Christian Petzold: Romanticizing the Past Is Wrong
A German directing star asks what we do when the idea of ‘utopia’ is lost.
Christian Petzold’s perceptiveness and eloquence are impressive as I found out when we sat down to talk during 62.Berlinale. His latest film, Barbara, is an East German (GDR)-based story of a female doctor who is punished for filing an application to emigrate by being relegated to a provincial hospital. Petzold is a star in Germany and his film was considered by many a frontrunner in the festival’s main competition. It was ultimately awarded with a Silver Bear for Best Director.
Keyframe: You’re from Berlin?
Christian Petzold: No, from Düsseldorf. I am Petzold from Düsseldorf, not a true Berliner. My parents were refugees from the GDR. They basically loved the western kind of style and freedom. There are early photographs of my father posing along a car with white-striped tires, Lucky Strike cigarette in his mouth, and the James Dean-like haircut. There are pictures of my mother in Aix-en-Provence looking at the mountains Cezanne painted. At the same time they were both homesick, not just for the images one might have in mind, the rivers and the smells, but also for socialism as the opportunity they’ve managed to escape from.
Keyframe: How real are the stereotypes about the differences between GDR (East Germany) and FRG (West Germany)?
Petzold: Of course it’s not true that the GDR could be in any way compared to North Korea, but it was not a paradise to live in either. Especially because of the fact that during the last ten years of its existence people must’ve felt awful, being aware that the country, the system, was about to collapse. You have to look at Greece and the situation there right now. People are living in a country that’s about to fall apart and what do they do? Of course there are still things that are working, like the executive, the police, supervision of the population and of course, there’s still food. But what does one do when there’s no such thing as Utopia anymore? What do lovers do when there’s no idea of Utopia any longer?
Keyframe: The presentiment of collapse can trigger a deep sense of duality. One can clearly see it in Nina Hoss’s face. Her Barbara is sweet and tender and then suddenly turns cold and hostile. Her face sharply embodies this duality that marks your whole film.
I believe that capitalism, West German-style capitalism, and East Germany-style communism, have a very tough, but loving relationship going on between them.
Petzold: My relationship with Nina Hoss has been so long, durable and a happy one, because I never try to make her implement things that I have in my head. We’d rather talk about the character. For example Barbara has to, somehow, act if she’s wearing armor all around her; she needs to draw a line, keep things apart from her. At the same time, you get a feeling she’s lonely, longing for a chance to open herself up to somebody. Basically I leave it all to Nina. She has a kind of situational intelligence that allows her to grasp the situation both physically and emotionally, and she does not actually simply express those things through acting; it is happening on the inside. This is quite the opposite of what is practiced in the advertising. There you have people expressing everything, taking it to the extreme. And it’s just the other way around with Nina.
Keyframe: In your previous film, Yella, you criticize capitalism. In Barbara, you went through the opposite political system.
Petzold: I believe that capitalism, West German-style capitalism, and East Germany-style communism, have a very tough, but loving relationship going on between them, so to speak. The western style capitalism somehow identified with the eastern form of communism and vice-versa. After the collapse of the GDR there was this brief moment of triumph but afterwards disillusion prevailed. Now it’s really hard for western-style capitalism because it has no distorting mirror to look at.
Keyframe: Your films are about past. How much is an average German interested in it?
Petzold: We are in Berlin, and it is a very unique place. An incredible mix, a city where East and West meet. You have people from various places in Germany, who, while moving here, brought their stories with them. Here there is an ongoing discussion about what’s happening—and what happened. It may not be the most beautiful, but it definitely is the most interesting place to be. In East Germany, for example, there is no work to be found, and the industry base was just done away with. In the former GDR narratives, in films, in books, the workplace, where production was happening, was where people fell in love with each other. And here in the West, it’s more like, when you’re on holidays, or in Club Mediterranee—no longer in production, but in reproduction. There is a certain sense of emptiness and I want to know how people cope with it, what kind of orientation do they get. For example, if we were to meet at the party, the first question would be ‘What do you do? What is your job?’—and that’s how people define themselves now. The question is what do people do, when they don’t have those means of self-definition. And how does it change the narrative.
