Spatial Suspense: A Conversation with Christian Petzold

The Silver Bear winning director of "Barbara" talks horror films, surveillance, shooting on 35mm, the sound of a room, the silence of a set.
Daniel Kasman, David Phelps

Above: Nina Hoss (far left) as the titular lead in Barbara, directed by Christian Petzold (right).

Christian Petzold's Barbara was one of the standout films at Toronto, where I wrote a brief note on it:

...set in East Germany in 1980, [Barbara] finds a female doctor recently released from incarceration having to doubly-navigate the world by both dodging the suspicions of all those around her in her new provincial assignment and at the same time turn her own suspicions on those who could be her neighbors, peers, friends or even lovers. In other words: living in a police state, you are as suspect to the state as others are to you, and you to them. This comes out nicely, if a bit too neatly, too schematically, in Barbara, where ostensibly conventions of the thriller and of the romance overlap: “Am I attracted to him?” becomes, or is, “Do I trust him?” “Will I sleep with him?” becomes, or is, “Is this man a Stasi agent?” One could hardly imagine a more exhausting existence—which certainly explains Petzold's usual steely restraint and impeccable, heightened precision: a mise-en-scène held in check as everyone in it must, too, hold themselves in reserve to forestall a tell that could mean their lives. ...Its acute focus and especially its disturbingly casual, almost normative approach to making a period film (not stylistically similar to but philosophically like Michael Mann's ahistorical historicity in Public Enemies) is sleek and haunting. The way it presents the heightened risk of living in the world at the same time it flattens the sense that this dangerous world is something in the past, far removed, is undoubtedly a very bold gesture.

Barbara is also playing the New York Film Festival, where at a press conference Petzold had already detailed East Germans' reactions: some thanking him for capturing the terrible paranoia of the Stasi surveillance era, some thanking him for capturing the ease of a pre-capitalist world where each patient would be attended by four doctors in a public hospital; where surveillance had yet to become autonomous and—as Holy Motors puts it—smaller than the people it captures. David Phelps and I took the occasion to meet and chat with the director on the rooftop of a building at the end of a street on the east side of Manhattan, a vision of the evolution of New York since Wyler's Dead End. We talked casually, launched by a mention of Henry James and Petzold's love of Jack Clayton's The Innocents, and segueing into the terrifying reveal in Petzold's Dreileben film, Beats Being Dead. All the while we took in the roof's unexpected and unusual view: Long Island City across the river, the Queensboro Bridge spanning the two islands, and, between the two, another, smaller presence—Roosevelt Island, terminated in the overgrown ruins of the Renwick Smallpox Hospital.

CHRISTIAN PETZOLD: ...During the premiere of Dreileben at Berlinale, my film was the first of the trilogy, and Dominik Graf is sitting behind me. He hadn't seen the movie before, because we didn't want to see or talk to the others about what they were doing. His wife, Carolina Link—she won an Oscar about ten years ago—she's sitting beside him. And then there's this scene—and she screams so hard and then she comes to me and screams in my face: “WHY?!”

DANIEL KASMAN: Sounds like a great compliment!

PETZOLD: Yes, it's a compliment. Dominik told me after that she hates to feel this kind of fear, eh? I like this very much, I want to do it more often [laughs].

DAVID PHELPS: You didn't know any of the other directors' films? You knew their stories though...

PETZOLD: We did work together, we had some shooting days. But during and after editing we didn't want to see the versions of the others. It was good for me. There's also the producers, when they know we're talking about the editing, they might come to the editing and change something, perhaps make the three stories more together, overlap, as if one person had made them, and we didn't want that. So we said that once editing starts, our friendship is in the fridge for three months and then it's okay.

KASMAN: It was tremendous idea for a project. What made that possible, German television money?

PETZOLD: There was no money outside of the television. It was very cheap! All three films together cost four million dollars.

KASMAN: And yours was the most expensive, because it was shot on 35mm?

PETZOLD: No, no. It was my first and last film on digital.

KASMAN: Oh, I thought yours was on 35mm, Dominik's was on 16mm and Christoph Hochhäusler's was shot on the Red.

