This essay examines Christian Petzold’s lesser-known, early films of the 90s in their depiction of the German economy’s impact on individuals’ image-perception and then takes up his better-known film Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000) to trace a change in what can be thought of as image economies. It considers Petzold’s use of surveillance footage in the representation of images which are ascribed value and exchanged in economies that at times come up against relationships of solidarity between characters. While Petzold’s early films Pilotinnen (Pilots, 1995) and Die Beischlafdiebin (The Sex Thief, 1998) depict the struggle and exploitation of female workers within the German economy as well as the solidarity formed in the resistance against these forces, Petzold shifts in the early 2000s in The State I Am In to a larger scale examination of surveillance image economies that extend to the state. The film follows a family with presumed historical ties to the RAF, attempting in the present to remain under the radar. Once again, Petzold investigates relationships of solidarity threatened by image economies, though now with an eye directed towards the transfer of data to and use of surveillance footage by the state. Petzold’s trajectory appears to suggest an increasingly depersonalised society in general, (re)affirming Jonathan Beller’s argument for the increasing gravity of the image for both society and individuals. In addition, Petzold seems to addend Beller’s notions of proto-images and exploitation with a hopeful possibility that, ultimately, humans can win out over these forces through maintained solidarity.

While many scholars have cited surveillance in their analyses of Christian Petzold’s oeuvre, most have focused on his breakthrough, Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000), and the films thereafter. In this essay, however, I take up the lesser known feature-length work before The State I Am In to explore the context and unfolding of his interest in, and depiction of, surveillance. I begin by analysing his first full-length film Pilotinnen (Pilots, 1995) and find that Petzold portrays surveillance as a simultaneously economic and voyeuristic means of recording exploitative business transactions in a telling intersection that anticipates his better-known use of surveillance later in his career. By Petzold’s third feature three years later, Die Beischlafdiebin (The Sex Thief, 1998), the surveilling camera becomes increasingly prominent as the means for the recording and collecting of people’s “images,” which in turn converts them (both the images and the people in them) into economically oriented exchange value. Finally, in his breakthrough The State I Am In, Petzold shifts to a notably more anonymous, that is, depersonalised (and depersonalising), perspective of surveillance, implying that surveillance and control have become more universal and panoptic – yet, even in this phase, they still rely on the above mechanisms, that is, on economically oriented images. To illuminate this trajectory over Petzold’s early career, I explore how surveillance footage captures his characters in economically charged images that recall (and reinforce) what Jonathan Beller describes as a “proto-image” in The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle. I highlight Petzold’s own shift from what Beller terms proto-images in the workplace to, by the time of The State I Am In, a more panoptic state surveillance that absorbs earlier versions of this proto-image in a more globalised and digital form of capitalism.

Beller’s influential study of cinema as an attention economy offers a broad understanding of the cinematic image and its reification in contemporary society as heavily anchored in what he theorizes as the proto-image. In Beller’s sketch of this type of image, Dziga Vertov’s montage films serve as the pivotal historical example. According to Beller, “Vertov shows that cinema, like capital, implies the coordination of nonsynchronous temporalities and the montage of space.”1 As I shall argue, Petzold likewise captures these coordinations of cinema by depicting after-the-fact viewings or by employing this retrospective temporality for surveillance footage in constantly refigured spatialities. Cinema is unique in the way it materialises society’s dependence upon images for value, both at the time of its invention and in the present day. And as Beller writes of the increasingly digital form of global organisation, “the present situation of multinational capital” heightens the cinematic image as “a new technology of exploitation (value-extraction)” beyond its return investment, haunted by corporations and the state as “shadow institutions.” Such mechanisms lend to an overarching “cinematisation of social relations,” rendering people’s relationships to one another as reified images that can be viewed and manipulated, bought and sold, according to Beller, “by an increasing number of institutions and apparatuses.”2 Such insights underscore how surveillance functions as film and, much as in Vertov, how, when all things (especially human beings) become images, “consciousness itself becomes cinematic,” as Beller suggests.3 He explains, “We are first posited as cameras in a universe of fetish-objects, and then in the postmodern we are absorbed in simulation – effectively positioned as cameras in a world of ambient images”; and thus, “commodities as proto-images induce consciousness as proto-cinema.”4 As I shall trace, by positioning the viewer as security camera, Petzold similarly raises awareness of (cinematic) consciousness as consumerism. Petzold thereby reflects the influence of technologies in the prioritisation of the visual in capitalism and follows this development to a more global setting in The State I Am In, where he hints at an increasing implementation of the visual to affirm state hegemony.

