Christian Petzold

b. 14th September 1960, Hilden, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

When the Association of German Film Critics named Christian Petzold’s Barbara the best feature film of 2012, it affirmed Petzold’s status as the most critically celebrated director of post-1989 Germany. In fact, five of his last eight feature-length works were similarly named the Critics’ best feature (in 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2012), with no other director winning more than twice since 2000. (1) His appeal, however, transcends the critical community: Petzold’s breakthrough Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000) won the Federal Film Prize in Gold, the equivalent of a best film prize for its year, an unusual recognition for an art-house film. His 2011 participation, with two other directors, in the three-part Dreileben project, has been called the most interesting development in German television in decades.  (2) In 2012, his Barbara, after winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, was Germany’s surprise submission for the foreign-language Oscar. Petzold is also regarded as the ground-breaking and most important of the group of filmmakers known as the Berlin School, which some have dubbed a “German New Wave.” (3) Although celebrated at international film festivals throughout Europe, his films are still relatively unknown in the Anglophone world, where German cinema is better known for the Nazi-era historical dramas that Petzold and the Berlin School have generally disdained.

Although addressing increasingly diverse topics, Petzold’s films consistently offer characters who find themselves in situations in which they feel compelled, consciously and not, to conceal some fundamental truth about themselves (as in The State I Am In, Toter Mann (Something to Remind Me, 2001), Yella (2007), Jerichow (2008), Etwas Besseres Als Der Tod  (Dreileben: Beats Being Dead, 2011), and Barbara). Such secrets colours both their relationships with others and with themselves, yielding an underlying anxiety as well as paranoia that underpins many of his works. Very often, perhaps more than any other contemporary director’s films, the situations compelling such concealment and paranoia are work-based, scenarios in which individuals have distinct wage-earning expectations and ambitions (as in Wolfsburg (2008), Gespenster (Ghosts, 2005), Yella, and Jerichow). This tendency links Petzold’s characters to contexts broader than their own psychologies, constellations sometimes historical and always political and economic. Yet, the films usually unfold in dream-like worlds (as in Cuba Libre (1996), Ghosts, or Yella), where the distinction between (apparent) reality and fantasy is frequently blurred – not a filmic tone usually associated with trenchant analyses of the material world.

This dual interest in the material and fantasy worlds of his characters underscores Petzold’s engagement in transformational change: changes to individuals’ desires, dreams and fantasies amid our neoliberal moment. Individuals are recast at the molecular level as they, as he puts it, “become economic.” (4) This becoming economic often entails a refashioning and refunctioning of an individuals’ desire in the direction of some material interest. But such refashioned desire does not dwell on some lack – his characters do not sit around pining – but rather becomes in Petzold’s plots disconcertingly productive, both professionally and personally. Beyond the insidious impact such desire has on human relations, which become subsequently mutually exploitative, a central aspect of this desire’s acting productively is the literal movement it initiates. In almost all Petzold’s films, the characters are on the move well before, and well beyond, their coming to terms with their own mobility. The films therein explore the premium that the current socio-economic moment places on mobility and the “flexibility” of people required for it.

Petzold was born and raised near the heart of West Germany’s post-war economic rebirth, near the heavily industrialized Ruhr region. Given its nineteenth and twentieth-century status as the engine of Germany’s industrial power, the Ruhr region was heavily bombed in World War II and then rapidly rebuilt afterward, lending it an industrial and now post-industrial atmosphere that left its mark on many of Petzold’s earlier works (especially Pilotinnen (Pilots, 1995), Die Beschlafdiebin (‘The Sex Thief’, 1998), Something to Remind Me, and Wolfsburg). On the other hand, Petzold’s parents came from the eastern parts of pre-1945 Germany, were subsequently wartime refugees, and then landed in East Germany. Although they emigrated from East Germany before Petzold was born, they continued to visit there throughout Petzold’s childhood, and his father, Petzold recounts, considered re-emigrating to East Germany as late as the 1970s oil crisis. Many of Petzold’s more recent films have been set in, and contemplate, what East Germany was and what has become of it (Ghosts, Yella, Jerichow, Dreileben: Beats Being Dead, and Barbara).

Part of this perceptible eastward trajectory to Petzold’s films corresponds to his own decision to leave his childhood home not far from the Dutch border to study in the (then) divided city of Berlin, at that time a western border outpost in the heart of East Germany. After finishing a masters degree in German literature at the Free University of Berlin, Petzold enrolled (after an initial rejection) at Berlin’s German Film and Television Academy (DFFB), where he was studying when the Berlin Wall fell (1989) and Germany subsequently reunified (1990). This abrupt end to the Cold War and fundamental transformation of Germany in his immediate presence foreground the kind of historical change that would preoccupy him in films like State I Am In, Ghosts, Yella, and Jerichow. An interest in crises and fundamental transformation is one Petzold shares with one of his teachers at the DFFB, Harun Farocki, whom he has credited as a kind of consultant (usually “dramaturgical collaboration”) on his scripts. Farocki has been a key figure in German nonfiction film since the late 1960s, and his work with Petzold is a notable foray into narrative feature film. In their very different kinds of work, Farocki and Petzold both engage moments of crisis and reformulation, those pivotal moments that afford transitional modes of productivity and individualities. In general, both Petzold’s and Farocki’s films underscore how capitalism generates not only new modes of material economy, but also transitional forms of self, thus staging both labour and erotic economies.

Pilots: Itinerant Work, Doomed Crime

Petzold’s 1995 graduation film from the DFFB, Pilots, takes up, even at that early stage of his career, many of the themes mentioned above, including the way that work transforms people, particularly the scheming deception that economic life too often occasions. Made for the celebrated Das kleine Fernsehspiel of ZDF – a televised film series in which R.W. Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, and Jim Jarmusch also appeared –even this early film earned widespread accolades. The film follows Karin (Eleonore Weisgerber), a cosmetics saleswoman who traverses German freeways (its famous Autobahn) hawking her cosmetic wares. Together with a French salesman for sparkling wine, Karin aims to save enough to buy a “place just for us,” an apartment in Paris, for which she is learning French on cassette in the many hotels she inhabits on the road. These plans are derailed, however, when a new, efficiency minded boss “Junior” (Udo Schenk)  demands unrealistic sales targets and gives her, as ostensible help, an assistant, his girlfriend Sophie (Nadeshda Brennicke). It seems just as likely that Junior has posted Sophie to Karin’s car in order to train her to replace the experienced but now middle-aged Karin.

