The source for Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012) is generally taken to be Hermann Broch’s novella Barbara (1936), with which it indeed shares some similarities, yet the film’s plot and themes closely parallel Roland Gräf’s DEFA film Die Flucht (The Flight), which was released in 1977. Both films deal with a physician-protagonist who is seduced or nearly seduced into leaving the GDR, and both films were highly praised for their realistic and authentic portrayals of their protagonists’ inner conflicts and of their lives in the GDR. Yet because of how films engage the materiality of the worlds in which they are produced, they reflect and communicate historical realities along with, to borrow Siegfried Kracauer’s turn of phrase, the skin and hair of their subjects. As Kracauer writes, film has an emphatic concern with a vast amount of raw material. Historical films, by contrast, are finite: as the reconstructions of bygone eras, their worlds are artificial creations that Kracauer considered to be “shut off from the space time continuum of the living.” The past that historical melodramas try to resurrect no longer exists. About such films he lamented: “We quickly reach the edge of the world before our eyes.” DEFA director Roland Gräf stated explicitly that he did not believe in the historical film, and my essay contends that one learns more about the GDR’s politics and the lifeworlds of its residents from studying his earlier feature, despite its having been approved by the state and its having an openly ideological message. Examining one or two comparable scenes, with an eye to the question of what (from the perspective of mise-en-scene, material culture, and shot composition) in these films’ respective frames identifies particular images as “GDR images,” this essay explores how melodramas such as Petzold’s, despite or owing to their extreme artistry, are inescapably textured in accord with the moments of their production.

Until the release of Phoenix (2014), Barbara (2012) was an exception in Christian Petzold’s body of work. The latter film is a period piece from a director who, for the first two decades of his career, generally chose to set his films in the present. Berlin School filmmakers, akin to the Danish directors who authored the Dogme 95 Manifesto, generally favour the here and now, apparently acknowledging that films are inevitably reflections of the historical moments in which they are made. Even when films purport to transport viewers to another period in time, those films invariably tell us more about the values and ideologies contemporary to their productions than they do about the past. Petzold’s Barbara, about an East German doctor who contemplates defecting from the GDR nearly a decade before the Berlin Wall’s fall, is an historical film. Although a Berlin School filmmaker directed it, it shares much, in terms of form and content, with other recent German historical melodramas. Siegfried Kracauer, in his Theory of Film (1960), critically examined the limitations of historical films, in particular their tendency to thwart viewers from encountering the material world that surrounds them. His ideas were interconnected with his suppositions about film’s relationship to photographic images. In drawing conclusions about filmed images and the passage of time, his ideas were not that far afield from the principles that later came to guide the Berlin School’s filmmakers. As I argue below, Kracauer’s work offers terms through which one can examine the difficulties that inhere in engaging with the present when a director chooses to set his or her film in the past.
At the time of Barbara’s release, Petzold was asked about his attitude toward historical films.1 He responded that such films must depict the past yet not entirely remove themselves from the present, and he chose Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) as an illustrative example. Petzold comments that although Polanski’s film was set in the late 1930s, it never “feels” like German historical films do.2 He is most likely referring to German “heritage films” such as Aimée & Jaguar (Max Färberböck, 1999), Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (Gloomy Sunday, Rolf Schübel, 1999), and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004), which take place during the 1930s and early ’40s and depict Hitler’s rise to power and the era of the Second World War.3 Those films’ successes are predicated on their verisimilitude, particularly their attention to period detail and authentic costume design, as well as the diegetic sounds of phonograph records, often used to authenticate their settings.4 Their directors make choices that remove their productions from the present, transporting audiences away from the here and now and potentially diminishing their works’ contemporaneousness. Owing to this added layer of separation, Berlin School filmmakers have, like the Dogme 95 filmmakers and with few exceptions, opted to set their films in the eras of their productions, rather than to produce period-based costume dramas.5

Chinatown is set in an earlier era, but from Petzold’s standpoint Polanski’s film successfully renders corporeal impressions of the physical world present to the viewer. In explaining why he finds that film particularly effective, Petzold refers to its depictions of bodily sensations, including “heat, drought, and male and female sweat,” all of which make the film’s action palpable.6 He believes it is important to represent the world in all its physicality to the viewer, rather than to take a diachronic or metaphysical approach. A depiction of natural phenomena can preserve the physical world’s character as physis, yet some depictions also run the risk of drawing our attention away from that same physical world.7 With this in mind, Petzold explains that he admires Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka (2000), which he believes is exemplary because of the dual attention it pays to both physis and to metaphysics.8 Wind, for example, is a natural phenomenon, but in Petzold’s films, akin to Aoyama’s, a focus on wind concurrently conjures up what Chris Homewood describes as an “outer and inner landscape,” with “the power to communicate greater ‘truths’ than the characters’ spoken words.”9