Even as he cites Vertov in the historical emergence of the proto-image, however, Beller’s theory of this proto-image offers an increasingly economically critical viewpoint, after Vertov’s initial enthusiasm for these developments. Above all, Beller refines his definition of the “proto-image” in relation to value and price: he suggests that not only money but also the filmic frame is able to “capture a ghost of the object – abstract, ethereal, and metaphysical, certainly, but nonetheless real for all that.”5 Beller’s historico-material tracing of the object’s displacement into the image follows Wilhelm Wurzer’s claim that filming exceeds dialectics and judges “capital as apparition.”6 Beller claims in turn that “capital is a prolepsis of filming,”7 adopting a Marxist-historical critique of capitalism that imbricates cinema in its dialectic. Beller’s comparison of price and image reveals that both of these value forms reflect a haunting form of reification. He writes, “Price is money’s spectral representation of an object, and image is the film frame’s spectral representation of an object.”8 Of course, such a haunting subtext of the spectral dovetails with Petzold’s depiction of the ghostly in capitalism’s everyday operations. For Beller, moreover, price leads dialectically to imaging: “Indeed, as soon as human beings produce for exchange and when exchange-value glows in the pit of each and every commodity, all things are ready to become images.”9 Petzold’s surveillance footage is an instance of hyperconsciousness of this fact. Particularly in his earlier films, security footage clips capture character images that reify them into price and exchange value, and as fetish object, while at the same time calling attention to these processes of the proto-image. In so doing, Petzold simultaneously criticises capitalism and the commodifying nature(s) of the video camera/ human eye. Security footage in Petzold captures his characters as ghosts in a manner similar to Beller’s proto-image, while at the same time the viewer of the footage also increasingly becomes a ghost, culminating in the panoptic anonymity of The State I Am In.

Pilots: Surveillance versus Solidarity in the Workplace

Pilots constitutes Petzold’s earliest feature-length attempt to convey a conflict between workplace solidarity and professional ambition. Ultimately, it ends in a lingering hope for solidarity, even as the prevailing image economy works against it. The film begins with women discussing the death of Frank Sinatra, whose music continues to haunt the protagonist, Karin, throughout the diegesis.10 The viewer follows Karin to her workplace, a cosmetics firm called “Blue Eyes” (with connotations of both Sinatra and the aforementioned image economy, albeit with a whiff of utopic, Aryan Nazi vision). Karin overhears her boss asking a coworker what is wrong with her: “Older,” we hear, and “more tired (than the others).” The young new hire Sophie, wearing a red skirt, is juxtaposed to the onset of Karin’s aging, her work seemingly draining the life out of her.11 Moments later, Karin sees her boss kissing Sophie in his red convertible. Karin and Sophie spend the remainder of the film driving around together, collecting clients for Blue Eyes. Karin and Sophie’s fate seems to lie increasingly in the hands of their boss, apparently intent on exploiting all of his female employees both financially and sexually. At the same time that the two women compete for success, they also come to develop a close friendship after initial suspicion and distrust.12 Karin and Sophie attempt to wreak revenge on their boss: Sophie robs him for his injustices against them, and when he comes after her, she hits him on the head with his own stolen suitcase, possibly killing him. But to the dismay and complete destitution of the two women, the suitcase contains no money. In desperation, Sophie tries to rob Karin’s shady business acquaintance, Dieter. The authorities come after her, and she returns to Karin’s getaway car after being shot by either the police or Dieter’s guards for the theft. Sophie dies in Karin’s arms next to the bank of a nearby river to which they have fled from the police, the stolen money stained red with her blood. When Karin assumes that Sophie is dead or very close to it, she goes down to the water to wash herself. Sophie, to the surprise of Karin and the viewer, seizes the opportunity to get in the car and drive away, leaving Karin alone on the bank of the river and thereby saving her from implication in the crime. The sun sets behind the bridge in the background, and Karin sees a ghostly silhouette in the distance – vaguely resembling Sophie, who has presumably just died. Sophie’s sacrifice provides Karin with a chance for a new home in Paris: the next scene shows cash on a table, with the Eiffel Tower just outside the window. Karin has gained her (temporary) economic liberation, but her future is uncertain, and Sophie has sacrificed herself in the prime of her youth so that one of them could work towards their common dream of material comfort.

