Filming Around the Wound: A Conversation with Christian Petzold

An interview with the German director about his post-war German thriller, "Phoenix".
Daniel Kasman

Christian Petzold took a bold step into history with 2012's Barbara, exiling Nina Hoss's heroine into the diaphanous threats and suspicions of a provincial, 1980s East Germany. With Phoenix, his follow-up, Petzold takes this movement into history even further, striking starkly, deeply at questions of identity in a post-war Germany quivering silently with destitution, rage, and willful blindness. In a spectral sequence opening the film directly evoking the eerie clinical imagery of Georges Franju's lyrical horror film Eyes without a Face, Nelly, a concentration camp survivor, returns in quiet to Berlin after having reconstructive surgery following wartime mutilations. The woman who emerges from under the knife cannot be recognized. She emerges as embodied by Nina Hoss—a true queen in today's cinema—and her slender, lean physique becomes that of a post-war zombie, a ghost embodied, tottering and halting, a body not familiar with movements outside the camp, her familiar, wide-eyes unsure of the face that surrounds it.

Nelly's friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf, strong, angular and wonderful), a Jewess who helped her recover in secret and is a stalwart Nazi hater and a worker for the Jewish Agency for Palestine, wants them both, in a sexually ambiguous desire, to escape—or restart their lives—in Haifa, in Israel. Most especially, Lene wants Nelly to keep away from her ex-husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld as a burly, single-minded hunk), whom Lene claims divorced and then betrayed Nelly as Jewish to the Nazis. But Nelly's vision of her husband is what kept her alive in the camps, and she seeks him out in a shattered Berlin, in a nightclub with the name of the film, the emblem of rebirth. He does not recognize her. But he eventually recognizes someone he could, like Scottie to Madeline in Vertigo, remake in the image of the dead, here, in an impoverished Germany, so as to inherit Nelly's languished fortune. Hoping in the process of being remade as her old self to convince Johnny not only of her identity but to reveal his love for her, a love that can see through the war, Nelly allows herself, wills herself, to be re-styled as her pre-war self even as her face and body have been transformed into those of another: a victim, a survivor.

There are no "whys" in Phoenix—"why, after so much effort and intimacy, would Johnny not recognize his wife?"—only "ifs": what if a husband was a collaborator; what if those who returned couldn't be recognized for their experiences, for their identities; what if their war experiences could be erased; what if you were made to tell your war story to one who secretly knew it, knew your lies; what if atrocities rose up as fictions, what if, what if, what if.

The lean, efficient engine of the film runs on petrol made of film history. Petzold, who collaborated with the late Harun Farocki on the screenplay, with supreme, clean simplicity reveals the history behind cinema's images and its genres, so that the amnesia films, the noir films, the new-identity films suddenly grow ashen in the light of Phoenix. Behind Suspicion, Eyes without a Face, Vertigo and countless others haunt real people and real histories of betrayal, violence, survival, resuscitation, and revenge. Phoenix, told in Petzold's direct style which presents his dramas and the abstract ideas which drive them as unavoidable, nearly inevitable images and results, reveals powerfully and with considerable tenderness how cinema works, the power its images contain, and the human histories which are transmuted into the suggestive mysteries and movements of popular moviemaking.

Equally important, the film imagines these conventions as told from the other side of the tapestry, Vertigo from Kim Novak's perspective, a noir detective tale where the femme fatale is the one we understand rather than the dopey detective. Johnny wants to disavow the possibility of Nelly's existence after a tragic loss—or possibly a betrayal—and so despite his mission to rebuild his wife out of an anonymous survivor, he remains thick-headed and in the dark. It is Nelly who has the power, despite her anonymity; it is she who wants so much, wants to work so hard to convince the person most close to her before the war that she's the same. But are any of them the same? The unsteady, paranoid world of Barbara, where anyone, even a loved one, may be a spy, is brutally wound back in time to an even worse proposition: anyone could be anyone—coldly: Nazi or not-Nazi, Jew or not-Jew—and will deny or admit only what they want. The proposition is terrifying, and of course, true: survivors unrecognized, criminals unrepentant. The reformation of a country and a people are thereby slyly, disturbingly expressed through plastic surgery terms: "Your reconstructed face," Lene says. Then, thinking she's offended Nelly, she rephrases: "Let's say re-created."


Christian Petzold and I discussed the movie on his last day at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Phoenix had its world premiere.

Petzold with actress Nina Hoss on the set of Phoenix

NOTEBOOK: You've been collaborating with your teacher Harun Farocki for some time. Can you talk about how you worked with him on Phoenix in particular?