This first feature-length work of Petzold establishes one of his recurring patterns, namely, a female protagonist under workplace pressure and general economic duress. Petzold has said that he has written so many female protagonists in part because he fears slipping into autobiography, in part because he finds women economically more adaptable, not least since men usually own the means of production. (5) Certainly, both Karin and Sophie struggle with the personal transformations demanded of them by their work-place circumstances. Initially, paranoia and coldness reigns between the two during their travels, not a surprise given Karin’s suspicion that she is being replaced before she can reach her savings goal. Such paranoia and coldness become hallmarks of many of Petzold’s characters, from Pilots right through to Yella and Jerichow, but it is notable that it is almost invariably bred of anxiety around employment (Barbara’s subtending paranoia is a notable variation on this).

This unlikely pair, however, does ban together to fight the economic system marginalizing them, even if, echoing Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991), their revenge is doomed. When Sophie learns that Junior is going to sell the company and cut her out, the two women go on a crime spree. Their abrupt and itinerant camaraderie evokes a genre model Petzold openly cited, that of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Thirty-nine Steps (1935). Here, too, his first film suggests an approach marking his entire work, the deliberate retooling of a genre classic for his own, critical purposes. When The Thirty-nine Steps remakes Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) as the man to whom guilt is wrongly transferred, he embarks on a sudden trip from England to Scotland and back, floating from ephemeral environment to ephemeral environment, acquiring a love interest (by handcuff) along the way. His journey fills out the narrative and requires his navigation of landscapes both natural and man-made. Pilots is similarly replete with scenes of its principles in motion, with Karin’s many, lengthy point-of-view shots of the German Autobahn as well as the many, nondescript exit ramps around Düsseldorf and Leverkusen. In the first lines of Pilots, when Karin converses off-screen with her lover, her response to his longing for a place for the two of them is that “I have to go/drive” (“Ich muß fahren”) setting her in motion away from the place that her lover has fantasized for them. This dynamic between a longing for place (“a place for us”/“ein Platz für uns”) and the inability to stop moving (“Ich muß fahren”) is one that runs throughout Petzold’s films and that consistently generates, as it does at this early moment in his career, a fundamental narrative conflict for his protagonists. (6)

Cuba Libre: Death and Love on the Road

Made similarly for ZDF’s Das kleine Fernsehspiel, Petzold’s second feature, Cuba Libre, is the film he has later mentioned least. The film does, however, solidify a number of early themes that prove formative for his later, better-known work, particularly the thin line between love and emotional exploitation (a favourite of one of Petzold’s key influences, Fassbinder) as well as the importance of what he calls “transit spaces” in the modern world (including train stations, roads, hotels, all spaces that aid and abet modern mobility). Moreover, like Pilots, Cuba Libre refashions a genre classic, here Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), in which a down-and-out man replaces the woman he loves with the road that allegedly leads to her. Dana Polan has argued that Detour is part of a subset of film noir that mostly does away with glamorizing the cynical private detective or spectacularizing the femme fatale; instead, one finds a more critical analysis of “irreconcilable differences between the haves and the have-nots in [a] very definable context,” very much Petzold’s métier. (7) Detour’s down-scale Al and Susan/Vera become, in Petzold’s hands, the homeless pair Tom Richy Müller) and Tina (Catherine Flemming), who dream not of Hollywood (as in Ulmer’s B-film classic) but of points south of Germany, either Nice or Latin America, the latter of which they seem to know primarily from the eponymous cocktail.

In this way, like Detour, Cuba Libre follows its protagonists on a westward road-trip promising a fata morgana of wealth. Resonant westward journeys recur in Petzold’s later films like Yella and Barbara and suggest a general subtext in (especially eastern) Germany, which has seen its fate bound more and more tightly to western Europe and the US. Cuba Libre and its journey start, in fact, in one of those aforementioned transit spaces being rapidly renovated and westernized. It opens in a train station that conspicuously belonged to East Germany, in what was the “Hauptbahnhof” (main train station) of East Berlin, as signs still visible in the 1995 film suggest. This train station would, in fact, be renamed, and relegated, shortly thereafter, to the “Ostbahnhof”(east station) when fully integrated with the West German train system. Since 2006, the title “main train station” has instead been bestowed upon a new, soaringly modern station in central Berlin – Petzold may have been interested in documenting a place that no longer exists, that would be churned up, at least in its symbolic function, in the creative destruction of the city. So, Cuba Libre’s main characters all start the film and their journey in the visible remnants of East Germany, a foreshadow of Petzold’s later films.

As Tina flees west and southward and Tom gears up to follow her, he is befriended by wealthy Jimmy (Wolfram Berger), an echo of the sudden, even surprise solidarity shown to Al in Detour by well-to-do Charlie – Jimmy, like Charlie, offers the poorer man a much-needed ride on his westward quest. Unlike in Detour, however, viewers learn that Jimmy plans to exploit Tom for his own nefarious purposes, to use him (likely fatally) as a decoy while he draws on dubious bank accounts in Belgium. Before this plan comes to fruition, however, Petzold’s Jimmy, like Ulmer’s Charlie, dies accidentally in/next to his car, and the poorer man quickly assumes the richer man’s identity to resume his journey. Tina, however, finds Tom in a motel shortly thereafter, blackmails him to support her with his newly found wealth. He has to pretend to be her husband, take her shopping, pay to fix her ruined teeth and skin, and then empty the Belgian safety-deposit boxes. The thin line between love and (here consumer driven) exploitation is blurred and redrawn anew.

