Barbara

Barbara on her bicycle

By the time Christian Petzold made Barbara in 2012, enough time had passed for his film not to seen as the latest in a line of Ostalgia movies (2003’s Good Bye Lenin! is a prime example). In any case the German writer and director tends to be more concerned with the problems created by freedom rather than a lack of it. Films misty-eyed for the communist era aren’t really his thing.

However, Barbara does have some generous things to say about life in the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany) wrapped up in a thriller about a woman trying to escape to the West.

Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor in internal exile at a backwoods East German hospital. Having had the temerity to ask for an exit visa, she’s now no longer a bigshot in Berlin but doing routine rounds on the wards in Nowherestadt. She’s under constant surveillance by the Stasi (the secret police), plus her landlady and work colleagues. The old GDR had the reputation for being the most surveilled state ever, and in this film you really feel it.

On the other hand there is day-to-day life there – old-fashioned, decent, relaxed and with an austere simplicity that’s not without its pluses. The roads aren’t clogged with cars, everyone has enough to eat, the hospital where Barbara works is clean, functional, almost laid back.

But there is the “socialist concentration camp” up the road, we’re reminded, just in case we’re getting too enamoured of life in the GDR, which is where the third leg of this story comes from – Stella (Jasna Frizi Bauer), a would-be fugitive whose attempted suicide finds an echo in the desperate Barbara.

But that is putting the cart before the horse. Second leg of the story is Ronald Zehrfeld as the crumpled handsome doctor, André, also posted in this backwater hospital as punishment for some past misdeed, and instantly – as men so often are in Petzold films – smitten when Barbara arrives.

Barbara and André
Doctors in love? Barbara and André

She gives him scant reason to get his hopes up. Unsmiling, curt and eager to be self-sufficient, Barbara avoid the lifts André keeps offering her in his car and even presses an old bicycle back into service so he’ll stop offering. Barbara is a woman who gives every impression of being a lone operator.

But, actually, she already has a man, Jörg (Mark Waschke), a West German, hence her eagerness to get out. Jörg isn’t in the film much but his materialism sticks out like a sentry tower. So does Barbara’s, at least when she’s with Jörg – he offers to come and live in the GDR to be with her, because that’s what he wants more than anything else. But suddenly she isn’t quite as enthusiastic about it all as she was. Maybe she’s just keen to get to the West. Petzold does not explore any further.

A simple dilemma is often the dramatic driver of Petzold’s films. In Barbara it’s this: is Barbara going to take the chance to flee to the West or is East Germany going to win through? Put in more carnal terms, is she going to boff André, the handsome doctor?

Nina Hoss’s haughty beauty stands her in good stead here. She is ice personified, letting go only one smile throughout, a moment that effectively marks the turning point of the film. As for Zehrfeld, he plays André as a good-humoured puppy becoming increasingly frantic as he tries every gambit to hook this reluctant co-worker.

Almost as persistent is the wind! It never stops blowing, and Barbara is pictured often battling down long, empty country roads on her bike with the trees raging around her. Turmoil within, you get the picture.

Or the unseen without – the Stasi and their little helpers (everyone, more or less) are the motif that runs through this film. One of the blocks between Barbara and André is her suspicion that he’s one of their little informants, along with everyone else.

Do they, don’t they, will she, won’t she, and how does sickly Stella fit into all this? Petzold plaits the strands – romance, thriller, human drama – together with skill and with an assured sense of pace that marks out the great movie. In fact you can watch Barbara simply for the pacing alone, it’s impeccable.

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

Wolfsburg

Benno Fürmann and Nina Hoss

 

Wolfsburg. The title is a bit of a joke, a reference to the city/state in Germany where Volkswagen is headquartered. The fact that there’s not a single VW in the film suggesting that either the lawyers prevailed or writer/director Christian Petzold decided he’d said enough already with his automotively flavoured title.

Because the film is about a car salesman (Benno Fürmann) out on the open road who, while fishing around for his phone on the floor of his classic NSU Ro 80, knocks a boy off his bicycle. Philipp doesn’t pull over to see if the inert figure is OK, partly because he’s in shock, partly because he’s a coward. Though by the next day he’s thought better of what he’s done and heads to the hospital, rehearsing his lines of apology/guilt/exculpation as he goes.

