By Marco Abel, Aylin Bademsoy, and Jaimey Fisher.

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to our volume of interviews with German filmmaker Christian Petzold, entitled Christian Petzold: Interviews and published in the University Press of Mississippi’s Conversation with Filmmakers series. We thank UPM for permission to reprint this excerpt.

I was an intellectual, so any form of playing innocent would have meant lying to myself…I had no choice but to make films by reflecting on them.”

So states Christian Petzold in a 2006/2007 talk with Marco Abel while describing his relationship with his teachers Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky at the German Film and Television Academy or dffb (Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin). In what was at the time the first interview published in English with the esteemed German filmmaker—included in Christian Petzold: Interviews—Petzold is offering a precise image to consider for his working method and philosophy. It is not viable for him merely to take “the camera into [his] hands and [start] shooting what [is] there.” Rather, the only way that he can access reality cinematically is by factoring in the processes of mediation that are part of the very reality that he seeks to render sensible. For Petzold, in other words, filming the world is necessarily always a process of reflecting on the political economy of filmmaking—a reflective process that, in turn, needs to manifest itself in the film’s texture. This reflective process of self-conscious mediation, however, diverges from contemporary peers in world cinema like Michael Haneke or film-modernist forebears such as Jean-Luc Godard or the duo Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in ways that are discussed throughout Interviews.

It is rare for any artist to proclaim that they are an “intellectual,” indeed, to identify as an intellectual. In Germany, film critics have not infrequently complained about the Verkopftheit (overly cerebral nature) of both Petzold’s films and those of the so-called Berlin School, the group of contemporary filmmakers with which he is indelibly associated and that includes Angela Schanelec, Thomas Arslan, Christoph Hochhäusler, Benjamin Heisenberg, Maren Ade, Ulrich Köhler, Valeska Grisebach, and Henner Winckler. Petzold has explained (in the above-mentioned interview with Abel) that even as a budding filmmaker “this romantic idea of filmmaking was not available to [him]” because of his biography—specifically, the fact that he “had acquired a graduate degree,” and not from a film school. He earned his master’s in modern German literary studies at the Free University Berlin. Petzold wrote a thesis on Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, a key figure in the West German pop literature movement. But at the same time he began to think, seriously and continuously, about switching to a career in filmmaking.

His work aims to provide his viewers with the distinct pleasures filmmaking can instill without allowing the comforts of a cinema of identification.

German film critics’ problems with the Berlin School speaks volumes about the poor state of affairs that characterizes much of German film culture rather than about the quality and characteristics of Petzold’s oeuvre. To this moment, Petzold has completed eighteen feature-length films since 1995 (nine made for German TV, nine for the big screen, including his most recent film, the widely acclaimed Roter Himmel [Afire, 2023]). His oeuvre is arguably the most robust and influential of any German filmmaker since the country’s unification in 1990 and includes much-admired films such as Yella (2007), Barbara (2012), Phoenix (2014), and Transit (2018). One of the most idiosyncratic aspects of this work is how in film after film he is trying to get closer to squaring a self-conscious circle: to make genre films in “the cemetery of genre cinema,” as he puts it in above-mentioned interview with Abel. He wants to “reconstruct” genre via a kind of “archeology” of it, without parodying what came before, as he has said in his interview with Fisher, also included in Christian Petzold: Interviews. His work aims to provide his viewers with the distinct pleasures filmmaking can instill without allowing the comforts of a cinema of identification. Such cinema “gets on [his] nerves” (Abel), not only because he considers it ideologically dubious but also because it is based on a reductivist notion of pleasure. Put differently, criticizing his films as too intellectual misses the fact that this intellectualization of the cinema is the vehicle by which Petzold’s films bring a range of affective pleasures that far exceeds the simplistic works for which German film culture generally provides.