Toward the end of Detour Al and Vera inhabit a modest Hollywood apartment as a pretend married couple, but in Ulmer’s memorable rendering, matrimony looks like something best set in a seedy motel. Detour is a film in which the principles are all adrift, possibly reflecting Ulmer’s own status as an exile from central Europe to the US. For Tom and Tina, as for Al and Vera, there are no friends or family, not even any clearly defined career or home. David Laderman has noted of Detour something that is even more true of Cuba Libre: Al’s past undercuts the glamorous future at the moment it seems brightest, just as the road undercuts the Hollywood destination the moment it comes into focus. (8) Because of this past, Tom, Tina and even Jimmy, like many of Petzold’s later characters, drift but never arrive anywhere, the long-fantasized arrival revoked at the last minute. When Tom and Tina seem close to their dream ending, the gangsters who were seeking Jimmy gun down Tom. He dies in Tina’s arms, another Petzold happy ending subverted by economic need and the violence bred of it.

Die Beischlafdiebin: A Genre Mask for Disciplining Labour

Die Beischlafdiebin (The Sex Thief)

Die Beischlafdiebin (The Sex Thief)

The last of these early films, Die Beischlafdiebin  (‘The Sex Thief’), also offers a noir-ish plot, but one remade explicitly by Petzold’s regular collaboration with Harun Farocki. The film follows two sisters, one of whom, Petra (Constanze Engelbrecht), is on the international run after a series of robberies in upscale German tourist destinations – she would pretend to be a (lonely) ex-pat hotel manager, accompany men back to their rooms, and rob them. After a policeman plays one of her marks and almost arrests her in Morocco, she flees back to Cologne, where her sister, Franziska (Nele Mueller-Stöfen), has been maintaining their large childhood home. As one might expect, the policeman eventually catches up with the sisters and traps Franziska, who has, by film’s end, learned and adopted her sisters criminal ways.

Much as in Pilots, however, Petzold deliberately recasts this apparently genre plot with his recurring interest in work and economy, one very much shared with Farocki’s difficult non-fiction films. In fact, Petzold introduces a technique in Sex Thief that he revisits in his celebrated Yella: he actually rewrites and incorporates sections of Farocki’s challenging, modernist work within his overarching genre frameworks. When Petra realizes that Franziska has been lying about her job and has over-mortgaged their house, she demands Franziska find a new job commensurate with the academic training she has financed. For some ten minutes, Petzold’s film revisits set ups and even lines of dialogue from Farocki’s 1996 nonfiction film, Die Bewerbung (The Interview), on unemployed workers receiving training on how to apply for jobs. If Farocki’s film subtly explores the retooling of the self required by modern economy – while also highlighting how such remaking of the self is an embarrassing game going nowhere – Petzold exploits the series of interviews to depict the utter humiliation and frustration of Franziska, economic failures that eventually lead her to learn at her sister’s thieving knee. As he would in Yella, Petzold, with Farocki’s help, interweaves a genre plot with a trenchant nonfiction critique of contemporary economy.

The State I Am In and the Aftershocks of Terrorism

Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In)

Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In)

For Petzold’s next project (which he largely wrote in the US when visiting Farocki in Berkeley and Hartmut Bitomsky in Los Angeles), he had trouble securing television funding due to a controversial subject: German’s terrorism milieu of the 1970s. Because of the resistance initially shown by television producers, The State I Am In eventually yielded Petzold’s first theatrical release and his breakthrough in general. The film ended up winning the Federal Prize in Gold (Germany’s best film prize) and remained the most popular of the Berlin School films until Petzold’s 2012 Barbara. The film takes an unusual approach to 1970s terrorism in that it does not offer any historically staged or even stock footage, but rather explores what Petzold calls “the aftershocks” of the past in the present. (9) The film is set entirely in the present, following a family of terrorists that has been living underground since their earlier activities, which intriguingly are never detailed. Starting (like Die Beschlafdiebin) in a tourist destination in the south (here Portugal), The State I Am In follows Hans (Richy Müller), Clara (Barbara Auer), and their teenaged daughter, Jeanne (Julia Hummer), back to Germany, where they are hoping to find support to fund their flight to Brazil.

The critical and (relative) popular success of the film are probably attributable to the political-cultural climate in Germany at the time as well as to Petzold’s (again) canny use of genre scenarios rewritten and reworked to fit his auteurist interests. In the late 1990s, German leftist terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s was very much back on the political agenda because Germany’s second highest government minister and head of the Green Party, Joschka Fischer, testified at the trial of a terrorist he knew in the 1970s. Around this time as well, the magazine Stern highlighted already public images of Fischer’s attacking of a policeman during a 1973 Frankfurt street protest. Petzold’s engagement not only with terrorism, but with its afterlife for post-Wall Germany, seemed timely indeed. He also based the film on two intriguing genre models that lent the story further notable subtexts: Kathryn Bigelow’s debut feature After Dark (1987), a vampire-western hybrid, as well as Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1998), which also depicts a terrorist family and the challenges of sustaining political radicalism over the generations. Bigelow’s film, in particular, foregrounds the theme of people (or, rather, vampires) who have fallen out of history and wander, ghost-like, wanting nothing more than to rejoin the ranks of the normal – a theme that Petzold consistently rewrites in a spectrally economic key (cf. Yella, Jerichow, Beats Being Dead, and Barbara).

When Hans, Clara, and Jeanne arrive “home” to resume contacts with former comrades, they realize they have few links to contemporary Germany. One former associate, who lives in a large and lovely villa, declares he has “nothing to do with all this shit anymore,” and another friend/comrade, who may or may not be Jeanne’s biological father, is arrested before he can provide them any kind of support. The vampire-terrorists’ tenuous connection to today’s Germany is really only forged by Jeanne, who befriended and now is falling in love with another mid-adolescent whom she happened to meet at the beginning of the film. A surfing tourist who flirted with Jeanne near their family’s southern European hideout, Heinrich (Bilge Bingul) inadvertently reveals to her a place she and her parents can hide out, a mansion near Hamburg where Jeanne resumes contact with Heinrich. She eventually reveals to him that they are living underground, a concept he cannot begin to fathom (“what kind of underground?”), an intergenerational confusion marking the entire film and underscoring how the parents’ moment has passed. In the end, Hans and Clara make one, last ill-fated attempt to rob a bank to fund their flight, but Hans is shot and Clara crashes the getaway car, the first of a series of films that Petzold ends with a vehicular “accident.”

