Tales of Two Halves: Christian Petzold's "The State I Am In" and Christoph Hochhäusler's "The City Below"

Two German films a decade apart cleverly create tension from two interpenetrating halves: criminals and adolescence, finance and romance.
Michael Pattison

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.

How can we hang on to a dream
How can it, will it be the way it seems

—Tim Hardin, “How Can We Hang On to a Dream”

“When you live in no man’s land, you get stuck with your memories.”

—Clara, The State I Am In

1. Lovers go on the run while a teenager falls in love. Christian Petzold’s first theatrical feature, The State I Am In (2000), tells two stories simultaneously: that of Hans (Richy Müller) and Clara (Barbara Auer), fugitives pursued by German authorities, and that of their long-suffering daughter Jeanne (Julia Hummer)—who is downcast from the film’s opening scene, in which she meets a German boy named Heinrich (Bilge Bingül) at the beach.

Though the coastal backdrop for Jeanne and Heinrich’s would-be meet-cute might suggest some kind of holiday, Petzold frames his protagonist with her back to the sea, a transparent windbreak between her and the horizon; as if any hopes of exploring the world—though they remain within tantalizingly visible proximity—have already been dashed. (Later, a secondary character will synopsize Melville’s Moby Dick, emphasizing its themes of water and entrapment.) Indeed, this is no ordinary trip: as her parents discuss their next getaway spot (“three approaching roads, an underground carpark, lots of tourists; it’s perfect”), it becomes clear that Jeanne has no choice but to tag along on what turns out to be—following a burglary and an attack in a train station—one more cross-continent journey in flight from the law. (Jeanne’s multilingualism suggests she’s no stranger to such nomadism.)

Though the journey is literal—from the Algarve in Portugal to Hamburg in Germany—the film’s chief tensions arise from its mental drifts: the increasing disconnect between Hans and Clara’s need for utterly disciplined everyday secrecy on the one hand, and Jeanne’s natural and growing sense of displacement and claustrophobia on the other. Contemporary reviews—presumably indebted to the film’s press notes, for the film itself is much vaguer—referred to the couple as terrorists, former or otherwise; if Hans and Clara can be read as relics of the 1970s German counter-culture struggling to find their place in a much-changed world, then Jeanne might represent the country’s search for its post-unification identity.

Metaphorical or not, such tensions inform what are essentially the film’s two interpenetrating halves: Petzold’s script, co-written by the late Harun Farocki, is both a coming-of-ager (“no boy will want to look at me now”) and a crime thriller (“that’s good, we don't want people looking at us”), and the protagonists embody their respective parts as if from different films entirely. The two components run concurrently rather than in sequence. It's an intelligent construct: while the script positions Jeanne in such a way that she must act as a surrogate for the audience, she also knows more than us—which creates a structural ambiguity that Petzold maximizes with some brilliant, suspenseful flourishes. One such scene takes place at a crossroads, at which four cars ominously pull up in seemingly strategic locations (and with seemingly murderous intent) alongside the protagonists’ white Volvo estate. Another occurs when Jeanne, having spent the night away from her parents without permission, stops on a forest path to tie her shoelaces—and we cut from a long shot to a close-up, suddenly denied the wider vantage point from which we’d ordinarily gauge the teen’s safety in a potentially hostile environment.

Petzold’s direction is straightforward, even perhaps frills-free. By 2000, he had made a number of features for television, and one commentator at the time described his style as “economic.” One might think, here, of Sidney Lumet—whose Running On Empty (1988) was suggested by the trade review in Variety as a key but uncredited influence. At any rate, the German’s deft touch, his surgically matter-of-fact approach to the material, allows him to encompass the film’s dual modes—a lovers-on-the-run picture as experienced by an adolescent who longs to determine her own fate—while never fully privileging either. It’s a textbook lesson in storytelling. At a key juncture, Clara yells at Jeanne: “You have no idea what’s at stake!” And, of course, neither do we.