PETZOLD: First time in my life I tried digital! Christoph is always telling me—because I want to make 35, I'm a 35 guy, I love Kodak, the colors are human, the skin of all people is better—and he told me I'm a fucking romantic and I have to be modern. Every time the Left guys, like me, they don't want to make breakthrough things, they don't want to make things that are modern, they're always thinking of better old times. So, I tried once, I tried with a Red. I hated so many things.

KASMAN: Like what?

PETZOLD: I hate that there is really no space, because it is too sharp. I had to destroy the sharpness. And then the post production is very expensive. 35 is the same price. With digital, after editing you need post production with the cameraman—it's very expensive. It looks so ugly you have to work on it.

KASMAN: It's funny you say you want to destroy the sharpness, because it seems a kind of default style of digital filmmaking, the Haneke or Fincher approach of rooms in deep space with no focal plane, you see everything very clearly.

PETZOLD: Yeah, I don't like that. For me, I need that there's a room but the room's more in the imagination than you can see it in sharpness, in focus.

PHELPS: When I see all those hallways in your films, I think of horror films, like Argento or Carpenter.

PETZOLD: They are very important for me. I always think about it.

PHELPS: It's a suspense.

PETZOLD: Yes, a spatial suspense. Because the picture has to be objective and subjective in the same moment. Digital is always objective, its look is never subjective.

PHELPS: One of the things I'm always amazed at in your films, and particularly in Barbara, is the sound. The scene I'm really thinking of is when Barbara is going down into the basement, and she hears dogs that are barking the background and she keeps looking off camera. You know, we watch all these movies in which characters are standing around talking to each other and it's unclear if anyone can even hear anything that they're saying. But in Barbara, she's noticing all the sounds around her. And when you keep her noticing the sounds around her, you keep us noticing them, too.

PETZOLD: Yeah, because we make the sound mix before we shoot. For example when we use a score, with music, like in Dreileben for example, we have loud speakers on the set playing the score for the actors. It's like a dance.

KASMAN: That sounds like making a silent film, where the directors played music to put his actors in the mood.

PHELPS: And here what's the score, the dogs barking?

PETZOLD: In Barbara there is no score, we have dogs, engines, birds, for example. So, for the actors we prepare the sounds before, and they can hear it on set. Most sounds, not all! Otherwise the sound engineer would kill me, because he has to mix the original sound and he's working on his little machine. The reaction of the actor to the sound has to be natural. It's the ambiance. The ambiance must be the acoustic room of the German Democratic Republic, 1980, this must be on the scene too, not just in post production. For me, the post production is not to build a new movie, I'm not a musician or composer. I'm not a man sitting on an Apple with Final Cut Pro, like all the musicians, the nerds today. The movies are a product of collective work, therefore I don't to have to resort to tricks. The actors like it.

PHELPS: So you build an entire world for the actor's to inhabit? It's about walking with them through this world you've created...which again is like a horror film. Like a Carpenter film...

PETZOLD: It has something to do with the subject of this movie. For example, you see Barbara in the first sequence, she's sitting on a bench. She's under surveillance, and she knows she's under surveillance, so therefore her behavior is like a model. In ordinary life you don't like people who act like there's always a camera near them, they're very narcissistic, but she has to be like this [mimes a rigid, presentational outward appearance with highly mannered smoking gestures], smoking a cigarette, it's not natural: it's for someone else! So I told her, Nina Hoss, “all the things from the outside world, the colors, the must be real.” This narcissistic shell she's made around her, it's under pressure. So when she's going out of the car for the first time with Andre, and she's walking through this little lane, all the noises you can hear are original, yeah? Her rhythm of walking is a reaction to the noises, and to loneliness and also to surveillance. You have to see it in the acting, I don't want to compose it later.

KASMAN: You're designing the sound before you're shooting the film and so you're coming to the set with this design which you integrate into the scene you're directing. And later, you're taking what you composed before and tweaking it to fit with what actually was shot.