Leading viewers’ attentions away from the here and now has its costs, and Petzold’s assessment of those costs comes as part of his response to a question about film and its ability to “rescue” or “redeem” the material world. In posing this question his interviewer Cristina Nord draws directly from Kracauer’s Theory of Film.10 Petzold is acquainted with Theory of Film, which places considerable emphasis on the present and diminishes historical films because they transport their audiences farther away from the moment of their reception. Kracauer held that historical films seal themselves off from the spatial and temporal continua of the present: their costumes and settings are “completely estranged from present-day life,” and they are thus constrained in their contemporaneity.11 Kracauer writes, “As the reproduction of a bygone era, the world they show is an artificial creation radically shut off from the space-time continuum of the living, a closed cosmos which does not admit of extensions.”12 Quoting Albert Laffay, who later wrote Logique du cinéma (1964), Kracauer adds that when watching period films, “One cannot help feeling that, if the camera were displaced, however slightly, to the right or the left, it would only chance upon the void or the bizarre paraphernalia of a studio.”13 Kracauer objects to historical films because they are unlikely to return viewers’ sensoria to the world they currently inhabit. While watching them, a spectator’s absorption mingles with feelings of constraint occasioned by the awareness that everything the spectator sees “has been deliberately inserted and that the margin of the pictures once and for all marks the edge of the world before his [or her] eyes.”14 By contrast, films that depict people and things contemporaneous to their production are fragments of the viewer’s world, and such films are better positioned to represent that world to viewers. To transport spectators to another time and place is to abstract them from their own times and places, and, in accord with Kracauer’s materialism, the medium’s greatest potential lies in its efficacy as a “‘remedy’ for abstractness.”15

Kracauer’s perspective is rooted in his understanding of photography’s stasis relative to the movement of time. When film is interpreted as a sequence of still images, as it was customarily described throughout the twentieth century, its frames may each be treated as disruptions of normal patterns of vision. Highlighting the relationship between photography and time allows Kracauer to treat photography as the basis of cinematic montage; a still image’s stasis presents, by definition, an incision into life’s temporal flow.16 In Theory of Film, Kracauer quotes from a discussion of photography in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, wherein Proust describes how a photograph “emanates from an interruption, namely the interruption of the normal process of vision.”17 As articulated by Proust: “We never see the people who are dear to us save in the animated system, the perpetual motion of our incessant love for them, which before allowing the images that their faces present to reach us catches them in its vortex, flings them back upon the idea that we always had of them, makes them adhere to it, coincide with it.”18 The return to reality effected by film and photography thus does not hinge on observing bodies more closely, experiencing them more viscerally, or even inspecting others’ sweaty pores. As Johannes von Moltke points out, Kracauer’s views are initially deceptive where they seem to fall prey to a simplistic idealization of immediacy. His theory instead concerns the isolated image’s incursion into time and perception, and, as von Moltke explains, Kracauer is attempting to work out a series of mediations whereby film “is able to represent (rather than simply reproduce) reality – the diverse qualities of the object, its abstract dynamics as much as its sensible surface appearance – as a concrete perceptual object for the spectator, who in turn experiences that object as a synthesis of determinations.”19 If film is capable of redeeming reality, this owes itself to its capacity to contest and unsettle perception’s everyday continuum.

Theory of Film can be seen among the objects lying on the floor in Süden (1989), one of Petzold’s earliest films, and Petzold’s statements about the depiction of the physical world suggest that he is acquainted with that book’s principles.20 In Kracauer’s view, if film competes with and brings about a deliberate intrusion into everyday perception, it does so where it removes objects and people from the continuum of things with which we are familiar and juxtaposes them with the images we already have of them. “Intimate faces, streets we walk day by day, the house we live in,” Kracauer writes, “are part of us like our skin, and because we know them by heart we do not know them with the eye. Once integrated into our existence, they cease to be objects of perception, goals to be attained. In fact, we would be immobilized if we focused on them.”21 The sensible surface of things, represented apart from the flow of reality and re-contextualized, is itself an example of montage. Kracauer’s principles are thus predicated on the extraction and re-recognition of images of things and persons from a world familiar to us. He is less concerned with the past’s collision with the present than with representing the world that is currently connected to us, like our skin. Reality’s redemption is a process of isolating images of people and things that are presently integrated into existence, extracting them from the vortex of passing time, and flinging these images back upon the viewer such that their concepts and cinematic portrayals collide. The practice Kracauer articulates is intended to produce what Marco Abel, drawing on Jacques Rancière, describes as a “redistribution of the sensible.” Abel writes that Berlin School films such as Petzold’s “rescale” what is familiar to us, a process that can, in this case, be seen in terms of temporal rescaling, or the cinematic image’s extraction and isolation from an ongoing continuum. Abel emphasizes that Petzold, like other Berlin School filmmakers, “engages the present” through its redistributions.22 Insofar as that engagement is taken as one of these directors’ guiding principles, it is unsurprising that they are reluctant to produce period dramas.

