Film Is A Work Like Any Other: Talking with Christian Petzold and Christoph Hochhäusler

The two German directors, a generation apart, discuss each other's films and their own, in a wide-ranging conversation.
Patrick Holzapfel

Christian Petzold's The State I Am In (2000) and Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below (2010) will be showing in September and October, 2017 on MUBI in most countries around the world.

Christian Petzold (left) and Christoph Hochhäusler (right) on the set of Dreileben. Photo by Felix von Böhm.

We meet in Christian Petzold’s office in Berlin-Kreuzberg. A giant wall of whispering books, almost like a Borgesian brain of fiction, encircles the table at which Christoph Hochhäusler, myself and the owner take place to discuss their films. The idea of the interview was to get Petzold’s take on Hochhäusler’s The City Below (2010) and Hochhäusler’s take on Petzold’s The State I Am In (2000). In the end, both filmmakers ended up talking about a lot more, as cinema for them has always been something that shines most brightly when remembering it, discussing it and loving it. The fictions proposed by the books in the surrounding shelves play an important role for them. Yet, instead of using fictions to disappear behind shadows and secrets, for Petzold and Hochhäusler they are part of their work and a tool. Both are very eager talking about their work and in our conversation one can find two filmmakers that are very well able to look outside their own fictions.

It is easy to find similarities between Petzold and Hochhäusler, who in a way mark two different generations of what has been labelled the Berlin School. Yet, when talking about my place of birth, the city of Augsburg, two very different associations came out of their respective mouths. Maybe they tell a lot. Hochhäusler immediately mentioned it was the birthplace of Bertold Brecht, whereas Petzold also claimed rightfully that famous soccer player Helmut Haller was born in Augsburg.

PATRICK HOLZAPFEL: You both have a history of talking together about film, discussing and fighting for cinema. You also collaborated on a television work called Dreileben [2011], and most importantly you are friends. So I wonder, how is it for you watching a film by the other? Do you give advice to each other?

CHRISTOPH HOCHHÄUSLER: First, we have to keep in mind that I am from a different generation than Christian. The State I Am In was the film that brought us together. It was very one-sided at first. I was the fan who was calling the master. I saw The State I am In and for me it was a film that changed a lot. My cinematic models up to that point were filmmakers from the past or from foreign countries. Though I was always hoping for it, I never found such a role model in Germany. Suddenly there was The State I Am In. A film that brings together so many different aspects German cinema usually has huge problems bringing together. In it I found a sense for form and style. I also discovered a sense for political metaphors that goes further than just until the next elections. Moreover, I experienced a love for narration and plot. For me, it is a beautifully narrated work with a great deal of necessity and precision. At the same time, the film hit a certain zeitgeist. It was received with open arms by the German public. So I thought to myself that it might be possible to make an intelligent film and still reach an audience. After seeing it I called Christian who I didn’t know…

CHRISTIAN PETZOLD:  Yes, that’s right. You called me.

CHRISTOPH HOCHHÄUSLER: By then, we had started our magazine Revolver and I called him and said: This is such a great film. You have to write something for us. In the background I could hear Christian’s children scream and I had the impression his life was not as organized as it might be now…

PETZOLD:  It wasn’t.

HOCHHÄUSLER: I also expected someone else. Someone who made a film like this…

PETZOLD:  …should welcome you in his country home or maybe only after September when I return from there. [Laughter.] 

HOCHHÄUSLER: Christian really wrote a text for us.

HOLZAPFEL: The one about the model railway?

HOCHHÄUSLER: Yes, and it is strangely connected to Christian’s Polizeiruf 110: Kreise [a 2015 feature-length episode in a German television crime series]. This is how we met each other. By then it was a rather distant relationship. I didn’t live in Berlin yet. I was still at film school in Munich.