Petzold, then, is not at all opposed to making narrative cinema that induces pleasure in the viewer—i.e., a cinema that accepts and affirms that scopophilia is a legitimate aspect of any given viewer’s complex desiring economy. Petzold is not trying to destroy such familiar pleasures but rather to render pleasure otherwise: to induce delight differently, to confront viewers with different possibilities of experiencing pleasure. We purposefully appropriate key phrases from Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay on the male gaze because Mulvey proffers her influential analysis of Hollywood cinema’s economy of (male) desire by drawing on the work of that master of suspense whose films time and again mobilize the male gaze to unsettling effects: Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker who has impacted Petzold perhaps more than any other director, as the interviews in our volume reveal. A voracious explorer of film history since his youth in the small West German town of Haan, Petzold seemingly cannot not refer to Hitchcock for more than a few interviews at a time. Indeed, one of the most notable aspects of how Petzold engages his interlocutors’ questions is that he almost inevitably discusses aspects of his films with detailed reference to directors whose works have marked him, ranging from F. W. Murnau and Helmut Käutner to Michael Cimino and John Carpenter. He is also greatly influenced by his teachers, Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky, with whom he studied at the dffb between 1989 and 1994 and on whose films he often assisted.

There are other directors and films that are important to Petzold, and perusing the interviews in our volume affords readers the opportunity to observe how Petzold’s career unfolds as an ongoing conversation with his many favorites, whether with Edgar G. Ulmer, whose Detour (1945) impacted the early TV film Cuba Libre (1996); with Kathryn Bigelow and Sidney Lumet, whose Near Dark (1987) and Running on Empty (1988), respectively, influenced The State I Am In (2000); with Herk Harvey, whose Carnival of Souls (1962) serves as a plot skeleton of sorts for Yella (see top image); or with the various adaptations of The Postman Always Rings Twice that inform Petzold’s own take on the story in Jerichow (2008). Finally, there are such all- time classics as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), important for Transit, and, of course, always Hitchcock, including, at least, The 39 Steps (1935), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Marnie (1964), and Torn Curtain (1966).

Petzold’s penchant of talking through other films about his own—a habit we witness in virtually all interviews included in our volume—can be understood as a proof of his conviction that it is impossible for him to make films in an unmediated fashion. Just as he feels compelled to execute the praxis of filmmaking by filming “through” other films, so he seems unable to talk for long about his work without “detouring” through other directors’ films. That is, habitually positioning himself in conversation with other films is the most direct way in which Petzold can discuss his films: not doing so would result in nothing less than the promulgation of the romantic (and bourgeois) illusion of the (white male) genius artist whose art is the result of little more than intuitive expression grounded in the mysteries of one’s precious (and privileged) self. Petzold has no truck with such an individualized and individualizing view of art—one that is not only deeply romantic but also inescapably expressive of the cultural logic of neoliberalism, a regime of power the specific German evolution of which Petzold’s films have trenchantly observed from his early student films on, and which constitutes one of the key discussion topics throughout the interviews assembled in our volume.

Transit review – brilliant existential thriller works like a dream | Drama  films | The Guardian
Transit – Petzold is very clear: his films are extended and considered collaborations, be it with his former teachers and mentors, with fellow filmmakers, or with his actors.

Petzold’s work is also engaged with another textual ensemble, one further affirming the aforementioned intellectual mediation: his films manifest a wide range of other references, from US crime fiction to classics of German literature to the history of the visual arts (e.g., de Chirico, Paul Klee, Gerhard Richter) and even to sports (his love for the cinema is matched by his love for soccer). He is also familiar with, among others, the philosophical ideas of Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, and Étienne Balibar. On the one hand, Petzold has distanced himself from Deleuzian film philosophy in solving problems cinematically (see the Abel interview in the volume), although, on the other, he turns repeatedly to a figure like Benjamin, who haunts both Phoenix and Transit (see the Richard Porton interview).

Petzold is very clear: his films are extended and considered collaborations, be it with his former teachers and mentors, with fellow filmmakers, or with his actors such as his recurring lead, Nina Hoss (who has starred in six of his films to date), or with Julia Hummer, Benno Fürmann, Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, or Matthias Brandt. He has repeatedly credited Eleonore Weisgerber, who appeared in his first feature-length TV film Pilotinnen (Pilots, 1995), for teaching him how to interact with actors (see the Ilka Brombach interview in the volume). Several interviews reveal how Petzold prepares his productions by watching and discussing a range of films with his actors and longtime collaborators, such as his cinematographer Hans Fromm. These are chosen for showing what cinema can depict beyond narrative—for example, space and atmosphere. Petzold screens these films to initiate a conversation about the texture of the world they seek to generate—a world that often ends up being characterized by a Schwebezustand, a state of abeyance, of in- betweenness, of ghostliness, to use terms that permeate the assembled interviews.