Early in Pilots’ plot, surveillance images record Karin’s career ambition as the cinematisation of business relations, which stands in growing contrast to her emergent solidarity with Sophie. The private business’s security camera records Karin entering Dieter’s office building. As Karin shakes his hand, he holds on to hers much too firmly and for an uncomfortable amount of time, signifying male dominance in a business power struggle, which Petzold revisits in many of his films. “Die wird wiederkommen,” (she will be back) Dieter says, and viewers watch with him as she leaves his office building on his monitor, her image recorded a second time.

Christian Petzold

Surveillance Camera in Pilots (Christian Petzold, 1995)

As she tries to navigate the business world, Petzold’s first use of surveillance captures a proto-image of Karin as price: the sequence self-referentially calls attention to the commoditising nature of the camera’s imaging. Given the prolonged handshake between the two of them, the voyeurism of Dieter’s surveillance footage suggests the proto-image of Karin as the representation of both financial and sexual desire for Karin as (exchangeable) object.

The scene gains further political and economic valences when contextualised within the film as a whole, especially considering the simultaneously increasing desperation of Karin and Sophie on the one hand and the solidarity between them on the other. Dieter’s image of Karin as “price” ignores the social qualities of her personality that constitute Sophie’s image of Karin as her friend. The Schwebezustand (state of abeyance) of Sophie and Karin’s relationship under the impacts of careerism and friendship is mirrored in their fluctuating spatiality as they drive around in the automobile. Jaimey Fisher notes that such “movement spaces” become for Petzold “a crucial point of contact between individuals and the socioeconomic world changing around them,”13 and thus, in a sense, the image of the two women together in the car is staged as an alternative to the surveillance images of Karin seeking economic security. The postindustrial landscape further builds a tension between worker, price, and image.14 In The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, Marco Abel discusses Pilots as a film weighted down by the Sehnsucht (desire) of Heimat-building.15 The desire is frustrated because finance capitalism reveals the building of a ‘homeland’ in Germany to be an impossibility for Karin and Sophie – a frustration that Petzold continues to explore in his later films.16

Karin and Sophie retaliate against the male-dominated system of finance capitalism by cultivating solidarity in the face of workplace competitiveness. Beller indicates that an “approximation of the gaze to the logic of private property and commodity fetishism” situates the commodity in a visual field reflecting Lacan’s formula of man’s desire as desire of the Other – which Karin has become.17 In his discussion of Wim Wenders’s Bis ans Ende der Welt (Until the End of the World, 1991), Beller cites Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 2: The Time-Image, in which he discerns between a proper film and a film within a film. Deleuze states, “What the film within the film expresses is this infernal circuit between the image and money.”18

For Beller, such instances express “the transcendence of signification brought about by capital intensification.”19 In other words, the image becomes imbricated in economic flow and reduces the person’s image to price. Wenders’s 1991 film in fact possesses many similarities to Pilots and could even have inspired Petzold’s cinema: Until the End of the World is a road movie that features robbery, deception, government agencies, the camera, and surveillance. Beller writes that the film-within-the film for Wenders “is portrayed as capital’s shortest circuit – an environment where the individual immediately and addictively consumes her own objectification.”20 The proto-image of Karin – Petzold’s film within the film Pilots – similarly reflects a convergence of image and commodity generated by the desire for financial security, but one that she resists in her friendship to Sophie.21 Sophie’s sacrifice of life for the well-being of both her and Karin represents Petzold’s faith in the possibility of solidarity triumphing over competitive neoliberal careerism, thus offering an alternative to the complete breakdown of the human being into image predicted by Beller.

