Harun (Farocki’s) premise was the insight that we do not even have any new images of capitalism yet. Sure, we have these airport boarding zones, where we see modern people with laptops, reading high-gloss magazines, wearing Rolexes and Burberry clothes. All this is only a surface, but we do not have images for how this new form of capitalism operates. We have books about it, but we do not find those images in films. In cinema, capitalism is still being imaged as Charles Chaplin did in Modern Times (1936).1

In his career-spanning interview with Christian Petzold,2  Jaimey Fisher prompts the director to reflect on his student years (1988-1994) at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb), which coincided with the Wende – the fall of the Wall and the subsequent unification of East and West Germany.3 In this extremely interesting albeit short section in what is a far-ranging interview, Petzold briefly discusses one of his earliest filmic efforts, his short film Ostwärts –Fernverkehrsstrasse 2 (1990). Petzold claims he decided to make this twenty-four-minute film because at the time he had the sense that no filmmaker had yet “found a language to express what had happened” in the GDR.4 Prompted by documentary filmmaker Peter Nestler, who in a dffb seminar that Petzold attended had told his students that they should take their cameras and “look at what is happening,”5 he and his small cohort, including Thomas Arslan, set out to make short films to accomplish just this: to look at what is happening at that very moment and in so doing both enact cinema’s witnessing function and commence the laborious effort of developing a filmic language that might be able to express what had happened to the GDR as well as what had just gotten underway in unified Germany. Self-critically, Petzold assesses his own effort with scepticism. While praising Arslan’s film Am Rand (1991) as “very beautiful,” he expresses dismay about most other moving images produced at the time, including his own: “But mostly people shot things as if they were downloaded from the Internet, the images that we all knew. And I myself could not manage it – I did not really find any images, at that point, for the Wende. I realise that I should have directed the camera at myself as well.”6

While I think the experience of watching Ostwärts lends some support for Petzold’s self-critical assessment of his failure to find any images for the Wende with this early effort, the film nevertheless holds (film) historical interest because it somehow manages to capture the emergence of a process of subjectivation that would eventually come to define Petzold’s concerns as a filmmaker: the (German) people’s becoming-economic in the immediate post-wall era.7 It is perhaps no exaggeration to claim that Petzold must be credited as having been among the very first (German) filmmakers to have managed, intuitively if not intentionally, to render visible in filmic form a process that at the time was still in its nascent state but that eventually would, in my view, become more era-defining for unified Germany than unification itself: what we might want to call the neoliberalisation of Germany. This encroachment of neoliberalism upon Germany would of course productively serve Petzold with narrative fodder over the next two decades, whether for his early efforts such as Pilotinnen (Pilots, 1995) and Die Beischlafdiebin (The Sex Thief, 1998), his better-known later films Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008), or his Dreileben contribution, Etwas Besseres als den Tod (Beats Being Dead, 2011).

Indeed, watching Ostwärts as well as some of his other early efforts – in particular Süden (1989), Weiber (1989), and Das warme Geld (1992) – I think it is possible to argue, as I intend to do below, that those student efforts, contrary to Petzold’s self-assessment, can be considered untimely responses to a process that would register on the broader public’s consciousness only belatedly, many years later. That is, while it is hardly news today to point out that Germany has been neoliberalised, at the time of the Wende the economic (and thus also political) transformation it would effect was still muted, hardly noticeable to all but the most astute socio-political observers. This process and its potential effects on the German socius were certainly not widely discussed, perhaps because the immediacy and magnitude of the seemingly era-defining event of unification itself blocked attention to and discussions of most anything else, but perhaps also because at the time neither the internet nor what we now call the sharing and service economies that are so characteristic of neoliberal capitalism (in the West, in any case) had fully developed in Germany yet.

It is because of this socio-political context – that neoliberalism was not yet really “in the German air,” as it were – that I think Petzold’s dffb films can be considered untimely. Only today, perhaps, with the benefit of historical hindsight, is it possible to fully recognise that they were already responding to something – specifically: a new mode of power – that back then was merely “emerging” and had not yet become “dominant” (to appropriate Raymond Williams’ terminology);8 but, importantly, as I shall discuss below, Petzold’s goal was, even at such an early stage of his filmmaking career, not just to have his films show what “is” (that is, to merely represent the state of affairs) but also to act upon the potential of these really existing but still mostly dormant and thus primarily virtual forces in order to help actualize them at a future time, a time to come – but to actualize them in a counter-effectuating manner.9 That is, even these earliest filmic efforts in his filmography evidence how he approaches filmmaking as a matter of intervening in the distribution of the sensible, to use Jacques Rancière’s influential phrase: to use film not so much to teach viewers a lesson (à la Michael Moore, say) but to make us see, sense, and perceive something that the existing distribution of the sensible has blocked from our perceptive apparatus; and, as I have argued elsewhere, such re-distributing of the sensible is often a matter of a haptic or affective force to which Petzold’s films manage to subject his viewers.10

In an interview, Petzold recalls that Ostwärts’s topical focus was also inspired by Nester, who had told him: “What lies ahead of us is post-communism. Now there is the Treuhand. Now the world of work will be destroyed. These people do not even know yet what they will have to face. They will no longer have work, they will live in areas where there is no longer any industrial production.”11 And Ostwärts (the full German title translates as “Eastbound – Freeway 2”) does image this suddenly emerging state of affairs both in the three conventionally shot interviews that form the film’s core and in the transitional shots of bare, uninviting landscapes, roads that are only infrequently traversed by cars or trucks, industrial wastelands that exhibit hardly any activity, or a train station – examples of the very non-places to which Petzold’s oeuvre time and again returns and the depiction of which resonates with Marc Augé’s work, to which Petzold frequently refers in interviews later on in his career.12

Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold

Derelict industrial landscapes in Christian Petzold’s Ostwärts –   Fernverkehrsstrasse 2