Something to Remind Me: Revenge Thriller as Milieu Study

Something to Remind Me

Something to Remind Me

Petzold has recounted that he was so surprised by the success of State I Am In that he “retreated” to television for his next two works, though, on the heels of his new notoriety, one did have a theatrical release and the other would have had one, if it had not been for prohibitively expensive music rights. Although neither film has been released for Anglophone markets, they fortified Petzold’s status within Germany, with both winning multiple prizes and widespread accolades. Something to Remind Me is noteworthy for its surgical dissection of wealthy western Germany (it is set primarily in Stuttgart) and for initiating Petzold’s remarkable collaboration with the actor Nina Hoss (who went on to star in Yella, Wolfsburg, Jerichow, and Barbara). As with Pilots, Hitchcock serves as a major influence, with Hoss playing the elusive Leyla in a kind of homage to Novak’s Madeline/Judy in Vertigo (1958). In both films, a man working in law (in Something to Remind Me, Thomas (André Hennicke) is an attorney) falls for a woman in what seems serendipitous circumstances, but that turns out to be a carefully planned and manipulated seduction.

In Something to Remind Me, however, it is not, as in Vertigo, a competing male who has deliberately arranged the seduction, but rather Leyla herself. Hoss is remarkable in her double or even triple role, as a woman who happens to fall for the shy, lonely Thomas but who simultaneously hides that she is also the sister of a murdered young woman bent on getting revenge. After stealing Thomas’s laptop to uncover the whereabouts of her sister’s rapist and murderer, Blum (Sven Pippig), she moves eastward nearer to Blum’s prison, and then proceeds to seduce him as well, all with the plan to entrap and kill him. Hoss was a rising mainstream star at the time Petzold cast her – she had been “discovered” in her early 20s by Germany’s most successful post-1970 producer Bernd Eichinger – but she also had a rigorous theatrical background, and Petzold has said how he was pleasantly surprised by both how hard she worked and how multifaceted her performance proved. The subtlety of the performance was certainly required in a film that  – like Claude Chabrol’s 1969 Que la bête meure (This Man Must Die), which Petzold cites as an influence – tracks how people can remake themselves fundamentally for revenge.

Wolfsburg: A Company Town and the Dematerialization of Labour

With his 2003 Wolfsburg, Petzold refocused on the nature of labour and economy in post-war Germany, not least by making a film with a title invoking the factory town of Volkswagen, Germany’s biggest and in many ways trademark company. If Farocki has been a regular collaborator, with Wolfsburg Petzold nods in the direction of another of his DFFB teachers, Hartmut Bitomsky, whose nonfiction film Der VW-Komplex (1990) he cites as a major influence: Bitomsky’s film also takes up how work changes people, though in a more accessible and wry mode than most of Farocki’s films. In Petzold’s hands, the VW factory town hosts a melodrama, in which a distracted yuppie car salesman quarrelling on his mobile phone with his girlfriend happens to run over a boy. After fleeing the scene, Philip  (Benno Fürmann) goes to visit the boy in the hospital and then starts to fall in love with the boy’s (single) mother, Laura (played by Hoss). What could be an almost maudlin tale becomes, typically for Petzold, a bare-bones plot with which to consider the loneliness of modern life and the dissonances of contemporary labour. Love and work are, as in many of his films, insidiously interwoven, with Philip’s initial girlfriend, Katja (Antje Westermann), the co-owner of the dealership where he works and then, in turn, his finding a better job for the underemployed Laura.

Although a German viewer would likely expect a film entitled “Wolfsburg” to feature the eponymous town’s massive factories, Petzold counter-intuitively steers clear of any of the city’s copious manufacturing, favouring instead a deterritorialized glass-and-steel car showroom in which Philip works for Katja’s brother. Whereas the film hints at an earlier mechanics’ training for Philip – he is noticeably skilled at concealing any marks of the collision on his vintage car – his upward mobility in the new Germany requires increasingly dematerialized labour, focusing on the manipulation of unsuspecting buyers rather than the material production of cars. Similarly, Laura trained as a graphic designer but has found work only in a Walmart-style, big-box retail store. This depressing store is bare and spare, an environment where the boss observes his employees through the sort of surveillance cameras that feature in many of Petzold’s works. Both Farocki and Petzold often cite Gilles Deleuze’s theories on societies of control, in which technology has led not so much to liberation as to increased surveillance and discipline. (10) The makings of the plot may be melodramatic, but the subtexts are clear, not least in the automobile and the mobile subjectivity it represents.

Ghosts: Personal and Collective Yearning for a Futile Normalcy

Gespenster (Ghosts)

Gespenster (Ghosts)

Petzold’s 2005 Ghosts was his second film intended from the beginning as a theatrical release and provided the second part, after The State I Am In, of his self-proclaimed “Ghost Trilogy.” With the 2007 Yella completing the trio, all three films foreground individuals who, as emphasized in The State I Am In above, fall out of society and long, in vein, to join the ranks of the normal. Very often, as has been the case throughout his career, part of this falling out of, and longing for, an imagined normalcy is economic, a kind of under- or unemployment interwoven into a broken romantic and erotic life. In The State I Am In, despite their quasi-vampiric existences, Clara and Hans did demonstrate affection and warmth for each other, even if the underground eroded their family life. In Ghosts, however, Petzold returns to the scepticism about couples manifest in Cuba Libre, in which a financially troubled past weighs heavily and forever on the present relationship – the ghosts here are doubtlessly also emotional. In Ghosts, Petzold works again with the fragments of a couple and traditional family in the wake of remnant traumas both personal and (given the Berlin-setting) collective.