At the hospital, once we’ve clapped eyes on Laura (Nina Hoss), the boy’s beautiful and distraught mother, and given that this is a film with two good-looking big-name stars, the plot starts to suggest itself as if out of the air – he’s not going to blurt out his apology, instead Philipp is going to fall for Laura (Petzold does like his men being thunderstruck by love) and she’s going to fall for him, before it all comes tumbling out dreadfully in the film’s shocking climax.

Like the title, the film is a tease. Petzold knows that we know where this is going and so starts to play with our expectations, sending us first up a cul-de-sac as Laura and her workmate Vera (Astrid Meyerfeldt) do some amateur sleuthing into the possible identity of the killer – the boy has since died, having recovered only enough to blurt out a garbled reference to the car that hit him.

 

Philipp at the scene of the accident
Philipp at the scene of the crime

 

On top of that there’s some space-filling romantic business between Philipp and his vinegary, high maintenance girlfriend Katja (Antje Westermann), and Laura and her boss (Matthias Matschke), a weak man not above using his position to try and gain access to Laura’s pants.

Petzold keeps piling up the obstacles to the smooth playing out of the story, or in an attempt to hide what he’s doing if we’re being less charitable. And it works. Right up until the final few minutes we’re left wondering what Philipp is going to do first, admit his guilt or declare his love – or somehow attempt both in a moment of spectacular bungling.

Nearly all of the film’s decisive moments take place inside cars or near them – in the car showroom where Philipp works, at the scrapyards Laura visits, or just driving almost aimlessly around the Wolfsburg area. Philipp’s wooing technique consists mostly of plonking Laura in the passenger seat and then taking her somewhere. Cars, of course, thanks to the occupants’ forward-facing position, are great places for unburdening. Will he, won’t he?

This amount of tension has to go somewhere, and things do eventually resolve, in a way that feels both earned and satisfying. Still, it’s more driven by plot than character, which is another way of saying that even as it grips it doesn’t quite ring true.

A high drama with a cool surface, from the overcast Lower Saxony locations to the actors’ grey-scale performances, a very nicely executed exercise in audience manipulation.

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

The State I Am In

Jeanne and Heinrich in bed

 

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.

 

The family have a moment on the beach
On the run but on the beach

 

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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Something to Remind Me

Nina Hoss and André Hennicke

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.

Nina Hoss and Sven Pippig
And for Leyla’s next trick… Blum


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 unknown 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


Undine

Jacob Matschenz and Paule Beer in a swimming pool

So, an Undine. It’s a mythical water nymph, mentioned by Paracelsus, the Renaissance physician, but you won’t learn that directly from Christian Petzold’s latest drama, an increasingly bizarre and dislocated story of love suffused with magical realist moments that make no sense at all… unless you realise that the titular Undine (Paula Beer) is a version of the mythical creature who fell in love with a human.

This Undine is a pencil-skirted guide to historical Berlin. She’s fresh out of a relationship with a guy she thought was the one, now propelled by fate into another one when a fish tank explodes and she and a man she’s just met (Franz Rogowski) are deluged by its contents. A watery meet-cute. He’s an industrial diver working as a welder on one of Berlin’s bridges. More water.

If you don’t know that Undine is a water nymph, what you get for your money for the rest of the film is an intense love story – Undine and Christoph – which is supercharged at the point where ex-boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) arrives back on the scene and things move from lovey-dovey to dramatically shocking at some speed. Water is always in the picture, sometimes malign, sometimes benign.

It’s a very European film, cool, character driven, with Bach on the soundtrack and Berlin looking like its reputation suggests – efficient and artisanal. Though it’s quite a chunky role for Rogowski as the new boyfriend (Matschenz is very good as the old one but he’s window dressing), it’s another example of a film carried entirely by Beer, only 25 but already a veteran, having anchored Frantz for François Ozon and Transit for Petzold and co-starred in Never Look Away by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. She was also the lead in the fascinating if increasingly preposterous TV series Bad Banks, a story about bankers being really bad.