Viewed from the historical distance of a quarter of a century, the film, in devastating yet prescient ways, puts the lie to what at the time was the dominant unification discourse, which Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s rhetoric of “blühende Landschaften” (flowering landscapes) so powerfully framed: “By working together, we will manage to transform Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia into flowering landscapes in which it will be worthwhile to live and work.”13 Ostwärts’s auditory and visual archive shows that it was possible – at the very time when Kohl’s remark powerfully impacted the distribution of the sensible of what could be seen, sensed, and perceived about the reality of unification – to make visible, sensible, and perceivable precisely that which the overriding contemporary political discussion refused to acknowledge: the illusory if not delusional belief that the incorporation of the East into West German Basic Law would be anything but a takeover governed by economic and social principles that would challenge not only the lived experience of citizens of former East Germany, who were used to a planned socialist economy, but also the lived experiences of citizens of former West Germany, who were used to living in a social market economy.14

Petzold’s own words capture this sense of illusion, if not delusion. Remembering his thinking at the time of the film’s production, he tells his interviewers that back then he felt that people “from the East believed that one could earn money with this [computer courses, face art royal]. And those from the West thought that this [the East] is a new kind of California.”15 This dialectic – people from the East embracing “Western ways,” on the one hand, and, on the other, people from the West looking at the East as the German equivalent of the “Wild West,” as a land of endless opportunities – manifests itself in the film’s three interviews. The first interview features a young woman who relocated from the West in order to start anew – she claims that people in the new, but not in the old, Federal states accept her art, that people in the West reject things that are new, and that over there, art is tied to competition; in contrast, she says, in the East people are more open to new things, to avant-garde things, as she puts it.

Christian Petzold

First interviewee: Face Art Royal. Christian Petzold, Ostwärts –  Fernverkehrsstrasse 2

The second interview shows a man who describes the building complex we see in the frame, which is essentially a job-training site for East Germans; he expresses hope that at some time all of this would yield some success.

Christian Petzold

Second interviewee. Christian Petzold, Ostwärts – Fernverkehrsstrasse 2

But I think it is the third interview – which features a fifty-year old former factory worker who built his own snack restaurant, well knowing that he would soon be laid off due to the Treuhand’s takeover of his former employer – that is the most interesting.16

What is fascinating is how lucidly this man gives voice to the very forces of neoliberal capitalism that must have been utterly new to him (but also to most Germans of the time, including the implied viewers for this film).17 Contrasting his entrepreneurial effort to the production-based economic activity of his former employment, he describes how he found himself eventually soliciting help from West German advertisement specialists in order to attract more customers to his fledgling business.18 The man expresses, understandably, hope for more profit, saying: “We all must place our hope in the future. But whether it will get better: we don’t know.”

Christian Petzold

Third interviewee. Christian Petzold, Ostwärts – Fernverkehrsstrasse 2

What the film reveals, here, is how the man is no longer reduced to productive labour but – worse, the film implies – to ineffable hope. We might say that the precise way in which he links necessity – must (müssen in the original) – and hope expresses the essence of the very neoliberal regime of power the emerging forces of which the film captures. After all, neoliberalism “governs by metaphorizing the market as a game, […] the state as its umpire, and […] individuals and populations as players for whom all choices are in principle possible – with the one exception of the choice not to play the game of the market at all” (20).19 Neoliberalism is predicated on us affirming our subjectivity as hopeful gamblers: we have no choice but to play, to gamble, to hope that the role of the neoliberal dice will yield a (more) profitable future. Yet, the film’s images presciently reveal that this hope, predicated on a desperate embracing of a process of becoming-economic, will prove to be successful in one specific way only: namely, insofar that the subjectivity of people like this man would become permeated with economic imperatives (out of need), while nevertheless, in most cases, not being able to achieve the hoped-for economic profit and well-being (something Yella and Jerichow powerfully dramatize in fictional, genre-specific ways). Watching the film a quarter century later is a harrowing experience, which is further intensified by the film’s stark documentary images of a landscape (and its people) that was anything but flowering and that, so those images implied already in 1990, would never be able to flower under the newly emerging regime of a “lighter,” non-production-based version of capitalism.


But let us return to Fisher’s interview with the director: Petzold, by now a seasoned subject of hundreds of interviews, is undoubtedly one of the best analysts of his own work, and we would perhaps be well-advised to heed Nora Alter’s cautionary observation that we should not rely too heavily on directors’ retrospective statements about their own films, no matter how brilliant and suggestive their own account of their work might be.20 Still, I think three points are worth foregrounding from this brief yet richly suggestively passage. First, Petzold’s remark about the need to find a (new film) language in order to render visible the transformational moment of the Wende gives voice to his belief that the real task for a filmmaker who wants to engage the world on a political level is not to make political films but to make films politically, to recall once more Jean-Luc Godard’s famous dictum.21 It is not enough simply to take a camera and capture what is in front of it; instead, an appropriate cinematic form has to be found if one wants to avoid producing the very clichés about, in this case, the Wende, which Petzold felt had already been dominating Germany’s small and large screens at the time (and that are hardly absent from productions that are more contemporary to our own moment).

Differently put – and this is the second point I want to make – this brief discussion in Fisher’s interview also highlights Petzold’s sense, already manifest during his student years, that filmmaking is also always a matter of attending to film history and historiography – and, I want to add, therefore also of film theory. The filmmaker has to be aware of both the history of images lest he merely reproduce them (and thus produce little more than clichés) and of how every film writes and re-writes the history of that which it renders visible.22 This awareness allows the filmmaker to abstract from the fullness of the screen the already existing images of an event in order to image something that we have not yet seen and that, importantly, might have enough force to impact how we subsequently might write the history of both the filmic engagement with the event and the event itself.23

