Article from the Goethe Institut
.In the Realm of the Shades: Christian Petzold’s Films
Christian Petzold, native son of provincial Germany, paints a very precise picture of small-town life in his films: witness his latest, “Jerichow”, which hit German cinemas in early 2009.
If one had to say what’s distinctive about Christian Petzold’s films, it might be that he gives a more exact picture of Germany than anyone else. You can’t helping feeling that, if in a hundred ears someone wanted to know what it was like here at the beginning of the millennium, all they’d have to do is watch Die innere Sicherheit or Gespenster, Yella or Jerichow. And that’s like as not the reason why he’s the only German director whose every motion picture has been screened at major festivals, whether at the Berlinale or the Venice Biennale, which focus more than other festivals on films that are somehow edifying, somehow revealing, about their country of origin.Searching for his own angle on the world
So Petzold’s own provenance may signify: he was born in Hilden, North Rhine-Westphalia, in 1960, and grew up in neighbouring Haan: two small towns between Düsseldorf and Solingen, in his own words “a petty-bourgeois in-between part of Germany sectioned up into terraced houses and housing estates, a dormitory suburb with a big junction box and a pond at the town library where you sit on the bench with a couple beers of an evening and tell stories.” He says he’s always been interested in exploring what it means to have spent his youth there and searching for his own angle on the world and on life.
At least that was reason enough for him to head off for Berlin at 20 to study at the German Academy of Film and Television (Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie, dffb), graduating in 1994 with a TV movie called Pilotinnen (“Pilots”). Had the movie reached more than just a TV audience, Petzold’s exceptional talent would have been spotted back then: it tracks two travelling perfume saleswomen of different ages trying to hold on to their dreams between cheap hotels, roadhouses and small town drugstores. What was new about the picture was not the focus on the dreariness of their everyday existence, but a curiosity about living conditions that tend to get sketchy treatment, at best, in other German films. After two more pictures for television, Cuba Libre and Die Beischlafdiebin, Petzold made the breakthrough into the world of German cinema – and to the Venice Biennial with Die innere Sicherheit (“The Inner Security” aka “The State I Am In”).The ghost of terrorism
That was back in 2000, and the film did a brilliant job of bridging the chasm between the Neuer Deutscher Film (New German Cinema), which in the 1970s had made no bones of its sympathies for the RAF (Red Army Faction), and the present age, in which terrorism can be viewed in historical perspective. “The State I Am In”, about a terrorist couple who go underground in Portugal, is told from the viewpoint of their daughter, who yearns for nothing more than the normal life of a teenager. Petzold was the first to call the ghost of terrorism by its proper name, something a whole generation of German filmmakers before him had shrunk from doing, and he encapsulated it in the story of a family seeking a place to call home between the legacy of Germany’s past and present-day German reality in the new millennium.
In his subsequent TV feature, Toter Mann (“Dead Man” aka “Something to Remind Me”), Petzold pays homage to Helmut Käutner’s forgotten masterpiece Unter den Brücken (“Under the Bridges”), which attempted a kind of flight from Nazi reality into poetic realism in the penultimate year of the war. And that Petzold’s his first picture with Nina Hoss, who was to become his leading lady and his muse of sorts.
In Wolfsburg she confronts the hit-and-run driver who ran over her son, but for Petzold the drama is not more important than the setting – hence his refusal to move the story to Ingolstadt to get federal funding: he was interested in the special atmosphere in the test-tube town of Wolfsburg, its drawing-board architecture that strives to find just the right procrustean form for everyday life, which is constantly eluding it, however, whether through a tragic accident or otherwise.Homeless spirits
The “in-between Germany” Petzold conjures up is by no means a wilful fabrication, but the real lie of the land once you get past its tourist sights. But German filmmakers generally avoid these parts of the country, where there is supposedly nothing to see: only Petzold feels at home in this “in-between” realm, which provides the ideal backdrop for his homeless spirits.
So it is in Gespenster (“Ghosts”), in which his heroines find an unlikely home in the surreal architecture of Potsdamer Platz. Or in Yella, set in depopulated Eastern Germany, whose anonymous hotel and office buildings provide a home for a woman who is no longer of this world. Or now in Jerichow, which replays the story of Visconti’s Ossessione between currywurst stands and the Baltic Sea strand in the deserted town of Prignitz. Nina Hoss – in the lead once again – plays a woman who, to escape a shady past, weds an older Turkish small-time businessman – only to fall for a younger man, whom she then lures into committing murder. A drama of passion at first glance – but on closer scrutiny we find it is the landscape that tells the real story: windswept Prignitz in-between Berlin and the Baltic.
And so Christian Petzold wends his solitary way through this “in-between” land of the shades, which he treats with touching and trenchant tenderness – though it is always a matter of life and death.Michael Althen (1962–2011)
worked as film editor for the German newspaper FAZ and directed the film “Auge in Auge - Eine deutsche Filmgeschichte” (with Hans Helmut Prinzler).
Translation: Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion