BY Sarah Khan in Interviews | 27 AUG 14
Featured in
Issue 16

Films for Friends

An interview with German director Christian Petzold whose new film Phoenix will be in cinemas this autumn

BY Sarah Khan in Interviews | 27 AUG 14

Christian Petzold on the set of Yella 2007, Production still. All images except where stated courtesy: Christian Schultz © Schramm Film.

Known for films such as Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000) and Barbara (2012), Berlin-based director Christian Petzold is counted among the Berlin School, an informal group of independent film­makers who were the subject of a retrospective at MoMA, New York, in 2013. Since his debut Pilotinnen (Female Pilots, 1995), Petzold has regularly collaborated on screenplays with his former university teacher and documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki. Farocki sadly passed away on 30 July, shortly after Sarah Khan conducted this interview with Petzold. Phoenix, Petzold’s latest film, and his sixth starring Nina Hoss, will be released in Germany on 25 September. Based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le Retour des Cendres (Return From The Ashes, 1961), it is the story of a concentration camp survivor who returns to Berlin in 1945 to find her husband. When they meet he doesn’t recognize her but sees the opportunity in using her to claim his wife’s fortune.

SARAH KHAN A central aspect of your films seems to involve clarifying characters’ relationships to various types of mythologies – surrounding film, love and politics for example – without losing them in the narrative.

CHRISTIAN PETZOLD At the end of the 1990s, I began planning for the coming years. I decided to make a trilogy called Gespenster (Ghosts, 2000–07) and another entitled Love in Systems of Oppression of which Phoenix is the second installment. I think Phoenix shares themes with each. It is about a ghost of a political and moral making, and at the same time it’s an attempt to salvage love in an oppressive system. This places the story firmly in the realm of mythology: we’ve been to the darkest depths but afterwards, is it possible to go on living or to approach love afresh? In 1962 Alexander Kluge wrote the short story Ein Liebesversuch (A Love Experiment) which was published in the lead-up to the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt. It’s a fictional interrogation of doctors who have conducted experiments on prisoners in concentration camps. These doctors wanted to test whether sterilization by X-ray treatment had been successful so they try and make a female test patient conceive. They learn that the woman had previously had a passionate love affair with a Jewish man who is still alive. The couple are put in a cell together and kept under observation. The idea is that they would have sex but nothing happens. The doctors and guards try to instigate ‘love’ from the outside: they install red lights, give them champagne, spray the couple with cold water in the hope that the need for warmth will drive them together. After a week, the doctors give up, and the couple are shot. This was an important text for us; all of the actors read it.

SK According to quantum physics, an event is altered by being observed.

CP The observer changes too. We were interested in the question of whether it is possible, at a certain level of distress, to love again. Cinema always shows individuals who fight back by saying: I don’t see why as a worker I can’t go to university; I don’t see why I can’t love again after Auschwitz. This not-seeing-why is embodied by Nelly, the character played by Nina Hoss in Phoenix. And this, too, has an element of myth to it.

Phoenix, 2014, Film still

SK How do you create an impression of depth, the feeling like there’s more at stake than what one sees?

CP We sometimes go to the town library with the actors to read about the history of the locations where we shoot. In my opinion the actors’ performances must enter into contact with reality. In Wittenberge, where we made several films, this reality is the decline of East German industry, even if this plays no part at all in the film. When you film 28 actors leaving a factory that was built for 3,000 workers – such as the Veritas factories where Singer sewing machines were once produced – the actors walk differently if they have read about the history of it beforehand. This history is still there in the walls. So when I film the actors from a distance, the result is not just a subjective viewing but a document.

SK Is this the reason for the emphasis in your films on basic forms of movement like walking and cycling?

CP I always ask myself: who is telling the story, and what is our location? These are extremely moral questions, but also questions concerning techniques of cinematography. In the magazine Filmkritik, there was a discussion about shot reverse shot, a fundamental cinematic technique. The reverse shot was seen as cinema’s betrayal to tele­vision. In the article it was said that whenever the reverse shot begins, we have talking heads and we’re in the world of television – everything is broken down into dialogue. This critique, which is a technical-moral one, impressed me. On the other hand I thought, that’s just not true. Cinema is the only art form that uses the reverse shot. It doesn’t exist in theatre. This world of the reverse shot and of documentary observation, just someone walking: that for me is cinema. But you have to handle it with care. You can’t let the actors talk, reverse shot, question, answer, sometimes over the shoulder, sometimes close up. That would be television – arbitrary.

SK In Phoenix, Nelly returns from the concentration camp without a face. You ignore the viewer’s curiosity and don’t show what she looks like under the bandages. She goes to a cinephile plastic surgeon who asks if she would prefer to have the face of Zarah Leander or of Kristina Söderbaum. She emerges as Nina Hoss. Why don’t you show the woman in her previous state?

