Christian Petzold was 40 when he made The State I Am In (Die Innere Sicherheit in the original German) in 2000. Which means he’d have been in his mid-teens and at his most impressionable when the Baader Meinhof and Red Army Faction were at their most active.
So-called left-wing terrorists whose main beef was that West Germany wasn’t dealing adequately with its Nazi legacy, the Baader/RAF big moment came in 1977 when they kidnapped and shot the German businessman, politician and former SS officer Hanns Martin Schleyer.
Petzold and co-writer/mentor Harun Farock make two imaginative leaps from this historical starting point. The first suggests what might have happened to two such terrorists not at the time or in the immediate aftermath of “the German Autumn” but years afterwards, 15 years down the line in fact, during which time this couple have been on the run and living on their wits. The second leap is to imagine that these people have a child, who is now old enough to want a life of her own.
You could divide that second leap further, since the film’s point of view is that of Jeanne (Julia Hummer), the sullen, brooding teenage daughter of Hans (Richy Müller) and Clara (Barbara Auer).
It’s an unusual take on the “on the run” thriller and it puts a sheen on familiar plot way-stations once the family is thrown into alarm mode after their last stash of cash is stolen. They were about to make their final exit from Europe and start a new life in São Paulo. Instead of a sunny exodus from Portugal and an equally sunny arrival in Brazil, the family is forced to head back to overcast, grey Germany to dig up boxes of money they left behind, and to re-activate old acquaintanceships from their terrorist years.
But time has passed and neither the money nor the support is as easy to access as they’d hoped, and so Hans and Clara end up taking an all-or-nothing gamble, all while Jeanne is falling in love with Heinrich (Bilge Bingul), a German lad she met in Portugal, and who comes back into the picture later when the family pop up in his home town (a fateful move instigated by Jeanne).
Petzold is good on the fugitive mindset – the parents supremely cool when it matters and entirely self-contained. The daughter is, too, at first, but her programming is being hacked by her emotions and she is starting to assert herself in ways her parents hadn’t considered. The “state” they’re all in is geographical, emotional, political.
Characters think in this film and you can see them doing it. After years of a precarious but stable existence, they’re suddenly a notch closer to being caught. Barbara Auer and Richy Müller are particularly good here, as Clara and Hans approach a day of reckoning they didn’t expect to arrive so soon.
For all its many pluses – intelligent performances, a fresh and cool take on the sort of material that could sustain a Bourne film, Petzold’s now-familiar matter-of-factness and swerving of false climaxes – it feels like a longer film than its 105-ish minutes running time. This comes down, in the end, to slightly sluggish pacing, an accusation it would be hard to make about Petzold’s later films.
A try-out for the entire Petzold oeuvre is perhaps best the way to see it. He’s made plenty more films with a “problem” woman at the centre – all of his films since, in fact, if I’m not mistaken. Except here his “heroine” is slightly in the way of a much more complex human drama.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020