Christian Petzold In Limbo

Christian Petzold at the set of “Barbara”.
Christian Petzold at the set of “Barbara”. | Photo (detail): Arne Hoehne © Piffl Medien

A portrait of the German auteur film director Christian Petzold, known for numerous films including “The State I am in” (2000), “Something to Remind Me” (2001) and “Barbara” (2012).

A latent vacuum emanates from Christian Petzold’s world of pictures. The often overpowering effect can be consistently attributed to the formal structure and visual approach that is a recurring theme in all of his films. Starting with his first TV movie, Pilotinnen (lit. Female Pilots, 1995), Hans Fromm has been responsible for the camera work delivering clear, strict, sober and clinical photography. Petzold’s films are defined by his ability to distill them down to their essentials, their core.

Growing up in “limbo Germany”

The director, who is often labeled as part of the so-called Berlin school, was born in 1960 in Hilden, North Rhine-Westphalia, and grew up in the neighboring town of Haan. Petzold refers to life in the microcosm of these two small towns between Düsseldorf and Solingen as a life in “limbo Germany”, in the deepest, most bourgeois province. In other words, nowhere. This “purgatory” is easily transferred to any part of the country, from region to region, state to state. It is an intermediate realm between life and death where people and ghosts exist in equal numbers, as in his film Ghosts (2005).

Christian Petzold left this limbo at the age of 20 after finishing his high school degree and civil service. He has been living in Berlin since the beginning of the 1980s. After completing a course of study in dramatics and German at the Free University he went on to get a degree at the dffb (a school for film and television) between 1988 and 1994. Pilotinnen was his film debut as well as his graduate thesis project. Petzold describes his inspiration to become a filmmaker like this: “The book Mr. Hitchcock, How did You do that? (Truffaut/Hitchcock 1966/1982) and the horrible suburban sprawl devoid of cinema, markets and ideas – the idea was to create images of those things.”

Roots in the film archives

Before he was able to make the jump from the TV to the big screen, his debut work was followed by two further films made for television, Cuba Libre (1996) and Die Beischlafdiebin (1998). Petzold’s cinema film debut was The State I am in (2000), after which he was invited to Venice for the film festival and also won best feature film at the German Film Awards in 2001. It is a film about a terrorist couple and their daughter, played by Julia Hummer, who also narrates. The story links the past, the RAF (a former terrorist organization) and "Germany in Autumn" (a film about RAF events in 1977), with today, German reality and the pressures of the present day. Portraying the ghost of terror and the spirit of modernity, the director’s film debut has come to represent the foundation of Petzold's cinematic cosmos.

His television film Something to Remind Me (2001) and the feature film Wolfsburg (2003), set in the partially very "artificial" city of the same name, closely followed one another and are his first two works with actress Nina Hoss (b. 1975). Both of these films clearly show the filmmakers influences for the first time, including the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, Howard Hawks, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and, not least, the great Alfred Hitchcock. The latter's masterpiece, Vertigo (1958), in which James Stewart, in a phantasmagoria of effects, is hired to investigate and recreate a ghost of the past, the blonde Kim Novak – it may well be the cinematographic godfather par excellence of many a Petzold film.

Petzold describes his cinematic provenance as follows: “My roots are in the film archives in Cologne and Düsseldorf and in the film clubs of Solingen and Wuppertal. And of course in WDR’s channel 3 programming. That is where my role models come from: Hawks, Anthony Mann, Hitchcock, Renoir…” Just as Hans Fromm has done all of the camera work for Petzold’s films to date, Harun Farocki, one of his professors at the dffb, has been the co-author for many of the director’s screenplays, all of which have been original works by the auteur filmmaker himself. It is very similar to how Fassbinder works: with longstanding colleagues, his so-called film family. Editor Bettina Böhler is another example along with actress Nina Hoss, both of whom are vital members of the clan – the director and his muses. The team made five films after his ethereal psychothriller Something to Remind Me and they are not finished yet.

The disparity of cinema and television films

Feature films with that lineup were Yella (2007) and Jericho (2008) – both with Nina Hoss – while TV movies included Dreileben – Somewhat better than Death (2011) one part of a trilogy consisting of three separate made-for-TV films, each independent but loosely connected with one another and each from a different director: Dominik Graf, Christoph Hochhäusler, Christian Petzold. It was an unusual, large-scale television liaison that was met with a controversial reception.

“The feature film used to be something special on TV. Friday evening on ARD: Der internationale Film with beautiful music by John Barry from the film Petulia (1968). These days only the private stations use the mainstream American material for prime time. Television tells its own stories. Cinema hasn’t been international on television for a while now,” says Petzold about the disparity of cinema and television films.

Barbara (Silver Bear, Berlinale 2012; Silver Lola, German Film Award 2012) is one of these kaleidoscopes of the intermediate realm and its inhabitants. Set in the DDR, Petzold’s 11th film is about Barbara (Nina Hoss), a doctor who puts in a request for a trip outside of East Germany and is subsequently banished to the countryside up on the Baltic Sea. It is basically the end of the world but in the small-town hospital she meets a doctor, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is her new boss. She soon becomes unsettled by the foreign sense of closeness between them. Primarily a love story, Barbara is one of Petzold’s most powerful films to date, not to mention one of his most emotional. Like many of the characters in his films, the protagonist here is also homeless, uprooted, she is outwardly and inwardly driven, a completely estranged person. The ghost of suspicion is everywhere here. Nobody trusts anyone when everyone could be a spy for the state. It is life in the pressure cooker, where love must takes unusual twists and turns. But as realistic and at the same time colorfully poetic as Barbara’s existence may appear, this film also lives in that haunting intermediate realm so effectively created by auteur filmmaker Christian Petzold.