Keyframe: Where do you think the fascination with past, so-called nostalgia, that inspired productions such as Goodbye, Lenin or The Lives of Others, comes from?
Petzold: These two movies are also the only ones that were financially profitable and successful, even internationally. There are not enough of them to talk about a separate genre. For a long time there was no codified way of dealing with the past GDR experiences. We were left with one comedy and one, so to speak, novel-like film. There were good documentaries, for example Thomas Heise’s, but there was no real narrative. And it somehow corresponds with the situation after the fall of the Reich and the Nazis; by no means those two can or should be compared, and to do this is not my intention. But then there were Wolfgand Staudte, Helmut Keutner… I have the impression that people in Germany don’t have the possibility to create a narrative. I started reading literature of the former GDR, especially lots of short stories. That, I think, is the proper way to approach that subject.
It’s the same emotional scheme that triggers men, who, when reaching their forties, think back about times when they were 16, and in love with that girl from their school. They start looking for her on the Internet and the worst thing they can do is going on that journey trying to reunite, meet her in real life. These men are actually trying to evoke the last moment, when, they think, they were masters of their own emotions; they had it all under control. And that should never happen; one should never romanticize the past because it automatically means simplifying it. And real remembering means leaving all the complications and details in place, where they belong.
Keyframe: Is romanticizing the past wrong?
Petzold: Always. It’s the same emotional scheme that triggers men, who, when reaching their forties, think back about times when they were 16, and in love with that girl from their school. They start looking for her on the Internet and the worst thing they can do is going on that journey trying to reunite, meet her in real life. These men are actually trying to evoke the last moment, when, they think, they were masters of their own emotions; they had it all under control. And that should never happen; one should never romanticize the past because it automatically means simplifying it. And real remembering means leaving all the complications and details in place, where they belong. When you look at the dreams you have when you’re sleeping, they’re far more interesting that what you come up with after waking up. In the former GDR there was that dream of better society that seemed to be possible at that time. Some remnants of it still exist, despite the fact it all broke down long time ago. And it’s these remnants of dreams that films should be made about.
Keyframe: Barbara has a certain universality to it. One can get a feeling it could be happening in at least couple of different places.
Petzold: I believe you’re right. I myself can understand films that come from Cambodia or Poland without ever having been to Cambodia. What I do not like are Cambodian films that try to appear as if they were made in the USA. Films may come from different places that are strange to me, but still remain universal. As long as they are not trying too hard to fit into all possible circumstances, backgrounds and cultures—then it becomes cinematic McDonald’s that tastes the same wherever you go. What’s fascinating is an an element that is alien to you, but at the same time can be understood. For example Rosselini’s Stromboli. There is a woman who falls in love with a man, but they cannot marry, because she is an architect and he a fisherman. You could place that story anywhere, in Hawaii for example.
Keyframe: Barbara is an original script. Can the main protagonist be interpreted as your alter-ego, a cinematic expression of your self?
Petzold: When I watch David Lynch or Lars von Trier I feel the same way. I went to see Mulholland Drive with my wife and after the screening she asked me whether this film was made by a woman. When I denied it, she was really surprised. The same thing applies to Von Trier. Nina Hoss is an actress who cannot be claimed, she’s not mine. There is no projection onto her, she remains a separate entity. I just hand her the material and then she says ‘goodbye’ and withdraws. She starts looking on it herself and that’s when the female perspective and element comes in. I like that, and I respect that. In earlier films I tried to control her by letting her die in the end, but this time I let go.
Anna Tatarska is a Polish film journalist, working for film.wp.pl, KINO, portalfilmowy.pl, Aktivist and Exklusiv. Another version of this interview has been previously published in Polish at portalfilmowy.