And, thirdly, to be able to do so – to abstract from a screen that is virtually jam-packed with other images, with clichés – it is imperative for a filmmaker to be alert to the present, or rather to how the present is always already bifurcating into past and future, is always, as Deleuze argues, the actualization of the virtual.24 Or in more recognisable language established from the ongoing conversation about Petzold’s work, Petzold’s account about the need to look at what is happening is a remark about his desire to be present to both spatial and temporal transitions. Such transitions spatially manifest themselves in a preponderance of non-places in his films – what he himself frequently describes as “bubble” worlds – and, temporally, as an affectively felt sense of belatedness.25 It is not only his films’ characters who profoundly feel this sensation of having arrived too late but also Petzold himself, who, as a leftist, is keenly aware of the fact that in the genealogy of (German) filmmakers and intellectuals his post-Wende moment is one that is decidedly after “1968.” As an intellectual filmmaker, he takes seriously the fact that he has arrived after something important has passed: to wit, the very conditions of possibility for a left politics and aesthetics that the cipher ’68 names – something of which we have now only rapidly fading memories but that were still available as lived experience to the filmmakers who taught him at the dffb and most profoundly influenced his ideas about filmmaking, especially his friend and mentor, the late Harun Farocki. And because of his own sense of having arrived too late for this kind of left politics and filmmaking aesthetics, as well as how this sense of belatedness is inscribed into his films through his characters, the mood of his films arguably compels viewers to partake in this sense, in this sensation, of having come too late as well; by cinematically subjecting us to this sensation of belatedness, his films force us to confront one of the central affective states of our own neoliberal world: its relentless a-historicism, its hyper-presentism.26

As a first step to develop a film form capable of encountering the present qua transition – a step that today he might likely dismiss as a dead-end and that, in any case, is singular in his oeuvre – Petzold made what is arguably his most radically experimental film, Süden (which translates as “South”).27 A ten-minute short shot on 8mm colour film stock, the film constitutes perhaps the director’s most avant-gardist effort. With no discernible plot or characters (we see various people, shot from chest down), the film is essentially an exercise in montage, linking a series of shots depicting cars, fragments of buildings, roads, newspapers blowing in the wind, a woman in her underwear, and a number of books shown in close-up, including the German translations of two pulp fiction greats, Jim Thompson’s Texas by the Tail (1965) and James M. Cain’s Career in C Major and Other Stories (1943), as well as Joseph Conrad’s novella The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897).28 As the montage continues to single out in close-up the covers of books lying on the floor, we discover also Siegfried Kracauer’s classic film theory book, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960), and another hallmark of film theory that in 1989 had just been made available in German translation, Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (originally published in French in 1983), in which the philosopher begins to revolutionise how we think about the cinema, arguing against the dominant view of the cinema as signifying or representational medium and instead puts forth an argument for its arepresentational, asignifying nature.29

Christian Petzold

Books in the wind. Christian Petzold, Süden

Christian Petzold

Film Theory books. Christian Petzold, Süden

Essentially an example of associative montage, this scene is best understood as a loosely configured commentary on the film’s production circumstances: shot in a hot climate (similar to Thompson’s novel’s setting),30 with a soundtrack of the Uruguayan band Sexteto Electronico Moderno’s song “Vivre pour Vivre” (the title story of Cain’s story collection is about a contractor who becomes an opera singer and reveals the author’s knowledge of music), the film is lit in an almost overexposed manner – the bright hot sunlight that gives the film an impressionistic character (the preface of Conrad’s novella is often considered a manifesto of literary impressionism).31 Each shot goes out of its way to register the material phenomena its gaze beholds in their opaque material singularity, as if to foreground their arepresentational signaletic force rather than their signifying quality (Deleuze) in order to visualize Kracauer’s central argument that “all these shots are more or less free-hovering images of material reality. As such they also allude to contexts unrelated to the events which they are called upon to establish. Their cinematic quality lies precisely in their allusiveness, which enables them to yield all their psychological correspondences.”32 Contexts these images allude to include, for example, that of Italian Neorealism (which Süden evokes with a shot of an image from Vittorio DeSica’s Lardi di biciclette [The Bicycle Thieves, 1948] included in one of the books) and the political tradition of anarchism, to which the film subtly points with a shot of the cover of Der Torpedokäfer: Ein anarchistisches Poesiealbum, a collection of pieces written by anarchist writers during the time of the November Revolution in 1918 and its immediate aftermath and assembled some six decades later in order to keep alive the memory of the tradition of revolutions and revolts. In the volume’s preface one finds a sentence that strikes me as intriguingly apropos in relation to what I take to be Petzold’s oeuvre’s main focus – to wit, the utopian desire to belong, which is blocked by the neoliberal economic operations immanent to constituted “Germany,” which remains nevertheless haunted by the politically constituent nomós “Germany”: “The new state [the Federal Republic of Germany] does not support the working through of the past but the gross national product. And the moral of economic success became the rule book for the past and the present. So it was up to him [the Torpedokäfer] to discover what his roots were.”33

Stylistically, of course, the film has little to do with Petzold’s later career; in fact, the director himself admits that his early efforts were so unsatisfying to him that he eventually took a break in order to just study how other filmmakers made their films before commencing his own attempts: “I thought that because I had studied literature – and I had also written a lot, short stories and such – it would be really easy for me to make narrative cinema. I thought I would write a script, cast some actors, get the production in order, and direct the film myself. But during the first year at the academy, I found out that I was not capable of doing this.”34 Yet Süden is nevertheless noteworthy because it reveals how early in his career the seeds for his major films were already present: Petzold’s love for the thriller genre, especially in form of film noir or its literary origin in American pulp fiction; his self-understanding as an intellectual (“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.”); his theoretically grounded resistance to an understanding of images as signs (“I always thought that Roland Barthes was right when he argued that a film, an image, is not a sign.”); his fascination with the question of labour (even on vacation the artist/intellectual cannot stop working); and his awareness of the political history of post-World War Two Germany and how its development is genealogically haunted by a constitutive economic imperative overriding a properly political one – an insight that Michel Foucault puts forth in The Birth of Biopolitics and that I develop in the conclusion of The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School.35

So while Süden has perhaps little merit as a film, it is nevertheless of film historical interest for our purposes because it evidences how Petzold took seriously his claim that it was necessary to find a new film language in order to engage the present of the Wende; even though the film is not “about” the fall of the wall and subsequent unification, we see here crucial traces of his will to experiment in practice with the question of film language, which this film perhaps visualises in a way that only student films would do and, in any case, does so in formal ways that do not similarly manifest themselves in his later films (i.e., Petzold’s career quickly moves from the associative avant-garde montage that structures Süden toward a more narrative-oriented cinema).

