Christian Petzold’s Perilous Transitions
Christian Petzold’s BARBARA builds suspense with restraint.
This story was originally published in 2012.
The German cinema that makes it to U.S. theaters these days is, like many movies nominated by their countries for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, usually large-scale, period-set, and otherwise awards-ready: Historical epics such as The Lives of Others, Downfall, and Nowhere in Africa. These prestige projects don’t represent what’s usually playing (Hollywood features aside) at German-language mainstream cineplexes, which run toward the usual, more commercial local comedies and thrillers. And they represent just one (albeit high-profile) segment of the German filmmaking seen at film festivals worldwide, which primarily consists of small, intimate, cool and concise dramas not so dissimilar to the ones made by New German Cinema’s famous game-changing filmmakers forty years ago.
That generation’s directorial stars—Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, etc.—eventually gravitated toward bigger budgets, bigger names and international co-productions. But they started out making willfully personal, modest, idiosyncratic movies that shook the dust off an industry gone complacent and unchallenging. The directors associated with the next-generation (and the generation after that) “Berlin school” are perhaps less rough-hewn in style, being better trained and having come of age in an atmosphere less divisive, less conducive to rebellion, than the 1960s and ’70s. But they, too, make uncompromising, morally ambivalent films that are primarily close character studies, even if wrapped in the exterior attributes of suspense narrative. And like that earlier group, they may (finally) be poised for an international breakthrough while still turning out movies that are viewed as somewhat “difficult” and anti-commercial even in Germany itself.
Leading that charge—though it’s hard to imagine him exactly storming any barricades—is Christian Petzold, who at fifty-three is considered a pioneer and the most esteemed of a “Berlin school” whose talents now encompass newbies less than half his age. Unlike the latter, he’s hardly been in a hurry to make his mark, having waited until his mid-thirties to make a graduation feature (1994’s Pilots) following lengthy university studies. Since then, about half his films have been television projects seldom seen abroad apart from stray film festival showings.
His theatrical features have won numerous awards yet they also have flown somewhat under the radar, at least for wide audiences. Barbara‘s relative success seems less due to any extraordinary qualities of its own than to cumulative awareness of Petzold’s skills—and those of Nina Hoss, the actress who’s become his ongoing muse. Its titular figure is a tightly wound thirty-five-ish doctor (Hoss) who’s been “exiled” from Berlin to an East German provincial hospital in 1980 as punishment for some unknown infraction. She’s stand-offish, perhaps in self-protection—she worries she’s being trailed by Stasi agents, for good reason it turns out. Laying siege to that reserve are a friendly resident physician (Ronald Zehrfeld) and a pregnant teen (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) who keeps harming herself running away from a forced labor camp for “undesirable” youth. But Barbara doesn’t want to form attachments here—she has other plans, ones that could prove highly dangerous.
There’s nary a moment amongst them one could label melodramatic—not even moments of mortal physical peril—yet the narratives’ downplayed eventfulness is quietly engrossing, and the sum impact lingers in the mind. Unlike many filmmakers with a consistent style and themes, Petzold can withstand having his works watched in close succession without their becoming repetitious. For all the cool dispassion of his surfaces, he nonetheless delivers rivetingly distinct storytelling each time out.
Petzold’s screenplay (co-written with his mentor and frequent collaborator Harun Farocki, a veteran German documentarian) has all the elements for a standard thriller: Romance, secrets, criminal intrigue, an all-powerful villain (the repressive East German state), the daily dramas of hospital life. But it plays those cards with great restraint, instead focusing on the subtler tensions in Hoss’ face as Barbara struggles to keep the emotions she’s wrestling with controlled and hidden.
The director’s most accessible prior features are cut from a similar cloth. There’s nary a moment amongst them one could label melodramatic—not even moments of mortal physical peril—yet the narratives’ downplayed eventfulness is quietly engrossing, and the sum impact lingers in the mind. Unlike many filmmakers with a consistent style and themes, Petzold can withstand having his works watched in close succession without their becoming repetitious. For all the cool dispassion of his surfaces, he nonetheless delivers rivetingly distinct storytelling each time out.
Both 2007’s Yella and the following year’s Jerichow are also set in the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik, albeit “post-Wall.” The East has had trouble catching up to the West, however, and the protagonists here can’t seem to escape the past either, economically or otherwise. Hoss’ Yella tries fleeing her violently possessive ex-husband (Hinnerk Schonemann), a failed businessman, but he can’t/won’t let her go—even, perhaps, after death. (This film has been called the last in Petzold’s “ghost trilogy.”) She gains a toehold on a new life thanks to venture capitalist Philipp (Devid Striesow). Still, the old order might not allow her re-invention, leading to a conclusion that has mystified and intrigued viewers.
Jerichow is in outline the most pulp-ish of Petzold’s films—he’s even admitted it’s based on one of the most fabled pulp fictions, James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and preserves that story’s doomed triangle. But here Thomas (Benno Furmann) isn’t a drifter but a dishonorably discharged soldier returning from Afghanistan service to his empty, forlorn rural home. He’s broke and desperate; employment opportunities are few. But a lucky accident gets him hired as driver/assistant to Ali (Hilmi Sozer), a Turkish emigre who owns 40-odd snack stands scattered around the area. Ali is a bully and a drunkard, but also pathetic and in blunt need of friendship. He’s married to the beautiful Laura (Hoss), whom he supports in style. But she still has her own load of past debt, and in some ways is her occasionally battering husband’s captive as much as his spouse. It’s typical of Petzold’s disinterest in this tale’s obvious, lurid “highlights” that the fatal attraction between Laura and Thomas takes a very long time to be consummated; it’s even longer before they hatch a “murder plot,” and then it’s almost an afterthought. Of course, nothing goes as planned. In these films, attempts to clean up a mess only end up making everything messier.
Petzold’s first big-screen feature, 2000’s The State I Am In, investigates a topic that since has become even more fascinating to German filmmakers—the legacy of those homegrown left-wing terrorists who unsuccessfully attempted to forcibly destabilize capitalist society in the 1970s and early ’80s. Hans (Richy Muller) and Clara (Barbara Auer) have been on the run from that past for 15 years—yanking their now-15-year-old daughter Jeanne (Julia Hummer) along with them on an endless furtive road trip. (This director’s characters always seem to be in perilous transition.) She’s beginning to chafe at never being able to acquire friends or other benefits of a normal, stable life. Her attraction to a German youth (Bilge Bingul) met in Portugal proves everyone’s undoing—the fraught emotional demands of adolescent first love overrule the caution that’s been pounded into her head, leaving Jeanne and her parents more vulnerable than ever to the forces of law that have chased them all along.
These fascinating movies force their characters into corners they might never get out of—yet our attention isn’t so much on the external threat as the internal struggle. Petzold has said that his first, overwhelming influence as a moviegoer and incipient movie-maker was exposure to Hitchcock. But if to the Master of Suspense actors were cattle and thrills ingeniously story-boarded gamesmanship, Christian Petzold places performers, characters, and their thought processes front and center, with the melodramatic situations stories place them in less emphasized than the very human reactions they both trigger and arise from.