In intriguing ways Ghosts starts where State I Am In ended, with Berlin-School regular Julia Hummer playing Nina, a late adolescent woman in a menial job picking up garbage in Berlin’s central park, the Tiergarten (doing what Petozld has termed a “1-Euro job”). (11) Hummer played the terrorists’ daughter Jeanne in The State I Am In, which ended with a close-up of her mud-splattered face after her parents’ car crash in which they presumably both perished – so, the family-less Nina could be the orphaned Jeanne a few years on, now in a kind of urban youth home. But Ghosts, typically for Petzold, avoids undue exposition around such questions. While navigating the park, Nina happens to see some men attacking another young woman, Toni (Sabine Timoteo), and becomes infatuated with her. Toni seems, like Nina, to be drifting through her adolescence close to the centre of Berlin, the renovated and heavily promoted German capital, but Toni also remains an outsider to the life she imagines leading. She steals clothes and money as she prepares for a casting call for a television show for which she drafts the almost laughably morose Nina. During their audition, with prompting from the frustrated director and pleading from Toni, Nina abruptly delivers a remarkable monologue about how she and Toni met (the film is to be called “Friends”). The monologue outlines how Nina dreamt and fantasized meeting Toni before she met her and how Toni, a “queen” among the other young adults, connects Nina to the rest of the world. The director is thoroughly impressed with Nina’s deadpan, otherworldly delivery, and, at the casting after-party, Toni rewards Nina by dancing with her and spending the night with her, before skipping out to, as his wife puts it angrily, “fuck the director”.

This story of strange, frustrated, even uncanny romance is interwoven from the beginning with another fragment of a couple, this time married. The film actually opens with a husband, Pierre (Aurélien Basler), driving from France (another car on another freeway) to pick up his wife, Francoise (Marianne Basler), from a Berlin mental facility. Francoise, viewers learn later, tends to accost teenage girls as their long-ago kidnapped and still missing daughter. It is with their story that one of the film’s most remarkable aspects, its deliberate location-shots of central Berlin, comes into stark focus. Petzold recounts that the film was based on events he observed around the centre of Berlin when the Wall fell in 1989, events relating to the euphoria but also the bedlam of a surprise proximity to world-historical events. At the time, he conceived a story about a French couple working for Libération who had their child kidnapped there – in rough outline, a story following Kleist’s “The Earthquake in Chile,” which Petzold has cited as an influence for Ghosts. (12) With these evocations, the ghosts that Petzold is invoking are certainly also collective and historical.

Among these ghosts are also the many films foregrounding central Berlin. For example, from its first shots, Ghosts seems to invoke one of the most important post-war Berlin films, Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987), directed by Wim Wenders, whom Petzold often cites as a major influence. (13) Perhaps most revealingly, Ghosts elaborates on Wings of Desire’s negotiation of private and public memory. In Wings of Desire, the angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) is driven at one point under an elevated train, which leads to a sudden sort of collective flashback to the bombing of Berlin that takes over the visual track; Petzold parallels this moment by having a driving Francoise flashback to the kidnapping of her daughter, though, typically for Petzold’s films, this transpires not in the stock footage that Wenders applies but in staged surveillance tape. If Cassiel, an individual angel, suffers under a collective flashback of the wartime destruction of the city, Francoise privately remembers the kidnapping of her daughter, which obscures her view of the individuals and city directly in front of her. In Wings of Desire, amid such negotiations of public history and private memory, the film’s other main character, angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz), opts for a private happiness, one that can negate, or at least draw a line under, the city’s and country’s melancholic public history. Almost twenty years after Wenders’ optimistically privatizing ending, Petzold offers characters in a newly made-over Berlin who seem oblivious to the public history around them because of an atomized individuality run amok. If Damiel chooses transient, private happiness in part to overcome the burdensome public history of the city, Petzold’s characters, in the very same spaces, manifest an atomized individuality utterly apathetic to the collective history that saturates these spaces. Privatizing interests and even the nature of individuality signify something quite different twenty years later, in this landscape of the neoliberal casting call and make-over.

Yella: Contemporary Economy in a Horror Remake: 

Yella

Yella

Yella concludes the “Ghost” trilogy with Petzold’s most graphic invocation of the spectral, not least through an overt homage to a horror cult classic. As with Pilots, Cuba Libre, and The State I Am In, Petzold’s preoccupations lead him to a classic genre film that he refigures and recasts: he recounts that he had been contemplating a remake of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) since the early 1990s, as he was fascinated by its simultaneous horror and economic aspects (Petzold has named F.W. Murnau’s illicit Dracula-adaptation Nosferatu (1922) as a favourite film). (14) If Carnival of Souls follows a woman travelling to Salt Lake City for a job – a trip that kills her before she realizes it – Yella similarly foregrounds a woman committed to improving her economic lot through travel, with a concomitant forward movement emotionally. The films’ memorable opening finds Yella, with Nina Hoss returning now as Petzold’s eponymous protagonist, on a train changing her clothes as she returns home to the former East Germany – she is to visit her father and home one last time before taking up a job in the west.

As with The State I Am In and Ghosts, part of the prevailing spectral afterness is a sense of a world full of ruins and rubble, both economic and emotional. Accountant Yella, viewers learn on this trip home, is turning to the west for a job after a failed business venture and a failing marriage with Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann), whom she is likewise leaving behind. Ben is jilted romantically and economically – they ran the failed business together, something viewers learn in one of the film’s genuinely scary scenes when he insists on driving her to the train. On this terrifying car ride, Ben tries to kill them both by driving his Range Rover off a bridge, but Yella apparently continues on her journey to her new job at Alpha-Wings in the Hannover Expo-grounds business park. In line with the constant churn of late capitalism’s creative destruction, however, Alpha- Wings is closing offices even as it is still hiring, so Yella is dismissed upon arrival. Back at the business hotel where she is staying, she meets a man, Philip (Berlin-School regular Devid Striesow) who eerily resembles Ben and who undertakes, as Ben did, both an economic and amorous partnership with her. Philip, however, does not work in HVAC as Ben did, but rather as a venture capitalist investing in small companies and start-ups who cannot secure, for whatever reason, normal bank credit. The contrast between Ben’s and Philip’s work traces the kind of dematerialization of labour with which Petzold seems preoccupied in Wolfsburg.

