Friday, January 24, 2020

Post-Wall Cinema of Christian Petzold: The Berlin School and Beyond

Post-Wall Cinema of Christian Petzold: The Berlin School and Beyond - Mapping Germany’s Past, Present and Future

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Gespenster/Ghosts (2004) is a great introduction for getting into the world of German director Christian Petzold. The film’s cold and unforgiving atmosphere, daring split narrative structure, economy of its camera movements and edits, the acute representation of its female protagonists’ disconnection and loneliness, comments on Germany’s political & cultural landscape and collective German psyche in the post-wall neo-liberal Germany. With his latest, 15th feature length film Transit, getting a wide distribution in the States in 2019, I decided to examine the impact his films have made in modern German cinema and his representation of Germany’s past, present – both east and west, and future through 4 specific films from his filmography. 

68er Studentenprotest Debatte Generation
In order to talk about Christian Petzold’s films and the Berlin School, in which he is considered as one of the key figures, one needs to talk about 68er Bewegung/German Student Movement of 1968. Around 1966, fueled by violent police crackdown and encouraged by other student protests across the globe, German university students, dissatisfied with the conservative, authoritarian policies of those in power (many of them from Nazi era), began organizing massive sit-ins and street demonstrations which started in Freie Universität Berlin/Free University Berlin, then spread around the country. They were rallying against the silence for the US imperial war in Vietnam, restrictions on civil rights and press and enacting authoritarian laws, which was seen as the revival of fascism. The protests peaked in May 1968 with massive demonstrations resulting in the death of 2 students and declined after the coalition government passed the Emergency Acts, which gave a power to the government to curb any dissident activities during national emergencies. This is also the time when New German Cinema was formed. Getting their inspiration from French New Wave and British New Wave, New German cinema strove for reflecting politically and artistically meaningful subjects and rebuffed the standard film production process. Its directors such as Alexander Kluge, Harun Farocki, Hartmut Bitomski, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Magarette von Trotta and many others projected their frustrations over artistic and political stagnation in the midst of the economic miracle, which was built on the backs of migrant labor. But however invigorating and thought provoking New German Cinema movement appeared to be, its legacy, made up a handful of internationally revered auteurs, was overshadowed by its financial failure and the fact it was mostly ignored domestically in favor of commercially viable albeit mediocre films. With strong influence of private and public television companies and the proliferation of home videos, the enthusiastic spirit of New German cinema had all but died out by mid-80s. 

What came after that was so called “cinema of consensus”, termed by scholar Eric Rentschler. He argued that the vast majority of German film productions in the nineties consisted of light fare meant to please and placate audiences. This trend toward uncomplicated storylines with agreeable resolutions becomes all the more prominent if one compares German cinema of the nineties with that of the seventies. Rentschler applauded New German Cinema directors who in the seventies “interrogated images of the past in the hope of refining memories and catalyzing changes.” By contrast, Rentschler saw contemporary German cinema as lacking “oppositional energies and critical voices.” A decade went by which saw the fall of the Berlin wall and the directors who were born in the 60s came of age. 

Christian Petzold with Harun Farocki

The Berlin School is considered the most significant film movement in Germany since the New German cinema. The first wave of its directors including Angela Schanelec (b.1962), Thomas Arslan (b.1962) and Petzold (b.1960) all attended Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin/The German Film and TV Academy Berlin (DFFB). It’s name, the Berlin School, first coined by film critic Merten Worthmann in describing Schanelec’s Passing Summer (2001) and later critics at Cahier du cinéma started grouping them as Nouvelle Vague Allemande, the Berlin School is loosely connected group of filmmakers (the second wave of Berlin School directors don’t necessarily come from DFFB) who were countering what mainstream German cinema had become- the cinema of consensus. They’ve been working in each other’s projects and constantly in communication through interviews and publications (Revolver - an influential film magazine, founded by the second wave directors of the movement, Christoph Hochhäusler and Benjamin Heisenberg, which gave the Berlin School its further legitimization in the industry). Their films are not easily defined and can’t be readily be explained with few words, but the main theme these filmmakers are grappling with in the post-wall Germany is “sehnsucht” (longing)- a longing for Germany that never materialized under neoliberal capitalism. The Berlin School, in effect, is ‘reseeing’ Germany without being tied to its war past, without exploiting history. It’s the ‘here and now’ of unified Germany. Even though the Berlin School’s output doesn’t very much resemble those of New German Cinema and by the disciples of Oberhausen Manifesto, a declaration of 26 young German filmmakers to establish ‘a new German feature film” in 1962. I would argue that the connection between New German Cinema and the Berlin School runs deeper than both just countering mainstream cinema. There is definitely a strong leftwing political lineage, if not in teacher-student relations (Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky were DFFB Faculty), but in films of Petzold, Ulrich Köhler, Christoph Hochhäusler and many others the fighting spirit of counter cinema, as Köhler articulates that the job of art is not to be political (qua content) but to produce politically.

