions about how to negotiate toxic elements of the GDR system. As Barbara (Nina Hoss) becomes involved in the everyday lives of the ordinary people of Kirchmöser, her contempt for life there is challenged by moments of ambivalence and doubt. When she questions André’s decision to treat the dying wife of the Stasi officer who we have seen abusing her in a vile manner, his response gives her pause:

Barbara: Do you do that often?

André: Ease the dying process?

Barbara: Help assholes!

André: When they are sick.

At another point, Barbara, with her voice full of disdain, recites the GDR policy of having doctors repay society for having put them through medical school: “Workers and farmers paid for her medical studies, now time to pay them back.” To which André calmly replies: “Actually, not incorrect.” And there is the central issue of Barbara’s choice whether to escape from the GDR or to remain and administer health care to those who need it. She stays in the end, but it remains unclear to what extent this was a deliberate decision on her part or rather due to a combination of extenuating circumstances and her feelings for André. By contrast, in The Lives of Others the key narrative crises are resolved by ethical decisions that the film unambiguously identifies as either right or wrong.

As in von Donnersmarck’s film, literature and music are also featured prominently in Barbara, but they function in a decidedly alternative fashion. Indeed, the way Petzold works these cultural artefacts into his film suggests that he envisioned Barbara as a counterpoint to The Lives of Others. In contrast to the playing of the musical piece “The Sonata of the Good Person,” the voiceover readings of Brecht’s poetry and Wiesler’s written reports, and the inclusion of snippets from Dreyman’s play, his Spiegel article, and his novel, we have Barbara playing the piano, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), the young pregnant woman who has been abused by the state institutions, singing a folk song, and Barbara reading aloud to Stella. In all these scenes, the literary or musical episode is not subordinated to the hegemony of a narrative. The excerpt from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Ivan Turgenev’s story of The District Doctor that André retells resonate with key plot elements in the film, but there is no evidence that they influence the characters’ decisions as in The Lives of Others, nor do they promote a judgmental reading of their actions. Also, their historical or social significance in the context of the GDR, which is an essential aspect of the literary episodes in The Lives of Others, does not play a role in Barbara.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Views of Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” in Barbara

When Petzold incorporates another art form in a way that enriches the film both thematically and formally, he chooses one that has no counterpart in The Lives of Others: painting. In an instance of explicit filmic ekphrasis, he offers a diegetic interpretation of a painting while inviting the viewer to interpret it as well.20 It is a print of Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” that is hanging on the wall in André’s laboratory. He presents his interpretation to Barbara, explaining that Rembrandt replaced the left forearm of the corpse with the picture of the right forearm from the anatomy text. According to André, this focuses the observer’s attention on the executed criminal lying on the table rather than what the doctors are looking at. However, the final shot of the scene lingers not on the victim, but rather on the doctors. In contrast to André, the camera places the emphasis on the act of viewing and solicits an interpretation of the painting that is associated with the film. The whole group of doctors staring intently at the book rather than at the executed victim might evoke a free association with the constant state surveillance and harassment of Barbara throughout the film. But it also offers a moment of meta-reflection on the alternative mode of spectatorship that the film demands of the viewer. The scene seems to suggest that the audience should not view Petzold’s film in the same manner as the doctors are looking at the book, but rather should learn to explore the image more freely. And it sends this message by letting the viewer explore the painting against the grain of the diegetic reading offered by André.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Barbara fixing the inner tube and her view of wait staff at the restaurant