With Philip’s new-economy labour recasting the horror classic, Petzold has produced one of the landmark European films about neoliberalism and its remaking of labour, landscape, and people at the most intimate level. While Carnival of Soul’s Mary’s work as a church organist seems atavistic even for 1962, Yella’s recruitment to alternative capital markets – run entirely out of business hotels, an Audi station wagon, and laptops – signals the finance-capital future. Even as Ben continues to haunt her dreams, Yella fantasizes an upscale future to be achieved through canny scrutiny of balance sheets and through Philip’s plan to raise capital for a venture aiming to game the global oil industry. In a series of meetings with desperate would-be investment “opportunities,” Petzold unfolds a character arc of increasingly financial savvy on the part of Yella. Here, as in Die Beschlafdiebin, the details of this new economy are reworked from a Farocki nonfiction film, Nicht Ohne Risiko (Nothing Ventured, 2004), which reproduces, in remarkable detail, two business meetings and a working lunch between a venture-capital group and a small, family-owned engineering company. Petzold has said that he was fascinated by how this new form of labour created both new kinds of language (often a mish-mash of German and business English) as well as new types of bodies that moved and gestured in particular ways. By the end of a series of these meetings in which Yella becomes more and more active, the headiness of this ethereal work life, with the new job and new love, overcomes Yella: she is ready to commit a crime to grease the whirring wheels of longed-for investment transactions.

Film Noir and Contemporary Immigration in Jerichow

Jerichow

Jerichow

Petzold’s Jerichow (2008) would take up labour and movement once again, but in a very different vein, that of Turkish immigration to Germany. With Jerichow, Petzold explores many of the auteurist interests discussed above – the interweaving of amorous and economic life, the coldness and paranoia pervading that interweaving, all wrapped up in a retooled genre classic – but does so in this entirely new and largely unexpected constellation of transnational immigration. Turkish people constitute the largest post-war immigrant group in Germany and are regarded as having been instrumental in Germany’s overcoming labour shortages in the wake of the 1950s Economic Miracle. There have been many German films about immigration and immigrant labour, not least by Fassbinder in his celebrated Angst essen Seele auf  (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974), but then also more recently in a series of “guest-worker films” to which Petzold declared Jerichow to be deliberately reacting. (15)

Many of those guest-worker films are well meaning in obvious lessons of tolerance but also narratively simplistic in frequently reductive portraits of both immigrants and Germans. Petzold replies to these representations with another genre classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice. James M. Cain’s novel and the multiple movie versions offer a much more murky tale about immigration, with Frank’s open resentment of Greek-immigrant Nick and his eventual killing of him with the help of Nick’s wife. Petzold relocates this story to the former East German countryside, to which ethnically German Thomas (Benno Fürmann) is returning after years away, first in Afghanistan as a soldier and then in the city trying to run a café — as in Yella, the story starts in medias res, after a fateful economic failure. Given his dishonourable discharge from the army, unemployment, and debts, Thomas  also seems another kind of (economic) ghost longing for the normalcy of a regular job, which he eventually finds with Ali (Ali Özkan), an ethnic Turkish immigrant who owns a chain of snack-bars in the rural region. These ethnic snack-bars (Imbiße) are phenomena usually associated with German cities, but Jerichow highlights how immigrants and immigration also affect the smallest towns (here in the former East German rural region known as the Prignitz). In Petzold’s hands, these snack-bars are located in the transit zones important throughout his cinema, including small-town intersections and discounter parking lots (as he notes, he did not need to introduce the American into the Prignitz, it was already there). (16)

As with Postman’s Frank, Nick, and the latter’s wife Cora, a love triangle intersects the basic economic terms of the “native” relying on the immigrant for a job. Ali is married to an ethnic German woman, Laura (Nina Hoss in another memorable performance) who, like Thomas, has suffered from underemployment and debts. Ali has lifted Laura out of that life by paying off most of her debts and employing her for his snack-bar empire. Per the parameters of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Thomas and Laura start an affair, but here do so almost mechanically – the coldness of their attraction is, besides the utterly resonant setting, one of Petzold’s most notable and moving revisions to the Postman tradition. At one point, when Thomas discovers that Ali has physically assaulted Laura, he suggests he will save her, but Laura cuts him down cruelly with one of the film’s most telling lines, that “You can’t be in love if you don’t have money.” The domestic abuse complicates the film’s depiction of Ali, as does his boorish behaviour with Laura, for example, showing her off “like a new car” to Thomas at one point. (17) But the immigrant’s violence against Laura hardly warrants their plan to kill him, a plan as much about money as love, and leaves the film suspended in ambiguity right through to its final car crash. With Jerichow, Petzold made one of the most complex and challenging depictions of immigration in recent European cinema, one well woven into both his auteurist interests and the tattered fabric of contemporary eastern Germany.

Dreileben– Beats Being Dead: Late-Genre Experiment and Collaboration

Dreileben – Beats Being Dead

Dreileben – Beats Being Dead

Immigration likewise informs Petzold’s next feature length project. One half of the couple that Petzold tracks in Beats Being Dead, is an immigrant, this time a young woman from Bosnia who has immigrated to former East Germany. Beats Being Dead also confirms Petzold’s interest in genre cinema, as a self-reflexive engagement with genre helped initiate one of the most intriguing recent collaborations in German media. With the prominent directors Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler, Petzold had exchanged emails that were later published in Revolver, a journal co-founded by Hochhäusler and loosely associated with the Berlin School. (18) Their discussion pivoted primarily on the status of art-house cinema, like that of the Berlin School, versus smart genre cinema, of which Graf is a proud and rare German practitioner. Notwithstanding their differences on genre cinema, the three directors did agree that Germany would benefit from a more developed film-genre industry and community. They subsequently agreed to collaborate on such a project, with Petzold providing the underlying and connecting story for the trio of directors: a convicted and now escaped murderer, Molesch (Stefan Kurt), is on the loose in a small town, terrorizing some of its residents while others just try to lead their everyday lives. Each of the three directors would direct a feature-length film set in the same, fictional small town called Dreileben (meaning literally “three lives” in German). On the one hand, Petzold’s involvement in the project, particularly in his sketching its foundation, demonstrates his abiding interest in genre cinema. On the other hand, he was only the one of the three to write his own script and certainly Beats Being Dead develops many of the auteurist interests above, here in a more overtly generic framework.           