Barbara is set in an earlier era, does not offer a contemporary frame story, and Kracauer would surely have called it “historical.” Petzold could have made his film more contemporary by concerning himself with the Wende’s aftereffects, as he had done in Yella (2007) and as is the case with many other postmillennial German films such as Robert Thalheim’s Netto (2005) or Dominik Graf’s post-Wende television film Eine Stadt wird erpresst (Blackmailed City, 2006).23 Yet, akin to many German heritage films, Barbara’s period-perfect authenticity takes something other than contemporaneity as its goal. Its object is the past, a setting three decades prior to its own production, disconnected from its viewers’ here and now. Barbara can thus be seen in connection with other historical films about the GDR such as Volker Schlöndorff’s colourful and verdant Die Stille nach dem Schuß (The Legend of Rita, 2000) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006). Despite the fact that the Academy Award winning director von Donnersmarck sought to highlight the grey-on-grey palette of his GDR setting and that Petzold declared – in deliberate opposition to von Donnersmarck – that his East Germany should be colourful, the two works were each comparably praised as precise reconstructions of similar milieus and set only four years apart.24 Although Daniela Berghahn takes note of several distinctions, she analyses these two melodramatic films side-by-side because each of them looks back, decades later, offering explanations as to why the GDR was in decline and exploring the terms in which its citizens as well as agents of its Stasi wrestled with their personal and political conflicts.25 As Berghahn concludes, The Lives of Others and Barbara “project memories […] of distant chroniclers, whose retrospective engagement with the collective memory of the GDR evinces a Western vantage point.”26 The two films are more alike than it seems. Some former citizens of the GDR may recall bright and colourful summers, while others think of dank grey winters, and the directors of both films can thus make equally valid claims as to having used a more appropriate or more realistic colour palette.

Regardless of Petzold’s familiarity with Theory of Film, his principles often part ways with Kracauer’s. Petzold’s films, for example, are as apt to highlight their interconnections with paintings as they are with photo-aesthetics. His lexicon of art-historical allusions includes Edward Hopper, Gerhard Richter, and Caspar David Friedrich.27 To take one example, in Petzold’s Die Beischlafdiebin (The Sex Thief, 1998) the director includes, in one sequence, a reproduction of Richter’s Betty (1988), a painting in which the artist’s daughter is shown looking away from the observer. Her physiognomy is hidden and she seems concerned with something happening deep within the artwork’s pictorial space, where viewers are prevented from seeing it. Abel links Petzold’s inclusion of Betty to Walter Benjamin’s ekphrasis of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) and, citing Benjamin’s reading, concludes that Klee “renders sensible the various forces impinging on [the painting’s] subject, which seem to pull it to us while also holding it back, inexplicably attracting it to something that remains absent from our purview.”28 This interpretation of Klee’s work – and by extension, Richter’s – is centred not on what can be seen but rather on the work’s suggestive absence, an intangible yet commanding space beyond the image. Similarly, Petzold employs a nearly explicit evocation of Caspar David Friedrich’s allegorical Kreuz an der Ostsee (The Cross Beside the Baltic, 1815) in Barbara, where he conspicuously depicts a crucifix at twilight, adjacent to Germany’s Baltic coastline (Fig. 1). Like Richter, Friedrich was interested in Rückenfiguren, figures looking elsewhere, into sunsets or seas of fog, their faces as well as the objects of their gazes obscured. Petzold’s interest, in such instances, is in what cannot be seen – a look, in Richter’s case, cast beyond the painting’s frame, or a divine intuition, in Friedrich’s case, which lies beyond earthly apprehension.

Christian Petzold

An echo of Caspar David Friedrich’s Kreuz an der Ostsee (1815) in Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012). DVD still.

Citations of paintings along these lines are examples of what Kurt Buhanan, writing about Barbara, calls “metapictorialism,” or the appearance of images within images and, in particular, the fact that those appearances highlight the subjective construction of vision.29 Petzold’s metapictorial moments incline less toward materialist re-representations of objects in their contemporaneity and more toward assessing the process by which the observer imposes his or her representational will upon the world. Two distinct moments in Petzold’s redistribution of the sensible can thus be distinguished from one another: on the one hand, viewers re-encounter, as a consequence of cinematic re-framing, what they see, sense, and perceive – the people and things that compose their present, or the world they inhabit – yet viewers are also asked to consider the processes and mechanisms involved, or the question of how they see, sense, and perceive.30 Writing with reference to Thomas Arslan, another Berlin School filmmaker, Abel describes this twofold process as “an aesthetic mode of encounter that simultaneously invokes the register of representational realism and its attendant truth claims, and affectively intensifies this register to such a degree that our perception of the reality (and truth) it seemingly represents is put at stake.”31 Petzold is interested in what we see – “realism and its attendant truth claims,” or how objects appear once they are isolated from ordinary patterns of perception – yet he also wants to question the nature of perception, or the how of seeing. These impulses can be contradictory: as a realist qua Kracauer, Petzold wants viewers to see and re-see objects, but he simultaneously draws our attention to that which lies beyond his film’s frames, and he seeks to call perception’s very mechanisms into question.