The Sex Thief: Recorded Interviews and Circulated Footage

The Sex Thief constitutes Petzold’s second film within film as the creation of a proto-image. Here, he places more emphasis than in Pilots on both the act of filming within the film and on the exploitative circulation of footage. The diegesis follows the relationship between two sisters – Petra, a traveling woman who robs men she seduces with the help of sleeping pills,22 and her sister Franziska, who is ostensibly studying towards her higher degree. As it turns out, each of the sisters deceives the other: Franziska ultimately discloses that she is not actually enrolled in her studies but instead works in retail at a department store. Moreover, she has not taken measures towards achieving her desired career path of founding her own translation office and has acquired a high level of debt. On the other hand, Petra leads Franziska to believe that she earns her living as a successful manager, but Franziska discovers the truth behind her sister’s illicit income. Early in the film, Petra has a liaison with a man who introduces himself to her as the hotel thief while she meanwhile takes advantage of another male target (who turns out to be a detective), and the three of them have chance encounters for the remainder of the film. After Franziska is discouraged by her failed attempts to follow her career ambition in a series of job interviews, she decides on her own to try her hand at Petra’s line of illicit work. Ironically, the man she tries to seduce turns out to be the detective whom Petra had already robbed, and he predictively removes the batteries from her Taser. As he attempts to handcuff her, she struggles and escapes, only to be hit by a car. There is a moment of uncertainty before she gets up and walks away. Petra arrives at the scene in a taxi moments too late, and Franziska appears outside the kitchen window the next day. At the close of the film, Franziska embraces Petra and apologises, and Petra’s eyes widen as Franziska’s body goes limp in her arms.23

Like Pilots, but in a more radical way, The Sex Thief presents a cinematisation of social relations in which, on the one hand, women in the workplace are reified into a priced image, necessitating competitiveness and even deception, and in which, on the other hand, (familial) ties of solidarity encourage resistance to these workings of neoliberalism. In The Sex Thief, both sisters sense the video camera’s potential to cast prospective workers (especially female) into a reified proto-image, interwoven with the predatory male gaze.24 Even before The Sex Thief’s radicalisation of the surveilling proto-image, Petzold gives the sense that this is a world permeated by sexual-economic exploitation and by voyeuristic surveillance supporting it. Petra’s means of subsistence – robbing men she seduces – makes her conscious of the fact that, when picking up a man, she allows herself to become an objectified image under his gaze: she observes them as a potential mark and then lets them observe her. When she returns to Germany, the security agent on Petra’s train gets on the PA and asks her to put out her cigarette, hinting that someone is always watching her. She in turn spies on her sister and realises that Franziska had been lying about her translation business and has never really pursued any of her career dreams.

Deeming Franziska qualified for a better job, Petra encourages her to schedule interviews – with employers who will most certainly be men. In the first interview, Franziska emphasises fixed pay, which, Petra explains afterwards, reveals weakness. Her second interview goes even worse, not least because Petzold’s staging has conspicuously ratcheted up the surveillance aspect of the social interaction. As the cinematisation of social relations intensifies, Franziska loses control of her image and its place in the economy. As with Karin in Pilots, Franziska is recorded upon entering the building, suggesting that this footage might be watched when considering hires. The office contains a large video camera, and apparently all interviews are recorded.

Christian Petzold

Franziska enters the office in The Sex Thief (1998)

The interviewer criticises Franziska after she has been in the room for two minutes and given no answers – she has only asked more questions, which, he admits, has now made him angry. As she lists her qualifications and references, he yawns and looks at her with an expression of bored contempt, striking a business pose (this gesture becomes key in Yella). She criticises him for recording her, though she has clearly already botched the interview: she has flagged and problematised the employer’s cinematisation of social relations, refusing to play the economic game of proto-images as capital.

