Christian Petzold's fantastic new film Barbara opens in the US on December 21, after garnering critical acclaim; Petzold won the Best Director award at Berlin International Film Festival this year and the film is the German entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. It was exciting to talk to one of the key figures in new German cinema at NYFF this past September.ScreenAnarchy: I have to admit that I wasn't really
familiar with new German cinema until recently. My idea of German
cinema always has been that of the 60s and 70s by directors like
Schlendörff, Fassbinder and Wenders.
Christian Petzold: That's also my
experience. That's the time I was brought up. Back then we never went to
see a German film in theaters. When we did, it must've been to see Jaws
or something like that. My first 70s
German movie experience happened to be Alice in the Cities
Wenders, partly shot in Wuppertal, the town I grew up in and the music
by one of my favorite bands, Can. It was my town and my music! But it
was a kind of strange reflection of Germany I knew in the seventies.
That was the movie that opened my eyes for the first time.
Wenders later on and I told him my story. He told me that Germans are
always attracted to something that is very close to them yet strange. I
think GDR (East Germany) is just that- very close and very strange.Far away, so close.
is very interesting because when you think of Wim Wenders's films and
the current crop of German films, Berlin School if you will, there is this
ongoing theme of transient life: people are always going somewhere or
they are forced to move. I mean, in BARBARA, it's the same. She is being
punished for trying to go to the West, so she is sent to a small town ...
But there is a difference. The thing you just brought up is very interesting. I'm sorry but now it's on my mind...No, please go ahead.
the 70s, everyone was rich in Germany. We thought that we've won 68' and we thought we could change the society...
Films by directors
like Wenders- when they are on the road; they are on the road
not because of economic reasons or pressure. They are like Novalis or
Hölderlin. They are on the road because they are romantics.
is a connection to the 70s in Berliner Schule (Berlin School)
movies but people are not on the road because they are looking for
something. They are on the run; they are migrant workers or refugees.
They can't stay in one place.There
is also a theme in your movies that is in relation to the 60s and 70s. More of a reaction I should say. With the social upheaval of
that time, the traditional family structure had broken down. In your
movies there is a yearning for this ideal family life. Usually it's a
mother figure in your films that is needed - Barbara somehow ends up as a
mother figure to the young girl who ran away from the labor camp. That
theme also plays a pivotal role in GESPENSTER (Ghosts).
interesting. When we made Die Innere Sicherheit
(The State I Am In
2000, the metaphor was something to do with the sea. Say, there is a
shipwreck, and people are scrounging up to build a raft out of what's
left over. Since 2000, all my movies are about this structural collapse
(both economic and familial) and people trying to build a lifeboat to
survive. So what's happening on the raft? In Barbara
, there isn't a
father figure anymore. There is no love (at least for now) between the
doctors. In Ghosts
, the woman is not the girl's mother. All these
films, they are trying to rebuild something you can live with, out of
the ruins. Obviously we can't rebuild, say, Russia. The capitalist
system is in the ruins. Fascists tried to nationalize the whole world
and failed, we can't blame our woes saying Greeks are lazy and Muslims
are the enemies and so on. We have to find little survival structures
and I think that's what my movies are about.It's
amazing how complex your movies are. At a first glance, they are
full-on melodramas and don't seem political at all. But more and more I
think about it, it is very political and everything's got to do with the
German society. And it fascinates me, especially BARBARA.
something to do with me being a novelist. But making film is different. Not everything that you see on screen
is on my mind when I write a script. I'm not Orson Welles. The film you
see is not the realization of what's in my head. I have an open, short
story and the group of people I work with, the (acting) ensemble, the
team (crew), we discuss it for weeks before the shooting begins - we go on long walks and to libraries together. The whole team and the actors, we
go to cinema together ten times. For instance, Jerichow
, about this
Turkish immigrant worker, who tries hard to be a German, by reaching
that German Dream - fantastic cars, a big house and a beautiful wife. But
he becomes stranger and stranger still. Very melodramatic. It's not
based on a novel that I've written. But it was born out of our
collective, as we built upon it. You realize how the political side of
it is scurrying around just beneath the surface, that our collective
work makes everything not too in the face. But to have that kind of
result, it takes a lot of work and time.That leads me the next topic. Nina Hoss. What an amazing performance!
is so disappointed that she can't be in New York. I think, in two
hours, she needs to be on stage in Hamburg. You know, theater in Germany
is very important. In Germany, film is like a dilapidated house and theater is like our Parliament. It's the culture: the distinctions
between the two disciplines are very big. I hate that. But she is the
most famous actress on stage in Germany right now. She really hates not
being here but like Barbara, she can't leave. (laughs)She
is really amazing. From what I've read about you, you make a big
distinction between what is written (script) and actual filming process.