CHRISTIAN PETZOLD: This is, I think, a project by Harun, more than the other movies. Harun made some feature films between 1970 and the beginning of the 80s, and there’s one feature film, Betrayed [1985], that nobody has seen. He didn’t want it, I think. It’s also a movie about a man who killed his wife and found the sister of the wife and makes the sister into the wife—this is a little bit of the story. When Harun started to be my teacher at the academy in Berlin, we talked about this movie, and he gave to me his essay about Vertigo and all the male subjectivity and projection that wants to build a woman for the man.

And then there was this book by [Hubert] Monteilhet, Le retour des cendres [The Return of the Ashes, 1961], and I read it and we had long discussions that this could be the book for the gap which is in the German film industry. Because we don’t have this...I must say it like this: the Americans stayed in Vietnam, the soldiers come back from Vietnam and you have a new cinema, yeah? Cimino, Night of the Living Dead, all the things like this. Coming home is the basis of storytelling, like the Odyssey. Neo-realism is also a cinema of coming home, not only coming home like a road movie but to say, “who are we, what is this country?” The Germans had to have this “coming home” story in 1945, but they didn’t make them. They don’t want to have a picture of themselves. Because they are guilty and because they don’t want to stand in front of their guiltiness.

I think this is a scar, a wound, which goes through our film history through today. I think someone like Fassbinder, who started to make period pictures, in Fassbinder you can find the fascists in the contemporary movies, but then he starts to make period pictures, and he uses Douglas Sirk—also a German director, for example, who’s a refugee—to go back to this gap, this moment, where we don’t have the cinema. We had propaganda, and after we had propaganda again, and there’s a big gap. I think we don’t want to see ourselves, something to do with Johnny who can’t see his wife.

This was not the plan, but when Harun and I...when you and I last met, on the roofs of New York, it was during this time that Harun and I started to write the script. He said this in other words, but he said something like, “it’s a metaphorical movie and it’s also not a metaphorical movie.”

NOTEBOOK: Practically speaking, when you say you wrote it with him, what does that process entail?

PETZOLD: I have to do the writing myself. We meet every two or three days, not to write only, we’re exchanging books, we went together to the cinema, we go swim in lakes, play football and watch TV. But the collaboration on the films is like this: I write something, he’s reading it, I go on my bicycle to his place, we have coffee together, and then we are smoking some cigarettes together, and then we go out for a walk. And we’re talking about possibilities. As if the movie is a house, and “could there be a room, is it more Bauhaus?” It was the luckiest hours, every time. It was every time great, to speak. Harun’s the only guy I know who’s not interested in labor wages, he’s always interested in labor. He’s always interested in economy but not in money. So, we are free. At least, when the script is ready and then he cuts so many things out.

NOTEBOOK: So that's your secret! I've always wondered how your films are so lean.

PETZOLD: Yes, he cuts! I sit there and say to him, “I’ve worked on this dialogue and moment for 10 day…!” He said we have to start Phoenix in the night, like in The Killers [1946], in front of this bridge, and the first word heard must be in American, in the English language. And then he said to me that the hospital scenes must be very, very quick. I said, “no, we need this, it’s fantastic, it’s like Les yeux sans visage [Eyes without a Face], I want to shoot 20 more minutes in this hospital!” But he was totally right, I threw it out and I wrote to him, “I cut it out. You were right; it cost the producer more than 50,000, but we threw it out.”

Harun Farocki made an essay film about Peter Lorre—The Double Face of Peter Lorre [1984]— and his film The Face Behind the Mask [1941]. This movie I have seen again, and there you can see the man’s face, in this moment. A very fantastic movie. I showed it to the art director, our hospital was completely stolen from that! We need some impression, because it’s a period picture. Peter Lorre’s face is burned, and the bandages, when they take them away you can’t see his face, like in our movie. And then you see the nurse shudder and step back, and this we used for the beginning. The only movie where Peter Lorre is playing his own identity as a Hungarian Jew.

NOTEBOOK: That inspires me to ask something I was going to bring up later, the cinephilia in this movie, which is in all your movies but here feels particularly potent. I'm wondering how much you're thinking about other movies while making this film.

PETZOLD: It was during this shooting we talked so much about cinema and old films, but not like nerds. It’s like as if the cinema is the memory of our world. It’s not paintings or literature or theatre; for me the last 100 years, it’s cinema. So we had a long discussion about Kim Novak, for example, with Nina [Hoss]. And I said to her that Kim Novak in Vertigo isn’t just playing a character from the script, she’s playing also herself because the studio system tried to make her into a certain model, so Harun said to me that when you see in the second part of Vertigo with the not-blonde hair and she’s laughing on the street, it’s filmed like a documentary! The other times, when she’s blonde, it’s a male subjectivity, a perverted dream. She is extremely lit. But in the street scene, it’s San Francisco, it’s coffee time, it’s a secretary. Later, when you see how irritated and frustrated and desperately she’s looking at the face of Jimmy Stewart when she recognizes that he wants this other woman—this is fantastic! This is not only in the script, it’s Kim Novak against the studio system. Such discussions we had. With these movies, and mostly the film noirs we have seen, like Out of the Past [1946] and The Killers, during our rehearsals, we found an image and an imagination of how we can do this movie.