Christian Petzold

The Recording of Franziska’s Interview

Like Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929), discussed by Beller, Petzold films a moment of (filmic) production and cinematisation of consciousness. Both Vertov’s film and The Sex Thief feature clips depicting a filming camera and its operator and also connect human eyes to the camera (in Vertov’s case, the viewer is bombarded with montage images of a camera lens and a man’s eye). According to Beller, “Vertov shows that cinema, like capital, implies the coordination of nonsynchronous temporalities and the montage of space,”25 which Petzold likewise captures by depicting Petra’s later viewing of her own sister in these interview situations.

Christian Petzold

Vertov’s depiction of filming within the film Man with a Movie Camera

After Franziska has rejected this game of exploitative proto-images in her interviews, Petra gives Franziska a makeover that should balance feminine allure and professional power, substantiating the notion of Franziska’s being viewed in terms of commodity value. Petra tells her to smile at the man who interviews her. “And they all just want one thing?”, Franziska asks Petra. “Yes,” Petra responds. “You are beautiful. You will get the job.” Unfortunately, after Petra sees Franziska in a sports car with her next interviewer, Franziska reports that she was not hired: she unwittingly overshot this game of sexual-economic proto-images. Petra perhaps realises that her line of work – literally, (criminal) seduction – has its own rules that might intersect with but do not translate directly to business. At the same time, she seems to realise that she is more naturally gifted at (image-)manipulation than her sister.

The Sex Thief features a proto-image of Franziska with fetish value (in the Freudian sense of removed connections) produced in its repeated viewing. The recording of Franziska’s interview – its proto-image – is consumed visually by both the businessman and her sister Petra. Beller writes that the value of an image depends on its perceived value to others and that it becomes “split in the subject whose lack inevitably is plied in his viewing,” especially in the case of a spectacle.26 According to Beller, this “accretion of gazes on the surface of the image-commodity” shows “that the gaze is an economic medium, its lingering is productive” and creates fetish value for the privately-owned image.27 With greater knowledge of this fetishistic aspect of the proto-image, Petra resolves to seduce and rob a man who turns out to be one of Franziska’s interviewers, indirectly avenging her. Finding the camera in his office, she asks of this new kind of mark, “you don’t do dirty things with that, do you?” In a way, the answer depends on the interpretation of dirty: the man turns on the camera: “her there.” Petra immediately recognises Franziska, whom the man calls a dumb cow. He points out that she looks down too much at her skirt, noting how unconfident she is. Having had enough of him and/or the proto-image of her own sister, Petra stuns him with her Taser. She then looks once more at the screen, at a moment when Franziska looks directly into the camera, conjuring a memorable image akin to Beller’s proto-image.

Christian Petzold

Petra Views the Recording of Franziska’s Interview

Beller writes that an image “is worked on by visual circulation; it is altered by all that looking,” and thus Petra’s viewing of the recording of her sister Franziska forces her to compare her experience of viewing Franziska with the “perception of all the perception that has accreted to it,”28 in this case a businessman and his employees’ previous viewings. According to Beller, this abstracted existence “becomes the fetish character of the unique work,”29 and therefore Franziska’s is an image of doubly performed reification. Franziska has tried to play the game of proto-images, but it is her sister who, in solidarity with her exploited sibling, takes control in this image economy.

Petra gives Franziska the man’s wallet at breakfast, confirming, “Das ist das Schwein” (that is the pig). 30 The handing over of the wallet turns the system of exchange initiated by the circuit of the proto-image inside out: now exchange is illicit and between the two sisters, a different economy altogether. This new solidarity invites a new honesty: Petra concedes that she, too, has lied about her employment and has never been a hotel manager. Her friend and potential romance, the hotel thief, is then arrested when they meet at a bar. As in Petzold’s other films when characters are on the run, including Pilots and The State I Am In, the police are conspicuously uninterested in her. “Bora Bora,” the hotel thief tells her upon his arrest, evoking the dream of an unattainable Heimat. Abel argues that the sisters are “haunted by their affective memories embodied by their parental home (which they occupy together), while the film is permeated with a general sense of German people’s desire to escape their country’s past,” dreaming of living in tropical settings abroad.31 The concept of belonging dissolves even further in The State I Am In, as the old Germany constituted by borders is subsumed by its membership in the Schengen area as well as society’s increasing interconnectivity, and Heimat is reified into proto-image along with everything else. As Beller writes of the internet’s rise and the subsumption of the nation-state by global capitalism, “these transformations perceived, acted upon, and realised the transformed situation of media pathways and their attendant bodies.”32 This transition indicates an increasing connection between visual forms of hegemonic social organisation and technology.