CP Before we started shooting, my team and I also read Hans Belting’s book Faces (2013), in which he claims that the loss of a face equals the loss of society. Without a face you’re nothing, no one can read anything in you, you no longer have a character. There are so many films that start with a previous state, the paradise lost, the protagonists who say: I’d like to go back there. Like in the German-made World War II miniseries (Generation War, 2013) where five teenagers listen to jazz before going their separate ways in the war. It’s a way of showing: we’ve lost something, the bastards stole our childhood. If I were to show her previous state, it would be a form of advertising. The main storyline is: I want something back. This wanting-to-become, the will and the desire of Nina Hoss, is the focus.

Christian Petzold on the set of Gespenster 2005, Production still

SK Isn’t wilful desiring more like advertising?

CP No. In advertising you always have a happy family. Then a shirt gets dirty or someone doesn’t like the way something tastes.

SK You think this previous state idea equates to ideology?

CP Absolutely. The notion of being able to reconstruct a previous state at any time, to give it a soundtrack. Cinema has always been about the present, and whatever sentimentalities protrude into the present – wishes, desires – these are things that we must sense in the present. If we take a nostalgic leap backwards: ‘back then the summers were always warm, we had lots of horses …’ then, as a German after the war, you weren’t expelled from East Prussia but from a mar­garine advert.

SK Fateful back stories – a murdered sister, a faceless woman, a run-over child – often play a role in your work. In film noir, the challenge was to use style to deal with logical breaks in the script. How do you deal with these kinds of narrative problems?

CP The key question is whether I exploit the myth: mother loses child in accident, mother searches for lost child. Is this the story itself, or is it unresolved; something that hasn’t been worked through, that hasn’t been converted into compensation money?

SK What do you mean by compensation money?

CP US$23 billion for someone dying of lung cancer, for example. Or when victims’ relatives get compensation after a passenger plane is shot down. These are attempts to make things disappear by paying for them. A currency to deal with pain and trauma. My films are about making sure those concerned receive a different currency, a solution, some relief: revenge, forgetting or addiction. How do people defend themselves against the payment of compensation?

Rock Hudson and Agnes Moorehead in Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, 1954, Film still

SK What does the word obsession mean to you? It used to mean siege, occupation, then passion. Today it usually refers to something compulsive.

CP Obsession is no longer allowed because it can’t be paid off with compensation.

SK What does this yield in cinematic terms? The concept of obsession is strongly asso­ciated with Alfred Hitchcock’s relationship with his female actors, or by the relationship between Hitchcock and his biographer Donald Spoto, for example. Before everyone started talking about creativity, the word was ob­session. It stood for the dark side of art. According to this model, Hitchcock needed an obsession in order to turn a gentleman like Cary Grant into a bad guy. Is Cary Grant the dream husband or …

CP … or a pervert? That’s the great thing about Hitchcock; it’s also why the Spoto book (The Dark Side of Genius, 1999) is so tedious. All Spoto wants to say is ‘Hitchcock is ugly’ and that when he wanted to sleep with a female actor he would lock her up in a contractual prison. That’s nonsense.

SK Your films, especially Phoenix perhaps, seem to be loaded with values from old movies and which, like antiques, can show themselves as artefacts without necessarily being representative of the present.

CP Phoenix is based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le Retour des Cendres (Return From The Ashes, 1961) – Harun Farocki gave me a copy in 1985. The novel in diary form tells the story of a Jewish woman whose face has been destroyed and who returns to Paris to search for her husband, who is a chess player. The man doesn’t recognize her and says: you look like my wife.

SK You rediscovered this novel 29 years later?

CP We were actually thinking about it the whole time: husband, wife, mistaken identity. But because the novel is set in France against a wealthy bourgeois backdrop, it was a long time before I found an approach that would allow me to relate it to German fascism. I wasn’t sure. After all, there’s no shortage of lousy films about WWII, terrible orgies of self-pity.

SK It certainly makes sense to be cautious where such material is concerned.

CP Absolutely. But 29 years is long enough. What finally got things moving was Ludger Schwarte’s book Auszug aus dem Lager (Leaving The Camp, 2007) which reminded me how few stories there are about people returning from concentration camps.

SK Your 2000 film The State I Am In included a scene where the daughter of terrorists in the Red Army Faction sneaks into a film screening at a school where she sees a film about the crimes of the Nazi period – a clip, in fact, from Alain Resnais’ Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955).

CP That was one of the films that prompted my interest in cinema. Resnais made it in 1955 and it was due to be shown in Cannes in 1956 but the Germans protested. The film was withdrawn; it caused a scandal. That was the start of the Nouvelle Vague. In the German version, the voice­-over is by Paul Celan. The film is only 32 minutes long. At last, a story of the victims. Before that, there were only films about the perpetrators.

Jean Renoir, Ma Vie et Mes Films, 1974, Book cover

SK What is your position on ‘loyalty’? You’ve often worked with the same actors as well as with Harun Farocki.