PETZOLD:  Shortly after that you organized a party in Berlin. I remember that. There, for the first time we had a longer conversation. One of the important issues with The State I Am In is my believe in the incapability of cinema to deal with current topics. Cinema needs a very long time because it has to dream anew the events it has lived through. It is the dream material that brings the plots and characters and so on. I wrote The State I Am In together with Harun Farocki in 1997 in San Francisco. I got funding from the state; I didn’t get money from television. Television refused and through different editors I was asked to replace the Red Army Faction [RAF] with the real estate tycoon Schneider. The RAF was a topic they considered done. This got me into some depression and I started to write different scripts together with Harun. After some time we went to Portugal, as we had funding to prepare the shoot. We went there, we made a casting with all the actors that ended up in the film, Julia Hummer, Barbara Auer, Richy Müller—they all were there and we photographed locations. The same was true for North Rhine-Westphalia, where I also wanted to shoot. We thought about how to shoot all those places, about their architecture. So we felt like we were in a movie shooting a movie that will never be shot. Well, suddenly friends from the Hessische Rundfunk gave us additional 70,000 Deutsche Mark and we could shoot the film. What was interesting in the end was what Christoph just described…it hit a current topic. Joschka Fischer [German’s then foreign minister] was attacked by right wing politicians for throwing stones in 1968. Among the attackers was also Angela Merkel, who doesn’t know anything about 1968. You have to know that in 1998 a red-green alliance [an alliance of the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party] was elected. CDU [the Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel’s party] was confronted with a scandal circling around donations. It looked like they would disappear as a conservative power for years to come. So they used the old anti-communist rhetorics to attack the alliance. The State I Am In was released in the middle of that storm where ghosts of the past reappeared. Ghosts that were called forth by cinema.

HOLZAPFEL: Had the label Berlin School already existed at that point?

PETZOLD:  Together with Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec I had already been labelled under the term Berlin School before. Those filmmakers with long walks and long takes and so on… [laughs]. I have always felt uneasy about it. You also can’t say that the New German Cinema was only Schlöndorff and it was all about adaptations. It was much richer than that. The label limits what it is.

HOCHHÄUSLER: At first I wasn’t included in it but I always found it was equitable for the critics to search for a label in order to describe it. Since I have always engaged a lot with painting, the term “school“ was never as invective as it might have been for others. Yet, if you look at film history it is full of fatal repressions caused by those labels. We have to remember that there are immense differences within those categories. It is good to find labels to describe certain things but it is dangerous when people get excluded and ultimately their films are not shown because of that.

HOLZAPFEL: Since you said that you called Christian: Did you know or had you seen his earlier work? Did you also know the work of Arslan and Schanelec by then? Why didn’t you call them? What spoke to you in Christian’s work?

HOCHHÄUSLER: I grew up in Munich and studied there. My connection to the Berlin film scene was nonexistent. I had seen Angela’s My Sister’s Good Fortune [1995] on VHS. In those days, I didn’t understand it, I didn’t get why the film had to be so averted. Today my opinion on it changed a lot, but then from the Munich perspective I thought…well, I thought that this is Berlin, they don’t have any relationship to sensuality.

PETZOLD:  It is not untrue.

HOCHHÄUSLER: I remember visits at the old Arsenal Cinema.

PETZOLD:  It was terrible.

HOCHHÄUSLER: Terrible, yes. I always thought, come on, you can also have a nice dinner instead. Life is so rich, do we have to be so withered?

PETZOLD:  But it is us who drink and smoke and you don’t… [laughter]

HOCHHÄUSLER: I know, I know. Well, so I knew about Angela and hadn’t seen the films of Thomas yet. I also didn’t know Christian’s former works, as they were made for television and I didn’t own a television. The State I Am In opened itself more than, for example Angela’s films, which I love today, do.

HOLZAPFEL: Christian, how was that for you—to experience that there is a generation of younger filmmakers that look up to you or search for a dialogue with your cinema?

PETZOLD:  Well, I discovered cinema through the magazine Filmkritik. When I grew up we didn’t have a cinema in our town. I imagined cinema through texts. I dreamed about films I saw years later. In those days, the third (regional) programs on television still followed their mission to educate. They don’t do it anymore. Then there was a feature film on each evening and there were introductions even by people like Helmut Färber. When Christoph called me and send me copies of Revolver I was really impressed. It was curious, humble and it didn’t deconstruct cinema. Around 2000 cinema was already ruined and I found each further attempt to deconstruct it terrible. I had the feeling that this magazine, without being nerdy, without only looking backwards nostalgically, simply loves cinema. The cinema as a whole with its paradoxes, mistakes and transgressions. You have to know that Angela, Thomas and me studied together. We had seminars with Hartmut Bitomsky or Farocki and we naturally had the possibility to talk to each other. Yet, with Revolver I discovered people that were actually talking to each other. We didn’t do that. We didn’t watch our films together. I think it has to do with shame. I didn’t trust them enough.