The much-studied sequence in Barbara in which Petzold’s protagonists discuss Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson (1632) makes the director’s emphasis on the how particularly clear. In that sequence, André, Barbara’s colleague at the clinic, points to a reproduction of Rembrandt’s work, which is hanging on the wall of his office, and he opens a conversation with Barbara about it. The painting depicts the seventeenth century Dutch surgeon Dr. Nicolaes Tulp conducting an autopsy in front of several medical professionals. The body before them on the table is that of Aris Kindt, a criminal who was convicted for armed robbery and sentenced to death by hanging. Several of the doctors in the painting appear to be staring at the anatomy book lying open near Kindt’s feet rather than at the body itself, and one of Kindt’s arms, which has been elevated for inspection, seems strangely skewed and disproportionately large. Rembrandt may, as a Baroque gesture, be representing the arm as it appears in the anatomy book with the intention of simultaneously depicting the doctors’ faces as well as the anatomical image at which some of them are staring. André’s interpretation of the painting, and much of the protagonists’ discussion as a whole, borrows from W.G. Sebald’s novel Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt (The Rings of Saturn, 1995), starting with Barbara’s observation that the doctors have behaved abnormally by not first removing the patient’s intestines.32 More conspicuous is where Petzold has André echo Sebald’s narrator’s conclusion that Rembrandt, in highlighting the doctors’ fascination with the textbook rather than the patient’s body, is generating sympathy for the painting’s criminal subject and placing us “with” Kindt.33 This interpretation is by no means conclusive; a multitude of other inferences could be drawn concerning Rembrandt’s intentions or the viewer’s implied response. André’s remark is chiefly intended as a means to impress his colleague, and the assertion is dubious: there is no reason to presume that we are closer to the victim because some of the doctors are looking at a textbook. There is, in fact, little encouragement for us to sympathize with Kindt, whose face can barely be discerned, and at least two of the surgeons are, contrary to André’s observation, staring outward from Rembrandt’s painting, looking neither at the corpse nor at the anatomical textbook.

Petzold seems aware of the many imperfections in André’s account, and Debbie Pinfold notes: “just as André points out to Barbara how all the doctors are staring at the anatomical atlas (‘Alle starren darauf, er, er, alle’), on the word ‘alle’ the camera zooms in on the one doctor in the background of the picture who is in fact staring directly at the viewers.”34 The director winks at us knowingly in this sequence, and Pinfold adds: “This is a clear case of Petzold addressing the audience behind the characters’ back, since the zoom shot appears to be for us alone; […] we still have André’s interpretation ringing in our ears even as Petzold shows us directly that he is wrong.”35 It is not clear whether André’s overlong disquisition impresses Barbara. Considering the look on her face, she may even be aware of his misreading. Regardless, Petzold uses the scene to coax us into reflecting on spectatorship and narration. André has provided a highly subjective account, one that we are evidently meant to recognize as unconvincing.

As is the case with Petzold’s citations of Richter’s Betty or of Friedrich’s allegorical paintings, his concern is less with re-representing his protagonists’ world to us than with foregrounding the fact that frames, whether they are those of a film or a painting, do not define the limits of what we see; Petzold instead thematises the exploration of implied and extra-imagistic spaces. This sequence is less interested in rescaling contemporary reality and returning it to us such that we see the world’s familiar objects anew than with explicitly thematising observational processes and the subjective characteristics of perception. Although these two levels of engagement with the world and its visually sensible character are not mutually exclusive (and, in Abel’s account, the two appear to build upon one another), Petzold’s emphasis on the vagaries of perception is an example of what Buhanan describes as image operations that are “unregulated by representative equivalence.”36 In the absence of stable objects – where the what of representation can hardly be fixed – Petzold concerns himself with highlighting vision’s how.