The State I Am In – Governmentality in and through Capitalist (Proto-) Image Economies

With The State I Am In, Petzold transitions from cinematising workplace social relations to cinematising society’s image economy itself as it is absorbed by the state. Petzold turns away from private capitalism towards the state as an apparition, just as Beller finds the proleptic apparition of capital within cinema’s image economy and, later, the nation state’s realisation of the existent image economy. In The State I Am In, Petzold testifies to the absorption of surveillance images-as-capital by government sources, thus both incorporating and transcending the proto-images tracked above.33 The film follows the story of a family in the political shadows. They return to Germany after being robbed in Portugal with the hopes of obtaining the financial means to leave Europe forever and create a new home in Brazil. Surveillance here ostensibly leads to the state’s eventual flagging and apprehension of Jeanne’s parents as criminals. I examine instances in which Petzold employs a video camera’s perspective, supplemented by conspicuous shots of the video cameras. I therefore analyse the scenes in which Jeanne first shoplifts CDs, Klaus is filmed giving cash to a woman, Jeanne is filmed scouting a bank, and Jeanne’s parents are filmed robbing the bank. Revealingly, the security footage of Jeanne scouting is framed from the same viewpoint as her parents’ robbery, such that these two proto-images suggest the state’s access to commercial security footage. This highlights an exchange of commodity images as capital as well as the intensified circulation of (suspected criminal) citizens as reified images.

The camera tracks Jeanne as she shoplifts, exploring the (empty) promise offered by consumerism that her parents have condemned. For Jeanne, however, it counts as one of her few recourses for the self-affirmation of adulthood in the face of her parents’ strict control. When she first steals CDs (at c. 50 minutes into the film), Petzold shoots as to highlight red security cameras on the ceiling of the music store. We do not see the petty theft from their perspective; but as she leaves the store, the alarm sounds, and she flees the shopping centre. Shortly thereafter she steals some clothes including a designer shirt of the same brand the daughter of her parents’ old friend had been wearing, with no security cameras visible this time. Nonetheless, her father, finding the clothes, lectures her on how a detective could find the family if she shoplifts. She tells them she steals the clothes to please herself rather than anyone else, announcing that she is tired of their transient lifestyle and wants to settle, but they emphasise patience. Despite the film’s overarching atmosphere of paranoia and surveillance, the first instance of actual security monitor footage in the film comes just before 1 hour 7 minutes and shows the old family friend, Klaus, giving a woman money.34 In the previous scene (in which security cameras at the truck stop are clearly visible in the background, although Petzold does not offer their perspective), Jeanne met with Klaus holding a copy of Moby Dick. Now a young woman viewers do not know approaches Klaus also holding a book – suggesting perhaps a previous interaction with Klaus (however, we never see the book’s cover clearly and assume it is not Moby Dick.) Thus, the first crime that Petzold shows ‘recorded’ for us is (presumedly) unrelated to the family’s past (RAF-related) or present-day crimes. Like the proto-images on which Beller focuses, this film within the film depicts a financial transaction and even the proto-image of person as price, but this time with a different figure.

Christian Petzold

Klaus is Recorded Giving a Young Woman Money

The police appear in full swat gear, arresting not only the young woman but also Klaus, whose face indicates complete surprise but also an awareness of the situation’s gravity. We are unaware of the extent of knowledge the police have about Klaus’ interaction with the young woman or Jeanne’s parents, or what the police might learn from Klaus about the family. Here surveillance is employed as a simultaneously economic and political mechanism on which the end of the film also builds.