What we can also detect in Süden is that, for Petzold, the need to find a new film language in order to encounter the event (the moment at which a transition, a change in kind, occurs) and to figure out what, in fact, the moment of transition is transitioning away from and, perhaps even more crucially, towardSüden gestures to the issue of work more circuitously than Ostwärts but nevertheless folds it into its mise-en-scène – is and always has been a matter of encountering the world not only as such, as it “is” in its brute facticity, but also as it has been shaped, and has been made accessible to us, by and through the history of moving images. Indeed, as Fisher’s monograph convincingly demonstrates, Petzold’s oeuvre is defined by its iterative enacting of a “ghostly archeology of genre,” something that is embodied in Süden in the materiality of the images of the pulp fiction books. Likewise, in Weiber (“Broads” might be the best translation of the German), a thirteen-minute long short film he shot on 16mm black and white stock prior to Süden, Petzold tells the story (if we can call it that) of two young men whose journey on the Autobahn ends in the setting of an amusement park by merging remnants of film genres such as the road movie, the coming-of-age story, the buddy film, and even, I would argue, science fiction. This mishmash of genres somewhat confounds viewers’ ability to make sense of the “story,” which focuses on a young man (played by Petzold’s brother) who does not yet have a driver’s license and is thus only allowed to play at driving car but who at one time seems to narrate, in voice over form, his first sexual experience. What we actually hear, however, is the reading of a literary text by Dan McCall, and it is unclear whether the voice over narrative is actually supposed to represent the protagonist’s thoughts or fantasy.36 The film, moreover, has no original sound, which contributes to its peculiar mood, hovering somewhere between a small documentary-like story and something almost otherworldly. This otherworldliness is further enhanced by the use of slow motion and the odd sensation of seeing the protagonist being almost Gulliver-like in relation to cars and houses, which we only gradually realize are part of the scenery of the Miniaturwelt Minidom amusement park.37

Christian Petzold

Protagonist in Miniaturwelt Minidom amusement park. Christian Petzold, Weiber

What might at first seem like a poorly shot and constructed juvenilia – and, to be sure, it is juvenilia – can, however, also be regarded as yet another of Petzold’s early attempts at finding a proper filmic form that would allow him to respond to transitional moments, which is to say: the present. For as the program note accompanying the film’s screening in the context of a showing of short films by Berlin School filmmakers astutely suggests, the film “draws an empathetic picture of the worries and longings of a generation that has not yet found its beat” (my italics).38 A film about a generation that has not yet found its own beat – which is to say: what its present is and how it is supposed to negotiate, respond to it – is a film about a generation in-between stages, in transition, not yet sure where it will be heading (this is of course literally true for the experience of transitioning from late adolescence to early adulthood, from school to work or university, from innocence to experience, and so on, all tropes to which the film’s narrative alludes). Yet, unlike so many films in one of the genres Weiber excavates for the (German) screen, Petzold’s early effort does not end with a clear sense of the “other side” of this transitional process; instead, it is telling that the young man ends up in one of the film’s many non-places: filmed in slow motion, we see him walking in the no man’s land near an Autobahn by Düsseldorf airport towards a fence that visualizes the fact that he is not yet able to satisfy his longing to join the drivers he sees traversing what Christoph Hochhäusler once called the “cathedral of arteries” that runs through the Federal Republic.39

But it is worth pointing out that the film’s images of actual driving on actual roads does not at all correspond to the protagonist’s romanticized idea of driving – a romantic idea wonderfully captured by the almost drone-like camera movement as it smoothly “flies” across the miniature car scene in the amusement park. In other words, the film reframes for the viewer the protagonist’s romanticism and yearning – one historically shared by Germans whose obsession with their cars is pronounced and whose desire to escape the country by car at the first opportunity (vacations or long weekends) are themselves embodied responses to a cross-generational psychological unease about Germany. In so doing, it not only responds to the generic history of the road film but also anticipates Petzold’s early feature films, which all concern characters who dream of escaping Germany. Pilots is in this regard unique in that it is Petzold’s only film in which a protagonist actually manages to escape Germany. The film’s final shot might very well be one of the two most overtly optimistic in Petzold’s oeuvre (the other being the last shot of Barbara [2012]), giving us the rarest of images in his work: “a direct image of that momentary sensation of freedom and belonging, of freedom qua belonging, of freedom in belonging – albeit one located in Paris, rather than in “Germany,” a fact that is surely significant.”40 In contrast, the protagonists’ attempts to escape Germany in Cuba Libre (1996) and The Sex Thief already end deadly; and The State I Am In concludes his film’s focus on Germans who desire to leave, showing a family on the run that, after failing to escape Germany (and Europe) for good, is forced to return to the very country that does not want it to re-join its socius.41

By excavating the remnants of the history of genre cinema, Petzold seeks to activate them in a post-genre filmmaking moment in order to “understand,” as Fisher argues in his contribution to this dossier, “the past archeologically, particularly its transitional and transformational moments, and the present’s relationship to them” and “to conjure moments of insight into both past and present, particularly the transition between them.”42 And this tripartite relationship between the need to heed film history/historiography, the affirmation of film form as a necessary political aspect of filmmaking, and the desire to respond to moments of transitions is already discernible in Petzold’s student films.

