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Director Spotlight: Christian Petzold

German writer-director Christian Petzold has been one of the reigning auteurs of sensory realism since the early 2000s. His deliberately paced narratives often center around psychological turmoil, terse political climates, imperfect romance and a little twinge of dystopia. His interest in complex leads is well-marked, if not isolating, as he tends to place his muses (long-time collaborator Nina Hoss, and more recently, Paula Beer) on protagonistic pedestals. His works are intriguing and often eerie, and although he is well-admired in the contemporary European film community, his films may seem plodding to those less well-acquainted with slow-burn dramas. Although his latest collaborations with Franz Rogowski are likely his best, I was eager to head down the path of Petzold’s 2000s movies and ascertain how exactly his style has evolved.

The State I Am In (2000)

Although some are gifted with immense resources for their first or second films, it’s not abnormal to find that filmmakers' earlier features tend to be technically amateurish, which does drag down the quality of even the most engaging of screenplays. In Petzold’s first feature film (he worked primarily in TV movies before) The State I Am In, the director takes the plot of Sidney Lumet’s Running of Empty and turns up the chill factor to 100. His icy interpretation of a family of criminals on the run rings strongly of early 2000s Lynne Ramsey. The film’s imperfect shots are occasionally offset by a pervasive irony; parents Hans and Clara (Richy Müller and show-stealer Barbara Auer) train their daughter, Jeanne, to be equal parts loyal and skeptical. Jeanne's conditioned cynicism of the world is bound to catch up with those fashioning it, isn’t it? That’s the central conflict: parents – or really anyone with authority – who want to isolate their children, procuring an obedient yes-man, without realizing how trained mistrust can backfire.

The State I Am In loses some of its momentum when it focuses on the daughter’s burgeoning relationship with an unemployed mechanic. This is a natural depiction of a woman finding her independence and learning how to make new connections outside of her bubble, but the hard, cold lens never really eases, and the acting by the younger performers is much weaker than Müller and Auer. The film acts as an amalgamation of the popular gritty blue-tinted action movies of the era (such as Jason Bourne) and distressed indies (à la Ratcatcher or The Virgin Suicides) but, beyond a few glimpses of Petzold’s disaffection for nationalism, he hasn’t quite found his groove.

The State I Am In is streaming on Mubi.

Yella (2007)

Yella is part financial drama, part psychological thriller. I have no desire to spoil its twist (although if you’ve seen Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, they share the same story), so I am going to leave its plot discussion at that. It was Petzold’s third collaboration with Nina Hoss (his first two films with her are very difficult to find), and her first win of the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Yella is lesser Petzold in a lot of ways. Although it boasts his soon-to-be-signature tortured heroine clad in red, heightened sound design (Dirk Jacob of Run Lola Run fame), and slow-burn twist, the movie lacks the captivating atmosphere to get away with such tedious reveals. The modest set decoration in already sterile locations certainly serves a purpose, as fearful protagonist Yella is a chameleon on the move. Her talent in budget sheets is about as dry as it can get, and although someone familiar with financial negotiations might find her and her partner’s development of business strategies to be captivating stuff, for an average viewer, the numerous scenes are taxing (no pun intended). Sure, there’s a character study going on under the surface, but making the subtle choice at all times in this story is draining. It seems like Petzold is mimicking a Dardenne brothers movie but still wishes to sprinkle in bits of the psychological.

Not all movies have to feel lived-in to ring true, but Yella doesn’t quite find the balance of sensory provocation and emotional intrigue to overcome its obsession with things looking just-like-so. Hoss is very watchable, but the film’s twist is virtually meaningless in the context of its central plot. Capitalism makes people sad, it’s true. But the milking of a moment that Petzold does so successfully in his later films comes off as excessive for as idle of a plot as this one.

Yella is streaming on Mubi.

Jerichow (2008)

Jerichow was a turn for the better in my visiting of pre-2010s Petzold films. The oceanfront view is entrancing, the sexual tension is taut, and there is a legitimate thrust in the narrative love triangle. There’s also a post-militant angle to it that borders on aggressive. Much of that can be attributed to Benno Fürmann’s mostly silent performance as ex-soldier Thomas. His eyes are piercing, and they tend to speak for themselves, watching, witnessing, wanting. Nina Hoss* takes a step forward from Yella as yet another abused wife with a shoddy past, but there’s something about her posture in this film that is more liberated. She is economically dependent on her spouse, but she moves about the world with greater confidence, partially because she knows he is impaired by his alcoholism, and partially because she knows that his pursuit of money will always take precedence over her.

Rounding out the trio is Hoss’ husband Ali (Hilmi Sözer), who strikes just the right balance of stern, manic and empathetic. He shares a revelation in the third act that changes the audience’s perception of him entirely, even after a bait-and-switch of his true intentions, which proves utterly devastating. The trio’s dynamic is the biggest selling point, along with a gripping cold open and a PTSD-based moral ambiguity. It’s fascinating to see how the characters justify violence and non-violence to themselves depending on how it benefits them. Jerichow is a sturdy, self-contained drama that embraces its geographical limitations and sparse cast.

