One of Germany’s greatest living filmmakers, Christian Petzold, arrives in New York this week as the Film Society of Lincoln Center presents the largest retrospective ever to be staged in the U.S. Opening tomorrow and running through December 13, the program naturally includes the award-winning films that have cemented his international reputation as a master of mise en scène, such as Barbara (2012), Phoenix (2014), and his latest, Transit (2018). The series will also offer American audiences a rare opportunity to sample the movies and series episodes that Petzold continues to direct for German television, plus a few early shorts and Petzold’s selection of films by other directors who have influenced his own work, including Joachim Trier, Vincente Minnelli, and François Truffaut.
Few discussions of Petzold get very far before the term “Berlin School” crops up, and here we are. Along with Angela Schanelec and Thomas Arslan, Petzold has been credited with cofounding the movement, though, of course, when these budding filmmakers were studying at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB) in the early 1990s, they were not, at least consciously, doing any such thing. As with other movements, such as the first and second New Waves in France, the groupings and their defining characteristics are designated by outsiders somewhat after the fact. “When describing the realism of the Berlin School, critics use terms such as ‘slowness,’ ‘accuracy,’ and ‘the everyday,’” noted four prominent critics in an essay that appeared in the Austrian magazine kolik.film in 2006 and then in English a few years later in Senses of Cinema. Because several of the filmmakers associated with the Berlin School were already beginning to dabble in genre and a wider range of tones and styles, these terms were already beginning to become unstuck. In 2010, the authors revisited their piece and asked in a postscript, “Is there really a common inventory of forms and cinematographic gestures? And if there was: does it make sense to fix this in a terminological concept like ‘Berlin School’ that automatically generates exclusion and false homogeneity?” Their answers are implied in the questions.
In the case of Petzold, it’s more crucial to look at who he studied under at the DFFB than who he studied with. Often credited as a cowriter on Petzold’s films, professor, filmmaker, and multimedia artist Harun Farocki would become a close and vital collaborator until his sudden and unexpected death in 2014. At the time, they were working on Transit, and as Petzold tells Steve Macfarlane at Slant, they’d been reading Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel together about once a year before they came up with the “sick idea” of adapting it. When Farocki passed away, Petzold set their treatment aside for a few years, but picked it up again when Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye inspired him to set the story of a refugee in Marseille scheming to escape encroaching fascists in both the 1940s and the present. “Like a Fritz Lang film, Transit is plotted relentlessly, but Petzold, as is his style, keeps the mise en scène and perspective spartan to a razor’s edge of alienating,” writes Daniel Kasman, introducing his discussion of Transit with Petzold in the Notebook.
In an essay on “the most critically celebrated director of post-1989 Germany” for Senses of Cinema in 2013, Jaimey Fisher delved into the early work: Pilots, the 1995 graduation project loosely based on Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, and a few of the movies for television, including Cuba libre (1996), a variation on Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, and The Sex Thief (1998), in which Petzold, notes Fisher, “interweaves a genre plot with a trenchant nonfiction critique of contemporary economy.”
In his breakthrough feature, The State I’m In (2000), singer Julia Hummer plays a fifteen-year-old whose parents, former Red Army Faction operatives who’ve been on the run since the 1970s, have kept her unrooted since she was born. In 2003, Neil Young called the film an “unclassifiable combination of teen romance, coming-of-age drama, and paranoid political thriller.” Hummer also stars in Ghosts (2005) as an orphan whom an older woman believes is her long lost daughter. “What’s fascinating about the film,” wrote Max Nelson for Film Comment in 2014, “is that it keeps briefly becoming the fairy tale its heroine wants it to be, then returning, somewhat cruelly, to its real subject: the way that individuals have their identities slowly effaced when their society fails to give them either a share in the past or a place in the present.”
One of the most intriguing titles in the retrospective, all the more so because it’s seldom screened in the States, is Beats Being Dead, Petzold’s entry in Dreileben, a trilogy of three feature-length films made for television. The project sprang from a conversation about the state of German cinema conducted via e-mail between Petzold, born in 1960, Dominic Graf, who’s eight years older, and Christoph Hochhäusler, born in 1972. The exchange was published in 2007 in Revolver, a magazine cofounded by Hochhäusler and other filmmakers, programmers, and cinephiles associated with what some regard as a second generation of the Berlin School. Dreileben serves as a showcase of the divergent styles of these three filmmakers. The trilogy approaches a single event, a murder, via three narratives whose overlap is kept to the barest minimum. As Dennis Lim has written for Cinema Scope, each of the three films, “despite existing within the same clearly delineated physical world, suggests a subtly different universe from the others.” Beats Being Dead is “as taut as it is volatile, a fever-dream compound of romantic tragedy and slasher noir that focuses on two young people who cross paths with the killer,” writes Lim. “As in Jerichow (2008) and Yella (2007), Petzold inscribes cold, hard truths of class and money into almost every scene, fusing erotic tensions with socioeconomic ones.”
Something to Remind Me (2001), a sort of anti-romantic non-comedy that riffs on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, is the first of six collaborations—so far—between Petzold and Nina Hoss. “I always know the frame I’m in,” Hoss told Adam Nayman at the A.V. Club in 2016. “That’s why I work with Christian, and why I’m interested in the stories he writes or the movies he makes. I know we’re talking about personal life, but it’s always a reflection on the country we live in, and on society, and pressures in society on individuals.”
Petzold’s next collaboration with Hoss would be Wolfsburg (2003), which Neil Young has called “an effective, slow-burning study of guilt and grief.” Yella is a recasting of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls by way of Hitchcock that, as Chris Darke suggests in Film Comment, “succeeds in making the modern world strange again. Jerichow sets The Postman Always Rings Twice in a modestly sized town in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. The New York Times’ A. O. Scott finds “something haunting about this film, a sense of desperation and defeat that seems less like a generic convention than like a genuine insight, an intuition into what can happen at the crossroads of lust, loneliness and materialism.” Barbara, set in East Germany in 1980, is a “coolly controlled, tensely watchable, subtle psychological thriller,” as Phillip Lopate put it in Film Comment in 2012. And Phoenix, another nod to Vertigo and, as Michael Koresky writes in the essay accompanying our release, a “film preoccupied with how war forever changes personal and national identities.”
In 2008, Marco Abel interviewed Petzold for Cineaste, and the conversation covered the roots of his cinephilia—by the way, Petzold’s listed his favorite ten films of the past ten years for Grasshopper Film—his work with Farocki and another filmmaker and professor at the DFFB, Hartmut Bitomsky; the paintings of Edward Hopper and Gerhard Richter; and framing. “I always try to forge a connection between the mental and the objective image,” said Petzold. “This may be the source of my esthetic style. At times my figures are part of a spatial psychology, a spatial rhythm, whereas at other times they appear as if in a portrait. That is, sometimes it’s the space that is being rendered as a portrait with people, at others it’s the figures themselves who make up the classic portrait. This composition of the frame changes, depending on how the characters themselves feel. That is, sometimes they are beaten down by their environment, and sometimes the environment exists merely because of them.”
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