Ghostlike aspects haunt much of Petzold’s work. His characters are frequently stuck in a present not allowing them to move on. The past has a powerful purchase on them, a phenomenon that, in toto, cinematically allegorizes the state of contemporary Germany. In fact, one of the most important ghost-forms, rather than -figures, might be the nation itself in the age of globalizing neoliberalism. Petzold considers the cinema’s engagement with national discourse important, even as such discourses grow increasingly tenuous, even spectral. In Petzold’s hands such images of the ghost intensify historical mediations of cinema itself: one of Petzold’s favorite motifs, appearing in multiple interviews, is that films should show twenty years later just how we live now—a perspective underscoring a different, here temporal mediation in the work.

Why had Petzold so purposefully avoided the very events that have dominated the German public sphere since the late 1960s?…. [I]t seems Petzold needed German cinema to develop in a discomfiting way to propel a radical change in his filmmaking.”

In this ghostly historical context, his biography—the details of which come increasingly into focus over the chronological course of interviews—becomes relevant. A child of parents who left East Germany before the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, Petzold had long avoided talking in detail about his personal relationship to crucial aspects of twentieth-century German history: its wars of death and destruction as well as postwar displacement and division. As is clear in the conversations around Transit, he considers himself a kind of refugee from points East. It is well known that Petzold for the longest time refused, and even polemically argued against, making historical films—i.e., films about and set in eras of German history, even if his films are always thinking history and historicity. In the 2010s, Petzold developed a new disposition towards producing films that were set other than in the present. It was with Barbara, Phoenix, and Transit that Petzold belatedly turned to the terrible German history of violence—in the form of the secret police in East Germany, the Holocaust, and the Nazis’ occupation of France.

Why had Petzold so purposefully avoided the very events that have dominated the German public sphere since the late 1960s? For a dedicated student of such engaged filmmakers as Farocki and Bitomsky, one would anticipate an allegiance to that generation of student rebels and revolutionaries (the so-called 68ers). However, it seems Petzold needed German cinema to develop in a discomfiting way to propel a radical change in his filmmaking. In opposition to German global blockbusters such as Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006), as well as to their too-welcoming receptions, Petzold suspended his self-imposed moratorium on making films about German history. He directed Barbara as a rejoinder to Donnersmarck’s depiction of life behind the Wall in East Germany, and Phoenix as a corrective to German cinema turning non-Jewish Germans into Hitler’s “victims” as in Downfall. As for Transit, it is as an important cinematic intervention in the German discourse on immigration after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s much debated decision to admit large numbers of refugees in the summer of 2015. Petzold ingeniously links in Transit the fascist past to present circumstances, revealing the continuity between them. This diagnostic insight flies in the face of a present in which many Germans feel over(t)ly proud of themselves for having (allegedly) successfully engaged in Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with/mastering the country’s past crimes), which, in turn, authorizes not a few Germans to assume once again the position of Europe’s schoolmaster (dispensing moral[izing] lessons to others, as it infamously did in the euro crisis starting in late 2009). In this context, the reader of the interviews can easily imagine Petzold taking recourse to (East-) German playwright Heiner Müller’s biting declaration that “ten Germans are dumber than five Germans” (see the Beier and von Uslar interview in the volume).

Petzold’s belatedness to deal with the big historical events in Germany’s history has also to do with his being born in 1960. He was too late coming to filmmaking to be faced with the material conditions that enabled his mentors Farocki and Bitomsky, and also Rainer Werner Fassbinder or, across the Rhine, Godard, to make political films the way they did. By the time Petzold enrolled at the dffb in the late 1980s, the utopias that had energized people in the late 1960s had by and large not come to fruition. The radical film experiments of that time period, too, ultimately fell on fallow ground, with those famous Brechtian aesthetic strategies not leading to a palpable reeducation of viewers (especially not of those who were not already sympathetic towards the lessons those films sought to convey). Perhaps closest to home, Petzold had yet to come to terms with his personal history as someone who was disconnected or only intermittently connected to his family’s East German lineage—a genealogical connection the working-through of which took him time, perhaps precisely because he could manage to do so only in mediated fashion through the complex debates, ongoing to this day, both about how unification came about and was managed and about what the value of East Germany’s legacy is for post-unification Germany.

