In the films of Christian Petzold, space is subordinate to time. This is not because space is mutable and subject to renovation or demolition whereas time keeps ticking along into eternity. Rather, it is because Petzold’s work is abound with bodies and objects that belong to another, drifting alterity. Temporality and historicity are always in question, forces whose various conflicts and tensions with the contemporary moment drive bold re-imaginings. The material settings form a disorientating labyrinth in which short-term salvation glimmers.
Characters drive from locale to locale; rushing from anonymous office buildings to equally nondescript hotels and back again. In Transit (2018), the exiled Georg (Franz Rogowski) travels to occupied Marseille, leading him to adopt the identity of a dead author. The family in The State I Am In (2000) is perpetually on the go because to stop moving would mean capture or death. This state of flux effectively removes the characters from their present. Eroticism in Petzold’s films tends to assume the guise of yet more searching through a maze. Love is presented as a means to transcend rootlessness; a kind of lure leading into the delirium of time and place being out of joint. Romantic unison represents the promise of impossible reconciliation: the potential to return to something that once or never was. In Phoenix (2014), the character of Nelly clings to a farcical marriage and her life before the devastation of the Second World War. The teenage daughter of The State I Am In, dabbles in puppy love with a Beach Boys-loving boy, propelling her back into the potential fold of normality after a life spent with terrorist parents in hiding.
Sex operates as a transaction necessary for continued membership in society, another piece of paper to present at the checkpoint to assure temporarily safe passage. Seldomly portrayed as having to do with pleasure, sex is instead a kind of desperate metaphysical hunger for connection. The characters’ desires are inextricably bound up with the essential tragedy of their status as history’s passive ghosts, perpetually riding, as the titular protagonist of Yella (2007) does, in the passenger seat of a car barrelling off the side of a bridge.
Dan Sullivan: I wanted to begin by asking about your new film, Undine (2020), which you’ve nearly completed. As I understand, you introduce mythology. The elements of fire, water, wind, earth and space figure thematically – could you elaborate on what the film is?
Christian Petzold: It’s based on a very old romantic legend from the 18th and 19th centuries, from Germany. Ondine is the name of this mythological figure in France, and in Germany, it’s ‘Undine,’ which is also the title of the movie. The story is about a man who falls in love with a woman, and the woman doesn’t want him. In this legend, the man gets into a very depressive state, and he goes into the forest, and in the forest, there’s a little lake, and in this lake lives the very beautiful, naked nymph Undine. When he shouts her name, she comes out of the water, naked and beautiful, and says, ‘OK, I’m yours forever, and we can marry. But if you cheat me or find another girl and leave me, I will kill you.’ Then, she has to go back into the water. Thousands of times she has come out of the water to find a man, and it’s always the same situation. As soon as this man has found a companion in Undine, the original woman who couldn’t love him suddenly becomes interested in him. So, he wants to go back to the first woman, and he betrays Undine, who must now kill him. She murders him on his wedding night, coming to his room in a bubble of water and taking him into the water until he drowns. And then she says this fantastic sentence: ‘I teared him to death.’ Then she has to go back into the lake. This is the legend.
My movie is about Undine nowadays, in contemporary Germany. She’s working at the museum of Berliner history, and a man betrays her and she has to kill him. The ancient legend ensnares her. She has to kill but doesn’t want to: this is her position in the movie.
Dan: So, then this film will mark a return to the present day for you? After the recent cycle of period films.
Christian: That’s right, I’m coming back to our contemporary life. But in this contemporary life, the myths of the past are acting upon us.
Dan: Your oeuvre is divided into several subcategories. One is the ‘Love in the Time of Oppressive Systems,’ comprised of Barbara (2012), Phoenix and Transit. I’d like to talk about these in particular. It was interesting how, after you’d made a number of films set in the present, you then turned back to the past, and you also turned to melodrama. I was curious if your interest in melodrama and the period film was specific to that cycle.
Christian: When I made these period pictures, I always had the feeling that the phantoms of our present life are in the past. And with this new movie, I have the feeling that the phantoms of the past are in the present. I think that melodrama always tells stories about people with old ideas in the contemporary world. With old feelings and old laws of trust. So, they are isolated and they want to be a part of this contemporary world or this past world but they can’t, they belong to another paradigm. For me, when I’m here on the street where I live in Berlin, I see there are stones with names on them for each house. And the names on these stones on the sidewalk are names of people who were killed by the Nazis. I always have the feeling in cities that historical eras are parallel, and not one layered beneath the other. At the same moment you see old houses and new houses, the stones with the names – but you also see people with iPhones standing on those stones making telephone calls. History isn’t gone; it isn’t done with.