Jerichow is streaming on Mubi.

*Barbara (2012) is the other major Petzold-Hoss collaboration, but unfortunately, I could not find it streaming, so I am moving right along to Phoenix.

Phoenix (2014)

Considered by many to be Petzold’s crowning achievement, Phoenix is the only film of Petzold’s so far to be rewarded with a Criterion release. A sweeping historical drama that is largely impressive because of how minimalistic it is, the film is Nina Hoss’ best role to date and combines what many consider to be Petzold’s greatest strengths: cryptic characters, a chilling use of music, and a distinct sense of culture and country.

Although many of Petzold’s movies contextualize age-old ideas in modern settings, Phoenix puts its characters right in the wake of post-WWII East Germany. Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Jewish woman who just nearly avoided death in a concentration camp, has undergone facial reconstruction surgery as a result of a bullet wound. She intends to reconnect with her husband, Johnny, from before the war. However, her friend warns, Johnny may have been the one to betray Nelly to the Nazis. Looking slightly different from her former self and proceeding with trepidation, Nelly assumes a new identity and allows Johnny to use her as an impersonator of her former self so that he can collect money from Nelly's family who died in the war.

As one can no doubt observe from its synopsis, there are a lot of layers to the story. Hoss plays one person with three levels of obscurity. It’s a great role for an actor to sink their teeth into subtleties, and Hoss rises to the challenge. There are about three recurring locations that most of the scenes take place in, which really enhances the play-like feel of Nelly and Johnny’s complex relationship. Yet, there’s a timeless ornateness to the connecting scenes. Crisp creams, vibrant greens, and Petzold’s signature use of bold scarlet distinguish the color palette. The story has gravitas, but the nuance of secretive feeling does not wane. There’s enough melodrama for Almodóvar and enough realism for Mungiu. Phoenix is a cinematic experience through and through, and it’s easy to understand why many believe it to be his best.

Phoenix is streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Transit (2018)

Transit was the very first film I ever saw from Petzold, and its discovery was a fluke. To be totally transparent, I didn’t have the political context at the time to evaluate it as an examination of war-torn society and the need for refuge. To me, Transit’s story was about purgatory, plain and simple. Repetitive, fruitless, and inescapable, Petzold’s interpretation of port town Marseilles as a perpetually in-limbo end of the earth resonates for its hazy climate and constant flux of international travelers. I can appreciate now what the film means as a commentary on the north-south latitudinal split and the dissemination of fascism.

Transit is the first collaboration between Petzold and superstar Franz Rogowski (one of the most fascinating actors I have had the pleasure of witnessing on screen). It was also his first film with actress Paula Beer, who plays a secondary but still important role in this film. Already, this feels like a new phase for the filmmaker, who shot in Marseilles, France as opposed to his native Germany, and partially in French. It is a WWII allegory (the book it was based on was written and set during WWII, but Petzold chose to modernize the time period), which connects it to Phoenix, but the atmosphere is rugged and beige. In essence, Georg (Rogowski), a political refugee, attempts to flee the authoritarian state in Europe for Mexico. There then occurs the classic identity mix-up, infidelity, and some posthumous cover-ups. The film is reticent with respect to momentum, but for good reason.

Even without its source material coming from WWII, its contemporary adaptation is curious because of its location. These kinds of crises are currently occurring in Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. The issue seems slightly dystopian in this story, perhaps because it's occurring in countries that are not currently in a state of distress. Is it potent because it’s hypothetical, or is it potent because it’s timely? The onslaught of the war in Ukraine makes its own dent in the sense of security most of western and central Europe has had since WWII. I think this movie will only become more relevant with time, and it is the film of Petzold’s that has left the deepest imprint on my psyche.

Transit is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Undine (2020)

The public is slightly more mixed about Undine than they are about Phoenix or Transit. I believe the culprit is a lack of folkloric context. The story of the undine details a soulless water nymph whose partner must die upon deceiving her. The movie starts off with Undine (who, for all purposes, appears fully human) being broken up with, which she politely encourages her partner not to do. Nonetheless, being unaware of the legitimacy of her curse, he turns her away. Mythical elements pop up throughout the film, with some of its most magical moments occurring underwater via scuba dive. Petzold’s steady hand guides the entrancing performances by the electric duo that is Rogowski and Beer in their follow-up to Transit.

Petzold is not the type to say more than is absolutely necessary. If there was a modern pioneer of show don’t tell, it’d be him. His storytelling is composed of furtive glances, layered expressions, and deliberate touch. Undine, despite its singular character focus, feels broader than some of his other works because it is playing upon an ancient concept as opposed to a specific conflict. However, I consider it to be his most fluid film to date. Perhaps it’s how big of a role water plays in the story, perhaps it is the utter lack of jarring edits; Petzold has crafted a mystifying free-flowing movie that burrows in your brain for weeks after it finishes.

Undine is streaming on Hulu.



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