NOTEBOOK: You said in an interview that genre films don't really exist in Germany for a while after the war. Is this film filling that gap you were speaking of, or revealing that gap??

PETZOLD: That’s a good question. I think that it’s the same. This film exhausted me, totally. We had to hold violence all the way through the work, and it’s a balance between many poles. There’s a quotation by Theodor Adorno who said that there are no poems after Auschwitz, there are no poems possible. This doesn’t mean you can’t write a poem in the time after Auschwitz; you can’t write a poem about Auschwitz, it’s not possible. You can’t make a film about Auschwitz; you can't give something a structure. There’s this fantastic sentence by Hannah Arendt who said that the only thing the Germans will hate the Jews for is that there is Auschwitz. The gap is the same, the gap in your question is the same. We can’t fill the gap with one movie or two or three. We can’t change the history like this. I think films like Downfall [2004] tried to fill the gap. So much literature in the last five years had tried to fill the gap. We can make films around the gap. The films must be so strong that you look into the gap, very deep. That’s the thing. It’s very hard because when you are shooting there is a group of 50 or 60 people around you and everyone wants to harmonize a little bit. Also not in the relation to each other, they want to harmonize the history. They want to end a movie, they want to begin a movie, and they want a catharsis. There is no real catharsis around the gap. It’s not possible. But you have to search for it. I think the impossible dream of Nelly is similar to the dream to make a movie: I don’t want to be a ghost anymore, I want to have movies I believe in, I want to have a face, I want to be loved. It’s not so far away, so I can understand.

NOTEBOOK: In the film, you give us only one direct point of view shot, that of Johnny behind a tree watching Nelly retrace the place of her betrayal, see again the people who were with her at the time.

PETZOLD: This is his point of view. During the rehearsals, Nina told me, “this is the first moment that I understand those people. I’m like the ghost returning to haunt a place, and they react in the first moment with fear, as if a monster or ghost is coming back, the guiltiness is coming back. But after five seconds I look at the man who is going to the house, this other girl who looks like in a fascist movie of ‘38, standing rigid. They look to me like a painting: they are ghosts.” This irritation, I wanted to show one time from the point of view of Johnny, so that perhaps the audience thinks “ah, he understands now, perhaps we’ll go out from his hiding place and say, ‘You are my wife! These are guilty people, I was part of them...’” Yeah? It is one of the images where there’s a hope for Germany.

NOTEBOOK: Is Nelly a Jew?

PETZOLD: This interesting. Did you talk to Nina? No? We both have read a book by Sebastian Haffner—a German political essayist from the Conservatives—his memoirs. There is one scene he wrote down, one of the best scenes about German fascism, and the answer to the question “is she a Jew?” He’s a law student and he’s working in the courts as an assistant to an attorney. It’s two days after the election of Hitler. He’s sitting there and he’s preparing something for the attorney, and then a group of S.A. [Sturmabteilung, the Nazi brownshirts] shows up at the courts. The S.A. starts to beat all the Jewish lawyers. And he’s hearing their screaming and crying and shouting. And Sebastian Haffner prepares himself to be like in a tunnel, yeah? He said, “I’m just reading my text, I don’t want to hear this.” The first, typical German reaction! “I’m innocent, I’ve nothing to do with S.A., it’s their thing.” In this moment, when he’s in the “tunnel” and thinking about staying in the tunnel, the doors open, two S.A. hooligans came into his room with their iron sticks and said to him, “Jewish or not Jewish?” And he said “not Jewish.” He said, “in that moment I lost everything, and in this moment I’m a guilty person, and I remembered 50 years later that this was the moment from which everything went down.” I think to be Jewish for Nelly, a door is opening and someone is also asking her, and in this moment she wouldn’t say “yes” or “no.” She will not answer in this moment. But Johnny answered, and therefore this story, this love affair, is betrayed.

The other thing that was very important was this situation in the basement where Johnny tries to recreate his wife. It’s a laboratory. Also something to do with therapy. There are these words by Sigmund Freud: remembering, to make again, to extinguish. Johnny tries to remember how Nelly looked, then to make her again, but he wants to extinguish her with money, because money extinguishes the world. She’s playing this game with him because she wants to be recreated. She loves his memories and wants to be recreated. But the third step she wants to fight against, and it’s not possible. So we have the choreography of the two lovers, but in a perverted way.