Although many critics emphasized the Berlin School’s presentist and realist approach, Petzold has been concerned with history in various ways throughout his filmography. With his last three films, Barbara which takes place in East Germany in the 80s, Phoenix, set in the aftermath of WWII and Transit, set in the near future/parallel present where Europe is in the grip of Fascist German regime once again, Petzold, unlike his compatriots of the Berlin School, does not shy away from Germany’s ugly past and finds new and innovative approaches to address the same inquiry – unfulfilled desire of finding a collective utopia that is ‘Deutschland’. By approaching Petzold’s four films in the years they were released rather than historical timeline, we gain insight to Petzold the filmmaker, evolving over time as a writer/director: 

die innere sicherheit
The first feature Petzold directed outside TV, Die innere Sicherheit (2000) tells a story of a young girl named Jeanne whose parents belong to the far-left militant organization (unsaid in the film, but most likely Red Army Faction; RAF). This was a breakout film by a filmmaker from the Berlin School and garnered a critical and commercial success for the first time. When the film starts, this nuclear family is on the run in Greece. Always extremely cautious of their surroundings – in colorless attire, not trusting anyone, constantly on the move in their comfy confines of their white Volvo, they lead voluntarily invisible lives. Jeanne has lived on the road all her life, thus never experienced a ‘normal life’. Now that she is a teenager, she questions her predicament for the first time. She wants to attend school. She wants to ‘hang out’ at the mall and buy new clothes. She wants to fall in love. She wants to do and be like any other girl her age in a neo-liberal, capitalist society. She rebels against her parents even though she understands that there is no way she would ever leave her parents. They are the only family she’s known. After finding out the bundle of money in Deutsch Marks they just dug up from the hidden place where their comrades had buried long ago is too old and rendered useless in the time of Euros, they decide to rob a bank. Despite the screwed up the situation, Jeanne has no choice but to stick with them. There is a heartbreaking scene that takes place in their Volvo: Jeanne’s parents find out that she fell in love with a boy her age during one of their stops, that she might have spilled too much information about who they are. Now Jeanne is a liability. The parents decide to ditch her with some relatives. They justify it by saying that it’s time she needs to lead a normal life. Jeanne protests back, “You decide that after 9 years? You shouldn’t have had me then! You can't take that back now!” When she pleads that she will never love anyone again, the parents relent. Perhaps it’s because deep down, Jeanne knows the contemporary life in West Germany is superficial and there is no meaning to any of it. She understands that her parents, who have been violently resisting the status quo of capitalism since the 68er Bewegung, are right ultimately, even though her young life is wrecked. Again, like in many of the Berlin School films, the atmosphere is bleak and claustrophobic. Edit in the cuts are almost brutal, accentuating the fact that the family is always on the run and their emotions are in check. Julia Hummer, a young actress who also shines in Gespenster, embodies the angst of a new generation stuck between the ideals of the generation before her in the neoliberal capitalist society, forever vacillating where to put her allegiance. Der innere Sicherheit does, like Petzold’s other films before and after it, examine sensucht, the longing for that unrealized utopia in West Germany.

Barbara (2012) marks Petzold’s first deviation from presentist tendencies of the Berlin School. It is set in 1980 in East Germany, which was 9 years before the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s his first ‘period film’ depicting the life under German Democratic Republic (GDR)- the place of his parents. He himself never experienced growing up. It’s an entirely “A-picture” according to Christoph Höchhausler, a fellow filmmaker of the Berlin School and admirer. But the film is not a scathing indictment of the failed socialist state that was GDR. It depicts people, despite limited mobility and freedom, who try to find their sense of home as its title character chooses to do at the end of the film. And unlike German heritage films of the 90s, in which periodic details and costumes overshadow its political implications of the past, Barbara doesn’t feel like it’s a period film. Petzold’s view of the East is not a vilified view of the nightmarish failed state as it is often depicted. It’s a melodrama with the “slow realism”. 
True to the Berlin School aesthetics, the film relies on unconstructed reality of effervescent beauty of everyday life. Barbara (played here by Nina Hoss) is a city doctor who gets banished to the country as a punishment when she applies for her exit visa to go west. All the while planning her escape to the west into the arms of her wealthy West German lover. 
She meets a young, good-natured fellow doctor Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld). He slowly wins her trust with his talent and sincerity. It turns out that he shares a similar history. There is a mutual attraction between them growing but things get a little more complicated when Stella, a teen runaway from a nearby labor camp is admitted to the hospital. She immediately latches on to Barbara. The official policy is to send her back to the camp as soon as she is well. As the planned escape date approaches, Barbara's personal ethics and morality are being challenged. 

