The series Phantoms Among Us: The Films of Christian Petzold starts on MUBI on May 13, 2021 in many countries.
Sooner or later, most interviews with Christian Petzold recur to literature as a pool of inspiration, the visceral experience of books that he synthesizes into on screen narratives. Thickening his films with references, he carefully constructs audacious architectures of ideas and aesthetic impressions, so that a “great desire for cinema” fuses with the legacy of his teacher, Harun Farocki, well known for his documentaries and essay films. Petzold’s “Spielfilme” can thus have an intellectual bent that reflects on “concepts [...] in such a way that they support one another, that each becomes articulated through its configuration with the others,” as Adorno wrote about the Essay as Form. Disparate elements, he described enigmatically, “crystallize as a configuration of their motion,” but do not come across as rigidly discursive. However, the depth suggested by the disparate sources of inspiration illuminated in Petzold’s eloquent interviews sometimes seems to be discredited by the films themselves. Comparatively easy to consume, they fulfill our own desire for cinema with plots and images familiar from large Hollywood productions: a car crash, a love story, a mystery. Perhaps all these references are not as carefully constructed as one would like? Could it be that their traces, at least some of them, deceptively lead into dead ends? A partial yes would be my answer to these questions, along with the claim that the disappointment of a desire for depth, the clash between highbrow culture and shallow superficiality, actually expresses the contradictions that occur when literature enmeshes with—and grates against—reality.
Ghosts (2005) draws on novels by Rainald Goetz and Cesare Pavese as well as Das Totenhemdchen, a fairytale from the collection of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Jerichow (2008) transfers the plot of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice to the rural German East, emphasizing the immigrant story which lingers in the novel’s background. Phoenix (2014) unites the influence of French detective fiction with Der Liebesversuch, a short story by Alexander Kluge, who is himself a prolific filmmaker and important figure of German intellectual history. Barbara (2012), Transit (2018), and Undine (2020) make the relation to literature explicit through the films’ titles. While the conception of the first began with Petzold’s discovery of Hermann Broch’s novella of the same name and borrows a whole passage from W.G. Sebald’s musings on Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson” in the opening chapter of The Rings of Saturn, Transit is an adaptation of Anna Seghers’ most famous novel. Undine in turn refers to Friedrich de la Motte Fouqués Romantic adaptation of an old myth, famously taken up by Ingeborg Bachmann in her short story Undine Geht.
Texts appear as objects in several of Petzold’s films. Two of these instances I want to recount in order to better understand the director’s relationship to literature and storytelling: Transit begins with the protagonist finding a manuscript by the dead author for whom he will be mistaken and whose identity he will subsequently take on. Georg, not usually a man of books, devours the story on his flight from occupied Paris to Marseille and finds a figure of identification in the narrator. The movie ends with Georg passing on the battered pages to the owner of his favorite bar, like a token to keep in unsteady times and a mark that another story may begin, allowing what’s written to become history. Marseille, Georg has said earlier in the film, is a port city and as such inherently a place for storytelling. Stories sprout in places of longing, waiting, coming and going, where telling and re-telling of one’s own experiences replace a passport’s declaration of identity. Georg’s quote on port cities points to Petzold’s preoccupation with places of passage, usually anonymous, frequently ugly: the generic hotels in Yella (2007) and Ghosts, the canteen where Nina Hoss’s character works in Something to Remind Me (2001), Undine’s Airbnb-like apartment in a GDR housing block near Alexanderplatz, and, again and again, train tracks and highways.
On the side of such a highway, another book makes an appearance. In The State I Am In (2000), Jeanne’s former terrorist parents give her a paperback copy of Moby Dick as an identification mark that will enable their old friend Hans to recognize her at the meeting point, a nondescript rest stop somewhere in Germany. The tempestuous ocean and messy narrative of the Melville epic is far away in this place, where the cool blue of the bistro booth seems like an ironic reminder of the crushing Atlantic waves at the family’s former hideout in Portugal. Despite its nomenclature, this is not a place of rest at all, but one filled with sounds and commotion. Right now it is empty, but we can imagine that travelers and truck drivers flock to the station in the height of summer, savoring a sausage, white bread, a coffee before they disperse. The rest stop, one might say, is a port city for the landlocked, and Moby Dick the story that moves this transitional place beyond its immediacy towards a tale of struggle and obsession, which mirrors the hatred Jeanne’s parents once harbored against the state.