Eschewing formulaic modes of representation, Barbara situates the viewer differently than The Lives of Others as well as mainstream Hollywood narrative more generally. Whereas von Donnersmarck consistently directs the eye and the ear to audiovisual elements that are bound to the narrative, in Barbara one has the opportunity to access the image casually and linger over seemingly insignificant details. The final shot of “The Anatomy Lesson” instructs the viewer about the alternative mode of spectatorship enabled by the film, while also providing the opportunity to practice it in the analysis of the painting. Petzold situates the viewer such that “I see” does not mean “I get it” but rather “my eyes are open and I am looking freely, discovering what is often obscured.” Scenes throughout the film provide the opportunity to gaze in this manner. We see extended takes of Barbara walking or biking through the countryside, various shots of routine work at the hospital, and a scene of her submerging a bicycle inner tube in water in the bathtub to find a leak. In these scenes, the viewer can linger on these common actions, become involved in the movement through space, and sense the physical presence of the everyday world. When Barbara goes to a restaurant in another small town nearby to pick up the money sent to her from the West, there is a comical image of the wait staff lying together on their backs along a wall with their legs in the air. After one of the waitresses slips Barbara the money in the restroom, she asks her whether this exercise does any good. Barbara nods affirmatively, saying it helps prevent varicose veins. This odd little episode suggests that not everything that occurred in the technologically lagging GDR was as backward or pointless as the West often liked to portray it. This image also has its own unique physical effect. Neurological mirroring systems in the viewer stir the sensation of the inverted weight of the body and the blood rushing into one’s head.21

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “Cross on the Baltic Sea” and Barbara hiding money under a cross

Petzold also employs more subtle references to German art to expand and enhance the sensory reach of the film. The cross under which Barbara hides the money she has received to pay for her escape summons images of crosses in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, most notably his “Cross on the Baltic Sea.” While the cross and the nature scenes may evoke associations with Friedrich or Romanticism, they are not designed to have a specific symbolic or historical significance. Rather, they evoke a pervasive feeling similar to that found in Friedrich’s painting and enable various possible mental associations that have no link to the narrative. Furthermore, the ekphrastic evocation of Friedrich’s art extends beyond mere allusion to particular paintings or objects in them and produces its strongest effect through tactile reinforcement of the visual. The images of the fields outside Kirchmöser and the Baltic seashore recall Friedrich’s sea and landscape paintings of Pomerania, while the sound of the wind blowing through the fields and waves crashing onto shore generate a multisensory response that recalls the feel of air hitting one’s skin and the ocean spray enveloping one’s face.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “Two Men by the Sea at Moonrise” and the sea at night in Barbara

These scenes also exemplify the alternative approach to film sound practiced by Berlin School directors. Rather than synchronizing sound to objects or events that carry the narrative, they utilize ambient sound to produce the feel of a given time and place.22 This functions to enhance the effect that Petzold said he was trying to elicit with the authentic reconstruction of the material world of the GDR; that is, he wants “the viewer to get a sense of the actual places through the experience of the actors.”23 In contrast to conventional audio that guides the viewer to hear what is happening in the story, as when the sound of the typewriter is amplified in The Lives of Others, we hear birds, the wind, the sea, traffic, or sounds of insignificant activities at the hospital. These sounds, ones that you would normally hear in these locations, although perhaps not take note of, are augmented and brought to the foreground in a way that cues the viewer to listen, much as the conversation about the Rembrandt painting instructs how to look at the film image. In this case, the soundtrack signals that these are the sounds of a particular historical moment and not ones that help produce an historical account.

A consequence of this mode of constructing the cinematic image is that as viewers we physically feel what we see and hear. We feel the wind on our skin; we feel the vibration of the GDR regional train car as opposed to the almost silent ride of the ICE train in the Federal Republic; we feel the damp cold of the sea at night. When taken together, these aspects of Petzold’s filmmaking enable a mode of spectatorship that includes all the senses rather than one that relies more exclusively on vision. This occurs at the level of affect, where primary emotions are inextricably linked with sensory and sensorimotor responses, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive processes, as well as cognitive operations. As a cultural medium, cinema is well suited for the evocation of free-floating affect-images. Stirring a sense of presence, of being in the (virtual) reality presented by the moving image, film produces perception-images in the viewer that initiate a motor response and call forth a rich array of corresponding memory-images and affective states. This complex network of precognitive processing constitutes what Antonio Damasio calls “the feeling of what happens” that exists prior to and beneath the instantiation of a determinate “feeling” that entails conscious awareness and is prescribed by a distinct character.24

Adhering to this style of filmmaking that he and other Berlin School directors developed in films set almost exclusively in the present, Petzold evokes in Barbara a feeling of history different from that generated by German heritage film. The latter employs techniques drawn from Hollywood melodrama to establish affective connections with characters and events to produce a predetermined “feeling for history,”25 rather than allowing one to take shape autonomously in the course of the viewing. By engaging the viewer at the level of precognitive, sensory participation, Barbara avoids constructing an emotionally charged history of the GDR that fosters a postunification coming-to-terms with the German past. While the latter conveys a distinct feeling for what happened, Petzold wants the viewer to experience the feeling of what happens, conveyed among other ways through the bodily presence of the actors.