I do not want to assert that these films are of much more than film historical interest – they are not necessarily “good” or “successful” films, though especially Das warme Geld (literally: the warm money), a blueprint for The Sex Thief – clearly shows the promise that his later work would fulfil. However, I do want to complicate Petzold’s own assessment of his juvenilia as a failure because I am arguing that he in fact found images for the very event that we call Wende. An event, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, is not “of” history (and cannot be explained by recourse to a historical narrative); this also means an event cannot be “represented” in a way that I can photographically represent the table upon which my laptop currently sits. An event, the philosophers insist, exists only in its effects – and those are, by definition, always yet to come.43 So perhaps unbeknownst to Petzold himself, his films succeeded in imaging the Wende precisely because he did not seek to “represent” it. Instead, he laboured to respond to the forces that were virtually percolating in and through this event in order to sense these forces, to render them sensible for viewers, and in so doing to act upon this event. He did so, however, not with an eye on representing what was at that moment the event’s most dominant manifestation (unification itself) but instead with the desire to shape the event’s future unfolding – an unfolding that would manifest new effects belatedly in relation to the event’s moment of historical irruption. And these belated effects as which the Wende continued to unfold over the next quarter century are what we call neoliberalism – a term that was barely present to us in 1989/90; that is, immanent to but not caused by the Wende, the virtual (neoliberal) forces that already inhered or subsisted in this event subsequently began to actualise themselves by creating new effects. And what I would like to submit here in admittedly speculative fashion is that Petzold’s seemingly innocuous student films managed to give its viewers an inkling of what ultimately turned out to be the real event of era-shaping proportions: the encroachment of neoliberalism on unified Germany.


In this regard I find it revealing how Petzold describes the evolution of his career in the second part of the section in his conversation with Fisher in which they discuss his dffb years – a passage worth quoting in full, as it contains much that is crucial to our understanding of his career but that also includes a remark that I want to suggest we need to read against Petzold’s own account as a way of thinking about his dffb films and seeing their connection to his career and what it has most essentially been about:

I think one really has to live with the confusion for a while. And with the Wende, I was totally confused, as were my parents – they came from East Germany, and they really did not know what to think. This state of balance just was not maintained. And then I thought, this has always preoccupied me, so after The State I Am In, which was really a matter of working through the 1970s, I was able to finally address what happened: the transformation of a state-socialist system into a neoliberal system. In particular, I wanted to explore what happened to the people in the process of this transformation – and what kinds of films could be made about that.44

With films such as Yella, Jerichow, and Beats Being Dead, Petzold implies here, he was at long last able to address what had taken place during the Wende years, as it was with these films that he started to dramatize in more explicit ways the impact neoliberalism has on his characters – to wit, their becoming-economic.45 While it is undoubtedly correct to assert that these films, all set in the former GDR, do just what he claims they do in the passage quoted here, it seems to me that his student films already planted the seeds for what would come to fruition only more than a decade later, precisely because he approached his films from the start as a matter of encountering moments of transformation. And after he used his lens to look at the moment of transformation from adolescence to adulthood (Weiber) and from pre- to post-unification Germany (Ostwärts), as well as having engaged in a meta-reflection on the very question of film form (Süden) as a tool for cinematically encountering such transformational moments, his last dffb short film, Das warme Geld, finally turns explicitly to the question of the changing economy – to wit, the transformation of a social market into a neoliberal economy – and the fact that, as Petzold puts it when describing the impetus for Yella quoted as this essay’s epigram, “we do not even have any new images of capitalism yet.”

In other words, just as Ostwärts was prompted by the lack of images for the Wende and Yella by the lack of images for neoliberalism, so Das warme Geld was prompted by the absence of images for the transformation away from one economic mode and into another that in the immediate post-Wende years was merely emerging. Importantly for Petzold’s subsequent career, his last short film, which the director considers somewhat of a breakthrough, inaugurates the long lineage of female protagonists that would come to dominate his features and arguably have earned him a place in the pantheon of great directors of female actresses, with Nina Hoss’s six lead performances to date obviously standing out.46 That Petzold begins to focus on female rather than male characters may, however, not just reflect the fact that it “prevents [him] from getting too biographical”;47 instead, this recurrent narrative approach – one that Fisher aptly summarizes as focusing on “women under economic pressure [who are] forced to navigate an inhospitable world both economically and romantically, such that the two become insidiously intertwined”48 – became the solution to the very problem of finding cinematic means for encountering the event of the Wende. For the task was to find images not in order to represent the surface (political or historical) level of this event, as most films that have dealt with unification do; rather, the challenge was to find images that would make sensible the very neoliberal economic forces that were almost imperceptibly saturating this event but whose effectivity was merely emerging while nevertheless already containing the virtual potential of massive and ongoing transformative power: to wit, the process of becoming-economic that would profoundly affect the subjectivity of the collection of people held together by the nomós Germany. And what Das warme Geld dramatizes by drawing on genre elements from the film noir tradition (and thus also the femme fatale character) is that core of neoliberal economic activities that would eventually be theorized under the concept of “affective labour,” which as feminists have long pointed out has always been a key characteristic of what has traditionally been designated as “women’s work.”

However, as Michael Hardt points out and what I submit Petzold intuited and started to explore with Das warme Geld – a half-hour long black and white film shot on 16mm that tells the story of two women who, mostly unemployed, use their sex appeal to steal from men and dream of accumulating enough money to escape from Germany to the Philippines – is that this affective labour, which had long been pushed to the margins of economic activity, gradually began to move to the core of such activity.49 As Hardt writes, “Although affective labour has never been entirely outside of capitalist production, the processes of economic postmodernization […] have positioned affective labour in a role that is not only directly productive of capital but at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy of laboring forms. Affective labour is one fact of […] ‘immaterial labour’, which has assumed a dominant position with respect to the other forms of labour in the global capitalist economy.”50 Petzold picks up on this event of economic transformation with Das warme Geld – a transformation the film title’s qualification of money as warm hints at. This qualification ascribes to capitalism an affective surplus. Heike, an unemployed translator who is eventually coached by her friend, Vera, to use her body to “earn” money instead of going to the social welfare office (getting money from that office “is a job,” she says), calls attention to this affective surplus when remarking, “The money is still very warm,” after they used one of their male victim’s bank card to draw cash from an ATM machine.