Barbara borrows less from Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, published in 1995, than it does from Hermann Broch’s Barbara, an Austrian novella from 1936.37 Broch’s Barbara is narrated by the deputy director of a hospital who falls for a recently appointed female colleague and confesses his attraction to her. The two have an intimate encounter, but Barbara prioritizes her strong commitment to the Communist Party above her personal happiness. Although she eventually becomes pregnant with the narrator’s child, she chooses to participate in an unsuccessful putsch and commits suicide shortly thereafter. Both female protagonists – Broch’s and Petzold’s – are wilful and ambitious, and in watching Nina Hoss’ performance, as she, for example, systematically inspects a bicycle’s inner tube for leaks, one might recall the solemn intensity of her prose precursor. Points of intersection can surely be found, but Petzold’s film, if it is an adaptation, is only a loose one. Paul Michael Lützeler correctly observes that linking the novella with the film primarily demonstrates how much times have changed: Petzold’s viewers are neither in Austria in the ’30s nor in East Germany in 1980, and examining Broch’s and Petzold’s depictions side-by-side highlights the degree to which private decisions, in those earlier eras, were quite frequently connected with political movements.38 The comparison underscores differences between the 21st century and our perception of those two earlier eras.

One is apt to learn more about the contemporaneity of Barbara by comparing it with Roland Gräf’s DEFA film Die Flucht (The Flight, 1977), which is set contemporaneous to its own production. Despite ideological censorship on East Germany’s part, Barbara and The Flight are quite similar. The two productions are separated by 35 years, but they take place in the same era: although we are not given a specific date in Petzold’s film, a radio broadcast that includes detail about the USSR’s Tatjana Kasankina winning her third Olympic medal and beating the GDR’s Christiane Wartenberg confirm that the film’s events unfold during the second half of the summer of 1980. The Flight is set shortly before that, in the mid- to late ’70s, shortly after the expulsion of Wolf Biermann. The two films each deal with a doctor preparing to defect to the West. The West German agents depicted in The Flight pressure Dr Schmith, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, to abandon the East, and, like Barbara, he seriously considers it. Schmith is a specialist in neonatal medicine, and, as in Barbara, the film’s emphasis on paediatrics enables its director to reflect on the East German system’s regenerative power – whether it was on the verge of some kind of biopolitical collapse – as well as on his protagonist’s compassion for the State’s most defenceless subjects.

In many instances, these matching films’ respective mises-en-scène overlap uncannily with one another.39 The hospitals’ dining halls, where the doctors socialize, are quite similar, and still more comparable are the parallel depictions of the woods that line the borders between East and West, serving as the edges of the protagonists’ worlds where politics fleetingly evaporate (Fig. 2). Moreover, Barbara and The Flight reach their turning points at analogous moments, as their respective protagonists come to terms with a hitherto unacknowledged willingness to remain in the GDR. There are, however, differences: films are historical objects, and celluloid is among the principal bearers of a film’s history. Owing to more than merely its profilmic elements, one never forgets that The Flight is a product of the era it depicts. Each of Gräf’s film’s frames, shot on ORWO film – manufactured at the ORWO Filmfabrik in Wolfen – resembles an aged photograph, its existence witness to the passage of time. Barbara, by contrast with The Flight and by virtue of its very medium, shows viewers the shape of its director’s recollections in 2012, not the spatial configurations of objects and people in the past. In Kracauer’s terms, photographs are carriers of their materiality, and Barbara cannot behave like an old photograph; it must act as a new one. Although Petzold tried to give his work period-appropriate colour, shooting it on Kodak 35mm film, his desire to bring out that colour – and to have his film not resemble The Lives of Others – does not enable him to turn back the clock.40 Barbara is treated as an authentic depiction of the past, yet it is not of the GDR; it is a depiction of its director’s contemporary memories.

Christian Petzold

The woods, where Barbara has a rendezvous with her boyfriend, below a visually comparable moment in Roland Gräf’s The Flight. DVD stills.

In defending his decision to make a film about the GDR, even though he was only a visitor to that country and not a resident, Petzold explains that, “someone who has travelled to a place (der Zugereiste) can probably tell a story better than someone who is in the middle of it.”41 Petzold here uses the word Zugereiste – a slightly pejorative term that names a person who, despite having settled in a new place, is not considered to be of that place. His parents emigrated from the GDR, and he visited many times as a child, but he casts himself as an outsider who, because of his outsider status, can see things as they are. Gräf’s film is, by contrast, “in the middle of it” (mittendrin); it is a witness to history, and his film’s contemporaneous commitment to the GDR can be seen in terms of its director’s engagement with the objective nature of socialism’s reality. Gräf, when he was asked, 35 years before Petzold, for his opinion about historical films, said that he preferred to make contemporary ones. In an interview entitled “Obligated to Today” (“Dem Heute verpflichtet”), Gräf explains, “I do not believe that a historical film, any historical film, can have the same power and capacity to make a statement as a film that deals directly with the present. […] My nearly unqualified preference for the contemporaneous film (Gegenwartsfilm) results from this feeling, but even more from my immediate interest in us, and in the time in which we live. It comes from the hope of being more likely to affect something in the present through film.42

