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.”