It’s called Toter Mann in German, the literal translation of which is Dead Man, but instead the distributors went with the possibly even more ironic Something to Remind Me for the English-language release of this mystery thriller, the first collaboration between writer/director Christian Petzold and actor Nina Hoss. A TV movie is how it was described in 2001 when it aired in Germany, but these days that fairly nonsensical distinction has dropped away – it’s a movie, and a highly cinematic one at that.
It hasn’t got the budget of the big screen movie but the thriller genre fits the bill, as does the atmosphere, sleek and chilly. Petzold, so the story goes, had his cast watch old Hitchcock films Vertigo and Marnie to get them in the mood, which has led some people to suggest that this is a reworking of Vertigo. I can’t see it, though Nina Hoss as a cool blonde is an obvious reference point.
And in this film the cool blonde has all the agency; men are dupes, literally. Opening shot: Nina Hoss’s Leyla climbs out of a swimming pool and while picking up her stuff to head to the changing area, manages to drop most of it. Also at the side of the pool, Thomas (André Hennicke), the sort of middle aged man who likes to keep himself in shape for moments like this, scrambles to pick up an item that Leyla has missed.
Being a good-looking woman, Leyla is well used to being hit on in public and so thanks the nice gentleman ogling her and goes about her day. But, as is so often the case in a Petzold film, the man is thunderstruck, lost, and he pursues her, gauchely. Amazed when she eventually shows some interest, he is later utterly crestfallen when Leyla all of a sudden goes entirely cold on him, quits her job, leaves town, the full package.
This seems bizarre, but more is to follow. Leyla takes a job that’s not suited to her, rents a massive place out of the way and sets about insulating it and blacking out the windows, while also setting her cap at a guy called Blum (Sven Pippig), a criminal on a re-integration programme. He knows something is amiss, since overweight losers like him don’t get first dibs on hot properties like Leyla, but a hot property is a hot property. Like Thomas, he can’t help himself.
If you remember Neil Strauss’s book The Game – the one about picking up women – Leyla’s behaviour looks to all intents and purposes like it might be a gender-flipped version of it. She picks up men only to drop them, proving on the way that if you run hot one minute and cool the next, the poor sap you’re focused on will be so confused he’ll be reduced to a gibbering heap.
That’s what happened to Thomas – who ends up literally lying in bed curled up in a ball while staring at a picture of Leyla – and that’s also what happens to Blum, who isn’t unknow to Thomas. A massive coincidence, or a cool calculation on Leyla’s part?
To explain or not to explain, that seems to be the conundrum for Petzold. In his latest (as I write) film Undine, nothing is explained and Petzold leaves us grasping at possibilities. The easy gain as far as Petzold is concerned is that Undine superficially looks like a more intellectual film as a consequence. But is it really? Coming backwards towards Toter Mann we have 2007’s Yella, when Petzold holds out the ghost of an explanation for what’s been going on. With Toter Mann he actually explains it all, in final scenes that most closely match the template of the standard thriller, one element of which is the villain who is slightly too eager to blab.
Who’s the “dead man”? That, actually, isn’t explained, though there are an awful lot of victims in this film. In fact it’s possible to describe every single person who makes an appearance in that way.
Toter Mann is often lumped in with Ghosts and Yella as Petzold’s Ghosts (aka Gespenster) Trilogy. The imdb says as much in one of its summaries. According to Petzold himself, it’s 2000’s Die Innere Sicherheit that is the first of the trilogy, not Toter Mann. Either way, ghosts haunt this film, not least that of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose preoccupation with Germany’s ability to forget its own recent history informed so many of his work.
Take that element on board or ignore it completely, it makes no difference to the enjoyment of a film that’s knotty, neo-noirish and entirely satisfying.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020