Leon lets the pages of his novel scatter in the wind

The films of Christian Petzold often feature a man thunderstruck by a woman, and so it is with Afire (Roter Himmel), the second of Petzold’s “elements” movies and the second to star Paula Beer as the focus of enchantment. In Undine Beer played a water sprite in human form, though Petzold never explicitly said so. Here she might be a fire sprite in human form. Petzold never tells us that either. But she’s dressed in red throughout, which possibly is a clue, and for the duration of the film, which plays out on the Baltic Coast, there is a fire is raging through the nearby forests and it threatens to engulf the holiday … Read more

Beats Being Dead

Johannes is smitten with Ana

The story behind Beats Being Dead (Etwas Besseres als den Tod) is an unusual one. Three hot German film directors belonging to what’s often loosely termed the Berlin School were corresponding together about the upcoming 40th anniversary of the DFFB (Berlin’s film and TV academy), and generally bemoaning the state of German cinema – what was there to celebrate etc? And so they decided to make a trio of loosely linked films to plug what they saw as a few gaps. Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler were the dynamic trio and, following Petzold’s lead, they set their stories in the bleak and romantic forests of Thuringia, in a place called Dreileben, … Read more

The Sex Thief

Petra and Franziska

The Sex Thief is an attention-grabbing title for a film. In the original German it goes by the more cumbersome Die Beischlafdiebin. Run that compound noun through Google Translate and you’ll find no mention of sex at all. No mention, either – unless AI is more advanced than any of us can imagine – of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a clear influence on a story about a person who is trying to make over another person for reasons rooted in a dark pathology. It’s a Christian Petzold film and so there’s a mysterious female at the centre of it, a woman devastatingly attractive to men but trying to escape her situation (a Petzold constant). Both she … Read more

Cuba Libre

Tina and Tom fall out

1996’s Cuba Libre is only Christian Petzold’s second movie, after 1995’s debut, Pilots (Pilotinnen), but already he’s got the formula and the team all in place. It’s a chilly thriller, in other words, with a man who’s losing his head over a woman, a woman who’s so otherworldly she might in fact be more metaphysical than real, and an overarching theme of escape, of existing in liminal space, of people perpetually on the way to somewhere else. Petzold insists that all movies are in a sense about transit, or transition, but he’s got a very particular way of doing it. It’s the sense of yearning he imparts. It suffuses everything, to the point … Read more


Sophie and Karin

Pilots (Pilotinnen) was Christian Petzold’s graduation film, a short feature-length drama which he completed in 1995. At 35, Petzold was quite ancient as students go but he’d studied German and theatre already before switching into film at Berlin’s DFFB. Either way, his film got a showing on the German TV channel ZDF, which isn’t bad at all for a graduation movie. It’s clearly the work of someone who technically is still learning how the vehicle works but thematically knows exactly where he’s heading. It’s not so much Petzold in utero as Petzold in miniature. It’s a two-hander, in essence, and once Petzold has thrown us with an opening shot suggesting that his troubled … Read more


Barbara on her bicycle

By the time Christian Petzold made Barbara in 2012, enough time had passed for his film not to be seen as just 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 … Read more


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 … Read more

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 … Read more

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, … Read more


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 … Read more