PETZOLD: You are about right, but I can't realize it, really, because it's too expensive. I use this technique in some scenes. For example, this basement scene, when this super, this hausmeister, shows Barbara the basement room, in this moment we had this barking, yeah? Or, for example, when she's smoking inside the bathroom, at the beginning, the first time, we have this barking dog, and she looks out of the window. This is not just in my mind, I think it's in the reality: when an actress is turning her face in the direction of the window because she actually heard something, you can see it. When an actor decided by himself, “after ten seconds I'll look as if I heard a barking dog...”

PHELPS: It also plays into the whole style of this film, where everything seems to be like a clue. You hear the dog and you think, “okay this is maybe a horror film, the basement is dungeon, this whole thing is like a fairy tale, the old lady is taking her to a place that she didn't want to go to, she's going to show her something, later we'll go back there and find there's dead bodies there,” or something. Which is also the case with the Stasi in the film, and so on. The movie keeps giving these hints of an outer world that Barbara is looking at, that she's reacting to, and yet it's all framed as a mystery that's never resolved, that might not be a mystery at all. Just like a horror film without an explanation as to the truth beneath or any kind of resolution.

PETZOLD: All these things I've learned from horror movies. For example, the scene where she's waiting in the bathroom, smoking. I said to her, “okay, we're on a set of a film, there are so many people around you, there's a microphone, a crowd. So when I say 'shoot' we have two minutes and nobody's talking, you're alone in this room, the camera's there...” But it's like when we make this “atmo” of the sound, everybody has to be very silent. We do it every time before we shoot, because the actor has to hear and feel the room, the acoustic room. This is a real house with people living there. So you can hear water in the pipes. It may sound a bit like an esoteric meditation, but I think an actor needs that, and us, too. We start to respect this acoustic room, and it's not just a “shoot place.”

PHELPS: I thought of both Hitchcock and Rossellini. You're with this character so much that you are reacting to the same things they're reacting to; you're reacting to the sounds they hear, to the people they meet. You think you know them because of this, because you spend so much time with them, but in fact you don't know anything about them.

PETZOLD: That's right.

PHELPS: You're inside their consciousness, so you can't see them entirely from outside.

KASMAN: That goes back to what you were saying about filming that's at once objective and subjective. You feel with them, subjectively, but there's a layer you can't cross, a mystery.

PETZOLD: Yes, that's right. I was shocked, when I was sixteen, when I first saw Halloween, by Carpenter. You think, you are the subject, watching someone. And then another person will step in front of the camera, and be looking, and suddenly your view is over their shoulder. Subjective becomes over the shoulder in the same shot, I was always shocked. It's very simple, but this is the story of cinema, yeah? What is the position of the camera and who is looking. I was always interested. I'm a Hitchcock learner, yeah?—but there's a big difference. Hitchcock needs actors who have a social life outside of his movies, like James Stewart and Cary Grant. Because his characters are really empty. Really empty. He needs empty characters to create this world where they are living, and for me, I'm not like him in this.

PHELPS: You feel like Barbara has an entire history and background that we don't know about but you keep pointing towards, which is not what usually happens in Hitchcock. Even a villainous past seems obvious from the start.

PETZOLD: Hitchcock is not interested in this. Also, Hitchcock destroys the actors, I think [laughs]. I always use just one take. We have a relation from material to movie, 1:6—that's nothing! We always do it in one take. Because the actors have to know this is just one take, and not more, so they have to concentrate. So it's good for us.

PHELPS: Do you have to wait and prepare for a long time, so you have the right light at the right moment of the day?

PETZOLD: Not often, but when we have this luxury to wait two or three minutes until we start the camera because of the meditation of the actor, I think we have to do it in one take or the producer would kill me.

KASMAN: I was watching Jerichow recently, and I couldn't believe the lighting in that final sequence on the beach cliff.

PETZOLD: This was also one take! We had to wait, but I like this, when there is a tension. When we get it in this moment we have it. And when we miss it, there isn't a second chance. I like that. The camera, everybody is quiet, and the world is not a supermarket. We have just one chance, and it's very good, also, for the actors, because the whole team is not talking, yeah? We are talking hours before, but in this moment we have's like a penalty, we have to do it!

PHELPS: It's also a respect for the moment, like not doing much post-production, you want to take what you get and that's your material.