As a “Gegenwartsfilm” with an interest in relating a contemporary narrative about the GDR and its material reality, The Flight highlights several photographic images. In one sequence, as Schmith is preparing to defect, he approaches his father with a package of personal possessions including a scrapbook of family photos. His father, a dutiful GDR citizen, neither has sympathy for his son’s professional ambition nor for his plans to work in the West, and he refuses to accept the package. Schmith hurriedly disposes of the material, and the camera lingers on a discarded photograph of a woman who is likely his mother or his grandmother. Gräf’s shot of the discarded image suggests that Schmith is betraying her memory by emigrating, and, yanked from its context, the photograph is a memento mori; the once living, breathing matriarch, now abandoned on a historical heap (Fig. 3). Gräf wants viewers to recognize that if Schmith abandons the GDR, a past spatial continuum will be left behind as well; an old synthesis of determinations is here being held up against the backdrop of a new one. It is no coincidence that the moment is occasioned by a photograph. The film is invested in representational equivalence; vision is less left to the standpoint of the observer than it is jarred by the intersection of past constellations and present ones.

Christian Petzold

Dr Schmith’s scrapbook in The Flight. DVD stills.

The Flight is not without metapictorial moments, but any such scenes only serve to reinforce the film’s realism. At one point Schmith is given leave to attend a conference in Cologne, and, once there, he watches members of his cohort take tourist photographs in front of that city’s famous cathedral. A Czech colleague, with whom he has been collaborating on neonatal research, points out that he is in possession of the newest and best camera, and Gräf shows us the plaza and the cathedral through the colleague’s panoramic eyepiece. Looking at the image, Schmith’s colleague observes: “It actually works, but something is strange” (“Tatsächlich es geht, obwohl irgendetwas ist komisch”). Gräf is thematising the differences between objective and falsifying gazes, and Schmith now realizes that he is going to have to choose between truth and fantasy. What we see may be subject to change, but there is no ambiguity about how we should see it. The point in this case is not for today’s viewers to align themselves with this East German film’s ideological standpoint but rather to note that there is an overlap between the film’s politics and its image-politics. The DEFA, of course, averred that there was an accurate way to see things: reality should be represented in terms of concrete perceptual objects, and those objects come into relief in the moment that they are contrasted with perception’s everyday continuum. As an East German Gegenwartsfilm, Gräf’s The Flight is eager to give realism and all of its attendant truth claims – that is, the what, or the stable objects of representation – their due. Regardless of its demonstrable inaccuracies about, for example, the role of the West in forcing East Germans to emigrate, Gräf’s film is intended to comment on what is within rather than what is excluded from its frames.

Petzold’s Barbara, however, has different investments: the objects of our gazes are, as Petzold sees it, unstable, and, as if to highlight the centrality of the earlier Rembrandt sequence, the film returns to that painting’s Baroque imagery at its very end. Barbara comes back to the hospital after arranging for Stella to defect in her place. She sits down across the room from André, who is keeping watch over a patient on whom he has just operated. The patient lies between the two of them, and they are shown, in succession, in the final two shots of the film, looking outward, their gazes directed more or less at one another, but also outward from the screen (Fig. 4). These gazes, across the body of their patient, echo Rembrandt’s painting – down to André’s stylised goatee – and they deliberately cast these two as doctors gazing away from their anatomy books as well as from the convalescent before them. Should one draw the conclusion that these doctors are not interested in their patient? Petzold’s film has spent the previous 100 minutes arguing otherwise, and it could be asserted that Barbara is staying in East Germany precisely because she cares. But here, as in The Flight, politics and image-politics overlap. In enabling Stella to defect, Barbara has left herself no choice but to remain in East Germany. We must therefore stop saying that Barbara is about a doctor who chooses to stay in the GDR. It is not. We can only speculate as to what this protagonist would have done had there been room for the two of them on the raft. Barbara sends her younger, pregnant patient away, yet she stays, making a decision that splits the ideological difference: the film compassionately understands that one could do good, important work, not to mention fall in love, in the GDR, while also maintaining that the West represents, for Stella, a better, and more hopeful future.

Christian Petzold

The final images of Barbara: the doctors gaze at one another. Juxtaposed here with a detail from Rembrandt’s painting. DVD stills from Barbara.