One important example of this distinction can also serve to show how Petzold’s style of filmmaking constitutes a “politics of the image.” In The Lives of Others, the infamous prowess of the Stasi surveillance apparatus is integral to every aspect of the film. All the characters in the film are involved in the elaborate spying operation targeting Dreyman and Sieland, and the interaction between the main protagonists revolves completely around their respective roles as victims or perpetrators in it. Von Donnersmarck’s comprehensive reconstruction of the physical reality of the GDR in the 1980s also functions as a backdrop against which the objects used in state surveillance are foregrounded: bugging and listening equipment, tape recorders, fingerprinting material, typewriters and charts used to identify specific type patterns, files of surveillance reports, among others. In the long opening scene that precedes the title shot, Wiesler is teaching a class of future agents at the Stasi College in Potsdam-Eiche. His lecture is intercut with scenes from the actual case that serves as an example for his instruction about interrogations methods. The lesson ends with Wiesler’s revelation of why he had ordered the subject to place his hands underneath his thighs, palms down. During this part of the lecture we see Wiesler carefully removing the cloth from the chair seat and placing it in a sealed jar, before he explains that this is the odour sample for the dogs that must be taken without fail at every interrogation. This prelude reminds the viewer in dramatic fashion of the extensive state espionage apparatus in the GDR and, in doing so, evokes the dismissive attitude that prevails in the West’s depictions of East German history.

Whereas The Lives of Others draws on this common perception to establish the affective foundation for its story, Petzold avoids such preconceived views and lets the viewer feel the invasiveness and weight of surveillance on the individual in everyday life. There are a number of scenes that pointedly remind us of the pervasive spying. At two different points in the film, Barbara peers out from behind a curtain at the Stasi agent assigned to watch her sitting in his car. We see her landlady keeping tabs on her, observing in particular her comings and goings at night or on the weekend. In the most dramatic case, Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock), the lead Stasi agent, sits in her apartment staring at her while one of his men rifles through her belongings. While this is happening, a female agent arrives and pulls on latex gloves in preparation to search her person. The film dwells on the invasive nature of this kind of body search by delaying shots of the actual body search until it happens again later in the film.

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Ever-present surveillance in Barbara

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Ever-present surveillance in Barbara

Nonetheless, Petzold does not turn this aspect of life in the GDR into a piece of the plot in a spy thriller, as is the case with Sieland’s collaboration with the Stasi in The Lives of Others. Rather, the viewer experiences it as a pervasive element that affected not merely specific targets such as Barbara but rather the everyday lives of everyone. This is established in the opening scene, as we watch Barbara arrive at the hospital for the first time. As she pauses for a second to look at her watch after disembarking from the bus, the camera frames her between two trees. Then there is a cut to André, who also looks at his watch as he is standing at a window observing her. When she sits down on a park bench to smoke a cigarette, the camera continues to observe her as André asks Schütz, who is in the room with him, whether this is Barbara. Once the oppressive feel of eyes secretly watching her has been generated in this way, Petzold sustains this sensation throughout the film by virtue of Nina Hoss’s extraordinary ability to convey it through posture, gestures, and facial expressions. Small, incidental acts endow the image with the full weight of the surveillance that permeated every aspect of life in the GDR. This includes in particular the paranoid look around to see what or who may be watching, as when we see from Barbara’s perspective the woman in the train who turns to look at her, or Barbara’s own constant turning to look around as she bicycles through the countryside.