HOCHHÄUSLER: It is interesting, because I never had the feeling we really talked at Revolver about our own works. It worked between different people like with me and Benjamin Heisenberg for example. What existed as an idea was to say: Film is a work like any other. There is a way to talk about this work in a very concrete manner. We wanted to de-mystify. We didn’t want to search for meanings in the fog. In this sense, it was certainly an affirmative approach. We just wanted descriptions of how people work. I think there is a connection for us. It lies in the curiosity about the craft of filmmaking.

HOLZAPFEL: When did you see the films of Christoph? Were you in a teaching situation then?

PETZOLD:  No, not at all. I saw In This Very Moment [2003] at the Berlinale and I liked it very much. I always thought about architecture in your films.

HOCHHÄUSLER: I studied architecture, as you know.

PETZOLD:  There is an increasing number of films set in peripheries. I thought about this when seeing In This Very Moment. Those unfinished infrastructures and living spaces, and in the middle of it appear fragments of a fairy tale. Together with Harun we also had an idea to make a film based on Grimms’ Fairy Tales set the present. Well, you also have to know that Christoph is very different from me when it comes to sharing one’s work. For I Am Guilty [2005] he send me a not quite finished version on VHS. He asked for my feedback. I watched it together with my wife one evening. I was very afraid to see it because I am always afraid to say something and give the film a wrong direction. Right now I am in a similar situation with my new film Transit. There have been a few screenings in front of people that just have to be there, those who give you the money and so on. I feel everything is so fragile, every sentence weighs so much. It is like buying a new jacket and then you meet some idiot on the street who tells you it looks ugly. As you are sensitive, you might never wear the jacket again. Yet, I didn’t have to say anything, as I really adored I Am Guilty.

HOCHHÄUSLER: It is right that I am often very interested in understanding what I have done.

HOLZAPFEL: You send your films to many people?

HOCHHÄUSLER: I used to send it to very many people, also my scripts and so on. It is definitively not like that today. Still, I have the feeling of needing an audience in order to see myself. In the case of I Am Guilty, I had a concrete question about one scene and I asked Christian about it.

PETZOLD:  Yes, that is right. I understood your own criticism of the scene.

HOCHHÄUSLER: Yes, and I changed it. Nevertheless I regret it. It has nothing to do with you. [Laughter.]

PETZOLD:  I told you.

HOCHHÄUSLER: I think regret is something totally sterile in artistic production, yet this is one of the few cases I feel it. It is about a scene in which the fairy tale world meets the world of the parents. We included an impossible chronology of shots in which they go towards each other but ultimately don’t meet. It was made in a way that one knows they have to meet according to the laws of the diegetic space. Yet, they didn’t. A wrong reverse shot, so to say. I took that out.

PETZOLD:  That was the right decision! For sure it was! [Laughter.] It is funny, because for The City Below you had another test screening.

HOCHHÄUSLER: Yes, you came personally.

PETZOLD:  And I said a lot and I felt very sorry afterwards. I said too much.

HOCHHÄUSLER: Yes, but I liked that. I don’t want people to hurt me on a personal level, of course. However, as long as it is about the work itself I am all for arguments.

PETZOLD:  Yet, in a phase were one is still dreaming an argument might end the dream.

HOCHHÄUSLER: Well, basically you defend your attitude of not-showing, which is perfectly all right for me.

