'I Envision All These Great Small Movies in the Ruins of Hollywood': Christian Petzold Interview

Dustin Chang, Contributing Writer
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.

Twitch: 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 by Wim 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.

I met 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.

Yes, exactly.

This 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.

In the 70s, everyone was rich in Germany. We thought that we've won 68' and we thought we could change the society...

Right, right.


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.

There 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).

That is interesting. When we made Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In) 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.

It's 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!

She 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?

Yeah. 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 time (Barbara 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 of Communism.

Yeah, it is a metaphor for Communism.

So I wasn't wrong about that. How did putting that Rembrandt in the film come about?

I've 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 is a 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?

Yes, 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?

My 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
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  • Ben Umstead

    This is certainly one of your best interviews, Dustin, and just an
    exceptional interview all around. Everything, everything Petzold says rings
    true for me. I love how he works from a short story with his cast and
    crew, just spending time together, talking, watching movies, going to
    the library -- shit, that is it. That. Is. It!

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