Now, I want to do three movies that are set in the present day. The next one is from a novel by Georges Simenon, and it’s contemporary, but the phantoms and bad energies of the past are working their way into our world, and we have to struggle with them. I think this is the subject of this next trilogy.
Dan: And you’re returning to the female protagonist after the male protagonist in Transit who is played by Franz Rogowski. Do you have any thoughts about the differences between making a film with a female or male protagonist? In interviews over the years you’ve spoken a lot about the phenomenon of identification that occurs with the spectator.
Christian: I always think about how, for example, in a film like The Searchers (1956) by John Ford, which depicts the time after the Civil War, where people are living in a society that’s rebuilding itself. But the central character, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) can’t find his way back into normal life. The spectators sitting in the audience are a little bit like John Wayne. There’s a big difference between sitting in front of a TV set where it’s always totally contemporary – where I’m always sur-rounded by contemporary life and family, and the movies are surrounded by talk shows and commercials – and sitting in the cinema. I’m not part of the society anymore, I’m a stranger, either too late or too early. I conceived many of my female characters with Nina Hoss, and we thought about the roles of female protagonists in literature. In so many novels by Thomas Hardy, for example, the characters’ feminism is too early for their society – the women want to be free and they want to decide about their own body and their own biography and their own life, but the society is old and rigid, so the stories are melodramas for that reason. All of my protagonists are a little bit too early or a little bit too late. I think this is something that has to do with the medium of cinema because there’s always the feeling that we – as the spectators – are viewing the film from a slanted viewpoint, out of sync with what’s happening on screen; either too early or too late.
For me, the desire of the characters is to be part of a society and to be loved, to have an identity; to have a centre, to have self-consciousness…
Dan: Gender and social relations determine your characters’ identities, but also where characters find themselves and their movements between those spaces. This is quite palpable in ‘The Ghosts’ trilogy. In The State I Am In, for instance, the central family’s identity is determined by the fact that they’re on the lam, anxiously driving from place to place. In Yella, with the central character’s movements between these precarious, technocratic situations; and, ultimately, in Ghosts, with the two girls navigating and becoming lost in the modern city. How do you think about the relationship between the settings in your films and the identities of your characters? I’m particularly interested in Ghosts, which, of all of your work to date, contains the most concentrated look at what the modern city is like.
Christian: For me, the desire of the characters is to be part of a society and to be loved, to have an identity; to have a centre, to have self-consciousness… This is the only thing you can make movies or stories about: desire. It’s about movement. If they have an identity, I’m not interested anymore. In Ghosts, the story evolved from Berlin – from the city’s own search for its identity. Berlin was the centre of Germany, the centre for the fascists in the 1930s and 40s, but it was also the centre of the revolution in 1918. Berlin is always looking for itself. After 1989, after the wall came down, all these people here in Germany said, ‘we need our capital, Berlin, back; we need our identity, we need our big movies that tell us who we are.’ And then they built a big hub – Potsdamer Platz – but it was and is still very artificial. The Germans make movies about themselves and they think that these movies are fantastic, like David Lean or something, but it doesn’t work – they haven’t found themselves. The girls in Ghosts are phantoms of a desire to have an identity. This was my main theme at this time, between 2000 and 2005, and I talked with Harun [Farocki] about this subject so often because, in The State I Am In, the daughter also wants to be a part of the ordinary world. I like this notion of people from an outside realm who want to return to something concrete even when they know it doesn’t exist.
Dan: That framework doesn’t seem limited to the first three theatrical films – in fact, it characterises all of your films in one way or another. For example, I’m thinking about how the protagonist’s identity and position are constructed in Transit. It occurred to me that Transit is your first film outside of Germany since The State I Am In.
Christian: That’s right, yeah.
Dan: So then how did you think about filming in Marseille? I don’t want to invoke some cliché about the city itself being a character in the film, but of course, given what happens in the plot, the setting is intensely important.
Christian: You know, cities like Marseille or Lisbon in The State I Am In have been desirable places for Germans throughout history. Lisbon is a harbour city that was a place refugees fled to from the fascists, and during the 1970s people from left-wing Germans went there to find paradise, a better society. Inevitably, they found out that these places weren’t paradise, and they tried to go back home. In Marseille, it was the refugees of the Second World War: they lost their papers, they lost their identities, most of them were artists and no one wanted to read their books. They found themselves in an isolated situation. In Transit, I like that the main protagonist isn’t an artist like the others – not an architect, not a writer, not a composer. When he finds a manuscript and reads it, it’s the first book that he has read in his life, and through it, he assumes the wrong identity – the identity of the dead author – it is still his identity. To have a constructed identity, a stolen identity… like a forged passport or visa.