CP In all of the writings by filmmakers who have been important to me – there isn’t much in the way of great cinema literature, but one example would be Jean Renoir’s Ma Vie et Mes Films (My Life and My Films, 1974) – there is a very deep loyalty, not only towards actors, but above all towards stories. I detest irony. The characters can be ironic, but I hate ironic narrative stances that say: in any case none of this has any value. Maybe it has to do with the conditions under which I make films. We have to do everything ourselves, we set up our own company, we have our own cast and then we stay together for ten or 15 years. Maybe this loyalty within the production structure is also reflected in the stories.

SK Let’s talk about Douglas Sirk. Speaking about Phoenix, you’ve said that you wanted to find out if it was possible to tell a story from 1945 as if it were a melodrama by Sirk.

CP We watched Written On The Wind (1956) with the cast, but for me personally, the most important Sirk film is A Time To Live And A Time To Die (1958).

SK An émigré, Douglas Sirk returned briefly to Germany after the war but found it boring. He said that Europe had a guilt complex. He preferred to make popular culture for the masses in Hollywood.

CP Sirk also worked for ten years with almost the same team.

SK Looking at your lead actor Ronald Zehrfeld in Phoenix, one can see glimpses of Rock Hudson. Both have the same bulky frame. But why do you give Zehrfeld so little room to move?

CP Rock Hudson was a giant too, and he often acted as if he was following someone else’s instructions and then suddenly began to think. All of a sudden, he doesn’t know how to move anymore. In that Howard Hawks film where he has to go fishing and feels uncomfortable in the gear (Man’s Favorite Sport?, 1964) he drives a tiny car. Hudson also looks confined. Zehrfeld actually wanted to give more space to his character. But we decided to take this space away again. He is always cramped, always tense, creeping around. He has no stature. The quality he showed in Barbara (2012), his ability to be charming, is no longer evident. He’s in a prison of guilt.

SK In Magnificent Obsession (1954) Sirk shows the blind Jane Wyman tapping her way around her room as Hudson stands in the middle. In an interview in 1977, Sirk said that she’s tapping her way around a phallus, and that such moments can only be deployed with great subtlety. Today, more than then, scenes of love and desire are confronted with functional-psychological thinking.

CP Today it’s about the obscene, not the obsessive. Baudrillard defines the obscene as ‘having no scene’, being without a stage or imaginary space. I see this with teenagers – none of them watch YouPorn any more, they’re done with that.

SK Sirk said that melodramas have an ‘unhappy happy ending’.

CP All good films have an unhappy happy ending. That way the film comes to a con­clusion but also goes further.

Gespenster, 2005, Film still

SK In many ‘happy happy ending’ films, someone dies at the end, and that makes everything right. In melodrama, everything is good but you feel bad. Is that a feeling that interests you?

CP Yes it is. I love crime thrillers. If someone dies, and that somehow restores the community, then the next crime thriller wouldn’t start four seconds later. In Germany we have 20,000 episodes of the Tatort de­tective series. The murdering never stops because it has never been a way to put an end to anything.

SK Do you think the concept of pop culture still has relevance today?

CP Less and less. When I was 13, our music teacher asked us: Do you know what pop means? Popular! Mass culture! I see it like this: Sirk went to America to make pop culture, Fritz Lang too. Why? Because the masses, as described by Elias Canetti, are a danger to society at large. The pop crowd is not.

SK But pop culture also includes the world of advertising; with a positive emphasis, if you consider Andy Warhol. These are brutal truths.

CP Many of my fellow filmmakers work in advertising, otherwise they couldn’t earn enough to live, not with just a few films. I decided not to do talk shows and not to do advertising. I don’t make pictures that prostitute themselves.

SK That’s a good statement. Have you said it somewhere before?

CP I say it every day. I don’t blame any­one for making advertising films, but I have serious problems with it. Working with Farocki, for example during the production of Ein Tag im Leben des Endverbrauchers (A Day In The Life of The Consumer, 1993), I dealt with advertising, so it’s definitely a no go for me.

SK You’re a real student of Farocki, right?

CP Hartmut Bitomsky, Farocki. Yes, I would call myself their student.

SK Have you ever thought of not collabo­rating with Farocki on a film, for a change?

CP No.

SK When things have been settled between an artist and his critics, then the most difficult question remains: Do my friends and supporters understand me?

CP Alexander Kluge said that talk shows should only invite guests who share the same opinion. That’s when things get interesting. It’s easy to deal with one’s opponents, but much harder to develop themes with one’s friends. I don’t make films for critics. I don’t even know what that’s like. I make films for friends.

Sarah Khan is a writer who lives in Berlin. In 2012 she was awarded the Michael Althen Prize for criticism. Her latest book Die Gespenster von Berlin: Wahre Geschichten (The Ghosts of Berlin: True Stories) was published by Suhrkamp in 2013.