In a recent interview with Knut Elstermann, Christian Petzold has traced his inclination to saturate non-places with literary charm to his youth in a small town in western Germany, where the bleakness of the environment led him towards more fantastical territories: “One could enchant them again, these terrible towns, with the help of local libraries and German Romanticism. It became possible to imagine secrets behind the thick walls.” To this day, the enchanting potential of literature is important for Petzold’s cinema. Undine, a love story between a nymph and a human transferred to contemporary Berlin, makes this particularly apparent and shows the director at his most Romanticist. The film’s protagonists live and meet in places that can seem like holes in the city fabric, such as the area around Berlin’s central station, the bygone grandeur of Alexanderplatz or the feigned historicity of the neo-Gothic architecture of the Märkisches Museum. On a trip to western Germany, not far from where Petzold grew up, Undine and Christoph spend an afternoon diving in a reservoir, an eerily anachronistic remnant from the height of industrialization, where they encounter Gunther, a giant catfish of mythological origin whose namesake is one of the Nibelungenlied knights. The film, brushing the supernatural ever so lightly, grants spaces of anonymity, industry, or deceptive historicism a fascination, perhaps even beauty, that they otherwise lack. On walks through Berlin I now seek these places out, linger on—and think of another Petzold quote as I watch boats bobbing on the Spree close to the Märkisches Museum: “Berlin is actually longing to be a port city.” Longing, that is, to be a place of confluence and molten identities that can be assembled anew from stories told.
A result of the combination of literature and non-places in Petzold’s films is a frequent cleft between what we see and what we are being told: when Undine warns her ex-boyfriend Johannes that, true to the myth of the nymph, she will have to kill him if he leaves her, the romantic absolutism of her threat contradicts the contemporary casualness of the situation, a lunchtime break-up over cappuccinos. A memorable scene from Ghosts shows the two protagonists at an audition for a reality TV show, where they are asked to recount the history of their friendship. Toni comes up with a poorly delivered lie, but Nina—initially resistant —spins an equally invented fairytale which moves the other girl to tears. The story seems displaced, for it is too real, too raw in this world of television that feeds on the vulnerabilities of its participants. In Die Innere Sicherheit, Jeanne’s parents are no longer engaged in a fight against an overwhelming antagonist that would put them in proximity to Melville’s Captain Ahab. Instead they tread water in isolation, robbing a bank and killing a man out of the prosaic, desperate need for money. Instances like these reveal that Petzold’s literary enchantments do not serve a purely escapist cause, but rather point towards the discontents in the ostensible “land of poets and thinkers,” which is really just another accumulation of people struggling, and often failing, to make lasting connections and find a place of comfort. A cynical phrase in Yella points to the economic reality that can crush any romantic utopia: “You cannot love if you don’t have any money.”
Petzold shares an ambiguity towards his country of birth with Heinrich Heine, quintessential poet of exile, suspended between France and Germany, Judaism and Christianity, Romanticism and its overcoming, who claimed that he was driven to madness by his nightly thoughts of Germany, but emphatically believed in the country’s “unity in thinking and musing.” There are direct links between the two: in interviews on Undine, Petzold has traced his fascination with water back to conversations with Nina Hoss in the early 2000s about Heine’s love for the Rhine. The writer is also subtly woven into The State I Am In by way of the male protagonist’s notably old-fashioned first name, Heinrich, and Jeanne’s efforts to learn one of his poems by heart as a homeschooling task. Heine’s desire to intellectually replenish the country to which he was bound by the happenstance of birth echoes Petzold’s transfer of literature to decidedly artless places that seem to say as much about contemporary Germany as its highbrow culture does: the rest stop, the anonymous architecture of Potsdamer Platz and Berlin Central Station, landscapes and consciousnesses shaped by histories of industrialization, war and the country’s internal division. In contrast to Heine, Petzold’s characters must face modernity’s ruins rather than its promises, they look back haunted, a movement akin to Barbara’s anxious glances over the shoulder while riding her bicycle. Foreclosed is thus the enthusiastic fervor which often breaks through in Heine’s poems. It is replaced by the wistful pleasure of elegy, which is the companion of literary enchantment’s inability to fully soothe the bruises left by actuality. At the rest stop, Moby Dick waves his fin, like the last farewell of a stranded dream. There is always a gap between the stories we read and the days that we live.