Christian Petzold

The money is still very warm. Christian Petzold, Das warme Geld

The film works with a number of film noir and thriller genre film elements and ultimately ends tragically with an off-screen noise suggesting Heike was hit by a car while trying to escape from one of her victims and, subsequently, Vera packing her belongings and the remaining money and walking off at night-time. That the two, like the women in The Sex Thief, fail to realize their dream is important, of course: embracing the logic of affective labour is no guarantee for economic success, just as Ostwärts’ East German interview subjects’ embrace of Westernized economic ideology is no guarantee for their economic success in post-unified Germany. But what I think is worth pointing out is something else: namely that the film explicitly foregrounds this moment of economic transformation. As the women discuss their options, Heike suggests she could return to a coffee factory where she used to job as a student: “Only one, two months before everything is alright again.” Vera, however, replies with one of the two key sentences in the film, saying: “In the past everything became alright again. Then this was a job. But now? End of the line.” What once was a viable economic activity on route to something else now has become a dead-end, a trap, precisely because of the transformation effected by neoliberal forces that, while mostly under the radar at the time, were nevertheless already in effect. Consequently, Vera also tells Heike that she keeps her luggage unpacked all the time because “When you are poor you have to remain mobile.” This need to be and remain mobile – against one’s will and without knowing where such movement might lead one – would subsequently characterise many of Petzold’s characters, and it would eventually be famously articulated by not one but two German presidents who admonished their people to become more mobile in order to move the country out of its late 1990s economic depression.51 But whereas the Presidents’ rhetoric affirmatively espoused a neoliberal rhetoric of mobility, Petzold’s film – avant la lettre, as it were – already counter-effectuated the forces of neoliberalism by directly forging a link between the essential engine of neoliberal economic activity – ever faster movement by everyone and everything – and poverty and subjection: subjected by an emerging yet still largely imperceptible system of (economic) power to involuntarily engage in a form of affective labour that demands that they be able to leave at any time, Vera and Heike embody the very fact that an era “is over,” as Petzold puts it in his interview with Baute and Patenburg when describing his situation as a burgeoning filmmaker around 1990: “The films we saw when we entered the academy, by Gerd Conradt and others, a tradition of which we automatically became part and liked being in –  namely, to attack society, to investigate, and to create laboratories… – I had the sense: this is over.”52

We might say, in conclusion, that the remarkable accomplishment of Petzold’s dffb films is to have sensed that underlying what the dominant ideological discourse at the time proclaimed to have ended (socialism, History itself) was already a new beginning – namely, of a mode of economic power that, barely noticeable then, was in the process of effecting seismic changes of far greater import than, I think, unification itself did. The real event of the Wende – the turn, the transition, the transformation – was, according to these small films, less the political unification of two German systems than the emerging neoliberal forces cutting across the unified result. To give untimely images to this (initially) subtle but ultimately era-defining process of transformation – the event of Germany’s becoming-economic – is, film historically, a rare feat in the German filmmaking context and matched perhaps only by the seismographic investigations into the micropolitical operations of capitalist power by Petzold’s mentor, Harun Farocki.53



