Christian Petzold’s Deceptive Surfaces
The brilliantly no-nonsense filmmaking of Christian Petzold.
[Editor’s note: Keyframe republishes this 2012 video essay as Christian Petzold’s latest, Phoenix, is set to hit theaters.]
If one wants to call Christian Petzold the most important German filmmaker of the last decade, it’s because his films operate on multiple levels whose complexities lie just beneath a deceptively simple surface.
On a basic level, his recent films, like Yella, Jerichow, and Dreileben: Beats Being Dead, work as entertaining dramas centered on themes of sex, greed, and loyalty. The major characters are all driven by the desire for a better life, and they give each film a restless, seeking energy. But they find themselves caught between different worlds. In Yella, a woman from economically depressed eastern Germany seeks a promising career in western venture capital, but the past catches up with her in the form of her estranged, down-on-his-luck husband. In Jerichow, an unemployed ex-soldier finds work with a Turkish businessman, only to fall for his German wife. In Beats Being Dead, an ambitious medical intern with falls in love with a working class Bosnian refugee.
With these stories Petzold explores the class and ethnic conflicts that permeate modern Germany, but what’s fascinating is how he presents these issues by using elements from classic movie genres. You would think it would be ill-advised to incorporate old forms to depict 21st-century social issues, but the results create an exciting new dynamic between how movies shape reality and vice versa. Jerichow adapts the love triangle from the ’40s crime classic The Postman Always Rings Twice, giving it new meaning within the hardboiled realities of post-Communist Eastern Germany. Yella is patterned after the 1962 cult horror movie Carnival of Souls, whose dreamlike storyline turns the high-tech world of German finance into an out-of-body experience. And the throwback romance of Beats Being Dead recalls ’50s teen melodramas like A Summer Place, but now drained of sentimentality and distilled into a purely cinematic language of looks.
With these stories Petzold explores the class and ethnic conflicts that permeate modern Germany, but what’s fascinating is how he presents these issues by using elements from classic movie genres.
Petzold’s no-nonsense directing defines the look and feel of his films. Actors never play to the camera; they are often filmed looking away, or walking at middle distance within their surroundings, so that the world around them is given equal consideration. Emotions are played below the surface, creating a tension between what characters are feeling and showing. The highly composed quality of this world creates an analytic distance, prompting you to coolly contemplate its construction even as the drama pulls you in.
It is a world of appearances that reflects our own world as well. People control and are controlled by what they show and what they see. Their actions reveal their values, assumptions, and judgments of others. A small, throwaway gesture can unleash a storm of underlying meanings. It’s a world where people are bewildered by their circumstances and the rules of engagement governing their fate, a strange and dangerous dance to the rhythms of modern life. They, and we, must constantly assess and reassess each situation from one moment to the next, trying to move forward while the world moves out from underneath.