At 1 hour 24 minutes – some 15 minutes after Klaus’s portentous apprehension by the police – Jeanne is depicted scouting a bank that her parents plan to rob, just after they have reconciled their family conflict. In the previous scene, after threatening to leave them for Heinrich, her romantic interest, she announces decidedly that she does not in fact love him and wants to remain with them instead, and her parents turn the car around just when they were planning to part ways with her. The recording of her scoping out the bank attests to her acceptance of familial solidarity over her relationship to Heinrich as well as her tacit support of her parents’ plan. When compared to the previous situations in which she is recorded shoplifting, the point of view of the bank’s security camera reflects a trajectory towards more institutionalized types of surveillance on Petzold’s part. Once again, the extent to which Jeanne and the family are being pursued by the police is uncertain, contributing to a “scopic paranoia” on the part of the viewer.35

Christian Petzold

Jeanne is Tracked by Security Cameras as She Scopes Out the Bank

Carsten Strathausen finds that Petzold’s footage “ultimately serves a political function – a visual reminder about the increasing omnipresence of state surveillance and automated control in daily life.”36 But these proto-images also, as Petzold’s earlier films indicate, self-reflexively call attention to image economies, and connect surveillance and image as price. The sequence in which the final instance of surveillance footage appears is particularly telling in this regard. After Jeanne and her mother sit at a table next to stacks of money, her father incapacitated from being shot during her parents’ escape from the bank robbery, we see the act: Petzold depicts the entire scene “through bank surveillance cameras with little audible sound.”37 The scene is filmed once again from the same perspective behind the clerk, as with Jeanne’s visit.

Christian Petzold

The Recording of Jeanne’s Parents’ Robbery is Shown after the Fact

The state seemingly obtains the footage belatedly through image circulation, just as it seems to belatedly enter the image economy after transitioning from a national to a global, digitally-oriented framework of power. The suggested, climactic contiguity of consumerism and state surveillance marks a telling, ominous development in Petzold’s depictions of surveillance – and the film’s conclusion explores the outcome of this new circuit of exchange. The concluding arrest of Jeanne’s parents is far different than that of Klaus, who was surrounded by clearly state-controlled sirens and helicopters; in contrast, the family is rammed relentlessly by unmarked cars until they careen off the road. It is not clear, in fact, if these are plain-clothed police or, given the contiguity of consumerist and state surveillance, perhaps even private security.38 In this way, particularly in its contrast to the action taken against Klaus, this climactic attack both configures the state as a ghost and emphasises its role in making Jeanne even more of a “ghost” of society by effectively orphaning her. The proto-images are suggestively emplotted by Petzold as capital, absorbed by the state to monitor and control citizens who have commodity value as criminals. The images themselves attain a new fetish value as information. Yet, as in the earlier films, Petzold offers hope in the face of human proto-imaging: the family having ultimately bonded in solidarity over Jeanne’s lust for commodity accumulation and self-realisation (albeit ironically just before the parents’ termination). Jeanne, like Karin and Petra, is alone after significant loss, but also possibly more free from the proto-image than before.

In the three films I have discussed, Petzold places protagonists in the middle of the conflict between financial security and potentially emancipatory solidarity. From Pilots to The State I Am In, these conflicts arise in part because the image economy reifies characters as image. Whether Karen’s appeal to Dieter in Pilots, Petra’s viewing of Franziska’s interview in The Sex Thief, or the state’s viewing of recordings of Jeanne and her parents in The State I Am In, the filmed exchange of capital gains an (increasingly pernicious) value of its own through its circulation. By the time of his breakthrough, Petzold explores the entrance of the state into the playing field of the image economies. Of course, in the wider image economy, it is important to acknowledge that, like Beller’s self-reflexive proto-images of the film within the film (whether Vertov or Wenders), Petzold also cinematises social relations in the images his films offer – but with the added hopeful possibility of solidarity.

This article has been peer-reviewed.