  1. Qt. in Marco Abel, “The Cinema of Identification Gets on My Nerves: An Interview with Christian Petzold,” Cineaste online 33.3 (summer 2008), https://www.cineaste.com/summer2008/the-cinema-of-identification-gets-on-my-nerves.
  2. This essay is a slightly modified version of “‘Das ist vorbei’: Unzeitgemäße Begegnungen mit dem Neoliberalismus in Christian Petzolds dffb Studentenfilmen,” in Christian Petzold. Filme, Ilka Brombach and Tina Kaiser, eds. (Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk 8, 2018). I thank the editors and publisher for allowing me to share the English version of my essay as part of this dossier.
  3. Jaimey Fisher, “Interview with Christian Petzold,” in Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold (Urbana: U Illinois P, 2013): p. 147-167.
  4. Ibid., p. 152.
  5. Ibid., p. 152
  6. Ibid, p. 152. For a brief discussion of Am Rand, see Marco Abel, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Rochester: Camden House, 2013), p. 46.
  7. Fisher analyses this process of becoming-economic throughout his monograph. I discuss Petzold’s engagement with neoliberalism at greater length in my essay on Yella (2007) that is included in the film’s U.S. DVD release, which can be accessed here: http://cinemaguild.com/homevideo/ess_yella.htm; a version of this discussion is included in The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School. For another take on this issue, see Sabine Nessel’s “Gespenster des Spätkapitalismus in Christian Petzolds Film Yella,” in Brombach and Kaiser.
  8. For Williams’s explanation of his conceptual triad of dominant, emergent, and residual, see Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” New Left Review I/82 (November – December 1973), p. 3-16.
  9. The core thesis of my book on the Berlin School is that their politics is governed by the minor modality and politics (in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense) of the future perfect – the temporality of the will have been. Rather than representing Germany as it “is,” their films’ aesthetics and politics – their aesthetic politics – have to be understood primarily as arepresentational and asignifying; it is their refusal to merely represent their present as it “is” that gives them purchase on a time to come, on partaking in the process of bringing about another time, one that runs counter to the assumptions governing the present. This aspect constitutes, I argue, their films’ (open-ended) utopian quality.
  10. For more on this, see my chapter on Petzold in Counter-Cinema. For Rancière’s terminology, see for example his The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York City: Continuum, 2006).
  11. Michael Baute und Volker Pantenburg, “Richtig sehen: Christian Petzold an der dffb,” in Brombach and Kaiser. Throughout, all translations from German-language sources are mine. The Treuhandanstalt (Trust Agency), colloquially known as Treuhand, was an agency established by the East German government to privatize East Germany’s formerly state-run enterprises prior to unification. It oversaw the restructuring and selling of about 8,500 state-owned companies with over four million employees. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treuhandanstalt, accessed 27 February 2017.
  12. Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 1995).
  13. “Fernsehansprache von Bundeskanzler Kohl anlässlich des Inkrafttretens der Währungs-, Wirtschafts- und Sozialunion,” 1 July 1990, http://www.helmut-kohl.de/index.php?msg=555.
  14. In Counter-Cinema, I emphasise the importance of the political refusal to newly constitute post-unified Germany according to article 146 rather than 23 of pre-unified West Germany’s Basic Law.
  15. Baute and Patenburg.
  16. For Petzold’s negative view of the Treuhand’s work, see for example his interview with Christiane Peitz, “Wir haben Sterne ohne Himmel,” Der Tagesspiegel 11 September 2007, http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/kino/interview-wir-haben-sterne-ohne-himmel/1039296.html.
  17. Petzold self-critically reports in his interview with Baute and Patenburg that he was dismayed to see how audiences (made up of Westerners) who watched the film laughed at the female face-paint artist. To Petzold, this was an indication that his filmic effort failed in a profound way, since his goal had decidedly not been to put down his interviewees. We might speculate that it was precisely because of the essential unrecognizability in the existing distribution of the sensible of what the film’s interview subjects articulated that viewers enacted the most obvious response to what the film depicts: they made fun of the easiest target available in order to assert their own (alleged) superiority, all the while failing to perceive that what this person expressed already gave voice to the very process that was about to sweep across the viewers’ own field of experience as well.
  18. The Cologne-based due Markus Mischkowski and Kai Maria Steinkühler put a similar scenario to great comedic, yet nevertheless devastating, effect in Westend (2001). The film’s two protagonists, Mike and Alfred, work at a snack restaurant located in the wasteland west of Köln. Notwithstanding the (faux) “hip” advertisement the business’s owner, Rasto, put in place, business increases only as a result of him illegally shifting a traffic sign that momentarily channels traffic towards the business – essentially a food truck – where Mike and Alfred work for something akin to minimum wage. Whereas Petzold’s film responds to the immediate effects the Wende had on East Germans, Westend responds to the political and economic (now considerably more present neoliberal) environment that soon thereafter would result in Hartz IV. For more on the Westend films, see my “Underground Film Germany in the Age of Control Societies: The ‘Cologne Group’.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 27.2 (2010), p. 89-107.
  19. Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, “Biopolitics: An Encounter,” Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, Biopolitics: A Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), p. 1-40.
  20. She made this remark at a workshop on the Berlin School held at Washington University in December 2008. See also Hochhäusler’s remark on this matter in his essay included in this dossier.
  21. For an elaboration of this argument, see Marco Abel, “Imaging Germany: The (Political) Cinema of Christian Petzold,” in The Collapse of the Conventional: German Film and its Politics at the Turn of the New Century, Jaimey Fisher and Brad Prager, eds. (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2010), p. 258-284.
  22. While Petzold himself is in fact sceptical of the use value of film theory for the actual making of film (“I don’t think highly of film theory”), he not only self-identifies as an intellectual (“I was an intellectual, so any form of playing innocent would have meant lying to myself”) but also has widely read in the history of film theory. Indeed, he argues that “you have to become theoretical at the very moment when you begin to edit. You constantly have to explain yourself as a director… For this reason alone I was involved in film theory, but not because I believed that the great film theoreticians would advance my abilities to make films. They did advance me in other areas, however. Gilles Deleuze’s books on cinema are brilliant as philosophy, but they are not something that helps me make films. And I do not expect this of them.” All quotations are taken from “Cinema of Identification.”
  23. This last sentence is a condensed version of two Deleuzean arguments. In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (trans. Daniel W. Smith, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), Deleuze writes: “Modern painting is invaded and besieged by photographs and clichés that are already lodged on the canvas before the painter begins to work. In fact, it would be a mistake to think that the painter works on a white and virgin surface. The entire surface is already invested virtually with all kinds of clichés, which the painter will have to break with” (p. 12). And in Cinema 2: The Time-Image (trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), Deleuze, with reference to Bergson, claims that we “normally perceive only clichés,” which he defines as the mere “sensory motor image of the thing,” rather than the “thing or… image in its entirety” (p. 20).
  24. For more on the language of the virtual and the actual, both equally real, see Deleuze’s Cinema 2, especially chapters 4 and 5; and Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991), especially chapter 5.
  25. Petzold started describing the space in which his characters exist in terms of a “bubble” when promoting Gespenster (Ghosts, 2005). See for instance http://www.gespenster-der-film.de/html/interview_en.html, accessed 27 February 2017.