That your filmmaking is all about communication. So when you are not
rolling the camera, you are constantly talking to each other?
For our first meeting (for Barbara
), we met at this fantastic loft
building and everybody was sitting there and I talked for three hours. I was really exhausted. I don't think I talk too
much but others have different opinions about that. (laughs) I told them
the chronology of the project - how I found the story, what I thought
about it, what I've made in the last half years, what music I listened
to when I was writing it. Chopin... why I used Chopin's Nocturne because
in The Deer Hunter
by Cimino, this barkeeper plays Nocturne when Walken
and De Niro and others are all lying around there in the bar. They hear
Chopin, mind you that they are all working class steel mill workers. Their lives
destroyed by the war and for that little moment while listening to
Chopin, they realize something. But it's too late. And around the same
is set in 1980) in GDR, Barbara's playing the same music.
But she is playing it like a weapon to keep those Stasi police away. So
I put on a Pollini's Nocturne CD and we listened the whole thing together.
These are the things I love so much.That's really fantastic.
It is not a typical film shoot. I consider it as a collective.I've got to ask you about the Rembrandt painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr.
Nicolaes Tulp. I totally get that it is the reflection of the character
André as he shows Barbara the painting. He made a mistake and he is
pointing to something else to evade the eyes of authorities. But the
whole time I was thinking that you were saying something about the folly
Yeah, it is a metaphor for Communism.So I wasn't wrong about that. How did putting that Rembrandt in the film come about?
read a book Rings of Saturn by Sebald. In the novel, he is thinking
about this Rembrandt. For him, Rembrandt is criticizing the Age of
Reason- Descartes, Kant, "We are now the owner of our fate," "We build
our own society." attitude. And we got it for free without violent
upheavals like the French Revolution. But we lost something on the way- faith, respect
and so on. In this picture by Rembrandt, there is a group of scientists
who haven't got any empathy nor sense for the complexity of life,
but just looking at the anatomy book with pictures. For them the world
has to be like the pictures. That kind of thinking creates violence. Communism is the direct result of Descartes and Kant, so as our current
capitalistic society.That's exactly right.Right
now new German cinema is not really well known in the States. A
good friend of mine introduced me to your work and other German
directors' films. So that's how I found out about Berlin School. But
their films are not really available even though I want people to know and
watch these films.
Yeah, there will be a big retrospective
of Berlin School next year at MoMA. I just had a lunch with the curator
there. It will be in September some time.That's great. I'll definitely cover that.
Let me give you an example: Kelly Richardt's, Meek's Cutoff
fantastic movie. I think it's the best Western I've seen in years. We
have two cinemas playing that in entire Germany. We have about five cinemas
playing a Gus Van Sant movie. Yes, Americans don't know about Berlin
School but I think there is a crisis in cinema internationally. There is
no relationship anymore that existed in cinema in the 30s, 40s, 50s,
and 60s or even in the 70s- Truffaut was in a Spielberg movie and
Arthur Penn got to direct Bonnie and Clyde
because Truffaut hadn't had
the time. They were in connection. They were looking at each other's
work. When an American director met a German director, they talked about
movies. This relationship was interrupted at some point. And it's not
the fault of the directors but this big industrial structure we call the
film industry. American companies own all movie theaters in Germany, so
they have 800 theaters playing this and 800 theaters playing that. There
is no room or time for small films. I read a lot about some great American movies
but I can't see them. Margaret
was a fantastic movie but you can't see
it in Germany. You have to buy DVD online. We have all these resources,
we really have to open the channels again and communicate with each
other.Would you ever consider doing an American production if you were asked?
They did ask me two times now. But I don't know anything about America really. I've read Howard Zinn's book...People's History of the United States?
and I grew up in this Americanized culture but I'm still a German. I
don't really know how to tell the story there other than maybe the Germans
in America. But as far as doing an American film, I don't really see it happening.You are not going Hollywood and do big movies as Tom Tykwer does?
goal has never been Hollywood. I'm dreaming of the new Hollywood. I don't live in the 50s. I'm not a retro man. I envision all these great small movies in
the ruins of Hollywood.Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com