PETZOLD: Yeah, in Jerichow it was the last light on this today. And if we missed it... it costs so much, because of the smoke [the film ends with a car crash and explosion], yeah? I'm not a Protestant in this way, I like to waste money, I like it, but I don't like to waste energy. I don't like to waste the work. So we have to wait until Hans Fromm the cameraman said “ten minutes,” so then we put on the smoke from the car and Nina Hoss...she's walking brilliant in this moment, because she knows it's the only chance.

KASMAN: Does this make each take incredibly suspenseful for you and the cast and crew?

PETZOLD: Yes, but, well, okay so each day looks like this. The actors come to the set at 8 o'clock together with me. We have two hours without camera, the lighting man, everything, everybody is sleeping. At this moment the set is not a set, it's a real room with furniture, a smell and taste. We rehearse the whole morning, the whole day's work, we rehearse the whole thing. After this rehearsal the actors go put on makeup—costumes they already have on—meanwhile I discuss the rehearsals with the cameraman, discuss the positions of the camera, and after one hour the actors come back, the light is in place, and we shoot chronologically the day. It's really good, it works. But the first time the producers come on set at 11: “What have you made today? Nothing?!” [Laughs.]

PHELPS: Can you talk about your collaboration with Harun Farocki on your screenplays? I was pretty amazed by the opening shot of Dreileben, in which we see the surveillance cameras, after ten years of Farocki making surveillance camera films. But from Barbara to Dreileben, past to present, the surveillance isn't just an issue of moving from the Stasi and this human element of surveillance to this non-human form of surveillance, the East Germany vs. the Capitalist West…there's also the fact of them working in hospitals, working in public spaces, working where they are always, as you were saying before, enacting some kind of performance; they're always being watched by their bosses and being judged by how they are acting.

PETZOLD: When he was my teacher, at the German Film Academy in Berlin, there was a movie which impressed Harun and me very much. It's by Michael Kleier, and it's called Der Riese, or The Giant. It's a fantastic movie, I'm not sure how you can see it. It's made out of surveillance cameras. You see a girl in front of the supermarket, with a dog. Ten minutes. The dog has gone away, and then the girl is looking for the dog and goes out of the picture. You hear the whole time Mahler, the music of Gustav Mahler. And you then see someone in a big house in Hamburg, you see a garden in the night. Someone is coming into the light of a lamp, and he's smoking a cigarette, and then he's gone away. And it's like cinema. It's called The Giant because the giant is looking from above, down on the people. And also because the cameras, when they move, they're a bit jerky, slow, not very flexible, like a giant's point of view. This movie tells the story that cinema goes on in surveillance cameras—it's the rest of storytelling, it's just a picture, it makes you very sad, this movie. Really sad. So we talked, Harun and me, for five years about this movie, many times. He's always using surveillance cameras, since then, like his work about the American prison, for example. And I've used it also in, I think, five or six movies. Because it's something that's also subjective. For me, it's something like a chorus in a Greek tragedy. It's near the action, but at the same moment it's very far away. It doesn't express something, it just makes an objective picture of something, but in this objective picture, there's always a sadness. There's a fantastic documentary by [Raymond] Depardon called New York, N.Y., it's eleven minutes. He received money by the State, in France, to spend one year in New York to make a portrait and he comes back with two shots! One is of that bridge, there [points to the Queensboro Bridge], he's with a camera in the gondola, yeah? And he's showing this bridge. And then a corner at Wall Street, people going around the corner and you don't see their heads, just their feet. He erases the original sound and overdubs it with foley effects. It's just a sad picture of people—where they come from, where they go to. Anonymous. I think this camera, this surveillance camera has a bit of this effect.

PHELPS: Still, in Barbara the surveillance is human, there are no cameras.

PETZOLD: Yes, the Stasi. But I always have to ask myself and the cameraman: This is a movie where all people are under surveillance, but our camera can't share the position with the State. Therefore, our position of storytelling must be between the people, the angle of their eyes. Because we have to see the tension of the social life, the tension based on the surveillance—we don't want to choose the Stasi's position.

An extract from Michael Kleier's The Giant:

An unsubtitled version of Raymond Depardon's New York, N.Y.:

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