PETZOLD:  Harun is much closer to you in this regard. He always organized public screenings of his work. We were sitting at his home with eight people, with dramaturges from the Volksbühne and so on. And they would talk shit and they wouldn’t stop. And shit sticks. When you see the film afterwards you will always have their comments in mind. You have to be able to free yourself from that. I can’t do that. I always argued with Harun because of that. I told him he has to believe in his stuff. He was really closer to Christoph’s work. He also wrote those constructed scenes in the scripts, these imaginary meetings. I remember when I told Harun about the opening of The City Below he found it to be marvelous. There is this woman living in Frankfurt and she is more or less an attachment to her husband. She is a modern woman, but she still lives from the money her husband makes. So in the beginning this woman wears a dress. We all know that dresses have to be unique items. It is always dangerous when two women wear the same dress at a party. It has been like this for 600 years. In The City Below, the woman sees another woman on the street wearing the same dress. She decides to follow her. Nobody understands that because nobody recognizes the dress. We follow a woman we don’t know yet, so nobody recognizes a dress. The character of Svenja played by Nicolette Krebitz is what the film should be about in the beginning. She is modern and at the same time she is from the 19th century. She wants out of this. This is where the conflict lies for me. Yet, Christoph and also Harun have a different approach…they love this modern James Joyce -gimmickry. [Laughter.]

HOLZAPFEL: Did you change something because of Christian’s critique?

HOCHHÄUSLER: If I remember correctly, the biggest question was how we look at this woman. Christian talked a lot about it when giving me feedback. Should we feel pity for her or shouldn’t we. Christian was all for not feeling any compassion for her. He criticized the sniveling tendencies the film had in that version. I find this to be right. She has problems, but she is not a victim.

PETZOLD:  I remember that you sent a still from the film to Dominik Graf and me. It was a beautiful photo of Nicolette lying on her stomach exhaling a magnificent wreath of smoke. It is an image of sophistication. She seems to be in perfect harmony with herself. It looked like a still from the 1940s. The authority and independence I sensed in her from that image I didn’t find in the version you showed to me. 

HOLZAPFEL: I rewatched both of your films and I discovered a sort of inverted progress. The State I Am In begins like a portrait of the family on the run. It also keeps that, but as the film progresses it moves closer and closer towards a genre picture; whereas with The City Below it is the other way round. It starts like a genre picture but ultimately becomes a portrait of not only the woman but also the banker.

PETZOLD:  You are not wrong. The City Below begins like a thriller set against the background of the world of finance. We can find many traces in the film pointing towards genre. There is a man that has to be sent away, another has been killed somewhere…


PETZOLD:  Well, one of these cities. In the old days with Klaus Lemke they were called Acapulco. Well, and, as you say in the end, we have the portrait of people. People that want to commit suicide in a way. They work on their own demise. They lost contact with the world because of capitalism. They are just floating through spaces, they search for frictions because they don’t feel anything anymore. 

HOCHHÄUSLER: We worked a lot on this image of characters desiring to fall, to fail. Something Christian once said in a radio program was very important to me in this regard. It was about a letter Heinrich von Kleist wrote. In my film I deal with the question, “Why does a society stay together?“ Kleist writes that society is like a vault. It seems like it will collapse as it has no pillar. Yet, it doesn't collapse because all the stones want to collapse at the same time. Everybody wants to fall. These thoughts went into the film. Concerning the question of genre in our works, I also think there is something to it. To me, genre is more of a feeling, whereas for Christian it is almost a mechanism.

PETZOLD:  It’s a grammar.

HOCHHÄUSLER: These scenes in The State I Am In when they excavate the hidden money are very close to noir films.

PETZOLD:  For me, the quote of Kleist describes noir films. In noir films everybody falls. Everybody is a traitor. Everybody has only 24 hours more to live. Everybody is loaded with radioactive liquids. Yet, while falling little glimpses of passion are possible.

HOCHHÄUSLER: Due to the night, one doesn’t see that there is no ground. It is the dream of noir films.

PETZOLD:  Also, the characters in noir films are not needed anymore. Women that are too old, that have been slapped a hundred times, like in To Have and Have Not. How to be on firm ground again? For The State I Am In, one of the basic ideas was the madness of this couple having a child. There are no children in noir films. Well, at least there are no families.

HOCHHÄUSLER: This brings me to the casting of The State I Am In. Something struck me there, it’s a rupture. Usually Christian’s casting choices are very close to Classical Hollywood. It has to to with depletion and implication. Julia Hummer, who we can see as the daughter, is different. You don’t have to put imagination in her presence, she brings already a lot with her. I find this to be perfectly fitting as the two parents are in a way a travesty of the state they are trying to escape from. They act like a prison themselves, they have what we could call political faces and she can not stand that.        