…they are so filled up with presence that they have to build up their feelings in the moment, in their behaviour, in their movements, in their dancing steps.
Dan: I’m interested in the connections between Transit as your most recent film and The State I Am In as your first theatrical film. I think they share a similar approach to the mise en scène: they both conjure the feeling of being just outside of history. Like how in Transit the settings are marked by certain objects (or their absence) in a way that doesn’t allow us to neatly place it as during the war, and how in The State I Am In the protagonists are 70s-style political terrorists, but the film itself doesn’t look like the 1970s. How do you typically conceptualise the mise en scène?
Christian: When we were planning Transit I thought that all the rooms in the film had to be ‘transit rooms.’ For example, the hotel room where Marie is living with the German doctor has two windows, one to the city and one to the sea. The same goes for The State I Am In because I think people who are on the run and people who are looking for an identity, they are always in ‘transit rooms’ in a sense. These rooms are not real homes. They are not caves where you can hide. They are open and everyone can see you. The family in The State I Am In is always sitting in their car, surrounded by windows. They are not on a stage in a theatre, where you’d be surrounded by walls – they’re surrounded by open spaces. But it’s less about the setting and more about the choreography that unfolds there. You can fill a room with rhythms and looks and dancing steps, and how near or close the characters are to one another is telling the whole story, not the dialogue. This was so interesting in both movies, which always depict rented places, there are always lodgers and passengers, and they never have much luggage. They don’t have so many photos or memories. They’re ghosts from the past, but they are so filled up with presence that they have to build up their feelings in the moment, in their behaviour, in their movements, in their dancing steps.
Dan: I’d like to ask you about the role of the camera. As concerned as your work is with ghosts, history, capitalist flows and desire, it’s also very grounded in physical intricacies. How do you work with your cinematographer Hans Fromm to ground the films in the sensual details of bodies and spaces?
Christian: For the past few years, at the beginning of making a film, we never have a storyboard or anything like that. It’s a journey: we visit the locations one year before we shoot and take photos, thinking about things like, ‘we need two windows’ or ‘we need a room there.’
Then, we talk about colours – for example, in Undine there are many underwater scenes with divers, and we are thinking about how being submerged underwater changes the quality of light. In the legends, Undine has red hair – this was an engaging palette because everything underwater looks very washed out so that it contrasts with her bright, red hair… these colours – blue, green and red – become a palette for the movie. On the shooting days, it’s always like this: the actors and I meet alone in the morning at 9:00 am. We rehearse for two hours just with the costumes and no make-up; we talk about choreography and dialogue – and also, in the case of Transit, for example, about Marseille and fascism – and then Hans comes and watches the rehearsal. Then the actors go into make-up for one or two hours, and Hans and I create a storyboard based on the things we have seen in the movements of the actors during the rehearsal. Our work always depends on the things that happen during this rehearsal – we have no ideas before. Hans and I always try to use natural light without so many lamps on the set. I couldn’t do it like this at the beginning because I was so unsure and anxious, so I had to plan and make a storyboard. What’s the saying? ‘To rob a bank, you need a plan.’ The same is true for making a movie. Well actually, in the last three, four movies, we decided not to have a concrete structure. During the shooting, we created our own cinema, and each evening we, the actors and the crew, look at movies that have something to do with the film we’re making, for example, on Transit we saw Odd Man Out (1947).
Dan: And I remember you mentioned that you all watched the Peter Bogdanovich film What’s Up Doc? (1972) as well.
Christian: That’s right, yeah. And we saw this other Bogdanovich film with Ben Gazzarra, Saint Jack (1975). But this is very important for the crew, seeing these movies. For example, when we were working on Phoenix, the first movie we saw was by Jacques Demy, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). It has nothing to do with the story of Phoenix, but it has something to do with the cinema that we Germans lost between 1933 and 1935. Before 1933, we had musicals, we had cinema, we had culture. And this is all gone. And you can feel in Demy’s film that he’s Jewish and that he loves the movies of Germany until 1933, and you can feel that he knows there’s something destructive not so far away from him. We talked about this, and it has become such an essential part of the process.