Beats being Dead follows two late adolescents, Ana (Luna Mijovic) and Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), who find themselves in the small, winter-resort town in the former East for very different reasons. Immigrant Ana is employed as a housekeeper in one of the town’s hotels to help support her family, while Johannes works at the local hospital where his physician mother helped him secure a civil-service position before he is to start medical school. Although the set-up may be familiar, as in the films of the Ghost Trilogy, Petzold deliberately and fruitfully blurs the line between love and economic interest throughout. Ana’s interest in an affair with a future physician, particularly one who plans to study in southern California, is clear, while Johannes, viewers learn slowly, is likely aiming to make the daughter of the head physician at the hospital jealous. These romantic-economic intrigues unfold in the foreground while in the background Molesch escapes due to a distracted mistake of Johannes’. The town’s authorities subsequently mobilize, as in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), to find the phantom-like murderer: also similar to the Ghost Trilogy is the film’s deployment of horror-film techniques, particularly shots that deliberately confuse objective shots with subjective point of view of the murderer-monster suddenly lurking behind the camera. Such techniques are richly deployed in Beats Being Dead’s teenage romance – aspects of another of his favourite films, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), relocated to the former East and infused with moneyed interests.

Barbara and Petzold’s Surprising Turn to Historical Drama

Barbara

Barbara

Petzold’s eleventh feature Barbara broke new and somewhat surprising ground, both in terms of success and content. The film won the Silver Bear in competition at the Berlin Film Festival and subsequently enjoyed the most successful theatrical run of any Berlin School film. It also, somewhat controversially, was Germany’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar, surprising given Petzold’s status as an art-house director. In terms of content, it was the first Berlin-School film set in the historical past and has even led some to wonder if, with this turn to the historical, the Berlin School is reaching its end. As noted above, Berlin-School directors have avoided the kind of Nazi-era historical drama that has attracted the most attention for German cinema around the globe, such as Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979), Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa, 2001), Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004), and Die Fälscher (Counterfeiters, 2007). Petzold has openly mocked the notion that he might run around a set with a bullhorn ordering a bunch of Nazi-uniformed actors into some kind of film formation. All of his films before Barbara unfold in the contemporary moment and very much engage with it, particularly, as we have seen, the neoliberal transformation of labour and people with it. Set in early 1980s provincial East Germany, Barbara struck many as a surprise, although, as I emphasized with Ghosts’ reply to the Berlin film or Jerichow’s to the guest-worker film, Petzold does engage critically with trends or even genres of the mainstream films around him. Barbara responds explicitly to the wave of historical drama not about the Nazis, but rather those about East Germany, including the only German historical film not about Nazis to have enjoyed both national and international success, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006)

Barbara is based on a Hermann Broch story from 1936, an unsentimental depiction of the conflicts between political commitment and romantic love. Petzold reset the novella to 1980s East Germany, where, as in the story, two doctors fall in love at a rural hospital, where the woman, unbeknownst to the man who loves her, is secretly struggling with whether to flee from her political commitment to communism. In Petzold’s film, Nina Hoss does not, pace Broch, play a convinced communist, but someone instead set to abandon the socialist Soviet-satellite country for the West – she is another of Petzold’s women facing a crucial decision about her westward-looking life not only in terms of love but also, typically, in terms of her work. An accomplished physician, she has been reassigned from East Germany’s most famous hospital, the Charité in the capital East Berlin, to a small-town clinic for officially applying to leave East Germany. She is secretly involved with a West-German businessman, Jörg (Mark Waschke), and is also convinced that, as she says dismissively to Jörg when he offers to emigrate to East Germany, that “one cannot be happy in this country.” Working in the out-of-the-way clinic, however, she starts to fall in love with her supervising doctor, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), who shows her the kind of meaningful contributions one can make even at a rural remove. For most prominent example, she helps a younger dissident, Stella, stuck in a forced labour camp but also determined to escape – a young woman who clearly reminds Barbara of her own self-endangering discontent with East Germany.

Petzold’s focus on a person’s relationship to her work distinguishes his historical drama from those flooding German cinema in general. He has recounted that he was interested in how a couple’s love can emerge not only around reproduction and the promise of a child, but also around production, in their everyday work, where people spend most of their time and achieve much of their satisfaction. (19) In Barbara his interest is not, as in many of his other films, so much in the historical transformation of labour, its contemporary dematerialization, but rather in the satisfaction and solidarities one can derive from it. This shift in Petzold’s interests lends Barbara a decidedly more positive depiction of work-life than films like Wolfsburg, Ghosts, Yella, or Jerichow. On the other hand, however, the film deliberately depicts the violence and brutality of the socialist GDR regime from its beginning. The first shots recall the prevalence of surveillance in Petzold’s films: viewers see almost immediately a long-take, point-of-view shot, and then hear off-screen discussion, of Barbara as she arrives at the rural clinic – a discussion, viewers learn quickly, led by a East German Stasi officer charged with observing her.

In its multifaceted depiction both of work in the GDR and of the Stasi, one can see a pointed response to films like Lives of Others. Petzold is careful to depict how criminally brutal the regime could be, not least in the cruel incarceration of Stella and in the strip searches to which the Stasi subjects Barbara when they suspect her of planning her escape. But, on the other hand, it is through their everyday work that Petzold investigates how GDR citizens, here André and even Barbara, could still achieve happiness in the private spheres of labour and love despite the violence and brutality of the regime – the excitement of falling for someone, the satisfaction at work, and hope in general all abided in the East as well as in the West. There was still hope, personal and collective, coursing through the society, and it is precisely such hope that many other films about East Germany downplay or neglect. In the end, Barbara’s decision about whether to escape takes into account both of these aspects of the GDR, both its brutality and its hope, so contains a complexity too often denied in films about this particular historical past.