PETZOLD:  I remember casting her. A friend of mine told me about Julia. The photographer Daniel Josefsohn discovered her in a shoe shop while she was trying to steal something. He photographed her and she became a photo model. Sebastian Schipper made a casting with her and I saw this casting tape, which was astonishing. So I decided to make an audition with her. I didn’t know what to do, so I just decided to let her and the other actresses listen to three songs from a tape recorder. I just wanted to film them listening to the music. All the other actresses made what German film criticism has developed as a vocabulary: They "flirted with the camera" and all that bullshit. However, Julia wasn’t interested at all. In her opinion listening to music is a private endeavor, something that belongs to herself alone. So, she turned away a little bit and listened to the music. It was sweeping. You are right to say that it is a rupture. It surprised me.   

HOLZAPFEL: There were also some similarities that struck me while watching your films again. One was the use of montage. You both like abrupt transitions and there is something about how people move in and especially out of the frame in your films. Let’s say you stress the moment someone leaves the frame.    

HOCHHÄUSLER: Together with his editor Bettina Böhler, Christian has developed a great joy concerning the fast cut. His images stand always exactly as long as we need them. Sometimes even shorter than we need. Thus a crisp tension arises. For example when the car in The State I Am In stops at the traffic lights and we think the state power strikes any moment. It is a mysterious scene I think about a lot. It also has to do with the editing. Christian doesn’t give us everything. It is fascinating. I think my work with editing is definitely influenced by him. Yet, I think the editing patterns we developed together with Stefan Stabenow are more playful. Maybe we also think more about musical elements in editing. With Christian, I am tempted to speak about an athletic montage.  We are not as disciplined, we also don’t want to be. It is also because plot is something else in my films compared to Christian’s work.

PETZOLD:  I remember an interview you did with me for Revolver. And you asked me: Plot, plot, why does it always have to be plot? I think it has to do with the feminine line in my work. There is the male line with Harun and there is a feminine line which begins with my wife, Simone Bär [the casting director] and Bettina Böhler. The danger for me is always this male gaze concerning film noir and femme fatales, projections and images. It is always dangerous for me to look at women like in films from the 1940s. It is a general danger when doing genre, I think. So, what you described as a difference between playful and athletic, I would call male and female. What I learned from these three women, later also from Iris Jung, my director’s assistant, is to always stick to the feelings of the character. It’s very important to me.  

HOCHHÄUSLER: Maybe it sounds funny, but I think these women in your work, they all have an immense severity. I don’t want to say they have no feelings…

PETZOLD:  No, it is the opposite. The severity tells about their feelings. These are different feelings than we men imagine in our female characters. The State I Am In was the second film I edited together with Bettina. The first one was Cuba Libre [1995]. It was also the first time we didn’t cut on an editing table but digitally, though the film was shot on 35mm. She really confronted me with a lot of things for the first time. For example, with her it was all about the reaction, not so much about the cause. Feelings are always a reaction to something. 

HOLZAPFEL: What I found to be very interesting in Christoph’s film is the way the people talk. Especially the parlance of the bankers. I didn’t find this sort of dialogue in your other works. It reminded me a bit of Fassbinder. It is a rhetorical way of delivering lines.

HOCHHÄUSLER: It has to do with the bankers. In reality, their way of talking is even more grotesque. You have to laugh. In my opinion, writing something like a new language always feels right. I think of Marieluise Fleißer and her artificial Bavarian. Fassbinder was very much influenced by that.

PETZOLD:  She is great!

HOCHHÄUSLER: It is about listening to the way people talk and at the same time knowing that one is not able to reproduce that. One has to translate it.

HOLZAPFEL: Christoph has written a wonderful text on Christian for the Austrian Ray Magazine and in it he states that he sometimes misses the excess in Christian’s films. Now I wanted to give Christian the opportunity and ask if he finds this excess in the work of Christoph?