Although we can consider this depiction to be an honest attempt to reconstruct the inner lives of GDR citizens in 1980, Petzold’s middle path highlights how anachronistic Barbara is; it is a contemporary portrayal of what we now imagine to have been those inner lives. As an historical film, unlike The Flight, it cannot be of the moment in which it is set, and, in this way, it shares much in common with The Lives of Others. As two historical period films, one greyish and the other colourful, the difference between them is not a difference of kind. If Berlin School films are to remain true to the program of engaging the present via redistributions of the sensible, then they work against their interests where they recreate the antiquated settings of past eras. Is their task to reveal our world to us or to transport us to another one? The former is more consistent with Kracauer’s aims. He was reluctant to peer into the edges of the world or to declare that cinema was an infinite series of interpretive frames – such projects were diversions from the tasks at hand. None of this means that a film that takes place in the past cannot be a spur to reflection or that Berlin School films should be exiled to the here and now of representation; it is only to say that a film pays a price in presentness when it projects itself into the past.


This article has been peer-reviewed.


  1. Barbara: Interview with Christian Petzold.” By Pamela Jahn. Electric Sheep, 28 September 2012 http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/features/2012/09/28/barbara-interview-with-christian-petzold/.
  2. Barbara: Interview with Christian Petzold.” Electric Sheep.
  3. On the term “heritage film,” which is an elaboration of a term drawn from British film theory, see Lutz Koepnick, “Reframing the Past: Heritage Cinema and Holocaust in the 1990s,” New German Critique 87 (2002), p. 47–82. The heritage film is one type of historical film, a larger category that includes period films and costume dramas set in the past.
  4. On the use of phonographs and period music in heritage films, see Koepnick, “Reframing the Past,” p. 78.
  5. The Dogme group’s “Vow of Chastity,” Rule no. 7, reads as follows: “Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).” See Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, “Dogme 95: The Vow of Chastity,” in Technology and Culture: The Film Reader, ed. Andrew Utterson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), p. 88.
  6. Barbara: Interview with Christian Petzold,” Electric Sheep.
  7. The Aristotelian term physis is used, first by Cristina Nord and then by Petzold, in the interview “Mit geschlossenen Augen hören.” Interview by Cristina Nord. taz.de, 15 February 2005 <http://www.taz.de/!643303/>.
  8. Petzold refers to Aoyama in “Mit geschlossenen Augen hören.” Interview by Cristina Nord.
  9. See Chris Homewood, “Wind,” in Berlin School Glossary: An ABC of the New Wave in German Cinema, eds. Roger F. Cook, Lutz P. Koepnick, Kristin Kopp and Brad Prager (Bristol: Intellect, 2013), p. 284.
  10. See “Mit geschlossenen Augen hören.” In that interview, Nord uses the word Errettung (“Kracauers Wunsch nach der Errettung der äußeren Wirklichkeit”), which corresponds to the word “redemption” in the German title of Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Theorie des Films: Die Errettung der äußeren Wirklichkeit).
  11. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997 (orig. 1960)), p. 78.
  12. Ibid., p. 78.
  13. Ibid., p. 78. The entire quotation originally comes from Albert Laffay, “Les grands thèmes de l’écran,” La Revue du cinema 2.12 (April 1948), p. 8.
  14. Ibid., p. 79.
  15. See Johannes von Moltke, The Curious Humanist: Siegfried Kracauer in America (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016), p. 168.
  16. Heidi Schlüpmann explains that for Kracauer photographs can be understood as montages “in nuce.” See Schlüpmann, “The Subject of Survival: On Kracauer’s Theory of Film,” trans. Jeremy Gaines, New German Critique 54 (1991), p. 119.
  17. See Schlüpmann, p. 119.
  18. Kracauer, p. 14. Kracauer is citing The Guermantes Way, the third volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
  19. Von Moltke, p. 167.
  20. Marco Abel notes the appearance of Kracauer’s book, writing: “As the montage continues to single out in close-up the books lying on the floor, we discover … Siegfried Kracauer’s classic Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960).” See Marco Abel, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2013), p. 75, as well as his essay in this Dossier.
  21. Kracauer, p. 55.
  22. Abel, Counter-Cinema, p. 107.
  23. On Netto as an example of post-Wende film, see Brad Prager, “Passing Time Since the Wende: Recent German Film on Unification,” German Politics and Society 28.1 (2010), p. 95-110.