Something to Remind Me (movie, 2001)
Toter Mann (Something to Remind Me, 2001): With support from Germany’s public television stations, Petzold has made films that, we think, rank among his most accomplished.

The many mediations above include the production conditions for Petzold’s work, a fourth mode of mediation (after film history, literature/philosophy, and the collaborations that yield the finished films) that is a leitmotif in many of the interviews included in Christian Petzold: Interviews. Petzold is unusually reflective about the production conditions surrounding his filmmaking and his own relation to them, from the dffb through his early television work to the theatrical films and then, interestingly in the 2010s, back to periodic TV work between acclaimed feature films. For example, it was highly unusual for a film director at such a late, and still ascendant, point in their career to turn to the TV-funded and -exhibited collaboration that Petzold undertook with Christoph Hochhäusler and Dominik Graf, two of Germany’s best-known directors: Hochhäusler is usually categorized as another Berlin School director and is the founding editor of its most influential associated journal, Revolver, while Graf, a generation older, is generally regarded as one of Germany’s best genre directors. Their collaboration, entitled Dreileben, comprises a set of three films, with each directing one, based on the same crime (Petzold’s is entitled Etwas Besseres als den Tod [Beats Being Dead, 2011]). The directors developed this project after engaging in an extensive email exchange among the three of them, mostly focusing on contemporary film aesthetics and especially on genre.

In the interviews in our volume, Petzold details his work making nine feature films for German television. Germany’s public television stations—especially the “first” and “second” stations (“das Erste” [first] of ARD and then ZDF, respectively)—play a crucial role in the country’s cultural and political public spheres. As their names indicate, they occupy the first two positions on the national spectrum of broadcast channels—perhaps less important now, but a considerable advantage for decades—and they are generously funded, along with radio and the cultural Arte stations (among others), through a tax levied on every German household. With support from these TV stations, Petzold has made films that, we think, rank among his most accomplished, like the too-little-seen Toter Mann (Something to Remind Me, 2001) and Wolfsburg (2002), as well as three feature-length episodes for Polizeiruf 110 (discussed in the Fischer and Fisher interview in our volume), one of Germany’s longest-running TV crime shows.

Whether with film or television, Petzold’s penchant for close collaboration is the embodiment of a belief that he cannot just hold the camera at reality and shoot. He time and again enters dialogues—whether with his actors; with fellow filmmakers; with the generic conventions of genre television; with his regular team including producers, editor, cinematographer, and costume designer; and most often in the past, with his closest friend, mentor, and former teacher, the late Harun Farocki, who for two decades served as Petzold’s script advisor—as a means of deferring any tendency he might (unconsciously) harbor towards inadvertently giving in to a more romantic attitude towards filmmaking. It is as though the only way for Petzold to deal with the historical fact of having come too late—for a left politics and aesthetics as it was codified and practiced by a previous generation that was still able to affirm a sense of utopian possibility—is by intensifying, each time anew, this affective experience of belatedness: having come too late, he has to defer further by creating conditions for dialogue, for conversations, for interactive, collective thinking (with past and present interlocutors), only the practicing of which makes the shooting of his films possible for him.

And today? Can we say that his interviewers are also collaborators in his process of filmmaking? He has given literally hundreds of interviews, many of which are characterized by his astonishing eloquence, wit, and erudition. In response to virtually any question he is able to produce answers in the form of fully developed, thought-provoking, and print-ready paragraphs—an astonishing ability that our volume (which includes thirty-five interviews, thirty of which are made available in English for the first time) suggests should be understood as one important part of the film-production method of one of world cinema’s most exciting directors working today.

Marco Abel is Willa Cather Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Nebraska and author of The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School. With Jaimey Fisher, he coedited a dossier on Christian Petzold’s work for Senses of Cinema.

Aylin Bademsoy is a PhD candidate in the German Department at the University of California, Davis.

Jaimey Fisher, professor of German and of cinema and digital media at the University of California, Davis, is author of German Ways of WarTreme; Christian Petzold; and Disciplining Germany: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after the Second World War. With Marco Abel, he coedited The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art Cinema, and with Peter Uwe Hohendahl, he coedited Critical Theory: Current State and Future Prospects.

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