Franz Rogowski as diver Christoph
Christoph works as a diver


Nina Hoss used to be the go-to for Petzold (they have made four films together) but Beer is a good replacement. She’s not only got that way of holding the camera but also a loose natural style that never seems self-conscious. She’s also very attractive – which helps and is also a talent.

Rogowski and support player Maryam Zee, as one of Christoph’s colleagues, also belong to what might loosely be called Petzold’s current repertory company – Beer, Zee and Rogoski (sounds like an upmarket law firm) all feature in Transit.

For Petzold, it’s a return to the films with a supernatural flavour, like Gespenster and Yella, that he used to make before he became more fascinated with conflicts of identity. Though you wouldn’t describe any of his films as exactly realistic – it’s either the supernatural or breathtaking coincidences that disbar them – Petzold always operates in a believeable and self-contained environment. We know where we are.

The giant catfish that swims through the murky waters of the River Spee at one point could be a metaphor for his films – here comes the weird stuff, sliding towards us like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Along with ability to conjure place and time and his skill at getting relaxed performances out of his actors, it’s what makes his films so watchable. If Undine is perhaps not quite up there in terms of power and arthouse spookiness with Yella (a personal favourite), its hypnotic quality makes it worth including in a list of films definitely worth catching.

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

Jerichow

Benno Fürmann, Nina Hoss and Hilmi Sözer

 

Jerichow is the fourth collaboration between director Christian Petzold and actor Nina Hoss – both names a guarantee of at least a degree of excellence. But before we get there – just quickly skimming through Petzold’s entries on the IMDB (research!) to see which films actually comprise the somewhat disputed “ghost trilogy” (Petzold and Hoss’s first three collaborations), I noticed that someone has added notes to a number of Petzold’s films, under the Trivia section. How closely one film resembles Hitchcock’s Vertigo, another Claude Chabrol’s Que la Bête Meure, yet another Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty, and so on. And how in all of these cases there is no reference back to the original work.

According to this source, Jerichow is a reworking of The Postman Always Rings Twice. A wife and her drifter lover decide to murder the husband in the 1946 movie based on James M Cain’s novel. And there’s no doubting that similar events do actually occur in Jerichow. Flat broke dishonourably discharged Afghanistan veteran Thomas (Benno Fürmann) is given a job by Ali (Hilmi Sözer), the doughy Turkish owner of a fast-food chain and thanks the man who has rescued him and is fast turning him into his business partner by boffing his hot wife, Laura (Nina Hoss).

In Postman, getting rid of the husband is what the story is about, which isn’t quite the case here. And in Postman, the husband kind of deserves it. In Jerichow, Ali is the surprise at the centre of the story, a beta male so aware of his own shortcomings that he’s almost unnaturally alive to the idea that his wife is going to bang the next half-OK male she can get her hands on.

 

Nina Hoss as Laura
Which way is Laura going to go?

 

The casting is perfect – Fürmann looks like a guy out of the army, is a commanding presence in that sullen and withdrawn way, and looks like he can handle himself in a fight when one breaks out, which it does. Hoss is brilliant as psychologically fragile women, and Laura really is all over the place. But in spite of Laura being a terrible baggage, Hoss makes us sympathise with her by emphasising her turmoil. It’s written all over her face. Toughest role of all falls to Hilmi Sözer as the “Gastarbeiter” Turk Ali, prosperous but lacking confidence, a weak man who knows he is and struggles not to be – a hero, at some level. The only one you’ll find in this film, at any rate.

It’s the expert way that Petzold works these three characters up and down in our sympathies that gives the film its claim on the attention. At one particular point we start to sympathise with Thomas as if he were the wronged man, the cuckold, when it’s Ali who’s actually getting poorly treated.

However, let’s not get too far up that road. “Doubling” – a Petzold trope (see Phoenix if you want the best example) – gets no more than a toehold here. Really, Jerichow is a tightly constructed thriller told in a straightforward way, at pace, with human frailty, self-knowledge and the yearning for perfectibility at its core.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020