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What Matter is Memory? Christian Petzold and His Movies

A retrospective at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center spotlights Christian Petzold, the preeminent "Berlin School" director.
jessica r felrice
Christian Petzold: The State We Are In is showing at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center from November 30 – December 13, 2018.
It begins with a train. Sometimes it’s a bus. A few films center their action in a car. This is not to say we will watch a road trip or the story of a journey. The newest film opens with a train escape, but revolves around booking passage on an international ship. Characters pass through space to evade, to rejoin and to hide. Movement through landscape is essential, but rarely do characters succeed in reaching anywhere new. Frames are precise; form is economical. The value of money and labor, often dehumanizing, are vital to acquire. Lead characters, often women, are oddly both familiar and alien. They live among us, yet seem unreachable and unreadable. His films are both self-reflexive (of one another and of other films, genres and actors) and of the world; they indicate a particularly German trauma and crisis.
“Christian Petzold: The State We Are In” is the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s massive series covering the prolific career of this leading member of the Berlin School, as well as several films that have inspired him. Running from November 30 to December 13, 2018 it encompasses most of his films for television, shorts, early films, and more recent widely released films, with many presented on 35mm and 16mm prints. Included in the program are two documentary films by mentor and collaborator Harun Farocki: The Interview (1997) and Nicht Ohne Risko (Nothing Ventured, 2004), as well as a sidebar of influences curated by Petzold, titled “Carte Blanche: Christian Petzold Selects”: He Ran All the Way (John Berry, 1951) paired with A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1950), Oslo, August 31 (Joachim Trier, 2011), The Young Lieutenant (Xavier Beauvois, 2005), Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958) and The Woman Next Door (François Truffaut, 1981).
As I revisit many of these films in a condensed number of days (and see others for the first time) common structures and character movements reveal themselves, building in impact with each added iteration. The inevitability of certain characters’ trajectory intensifies sequentially, from the older films moving to his most recent. The trajectory includes the aforementioned use of trains, buses, and autos, but this is more about a constant, essentially modern motion: going nowhere. Money is pursued to finance escapes and transit papers. Clarity is achieved through the building of tension, and repetition of actions and emotions. In some pictures, such as Cuba Libre (1996), The Sex Thief (1998), Something to Remind Me (2001), Yella (2007), Phoenix (2014) and his newest, Transit (2018), the repetition that a protagonist is doomed to try to reenact or return to reflects an inescapable crisis in the world.
Early films Pilots (1995) and Cuba Libre employ noir elements. They are about criminals grounded in the real world, depicted without flourishes of style. They ride in cars, sell cosmetics and slump over a lunch counter. The con is an effort to retrieve something taken or a means to survive one’s circumstance. Economics are a bitter pill but a path to overtake another. Cuba Libre features competing cons and a doomed conceit that freedom, and a new life in Havana, awaits. In Pilots two women compete for male attention and a certain status in sales. Morality is not considered and doubt defines relationships. Both films feature enigmatic women (and in Cuba Libre one man; in Pilots it is two women) who struggle to reclaim something lost. Both men and women struggle to escape double crosses and capture.
Cuba Libre and Phoenix (both co-written by Petzold and Farocki) and Pilots (uncredited but Petzold has mentioned he and Farocki came up with the story) feature repeated shots of the female lead investigating her own image by way of a reflection. Reflections, being watched and surveilled images are seen in spades in Petzold’s films.
Surveilled: Pilots, Ghosts, Harun Farocki's The Interview, The Sex Thief, Beats Being Dead, Transit
Surveillance + industry: Pilots
Surveillance + duplicity + automobiles in Cuba Libre.
Cuba Libre: femme fatale Tina living with scars of the past,
Phoenix's Nelly: Holocaust survivor living with scars of the camps.
1998’s The Sex Thief establishes a chilled terrain of upended truths and fluid identities. This tale is female-filled and monochromed in blue steel and the glass of reflective surfaces. A horizon is dotted with palm trees of a Monaco resort that later give way to the cold glass of modern urban office buildings. Setting is abruptly upended; a rhyme of the resort manager Petra’s unsettled identity (soon revealed as a confidence lady.) Characterized by mobility and repeated train rides, she’s pursued by those she wronged. As she comes to unlock a door in a private home, she embraces a young woman emotionally taken aback, mentioning it had been years since she’d come. Sharing a bed, romance intimated, the scenario later turns on its head as we learn they are sisters. The ground is swept under us again as Petra mentors her in the art of the con.
Tortured characters grapple with ambition inside institutions and industries. Spiritualism has no place in these worlds. Jerichow’s brutal relationships echo the muscular farm work Thomas (Benno Furmann) does for Laura (Hoss) and her boss husband Ali (Hilmi Sozer) until moving up to the position of their driver. The car salesman protagonist in Wolfsburg (2003) struggles to move past a traumatic car accident he has caused. The focus on productivity and work (also integral to Beats Being Dead [2011] and Pilots) reveal backstabbing, debased treatment and its reverberations. The inclusion of Farocki’s The Interview, a 90s document of job interview instructions for Germans re-entering the workforce, supplements these latent themes. An entire section in The Sex Thief, where Petra’s young sister applies for work, rhymes almost verbatim with scenes in The Interview. The objectification in modern work amplifies the sense of characters that seem half dead and half alive.
Viewing John Berry’s He Ran All the Way—one of Petzold’s selections—the threat of discovery and stress of concealment is finely calibrated in tight frames, a sweaty and muscular John Garfield indicating dire existence. Paranoia in Petzold’s workplaces share this register of controlled desperation. Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 is another portrait of a haunted protagonist in an increasingly tightly wound state. The film elapses over a single day with 34-year-old recovering addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) while he’s on leave from a recovery center. Memories overwhelm and exult at the beginning. Doubt and shame eat away at him as time progresses. If active addiction is an attempt to obliterate and eventually self-annihilate, then a return to normalcy is a wild expectation. There is an inability to convey to others that this rupture of addiction has broken off a piece of his life. This dilemma is foregrounded by the novel form and register of Trier’s film, shared qualities of the films of Petzold.