Petzold’s next announced project, tentatively entitled Phoenix, is also set to be a historical drama, though one about the transformational period at the end and then just after World War II. It seems a topic focused on the kinds of historical and personal transformation his cinema has foregrounded throughout. He tracks these sorts of transformations in precisely observed spaces, in relentless and restless forward movement, and the change registered on the body itself.  People grow dimly aware of their own spectral obsolescence and lurch forward toward normalcy, a tendency observed in multiple settings at the intersection of economy and history. From the early films set in the Ruhr region through his most overtly political film (The State I Am In) to the more recent works about what was East Germany, Petzold’s cinema seismically registers the tectonic shifts in Germany and in contemporary society in general.

Endnotes

  1.   See http://www.vdfk.de/301-preis-der-deutschen-filmkritik-2012
  2. Rüdiger Suchland, “Geister im thüringischen Wald,” Berliner Zeitung, February 16, 2011.
  3. Dennis Lim, “A German Wave, Focused on Today,” New York Times, May 6, 2009.
  4. Christof Siemes, Katja Nicodemus, and Christian Petzold, “‘Arm Filmt Gut? Das Gefällt Mir Nicht’: Ein Gespräch Mit Christian Petzold,” Die Zeit, Jaunary 9, 2009.
  5. Stefan Ertle and Rainer Knepperges, “Drei Zu Zwei Hitverdächtig: Ein Gespräch Mit Christian Petzold,” Filmwärts 34/35 (1995): 73-76, here 75
  6. Such is the core of Marco Abel’s argument in his chapter on Petzold in his The Counter-Cinema of Berlin School: Redistributing the Sensible (Rochester: Camden House, forthcoming).
  7. Dana Polan, “Detour,” Senses of Cinema, July 17, 2002; accessed February 21, 2013. http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/cteq/detour/.
  8. David Laderman, Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie (Austin: U of Texas, 2002) 31-32.
  9. Rainer Gansera and Christian Petzold, “Toter Mann, was nun?” Süddeutsche Zeitung, October 2, 2002
  10. Harun Farocki refers to Deleuze in some of his writings, for instance, in “Controlling Observation,” in Harun Farocki: Working on the Sightlines, ed. Thomas Elsaesser (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004) 289-95. For Petzold’s citation of Deleuze, see Marco Abel and Christian Petzold. “The Cinema of Identification Gets on My Nerves: An Interview with Christian Petzold,” Cineaste 33.3 (2008), accessed February 22, 2013. http://www.cineaste.com/articles/an-interview-with-christian-petzold.htm.
  11. Ulrich Kreist and Christian Petzold, “Irgendetwas ist nicht in Ordnung: Christian Petzold über seinen neuen Film,” Stuttgarter Zeitung, September 20, 2005.
  12. Rüdiger Suchsland and Christian Petzold, “Ein Roman hält uns nicht zusammen,” Frankfurter Rundschau, February 17, 2005.
  13. Jaimey Fisher and Christian Petzold, “Interview with Christian Petzold,” in The Cinema of Christian Petzold: A Ghostly Archeology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).
  14. Rayd Khouloki and Christian Petzold, “Schwebezustände: Gespräch Mit Regisseur Chirstian Petzold,” Film-Dienst 56.20 (2003): 44.
  15. Jaimey Fisher and Christian Petzold, “Interview with Christian Petzold.”
  16. Peter Uehling and Christian Petzold, “Wiederaufstehung in Der Prignitz.” Berliner Zeitung, January 8, 2009.
  17. Christian Petzold, “Commentary,” Jerichow DVD.
  18. See Dominik Graf, Christoph Hochhäusler, and Christian Petzold.“Mailwechsel,” Revolver 16 (2007).
  19. Christian Petzold, Press Conference for Barbara, Berlin Film Festival, February 11, 2012.

Filmography

Das warme Geld (The Warm Money, 1992)

Pilotinnen (Pilots, 1995)

Cuba Libre (1996)

Die Beschlafdiebin (‘The Sex Thief’, 1998)

Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000)

Toter Mann (Something to Remind Me, 2001)

Wolfsburg (2003)

Gespenster (Ghosts, 2005,)

Yella (2007)

Jerichow (2008)

Dreileben: Etwas Besseres Als Der Tod  (Beats Being Dead, 2011)

Barbara (2012)

Bibliography

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Web Resources

Abel, Marco and Christian Petzold. “The Cinema of Identification Gets on My Nerves: An Interview with Christian Petzold.” Cineaste (online), 2008. http://www.cineaste.com/articles/an-interview-with-christian-petzold.htm

Ghosts official site (with additional materials): http://www.gespenster-der-film.de/

Yella official site (with additional materials):
http://yella-der-film.piffl-medien.de/kurzinhalt.html

Jerichow official site (with additional materials):
http://www.jerichow-der-film.de/kurzinhalt.html

Barbara official site (with additional materials): http://www.barbara-der-film.de/

“Christian Petzold on Barbara,” Filmmaker Magazine by R. Kurt Osenlund http://filmmakermagazine.com/61159-christian-petzold-on-barbara/

“Worlds of Possibilities: Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhäusler’s DreilebenBy Dennis Lim, CinemaScope46 

“Spatial Suspense: A Conversation with Christian Petzold,” by Daniel Kasman, Mubi, Published on 16 October 2012 http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/spatial-suspense-a-conversation-with-christian-petzold

About The Author

Jaimey Fisher is Associate Professor of German and Cinema and Technocultural Studies at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Christian Petzold (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and Disciplining German: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after the Second World War (Wayne State Press, 2007), and editor of a range of anthologies on German cinema. His current book-project analyses war films in Germany from 1914-1961.