2. This sense of two different films being pushed against one another also drives The City Below (2010). In Christoph Hochhäusler’s third feature, a tale of tainted romance unfolds alongside the backroom intrigues of Frankfurt’s financial district. Again, the two threads interpenetrate: financial ace Oliver (Mark Waschke) arrives in the German city to take up a new position at a top banking firm, unaware of the seeds of mutual lust that have been sowed, one evening, in an otherwise innocuous encounter between his wife Svenja (Nicolette Krebitz) and his boss Roland (Robert Hunger-Buehler). When Roland schemes to have Oliver sent to Indonesia—replacing a predecessor who was, unbeknownst to the new employee, murdered in a grisly incident—his and Svenja’s attraction to one another explodes into a full-on charade of hotel-bound consummation.

It begins in the clouds: literally. A credits sequence unfolds, thereafter, to images of revolving doors (fast turnarounds, expendable characters in a cutthroat milieu; one character tells another, “changes come quick in life”). Sideways tracking shots, employed from one scene to the next, suggest a camera that is merely passing through: a slice of lives being lived. The motif is transparency: the ostensibly visible mechanisms of a private firm housed in a glass box, and the internal politics of the workplace itself, as evidenced when Roland invites Oliver into his office and we see only their reflections against a partition—beyond which we also see, in the outer office, Oliver’s colleagues snooping from afar.

“I am not made of glass,” Svenja tells Roland during one rendezvous, before we cut to a shot taken from an ascending elevator attached to the side of the bank’s headquarters. It’s one of those shots that don’t have any particular point-of-view (Malick’s The Tree of Life, which contains similar moments, premiered a year later): a fantastical cutaway, lending a perspective of the city below even as we move up and away from it, as if away from a world of consequences altogether. Romantic doom: this is a film of consequences—one in which, even before any decisive moment has materialized, desire affects courses of action.

Hochhäusler handles these shifts with stylish precision. Recalling the structural tensions of Petzold’s debut—and the two are linked in other ways, as expanded upon in the postscript to this article—The City Below develops in such a way that its romance seems to be both a subplot and its central dynamic. Put another way, this is a film about one thing as much as it is about another—and it is especially concerned with how the two interrelate, and with the narrative slippages that occur when they collide. The key is music; and sound. While Svenja and Roland are two mature adults, whose fling is portrayed with enough nuance by Krebitz and Hunger-Buehler so as to be fully plausible—a thing of weight—their interactions unfold to an altogether chillier musical score, one which invokes a deeper and nagging sense of unease.

Again, it’s like one aesthetic component being thrown against another. When Roland—in a moment that foreshadows the film’s excellent, weird coda—takes Svenja to his childhood apartment in a rougher part of town, we hear the bassy throb of cars passing by. A world away from the insulated impunities of global finance, the streets are animated: they churn.


P.S. It was in 2001, writing about Angela Schanelec’s Passing Summer, that the German critic Merten Worthmann alluded to the films of the ‘Berlin School’—identifying a number of common tropes across otherwise discrete works from several German filmmakers. Adopted by others, the term became a default descriptor of a particular trend in German cinema. Schanelec’s classmates—literal, figurative—were Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan; all three had graduated from the German Academy of Film and Television Berlin (dffb). Though others followed them into this broad church, not all of them were dffb graduates; Christoph Hochhäusler, for instance, came through the University of Television and Film Munich.

The degree to which Worthmann’s coinage has proven to be critically useful, then, can be contested—and indeed has been, occasionally by the filmmakers themselves, and more often by scholars and historians keen to unpack a term that reviewers and critics have, often unhelpfully, perpetuated. Nevertheless, a growing body of literature has emerged in recent years seeking to grapple with the so-called Berliner Schule—as outlined in this useful 2015 essay for Senses of Cinema by Marco Abel. A 2010 essay for the same journal (modestly self-described as “a collage”) also provides a helpful guiding hand through this tricky but worthwhile turf.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Christian PetzoldChristoph Hochhausler
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.