Even as the pervasive effect that Stasi spying had on everyday life is felt throughout Barbara, Petzold does not weave the historical fact of surveillance by state spy agencies into an ideological account of the socialist East. By contrast, The Lives of Others incorporates generic traits of melodrama and detective film into a redemption story that validates the political, economic, and cultural systems of the West and repudiates everything that was the GDR. In opposition to the normal summary rejection of the socialist state on ideological grounds, Petzold chooses to make a “GDR film” that redeems the lived experience of its people. He accomplishes this by giving the viewer a sense of being present and participating in the ordinary activities of the characters in Barbara and by establishing a different relation to the material objects that constitute the filmic reconstruction of the former East. He avoids stoking nostalgia for the vanished material culture through the fetishization of consumer goods that was common in successful heritage films about the GDR, such as Leander Haußmann’s Sonnenallee (Sun Alley, 1999), Good Bye, Lenin!, and The Lives of Others. By attaching a value to these objects that derives from Western capitalist societies, these films highlight the East’s deficiencies in this regard and devalue the experience of its people.

The alternative relation to the material world Petzold establishes in Barbara depends on an embodied mode of spectatorship that involves all the senses more fully, rather than relying almost exclusively on sight and sound. The image acquires a tactile dimension that plays a diminished role in the formulaic genres of narrative cinema. The conventional style of visual storytelling delivers a prefabricated feeling that eclipses affective participation in the image at the level of primordial tactility.26 Whereas von Donnersmarck employs techniques intrinsic to writing to produce a film that is to be viewed and “read” much like a literary text, Petzold offers images that the viewer can delve into, touch, feel, and experience in a more sensory manner. In the context of the contested history of the former East, his politics of the image depends on the way the viewer engages its materiality and becomes involved as a co-producer of the feeling of what happens. Rejecting how heritage film conveys an explicit history of the GDR, Petzold lets the viewer feel and experience the texture of history. In Barbara, he presents a look back at the past that neither reprises well-worn political realities nor attributes hegemonic status to vision or writing.

This article has been peer reviewed.