Petzold elegantly uses a famous painting to drive the point home in the middle of Barbara. Andre uses Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp as an analogy for what it's like to be living under communist regime in the 1980s: you want to divert the attention of the spectators (or in this case, of nosy government officials) to obtain a little bit of relief/freedom in a rigid society which applies to Barbara's situation as well. The painting depicts the picture of the corpse of Aris Kindt, a convicted felon laying on the autopsy table, and Dr. Tulp explaining the musculature of the dead man’s denuded right hand (as opposed to the left, to be anatomically correct) to other medical professionals. Their gazes are fixed upon the opened anatomical textbook presented in the far corner of the painting, not on their subject, the dead man or his wrong hand. In a broader sense, Andre, knowingly or not, is showing the unrealized promise of socialist utopia – the gazes are fixed on the textbook and not on the subject, suggesting the GDR’s socialist theory neglected its own people.

If Barbara was considered a period film, then Phoenix (2015), taking place just after World War II, takes the cake for being the real period film and ‘heritage picture’ (historical drama) in all of Petzold’s work. It’s a clean break from his insistence throughout all his filmography focusing his cinematic gaze on the present rather than past. The film is also unabashedly a genre cinema. Like many of the Berlin School filmmakers, Petzold is known for his use of genre filmmaking mould to tell stories. Yella (2007) is his take on American obscure indie horror Carnival of Souls (1962) and Jerichow (2008) is a reimagining of James M. Cain’s noir Postman Always Rings Twice. He once said in an interview, “I have the feeling that I make films in the cemetery of genre cinema, from the remainders that are still there for the taking.” He willfully contributes his talents to directing TV crime series Polizeiruf 110 and professed his love for Hollywood heist genre fare like Den of Thieves (2018) at a Transit screening Q & A session in New York. Taking obvious cues from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1959), Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage (1947), Phoenix is a noir/melodrama to the highest degree. Clocking in at a very lean 98 minutes, the film revolves around a concentration camp survivor named Nelly, played once again by Nina Hoss, in her sixth collaboration with the director. Nelly returns to Berlin, now occupied by American GIs, with the aid of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a case worker for the newly established Jewish State, who keeps urging Nelly to leave Germany and go to Palestine, and start anew as soon as her bandages come off. Badly disfigured by a gunshot to the head in the camp, Nelly is told by doctors to choose any face for reconstruction or 'recreation' - perhaps a face of a movie siren or to be a different person altogether. Despite the urging of others, Nelly insists on having her old face back. Even though she was told that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld of Barbara) gave her up in order to save his own skin, Nelly can't stop searching for him, for she still loves him. In the film, they were a famous musical duo before the war, Nelly a chanteuse and Johnny a piano player. Her search for him leads to Phoenix, a cabaret where Johnny now works as a busboy. She is shattered when he doesn't recognize her. But there is enough of a passing resemblance that triggers Johnny to enact his scheme: he wants Nelly, now Esther, to pretend to be his wife who miraculously survived the camp and is now back, so as to get money from her estate (he secretly divorced her right before her arrest). Still deeply in love with Johnny, she goes along, keeping her emotions in check, pretending to learn old Nelly's behaviors, speech and writing (or just being herself), in order to see if he recognizes her in time. This might need a total suspension of disbelief from the audience, but in Petzold's assured hands, its melodrama is kept to a minimum.

Petzold plays around with the idea of forced forgetfulness. After the atrocious war, many Germans wanted to erase its shameful history from their minds. It's Nelly and Lene who can't let go. Once she reemerges, she asks Johnny how to answer when the others ask about the camp. Johnny simply tells her, "They won't." But it's as if Johnny doesn't want to recognize her, even though she is right in front of him - buried and gone. At first, it's very hard to believe that a woman as striking as Hoss, with her penetrating blue eyes and sharp cheekbones, would be unrecognizable to anyone despite the disfigurement. Petzold's regular theme of loss of identity also plays a big role here. Nelly never had to be conscious of being Jewish before, but Nazi Germany made her do so, in a drastic way. She literally loses her face, but she longs for her old self even though she learns along the way that nothing is the same anymore. With these heady ideas in the background, the film moves along in its stunningly economic pace, without sacrificing beautiful period details or complexities of characters. In preparation for Nelly's comeback from the dead (to legitimize the inheritance), Johnny divulges about how his neighbors and friends turned away from them once Nelly was being hunted by the Nazis. The film perfectly builds up to its emotionally cathartic ending. 