  24. “‘Ich wollte, dass die DDR Farben hat’: Regisseur Christian Petzold über Barbara.” Interview by Cristina Nord, Taz.de, 11 February 2012 <http://www.taz.de/!5100957/>. Jaimey Fisher (in Christian Petzold (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013)) writes: “Discussing Barbara, Petzold implies that he was responding to the recent poster child for th(e) historical or ‘heritage’ trend, the work dominant in the representation of the GDR and especially Stasi, The Lives of Others” (p. 140). On the color palette in The Lives of Others, see Paul Cooke, “25 February 2007: Das Leben der Anderen Follows Blueprint for Foreign-Language Oscar Success,” in A New History of German Cinema, eds. Jennifer M. Kapczynski and Michael David Richardson (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012), p. 612. Barbara is hardly the first post-Wende film to use bright colors in depicting the GDR: Leander Haußmann’s ostalgic Sonnenallee (1999) is an example of a film that emphasized its writer-directors’ colorful memories. See Michael D. Richardson, “A World of Objects: Consumer Culture in Filmic Reconstructions of the GDR,” in The Collapse of the Conventional: German Film and its Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, eds. Jaimey Fisher and Brad Prager (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010), esp. p. 224-25.
  25. See Daniela Berghahn, “DEFA’s Afterimages: Looking back at the East from the West in Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) and Barbara (2012),” in Re-imagining DEFA: East German Cinema in its National and Transnational Contexts, eds. Seán Allan and Sebastian Heiduschke (New York: Berghahn Books, 2016), p. 312-34. Although Berghahn prefers Petzold’s film as a superior “afterimage” that compels us “to look again” at the past (p. 332), she identifies a number of similarities between the two films.
  26. Berghahn, p. 331.
  27. The influences of Hopper and Richter are pointed out in Megan Ratner’s “Building on the Ruins. Interview with Christian Petzold,” Film Quarterly 66.2 (2012), p. 16-24.
  28. The painting’s appearance is noted by Fisher in Christian Petzold (p. 17), as well as by Abel in Counter-Cinema (p. 100). Petzold is particularly interested in Klee’s Angelus Novus, and the image itself briefly appears on a wall in Phoenix. On its appearance in that film, see Jaimey Fisher, “Petzold’s Phoenix, Fassbinder’s Maria Braun, and the Melodramatic Archaeology of the Rubble Past” in this Dossier.
  29. See Kurt Buhanan, “What’s Wrong with this Picture? Image-Ethics in Christian Petzold’s Films,” The German Quarterly 89.4 (2016), p. 489. The neologism is based on W.J.T. Mitchell’s use of “metapicture” in Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  30. See Abel, Counter-Cinema, p. 53. Abel is writing about the Berlin School in general, and Thomas Arslan’s films in particular. I have borrowed the italicized how from his description and am drawing on his own, similar emphasis in making this distinction.
  31. Marco Abel, “22 January 2007: Film Establishment Attacks ‘Berlin School’ as Wrong Kind of National Cinema,” in A New History of German Cinema, p. 606. Italics in original.
  32. W.G. Sebald writes, “Contrary to normal practice, the anatomist shown here has not begun his dissection by opening the abdomen and removing the intestines.” W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions Books, 1998 (orig. 1995)), p. 16.
  33. See Sebald: “That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies” (p. 17).
  34. Debbie Pinfold, “The End of the Fairy Tale? Christian Petzold’s Barbara and the Difficulties of Interpretation,” German Life and Letters, 67.2 (2014), p. 292.
  35. Pinfold, p. 292-93.
  36. See Buhanan, p. 482.
  37. Hermann Broch, Barbara. Novelle (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1994). Petzold draws on more than one work. Christina Gerhardt considers whether Werner Bräunig’s Rummelplatz: Roman can be considered among his literary sources. See Christina Gerhardt, “Looking East: Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012),” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 33.6 (2016), p. 564 n60.
  38. Paul Michael Lützeler, “Die Männer sind anders: Brochs Barbara – und Petzolds Film,” tagesspiegel.de, 3 June 2012 <http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/die-maenner-sind-anders-brochs-barbara-/6703484.html>.
  39. The Flight was filmed in and around Erfurt. Barbara was filmed two hours away in Kirchmöser, where the hospital and its surrounding streets were located, as well as in Ahrenshoop, for images of Germany’s Baltic coast.
  40. On Petzold’s use of 35-millimeter film, see Petzold’s own explanation in Fisher, Christian Petzold, p. 162.
  41. Petzold’s comment is as follows: “Der Zugereiste kann wahrscheinlich besser etwas erzählen als derjenige, der mittendrin ist.” See “Nie Mallorca, immer DDR.” Interview by Susanne Beyer and Claudia Voigt. Der Spiegel 13 (2012), p. 138.
  42. See “Dem Heute verpflichtet. Mit Roland Gräf im Gespräch,” Der neue Weg (Halle), 21 October 1977.

About The Author

Brad Prager is Professor of German and Film Studies at the University of Missouri. He is the author of After the Fact: The Holocaust in Twenty-First Century Documentary Film (2015), The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth (2007), and Aesthetic Vision and German Romanticism: Writing Images (2007). He is the editor or co-editor of several books including Visualizing the Holocaust: Documents, Aesthetics, Memory (2008) and Berlin School Glossary: An ABC of the New Wave in German Cinema (2013). He is currently co-editing a volume of essays on the US Holocaust’s Memorial Museum’s archive of outtakes from Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film Shoah.