Petzold’s Gespenster (Ghosts) trilogy includes The State I Am In (2000), Ghosts (2005) and Yella (2007). Intrusions into the present mark all three; a generational political schism in The State I Am In, and an insular twosome of outsiders threatened throughout Ghosts. In Yella, Nina Hoss’ title character kills in business, as her own death comes back to intrude, bit by bit. Like Kim Novak in Vertigo, or any Hitchcock heroine who watches us back, Hoss’ strained aquiline features convey the fear of being discovered. To consider the roles of Nina Hoss in Something to Remind Me, Yella and Phoenix is to investigate the weathering of a person by their place in the world. The crimes against her women are never simulated, but her form and performance indicate trauma. Direct descendant of Novak in Vertigo, Hoss plays women doubling as ciphers doubling as figures who return our gaze. In Something to Remind Me Nina Hoss plays Leyla, a laborer who feigns romance to bring a recourse of the past into the present.. Yella opens with a violent car crash that Hoss’ title character will up and walk away from, fleeing to a train and later to a hotel where she is to meet a business partner.  Throughout the film, as in Carnival of Souls, a film it bears similarities to,  loud winds rustle trees when Yella is near.  Yella tries again and again to move beyond an act of violence suffered because of her ex. New relics of the same violent accident reappear, be it in the sound of the trees, the views on a train, or the facial likenesses of men who threaten her freedom.  Phoenix confronts the unknowable (the Holocaust), as Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Jewish German woman liberated from Auschwitz, tries to return to her old life in Berlin. Nelly bears physical and psychic scars, and her husband does not recognize her.  Coming home from the Camp, an institution of death, she takes desperate measures to return to her marriage, what it used to mean to be alive.   In Yella it is unclear if she has died or only nearly escaped, and in Phoenix she lives through the camps but can there be a life after that?
In Petzold’s new fim Transit, Georg (Franz Rogowski) uncannily recalls a dead man who is a famous writer, and taking his identity is an escape in regards to deportation as well as his own mental capability to endure. He is a refugee in modern-day Marseille, but the discussion of German troops taking Paris, seeking safety in Mexico, and mentions of Jews gesture to other times, to a metonymic expression. Film theorist Gilles Deleuze, describing the “crystals of time” that occur in cinema: “Time is no longer defined by succession because succession concerns only things and movements which are in time. If time itself were succession, it would need to succeed in another time, and on to infinity. Things succeed each other in various times, but they are also simultaneous in the same time, and they remain in an indefinite time.”
In a recent interview with the Notebook, Petzold spoke about Transit and his use of subjectivity and objectivity: “...the subjects of the past are like phantoms in our objective you’re going through objective Berlin and you’re seeing subjective stones and the times are together. You know in the structuralist theory there are two words: the one is metaphor and the other is metonym. The metaphor means one over the other, and metonym, one beside each other. I think history is not just [layers hands on top of one another] over and over and over, it is also something where in the same time you have the old and the new things together. You have the subjective and the objective in the same moment: this conception I try to bring into Transit, and also in the skills we used making it: all camera positions, all departments are working with this theory.” Viewed en masse one sees Transit (as well as Phoenix and Yella) as intensifications of metonymic time, explicitly indicating the way in to understanding what can not ever be depicted.  In earlier films the Holocaust may be implied, but in Phoenix and Transit it is explicit. The German death camps hold a unique space in modern history: the first mass executions run by the industrial complex. Lawrence L. Langer’s book Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory writes of the difficulties in representation of the Holocaust experience. The mutilation of memory is described much like Petzold’s metonym, a term Serge Daney also used in discussing filmic representations of the Holocaust in his Trafic article “The Tracking Shot in Kapo.” Studying testimonies and narratives produced by survivors, Langer discusses the mind’s re-ordering of temporality, where the past-ness of the camp life intrudes in the present-ness of post-camp life. “The faculty of memory functions in the present to recall a personal history vexed by traumas that thwart smooth-flowing chronicles... ‘Cotemporality’ becomes the controlling principle of these testimonies, as witnesses struggle with the impossible task of making their recollections of the camp experience coalesce with the rest of their lives. If one theme links their narratives more than any other, it is the unintended, unexpected, but invariably unavoidable failure of such efforts.”1
Beats Being Dead
Oslo, August 31
The persistence of trains—characters move but go nowhere. The stillness of characters filmed in transit has a haunted feel. It is as if one is trapped between a persistent past and persistent present.
“Former victims cannot... link their near destruction to a transcendent or redemptive future. Still haunted by the un-transfigured actuality of what they recall, they cast about, usually in vain, for some escape from its web.... [Her] train journey is an emblem of the hermetic ordeal that the Holocaust became for its surviving victims. ‘I was born on that train and I died on that train.’”2
Something to Remind Me
Christian Petzold’s movies upend convention, explore new ways of conveying intangibles, such as memory, on film. We can respond with close attention, rewarded with the sense of what it is to hide in plain sight, or to feel the dead walk among you in a rush of wind . These are not historical pictures, but their shared present and past tenses depict a modern dread of living with what you may have endured. The scar of national character is never laid bare, but the desired annihilation of a people is indicated. Surviving destruction or a traumatic loss, it is unknowable and it is alien to most, remaining alive with the knowledge of death.

1. Langer, Lawrence L. Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. (Yale University Press, 1991).
2. Ibid.


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