The Sex Thief

Petra and Franziska

The Sex Thief is an attention-grabbing title for a film. It’s called the more cumbersome Die Beischlafdiebin in the original German. 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 to do with their own personal shortcomings.

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 who is trying to escape her situation (a Petzold constant) in a story that is so cool it takes on a mythical aspect, helped by the odd “does not quite add up” touch in a story that is otherwise strictly realistic.

She doesn’t steal sex, either, this central female, but rather money, after luring lone male travellers out of the bar of the holiday hotel where she picks them up (though they think they’re picking her up) and up to a waiting hotel room, where she relieves them of their cash having first drugged them. No actual sex occurs.

This is all something of a preamble, though, because when we meet Petra – a woman in her late 40s whose allure is just beginning to fade, and she knows it – she’s about to be rumbled by first a cop (Petzold regular Richy Müller) and then by a fellow thief (Wolfram Berger), who recognises a fellow spirit and makes her an offer she probably shouldn’t refuse – go with him to Bora Bora.

Petra works her scam on a man
Another sucker is taken for a ride

Instead Petra abandons Morocco, where she’s been working her scam for years, and heads back to her native Köln, only to find that the sister whose studies she’s been paying for with her thievery hasn’t made the best use of the money. Petzold, having already teased us with an oblique Psycho reference, and a plotline semi-lifted from To Catch a Thief, makes it three Hitchcocks in a row with a Vertigo-like remodelling of the younger sister by the older one, who sets out to refashion Franziska (Nele Mueller-Stöfen) in her own image, teaching her the advantages of deploying her feminine allure. It’s not quite James Stewart making over Kim Novak but the parallels – and jeopardy – are there, and both women are blonde to boot.

Stefan Will’s soundtrack adds to the overall Hitchcockian impression with regular irruptions of plangent ascending strings in the Bernard Herrmann style. And there’s even a visual reference to Saul Bass’s famous poster for Vertigo. All in all quite a feast for hungry Hitchcock fans.

At the centre of it all is Constanze Engelbrecht as the mysterious Petra, a woman who’s been playing a game so long she’s become really good at it but whose time is up. The grim irony here is that Engelbrecht, 48 when this was made, would be dead within two years of cancer. It’s a selfless performance, subsuming herself to the needs of the director, who likes his female central characters to be distant, mysterious, slightly disengaged, lost, perhaps mythical at some level. Engelbrecht manages all of these and brings a touch of desperation and hurt along as well.

It’s a thriller, obviously, like most of Petzold’s films, but it’s a thriller cool almost to the point of chilliness at times. This seeps out from the character of Petra to suffuse the whole movie. Even in moments of high drama – of which there are few – there’s not much actual high drama on the screen.

Add to this the settings for most of the action – anonymous spaces like hotel rooms and bars – and a TV movie budget and what you’ve got is an austere, almost ascetic drama that feels at times more like a template than a complete work in itself.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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 where it can almost start to be alienating, as it is here.

It’s a boy re-meets girl story. Whatever the glories or otherwise of their previous failed romance, the present existence of Tom (Richy Müller, the first of three collaborations with Petzold) and Tina (Catherine Flemming) is a grim one – she’s turning tricks for bored businessmen, he’s living in a hostel – but quite by chance they meet again. He’s keen; she’s not. Once bitten. But he’s smitten. And so a strange cat and mouse chase develops, after she takes hot-tails it out of Berlin and heads to Nice by hitchhiking, while he pursues her in the company of a wealthy benefactor with a dangerous heart condition who has appeared almost magically, acting as a kind of fairy godfather to Tom.

So it’s mostly a road movie taking place on the autobahns of Germany, exactly the sort of soulless, betwixt sort of place where Petzold likes to set his movies. She’s heading for somewhere, he’s in pursuit, though really he wants to go to Cuba, where he and she can start a new life together, with money from a safe deposit box, in a subplot so sketchy it’s obvious it isn’t really what Petzold is interested in.

Tina and Tom share a quiet moment sitting on the ground
Grounded: Tina and Tom

The gang’s all here. Amazingly, they were mostly all there right on his first film, and Petzold has hung on to them ever since. Here, composer Stefan Will is the new arrival, drafted in alongside Harun Farocki (co-writer, script editor, co-conceptualiser on most Petzold films until he died in 2014), and DP Hans Fromm, who has lensed all of Petzold’s best films (Yella, Barbara, Phoenix, though it’s a tough call). In the years to come Will is going to become an absolute fixture, like the others, and here contributes a cold, repetitive incidental music to match the cold lighting, the drab locations and acting that’s deliberately disengaged, particularly in the case of Flemming.

She’s the Petzold heroine, and like later iterations – like Nina Hoss and Paula Beer – is a cool, slender and enigmatic beauty who plays up the mythic aspects of her character. Nina might not be real. She might be a figment of Tom’s imagination. She might be a figment of her own.

Yeh, it’s a bit arthouse. There are no heroes. Everyone is damaged goods – Tom and Nina most obviously, but also the side characters, like Jimmy the fairy godfather, and Pendler (“Commuter”), the guy buying sex from working girls and giving each of them the same spiel about being a bored husband with a dull family life, when in fact he’s just an asshole.

Cool to the point of detachment, after Pilots, which was a clearing of the throat, this marks Petzold’s arrival as a man with something to say and an idea about how to say it. He’d do it better in later films, perhaps having realised that drama is the glue that keeps people watching while you’re telling them what you’ve got to say.

There are more gripping films, in other words, though don’t let that put you off. Really.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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.



The State I Am In – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2020