  1. Lutz Koepnick, “Reframing the Past: Heritage Cinema and Holocaust in the 1990s,” New German Critique 87 (Fall 2002), p. 47-82.
  2. Daniela Berghahn, “DEFA’s Afterimages: Looking Back at the East from the West in Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) and Barbara (2012),” in Re-Imagining DEFA: East German Cinema in its National and Transnational Contexts, Seán Allan and Sebastian Heiduschke. eds. (Oxford: Berghahn, 2016), p. 312–34; Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013), p. 140–41; Christina Gerhardt, “Looking East: Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012),” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 33:6 (2016), p. 550-66; Debbie Pinfold, “The End of the Fairy Tale? Christian Petzold’s Barbara and the Difficulties of Interpretation,” German Life and Letters 67:2 (April 2014), p. 279–300.
  3. Stefan Schimmer and Martin Machowecz, “Was es da an Irren gab,” Die Zeit, 31 January 2013, http://www.zeit.de/2013/06/Christian-Petzold-Filme-DDR-Osten/komplettansicht; my translation.
  4. Jaimey Fisher, “German Historical Film as Production Trend: European Heritage Cinema and Melodrama in The Lives of Others,” in The Collapse of the Conventional: German Film and its Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, Jaimey Fisher and Brad Prager, eds. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010), p. 186–215.
  5. Ibid., p. 194.
  6. Schimmer and Machowecz.
  7. Gerhart, p. 51–52.
  8. Pinfold, p. 279–83.
  9. Berghahn, p. 324–31.
  10. Marco Abel, “The Cinema of Identification Gets on My Nerves: An Interview with Christian Petzold,” Cineaste (2 December 2008), https://www.cineaste.com/summer2008/the-cinema-of-identification-gets-on-my-nerves.
  11. Roger F. Cook, Lutz Koepnick, and Brad Prager, “Introduction: The Berlin School – Under Observation,” in Berlin School Glossary: An ABC of the New Wave in German Cinema, Roger F. Cook, Lutz Koepnick, Kristin Kopp, and Brad Prager, eds. (Bristol, UK: intellect, 2013), p. 1–25.
  12. Schimmer and Machowecz.
  13. Berghahn, p. 324.
  14. Ibid, p.325.
  15. Ibid, p.325.
  16. Marco Abel, “Imagining Germany: The (Political) Cinema of Christian Petzold,” in The Collapse of the Conventional: German Film and its Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, Jaimey Fisher and Brad Prager, eds. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010), p. 273 and p. 276. For a reference to this phrase in the critical work on Barbara see Berghahn, p. 330.
  17. This point and the following analysis stem from my more extensive reading of the film in an earlier essay: “Roger Cook, “Literary Discourse and Cinematic Narrative: Scripting Affect in Das Leben der Anderen,” in Cinema and Social Change in Germany and Austria, Gabriele Mueller and James M. Skidmore, eds. (Waterloo, CN: Wilfried Laurier University Press, 2012), p.79–95.
  18. Marc Silberman has presented a detailed analysis of the diegetic literary texts and allusions to German literature in The Lives of Others, albeit one that does not address how they frame the film like a literary text and diminish the force of film as a moving-image medium. See Marc Silberman, “The Lives of Others: Screenplay as Literature and the Literary Film,” in The Lives of Others and Contemporary German Film, Paul Cooke, ed. (Boston: De Gruyter, 2013), p. 139–57.
  19. The same is true of the film’s music, whose affective force is also eclipsed in part by the role it plays in Wiesler’s transformation. I think it is telling, in a manner not intended by von Donnersmarck, that the sonata becomes a Bildungsroman in the film’s concluding act.
  20. Concerning ekphrasis in cinema see Laura M. Sager Eidt, Writing and Filming the Painting: Ekphrasis in Film and Literature (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008).
  21. For more on how neurological mirroring systems work in the context of cinematic spectatorship, see Roger Cook, “Embodied Simulation, Empathy, and Social Cognition: Berlin School Lessons for Film Theory,” Screen 56.2 (summer 2015), p. 153-171.
  22. Roger F. Cook, “Ambient Sound,” in Berlin School Glossary: An ABC of the New Wave in German Cinema, Roger F. Cook, Lutz Koepnick, Kristin Kopp, and Brad Prager, eds. (Bristol, UK: intellect, 2013), p. 27–34.
  23. Schimmer and Machowecz.
  24. Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (San Diego: Harcourt, 1999).
  25. Johannes von Moltke, “Sympathy for the Devil: Cinema, History, and the Politics of Emotion,” in New German Critique 102/34.3 (Fall 2007): p. 17–43.
  26. Maurice Merleau-Ponty elaborated the concept primordial tactility in his later writings, primarily in The World of Perception, trans. by Oliver Davis (London: Routledge, 2004). It refers to a pre-objective realm of embodied existence governed by a polymorphous tactility that unifies all the senses. According to Merleau-Ponty, as perception becomes structured via individuated senses, a disembodied mode of vision gains dominance over the other senses. In his analysis of how the development of new media produces a reorganization of the human sensorium, Marshall McLuhan also defines tactility as the “interplay of the senses.” His theory has particular significance for my account of the role literary techniques play in The Lives of Others, when he argues that with the invention of alphabetic writing vision becomes increasingly extended into this powerful new medium, while hearing, touch, taste, and smell remain more closely linked to each other, united in a more general, primary mode of tactility. Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964), p. 81–88.

About The Author

Roger Cook is Professor of German Studies and Director of the Film Studies Program at the University of Missouri. He has written extensively on New German Cinema and contemporary German film. He co-edited The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition (Wayne State University Press, 1996) and is co-editor of Berlin School Glossary: An ABC of the New Wave in German Cinema (Intellect Books, 2013). He has also written on eighteenth and nineteenth-century German literature, with a particular emphasis on Heinrich Heine. He is the author of By the Rivers of Babylon: Heinrich Heine’s Late Songs and Reflections (Wayne State University Press, 1998) and the editor of A Companion to the Works of Heinrich Heine (Camden House, 2003). His current work engages research in media theory and neuroscience to investigate issues of embodiment in film viewing, and he is currently finishing a book entitled Post-Cinematic Vision: Film and the Evolution of Spectatorship.

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