NOTEBOOK: I found that ambiguity very moving, because I felt like the rest of the movie, the world inside the rest of the movie, everything is either "yes" or "no": dead or alive, Jew or not Jew, Nazi or anti-Nazi.

PETZOLD: Yes, that’s good. I always have a problem talking with my cameraman because it’s like talking about music, sometimes it’s hard to talk about pictures, yeah? I have so much fear to say something wrong because you know these DOPs they have a selected sight, a way of looking at the world. For example, in this movie, in Phoenix, I said “Look at Out of the Past, Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum, they always have two lights in their eyes.” Not just one; the story is filled up with betrayals and liars and so on, but in the eyes there is melancholic sentiment of soul. We need it. From this moment on, each day costs us two hours more because “Oh, the ‘two lights’”! Very literal, the typical cinematographer! I need to talk with other movies, with the cameraman, so I said to him, “Look at all these film noirs we have seen in the rehearsals, I think the world, it’s always black or white, day or night, love or not love,” and so we have 35mm CinemaScope, we have Kodak material, perhaps our last possibility for fantastic green, fantastic reds and fantastic skins. But we also need this “digital” world of film noir: yes or no. Murder or not murder, yeah? In the film noirs they are so complicated that at the end, when the films end, you think all is clear—but nothing is clear! The thing between is outside of the movie… I saw, for example, Robert Siodmak’s film The Phantom Lady [1944]. A fantastic movie! There you think everything is “yes or no,” but when the light is on at the end of the movie and you’re leaving the cinema you think: “Perhaps…” “Perhaps he has murdered his wife.” You try to make a “yes or no” world, but there is always a third way.

NOTEBOOK: Is that one of the reasons why, for a film so inspired by film noirs, you didn't end Phoenix with physical violence?

PETZOLD: Yes. For me, there was the scene where she has a gun, there’s a platform in the night with the steam train, we have a bathroom in the night, we have a man with a knife, yeah? There’s so many possibilities to end this film like a film noir. But I think this must be the difference. We can’t finish it like a film noir because film noirs always are finished by the author, never by the protagonist. Every John Huston movie, Asphalt Jungle [1950], for example: there is an author or a “god” or a moral institution that says “now we have to finish the movie.” But I said to Harun—and Harun said to me too!—this movie must end by the ghost. Because it’s a movie about getting independent. And independent from us. This was a long question that cost us half a year: how can we finish the movie, what is the truth, what is singing, what is the voice—these questions. They cost us so much… I remember when Nina sings and she goes out of the picture and walks out of focus, I know that the camera assistant tried to pull the focus. We had talked two hours, “no focus!,” because [mimics turning of the focus on a camera]—he doesn’t want to leave her! This is like a hunter, to get her into focus, we shoot her, she’s our protagonist.

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to ask you two technical things, because from our last conversation I know you enjoy such production details. When Nelly is riding along on the bicycle with Johnny, towards the end of the film, she is saying to him "maybe you didn't betray your wife, maybe it happened like this...," trying to build a justification for him to respond to. The audio of her voice in this speech struck me as very special, the texture of the sound.

PETZOLD: This is very unusual! I saw together with the crew this Ozu movie, Late Spring [1949], and in this Ozu movie there is a bicycle tour to the sea, yeah? I asked the cameraman, “this is 1949, this bicycle scene looks so windy, looks so real and natural, and you always make problems when we do bicycle shots with the cars and steadicam…” Then he did research and found that they both are sitting on a wooden platform and they make like this [mimics swaying and motion of pedaling]. And we built this, too. We are on the tracks and there’s a wooden bicycle and they sit there, but because of this set-up everyone starts to laugh. And I said, “no, no, it’s a moment where she gives him the possibility—like the ‘good cop’ in an interrogation—the possibility to come up with a story.” It must be a little bit artificial. It must be a little bit like she doesn’t speak out loud. You see him: no reaction. She’s talking with herself, yeah? I wanted this to be as if they are in a bubble, each in a bubble.

NOTEBOOK: There's a final detail I wanted to ask about: after Nelly first sees Johnny in the Phoneix nightclub, she runs all the way home. When she leaves, it's night, but when she gets home, suddenly it's day.

PETZOLD: This was a big decision! Everybody who has read the script has said, “hey what has she done during this time?” But I wanted to make an ellipsis. An ellipsis that is her, that is her reflection. In this time she makes the plan to go on the offensive with Johnny: “I’ll go back to that, I will catch my identity.” I saw yesterday a really bad movie, and they make a traveling shot following the guy’s face, and it’s changing as he’s thinking. This is Marx Brothers comedy! It’s nothing. I don’t like to show how she’s going through Berlin and having reflections. It has something to do with her leaving the movie; she must have islands that are her, her life.

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