Phoenix further shows Petzold’s direct confrontation with Germany’s past, using the B-movie genre mold. He digs up the sensitive subject of collective guilt and forgetfulness and challenges of the rise of white nationalism in post-wall, supposedly cosmopolitan Germany. The film is further evidence that the filmmaker is charting new territory and away from the establishing tenet of the Berlin School.

Based on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers on her experience in France under Nazi Occupation, Transit (2019) is another first in growing Petzold filmography. It is a film not originally written by the writer/director. It transposes its premise to modern day/near future Maseilles, again being under the Fascist Germany. With the rise of authoritarian right wing regimes and their nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigrant sentiments across Europe and everywhere, it is frightening to think that this film is not a far-fetched scenario. This time Petzold uses a sci-fi/noir mold to paint people who are again, on the run, pushed by outside forces. Georg (Franz Rogowski) is asked to deliver letters to Weidel, a writer of some importance in Paris. It's a dangerous mission- there are police raids daily and it's harder to get around on the street without constantly being asked for proper papers. Everyone knows a major raid is about to go down soon: there are people being dragged away in the streets by the heavily armed authorities- 'the purge' is at hand. But with some money promised, Georg is up to the challenge. But once he gets to Paris, he finds that the famed writer has committed suicide, leaving his documents and the latest manuscript behind. With others urging to take a sick Arab man to Marseilles and notify the Mexican consulate of the death of Weidel, Georg hops on the train to the now occupied port city. Petzold brilliantly equates this dystopian scenario with the current Syrian refugee crises. He also alludes the holocaust using trains as a human transport. The letters reveal that Weidel was promised a safe passage with his wife Marie (Paula Beer of Franz) to go to Mexico and that she will be waiting for him in Marseilles. Once he arrives at Marseilles, he reluctantly assumes the identity of Weidel, makes friends with an Arab immigrant boy whose dad (the sick man) he accompanied on the journey died on the way. He also sees Marie everywhere, scouring the city for her husband, day in and day out. She is involved with Richard, a doctor who has put his departure on hold because he doesn't want to leave her behind. No one wants to be the one who leaves. These characters are stuck, going around in circles, trapped by love, by the sense of loyalty or simply by human decency.

Transit's got a lot to do with guilty conscience: Guilt of leaving someone behind. Guilt of forgetting. Guilt of being indifferent. In this, the film is a great companion piece to Phoenix. It also is in line with Petzold's usual themes - people in transit, state of uncertainty caused by an outside force, by something bigger than an individual and again, the question of identity. Even though Petzold again uses the noir/sci-fi mold for his narrative, being an adaptation from the 40s, it resembles strongly of Nouveau Roman writers' works and feels closer to Alain Resnais’ contemplation on memories and forgetfulness.

Looking over the course of Petzold’s mid-career filmography, there are unmissable thematic consistencies coursing through all his work. Although he shares many similar themes with fellow filmmakers of the Berlin School, he deviates from presentist tendencies of the School and actively, engages in inquiries about what it means to be German into past and future. Petzold might be the fiercest and bravest of the bunch. Mapping Germany from east to west and from past to present and future, Christian Petzold continues to distinguish himself not only as a gifted storyteller but also as a keen observer of German history. 

Sources Consulted

Abel, Marco. ​The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School​. Boydell and Brewer, 2013: ​1-28, 69-110

Baute, Michael, Ekkhard Knrer, Volker Pantenberg, Stefan Pethke and Simon Rothhler​. “​The Berlin School - A Collage.​” Senses of Cinema, ​Issue 55 (July 2010) a-collage-2/

Cook, Roger. “The Texture of History: Petzold’s Barbara and The Lives of Others.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017)

Fisher, Jaimey. “Petzold’s Phoenix, Fassbinder’s Maria Braun, and the Melodramatic Archaeology of the Rubble Past.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017)

Fisher, Jaimey, Marco Abel. “Christian Petzold: A Dossier.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017)

Hjort, Mette, Scott MacKenzie eds. Cinema and nation. London; New York: Routledge, 2000: 260-278

Hochhäusler, Christoph. “The Protestant Method.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September 2017)

O’Brien, Mary-Elizabeth. ​Post-Wall German Cinema and National History: Utopianism and Dissent.​ Boydell and Brewer, 2012.

Petzold, Christian. “The Cinema of Identification Gets on my Nerves: An Interview with Christian Petzold.” by Marco Abel, Cineaste, Vol 33, No 3 (2008)

Prager, Brad. “No Time Like the Present: The Edges of the World in Christian Petzold’s Barbara.” Senses of Cinema, Issue 84 (September, 2017)

Roy, Rajendra and Anke Leweke. ​The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule​. Museum of Modern Art, 2013