  26. For more on the role of belatedness in Petzold’s work, see Fisher’s book as well as his contribution to this dossier. It is important to emphasise, however, that Petzold’s films are free from nostalgia. There is no yearning for an era that is no longer available, not even in Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000), the one film in his oeuvre that most explicitly engages a “traditional” political topic. The two former terrorists-on-the-run do not long for a return to the 1970s or 1980s, even if they find it impossible to live in the present. They are ghostly characters precisely because they are aware of both the fact that they cannot go back even if they wanted to (and they do not) and that they cannot exist in the unified Germany of the twenty-first century.
  27. The following discussion of the film is adapted from my discussion in Counter-Cinema.
  28. The Filmhaus Nürnberg screened his short films on 29 September 2013 and used the following description in its program announcement: “A pleasant summer wind. The view: hills awash in sun light. But the one who enjoys the landscape is not the human being; it is one of his most loyal companions: the book. Pop songs about love play on the radio. Book leaves dance in the wind. After a few stops, Süden eventually finds its way to the sea.” http://www.kunstkulturquartier.de/filmhaus/programm/schwerpunkte/dasein/schwerpunkte-detail/, accessed 27 February 2017.
  29. Suhrkamp (Frankfurt) published the German translation of Cinema 1 – The Movement-Image in 1989.
  30. In my book, I incorrectly identify the film’s location as Texas; it appears to be Turkey (Baute and Patenburg’s interview in Brombach and Kaiser’s volume indicates that an earlier working title for the film was “Der Islam.”
  31. Sexteto Electronico Moderno, “Vivre Pour Vivre,” Sexteto Electronico Moderno (London Records 1968).
  32. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997), p. 71.
  33. Guido Schmidt, ed. Der Torpedokäfer: Ein anarchistisches Poesiealbum (Fulda: Ulenspiegel, 1988), p. 3. In Counter-Cinema I argue, with reference to Antonio Negri’s work, that the Berlin School films make much of a distinction between, on one hand, currently existing Deutschland-as-constituted-power (potestas) and a Deutschland-as-constituent-power (potentia); the latter – necessarily existing only virtually, as an indeterminate to-come that must always remain in a process of coming-to-be, of becoming – is, I argue, inscribed with utopian longing. For a fuller version of this argument, see my book’s introduction, where I introduce Negri’s concepts.
  34. Abel, “Cinema of Identification.”
  35. All three parenthetical quotes are taken from “Cinema of Identification.” Notwithstanding the seeming contradiction between Petzold’s affirmation of Barthes’ opposition to considering film in terms of “signs” and Deleuze’s recourse to Charles Sanders Peirce’s taxonomy of signs in Cinema 1, I take all three to be in opposition to the reduction of the image to the concept of the signifier.
  36. Christian Petzold, personal email, 9 January 2016. Petzold claims the text is from McCall’s Jack the Bear, originally published in English by Doubleday in 1974 and first published in German by Insel Verlag in 1975. Marshall Herskovitz directed a film adaptation starring Danny DeVito (Jack the Bear, 1993).
  37. Christian Petzold, personal email, 9 January 2016. According to Petzold, the park had been “In the north of Dusseldorf, at the edge of the Autobahn, next to a drive-in theatre,” but was sold, twenty years ago, to China.
  38. https://achtungberlin.de/archiv/ab_2007/Berliner_Schule.625.0.html, accessed 16 June 2017.
  39. Qt. in Abel, Counter-Cinema, p. 167.
  40. Abel, Counter-Cinema, p. 78. For my argument about Barbara’s last shot, see Marco Abel, “The “Berlin School,” in The German Cinema Book 2nd ed., Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter, Deniz Göktürk, eds. (London: BFI, forthcoming 2018). For a different take on the last moments of Pilots, see Joy Castro’s essay in this dossier.
  41. After The State I Am In, Petzold’s characters no longer fantasize about leaving Germany, though Barbara of course dramatizes the desire to escape across the inner-German border from East to West.
  42. Jaimey Fisher, “Petzold’s Phoenix, Fassbinder’s Maria Braun, and the Melodramatic Archeology of the Rubble Past,” Senses of Cinema 84 (September2017).
  43. They argue that although an event does fall back into narrative, into history, that is, onto the representational plane, it is not of it. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 110-111. Hence, Deleuze also argues against the narrative of the failure of ’68: if ’68 was an event then its effectivity never seizes to create new effects: “(T)here is always one part of the event that is irreducible to any social determinism, or to causal chains. Historians are not very fond of this aspect: they restore causality after the fact. Yet the event is itself a splitting off from, or a breaking with causality; it is a bifurcation, a deviation with respect to laws, an unstable condition which opens up a new field of the possible.” Gilles Deleuze, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” in Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975–1995, ed. David Lapoujade, trans. by Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006), p. 233. An event is, in this sense, less the precise second at which something happens than the effects that occur and continue to reverberate. An event, strictly speaking, does not exist in and of itself as anything other than the effects to which it gives, and will continue to give, rise.
  44. Fisher, Christian Petzold, p.152-3.
  45. That this becoming-economic was in fact the core effect of the event of the Wende, of this transitional moment, is directly dramatized in The State I Am In in the “money digging” scene that I discuss at great length in my book chapter on Petzold’s work (p. 79-90), where I argue that the film, pace not only Petzold’s statement in the passage just quoted but also the film’s critical reception, is perhaps best understood as being less about the legacy of the RAF than about the encroachment of neoliberalism on unified Germany – something from which the state’s obsessive return to the RAF in the ‘90s and ‘00s meant to distract its citizens.
  46. Fisher reports in his monograph that Petzold considers Das warme Geld a “personal breakthrough” (p. 20).
  47. Abel, “Cinema of Identification.”
  48. Fisher, Christian Petzold, p. 20.
  49. There is much feminist work arguing that such affective (or “female”) labour was never marginal in the way most accounts of capitalist economic activity claimed. See for instance J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism as We Know It: A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
  50. Michael Hardt, “Affective Labor,” boundary 2 26.2 (1999): p. 90.
  51. I am referring here to Roman Herzog’s famous “Ruck-Rede” from 26 April 1997 at the Hotel Adlon (http://www.bundespraesident.de/dokumente/-,2.15154/Rede/dokument.htm), which Horst Köhler echoed in his speech from 15 March 2005 on the occasion of the “Arbeitgeberforum: ‘Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft’” in Berlin (http://www.bundespraesident.de/Reden-und-Interviews-,11057.622835/Rede-von-Bundespraesident-Hors.htm). Both speeches are dominated by a rhetoric relying on phrases such as “Flexibilität” (flexibility) and “Mobilität” (mobility).
  52. Baute und Pantenburg. Gerd Conradt belonged to the first class entering the dffb in 1966; was, together with Harun Farocki and others momentarily expelled from it in 1968 as a result of participating in the occupation of the dffb; and eventually made important films about the RAF such as Starbuck Holger Meins (2001).
  53. Farocki’s influence on Petzold cannot be overstated, of course. But I want to thank Jennifer Kapczynski for pointing out that the shots of the books in Süden might very well be a subtle homage to the opening images of Farocki’s early student film, Die Worte des Vorsitzenden (The Words of the Chairman, 1969), which consist of an extreme close-up of the book Die Worte des Vorsitzenden Mao Tsetung, the German translation of Mao’s famous little red book. For Farocki’s comment on his film, see http://www.harunfarocki.de/films/1960s/1967/the-words-of-the-chairman.html. For more on Farocki, see Senses of Cinema 21 (July 2002), http://sensesofcinema.com/category/harun-farocki/.

About The Author

Marco Abel is Professor of English and Film Studies and chair of the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the author of The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013), which won the 2014 German Studies Association Book Prize, and Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique After Representation (University of Nebraska Press, 2007); the co-editor of Im Angesicht des Fernsehens: Der Filmemacher Dominik Graf (text + kritik, 2010) and, with Jaimey Fisher, of the forthcoming The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art-Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2018). He has also published numerous essays on post-unification German cinema and interviews with German film directors in journals such as Cineaste, German Studies Review, New German Critique, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and Senses of Cinema, as well as in a number of edited volumes on German cinema history.With Roland Végső, he is also the co-editor of the book series Provocations (University of Nebraska Press).