  1. Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2006), p.53.
  2. Ibid, p.14.
  3. Ibid, p.249.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid, p.58.
  6. Wilhelm S. Wurzer, Filming and Judgment: Between Heidegger and Adorno (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1990), p.100.
  7. Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production, p.62.
  8. Ibid, p.77.
  9. Ibid, p.248.
  10. The music thus frames the film temporally in the present day of its release, but also in terms of the past.
  11. Red clothing becomes a recurring power play of aspiring businesswomen in Petzold’s films, donned also by Franziska in her job interview in The Sex Thief as well as by the protagonist of the film Yella (2007).
  12. In one scene, Sophie tails Karin – portending the trajectory of The Sex Thief, in which Petra tails her sister Franziska when she has doubts as to the legitimacy of the job she claims to have – to discover that she is meeting on the sly with their boss. For another analysis of the two women’s relationship in Pilots, see also Joy Castro’s essay in this Dossier.
  13. Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), p.2.
  14. Fisher points out that such landscapes captivate Petzold’s imagination in his early films.
  15. Abel goes on to say that the “no-where as a now-here” represents Germany explicitly in Petzold’s films, as a “spectrality (that) manifests itself in form of the films’ characters.” Marco Abel, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Rochester: Camden House, 2013), p.70.
  16. The desire to build a home is nearly always frustrated in Petzold’s films, perhaps at its height in Gespenster (Ghosts, 2005), when the Berlin Tiergarten becomes a site of homelessness that eerily echoes sentiments in Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900 (1938), or in Jerichow (2008), when Thomas loses his way from the childhood home he is trying to restore.
  17. Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production, p.181.
  18. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p.78.
  19. Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production, p.227.
  20. Ibid, p.228.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Using sleeping pills to aid in robbery is another similarity between Petzold’s early oeuvre and Wenders’s Until the End of the World.
  23. This repeats the conclusive death scene of Sophie in Pilots.
  24. Petzold frequently employs this perspective, for example in Yella or Etwas Besseres als den Tod (Beats Being Dead, 2011).
  25. Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production, p.53.
  26. Ibid, p.181.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid, p.212.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Schwein is a common insult in Petzold’s films for those who exploit; for example, in Jerichow, Ali calls his wife Laura and his driver Thomas pigs, suspecting them not only of having an affair but also of conspiring to take over his business, and in Toter Mann (Something to Remind Me, 2001) Leyla tells her friend that all lawyers are pigs.
  31. Abel, Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, p.71.
  32. Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production, p.284.
  33. Whereas in the previously discussed films, protagonists are denied a Heimat in Germany by finance capitalism, in The State I Am In Jeanne and her parents, haunted by the RAF involvement of their past, are denied a Heimat by the newly institutionalised state after the deconstruction of borders and transfer of power because they are unable to adapt to a restructured society.
  34. The woman is likely involved with some other, younger extremist political faction, and he seems to help her out of solidarity.
  35. Carsten Strathausen identifies this feature in Michael Haneke’s film Caché (Hidden, 2005) but not in Petzold’s films. “Surveillance,” in Roger F. Cook, Lutz P. Koepnick, Kristin Leigh Kopp, and Brad Prager, eds., Berlin School Glossary: An ABC of the New Wave in German Cinema, (Bristol: Intellect, 2013), p.255.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold, p.59.
  38. The contrast with Klaus’s arrest might also play on long-term concerns on the German left about police killing terrorists unofficially and/or secretly, as many suspect of the deaths of Red Army Faction members in Stammheim prison in 1976-77 as well as in general up to the 1990s, cases to which Petzold has referred.

About The Author

William Mahan is a Ph.D. candidate in the German Department at the University of California, Davis. His current research is focused on humanity’s relationship to ghosts of the past in German and Austrian literature and film from the turn of the 20th Century to the present day, considering societal changes in government and ideology as well as technological progress. He has recently presented essays on “enviromorphism” in Alfred Döblin’s Wang-lun and world visions in Brecht's The Good Person of Sezuan, and has forthcoming articles on Christoph Ransmayr’s Atlas eines ängstlichen Mannes in the Journal of Austrian Studies, and on Holocaust trauma representation in Humanities Journal.