PETZOLD:  It is hard for me to answer that. Not so long ago I was at a party. An occasion that gets rarer and rarer at my age. After two or three beers other directors and so on came closer and they started to talk and talk to you…so there was this colleague and he said: I miss the excesses in your work. Well, for me excess has to do with losing control. So stressing control tells us a lot about the importance of losing it. Showing a lot of control tells us how fast a building or a life might collapse. The moment of fear when we see a loose brick or dust coming from the roof, that is were cinema takes place. With Barbara [2012] I had an American distributor, a former assistant of Cassavetes, Jeff Lipsky. He always told me that people think about Cassavetes as a filmmaker of excess. Yet, in truth everything was choreographed, he controlled everything. With Husbands he rehearsed all the excesses until they weren’t excesses anymore. He worked for months on his material. Then the editor didn’t discover any story in the material. So Cassavetes wrote a novel to get the story back into the film. The novel will be published soon. Suddenly the film was very precise again. I have the feeling of excess in The State I Am In. When Julia Hummer slips under the covers with the boy and they undress and I don’t cut, for me this is the biggest excess I can imagine. Anything that goes further would be immoral. I think you have to work orderly with feelings. Otherwise everything collapses.

HOCHHÄUSLER: One has to be careful. When a viewer like me in this case misses something, it doesn’t mean that this can be used against Christian. You are not allowed to demand things like that. On the other hand, the films of Christian I like most have these frictions, edges and gaps. Sometimes something misses and we can find the excess in that gap. Phoenix [2014] is an example for me. There is no possible harmony in this colportage and what we see is an abyss.

PETZOLD:  The gangsters of The State I Am In are sterile. They derive from a German laboratory. They have parents but they don’t have children. Their parent is fascism. The ones that had children, like Ulrike Meinhof, abandoned them. So for me this is already a transgression in my film. I remember being invited to discuss the film in Hannover at the Literary Colloquium. It was in the seminar room of Peter Brückner, a teacher of Ulrike Meinhof. There I sat and should talk about the RAF. I was confronted with a group of 30 hardliners. They said it is a petit bourgeois approach and so on. They hadn’t even seen the film. So, I told them that for me it is a huge transgression to have a child in this environment of not sensing the world anymore. RAF was congealed by then, they had no language anymore. Everything was disillusioned. Intellectual forces were destroyed. It was like an archipelago. I found the desire to escape this in having children. It gives them responsibilities and a different perspective. It shows a possibility. What if I had been your child? I could have helped you. I really identified with the child. Together with Harun we also had to change it from a boy into a girl because it became to close to me at some point.

HOCHHÄUSLER: I have the feeling that as a viewer, especially when confronted with a very productive filmmaker like Christian, one eats up a work and wants that to be everything. It is a sort of malnourishment. Finally, one wants the people one worships to also be their opposite. I have this also with other filmmakers. I ask myself if Kaurismäki couldn’t make a very natural film. Yet, this is bullshit. Everyone is what he or she is. Filmmaking is also a very involuntary process despite all the reflection that goes into it.

PETZOLD:  The times of Howard Hawks are over. We are auteurs.

HOCHHÄUSLER: I always have the illusion that I can make any kind of film. I want to try it. Yet, one finds out one has done the same thing again. [Laughter.]  It is very hard to know one’s own range. We also have certain production conditions. We always remain in a certain budget, thus there are egalitarian tendencies. If we wanted to make a truly excessive film, we would have to ask ourselves: How? We are happy to be able to have 90 minutes of film in the end. Christian is much more realistic about those things. My problem is that I always want to do much more. For example, for The City Below I had written 20 pages playing in Jakarta. It wasn’t possible due to financial reasons.

PETZOLD:  I don’t think the film would have needed that.

HOCHHÄUSLER: No, but it would have been a different film.

PETZOLD:  For Wolfsburg [2003] I also wrote scenes playing in Cuba. We had the ridiculous budget of 1.1 million Euro. So, we left Cuba out and in the end it was much more beautiful. There was an ellipsis that was also an excess. 

HOCHHÄUSLER: Yet there are films where I adore the maximalism. I am thinking of Minnelli, for example. I think it is marvellous that he had the money to have a thousand extras.

HOLZAPFEL: Is there anything you still wanted to say, or shall we end here?

HOCHHÄUSLER: I have one more appendix. It maybe rounds down our talk. Christian is someone who develops film plots while telling them. He is much more generous than me in this regard. I don’t like telling plots that haven’t been fixed somewhere, whereas Christian retells stories again and again. He tests them, refines them. I heard him describe scenes I discovered years later in one of his films. Maybe also here we can find a very different relation to plot and also the audience.

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