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BUILDING ON THE RUINS: INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTIAN PETZOLD

 

written & translated by Megan Ratner

 

Film Quarterly

 

Winter 2012/2013

 

Christian Petzold’s Barbara, set in 1980 in the German

Democratic Republic, subverts traditional woman’s picture

fare to pose questions about freedom, work, and

love. Winner of the Berlinale Silver Bear, Barbara marks

Petzold’s fifth collaboration with Nina Hoss; his screenplay

was written for her. Drawing on boyhood visits to

relatives in the East—Petzold’s parents were from the

GDR, although he grew up in West Germany—Petzold

has a delicately shaded take on both sides of the cold war.

He neither scolds nor instructs. From a lurking Stasi officer

to Westerners’ sleazy assumptions about Eastern cravings

for sparkly trinkets, Barbara shows that exploitation

fueled both sides.

 

An exit-visa application by physician Barbara Wolff

(Hoss) results in demotion from a first-rate Berlin hospital

to a pediatric clinic on the North Sea coast. From the

outset, she’s under observation. Rattled by frequent surveillance

and occasional hands-on searches by Stasi officer

Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock) and his staff, Barbara keeps

to her hypervigilant self. Gradually, her association with

fellow doctor Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), though chiefly

collegial, begins to complicate the escape plan she’s made

with West German boyfriend Jörg (Mark Waschke). Andre

values her work; Jörg does not. Petzold shows the

couple awkwardly lying down fully clothed or Barbara

perched girlishly on Jörg’s lap, wordlessly emphasizing the

housewifey role that probably awaits. Discussing a Quelle

mail-order catalogue with another woman involved in an

East-West romance, Barbara sees the glamor fading into

wampum. Jörg’s reassurance that his ample salary will do

for them both forces Barbara to consider that losing autonomy

may be the price of life in the West.

 

Although Petzold echoes Douglas Sirk’s melodramatic

elements, especially in the clinic scenes, Barbara’s deliverance

does not come via either of her admirers. It comes through

Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a pregnant teenage patient from

nearby Torgau, the grisliest GDR reformatory. In an often

stark film with scarcely any music—although the soundtrack

of wind, sea, and birdsong highlights Petzold’s deliberate

avoidance of clichéd GDR gloom—Stella’s serenading of

Barbara with the lullaby Der Mond ist aufgegangen (‘‘The

Moon Has Risen’’) introduces a rare moment of tenderness.

This culminates in the film’s penultimate nighttime scene

between the two women on the shore. Saturating the film

in an inky blue, Petzold makes the night liquid. Hoss, her

hair loose on her shoulders, looks like an ethereal visitor from

Weimar’s UFA studio. Launching Stella into an unknown

future, Barbara stays behind, but is free.

 

 

Both Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson  and Twain’s Adventures

of Huckleberry Finn figure prominently. Like the

lullaby, they are reminders that GDR history included

the Western canon, the government’s party line notwithstanding.

Petzold’s less overt visuals link Barbara to Edward

Hopper’s lonely women in Morning Sun  and Woman in the Sun. He acknowledges

Hopper as an influence,  and Gerhard Richter even more: Barbara’s chignon

is reminiscent of Betty , Richter’s painting of his daughter.

Like Richter, Petzold chronicles the loss of reliable structures,

societal and material. The realities Barbara and

Andre face are merely different versions of current problems

in, say, Greece, Spain, or the United States. The old

ways won’t work. In Barbara, Petzold suggests we recognize

it’s time for something new.

 

This interview took place on October 5, 2012, during

the New York Film Festival (September 28–October 14),

where Barbara screened in the main slate.

 

Megan Ratner: The film opens with Barbara’s face, then

switches to Andre, who is discussing her with Schütz

while looking at her from an upper window. His first

question—‘‘Is that her?’’—also raises another question:

Is Barbara a portrait or a case history?

 

Christian Petzold: We shot chronologically. From the

outset, the actors, the crew, and I had to establish what

the metaphysical and moral foundation would be. We

had the moral problem that observation films are often

from the perspective of the observer. So I showed the

actors a sequence of William Friedkin’s The French Connection

[1971]. As Gene Hackman returns home from

work, a woman standing near him is suddenly hit by

sniper fire. Friedkin is a great and moral auteur because

he never shows Hackman from the viewpoint of the

sniper. That would be suspense: showing someone who

has no idea they’re about to be shot. Instead he shows the

irruption of a bullet into civilized life. We used the

sequence as a discussion point.

 

A man looking at a woman from above without her

knowledge is like state surveillance. The entire film is the

story of a man trying to get out of this position. He’s attempting

to be at eye level. On the other side you have

a woman who’s observed and knows, whose entire existence

is no longer her own and [is] merely a pose for an

observing entity. And we spend 104 minutes watching

how this woman fights to feel unobserved. It’s a cinematographic

story.

 

Discussion figured quite a bit in your working

method, right?

 

We actually talked it over like one of those 1960s film discussion

groups. I found this proper. There are those

who think reflection will take away the freshness, but I

don’t. I believe that talking things over at length can lead

to a different kind of artlessness.

 

Could you talk a bit about the look of the film?

 

We shot in the autumn on Kodak 35 mm. Dreileben (2011)

was shot on digital, which was not as bad an experience as

I expected, but I still find the most human colors are on

Kodak film. And I will fight until the end of my days to

make sure it remains available.

 

The catalogue and the car scenes point up the

material differences between West and East Germany.

Can you talk about how these differences

correspond to some of the disappointments

of reunification?

 

I grew up in West Germany, but my parents were from

the GDR. We went over every year for vacation. My father

had already slipped out of the middle class because of

unemployment, but when we traveled to the GDR in our

West German car we were still kings there. Everybody

wanted to touch the car. We also always took the Quelle

catalogue along, like the first colonialists who offered glass

beads in exchange for rain forests. My brothers and I were

always terribly ashamed.

 

I think West German cars and the Quelle catalogue

fomented a desire in the GDR that completely contradicted

the socialistic mindset. Initially, the GDR made

the big mistake of focusing on collective transport, not

individual. And through this perpetual pressure from Mercedes

and BMW, this phantasm of bourgeois freedom—

I’m driving, I’m steering, I alone—they planted a virus in

the GDR.

 

That’s why I wanted to have this scene in which a Trabant

driver and a Mercedes driver encounter each other

in the forest. The Trabant driver touches the other man’s

car; it’s a little like touching someone’s woman. What

I liked was that the actor who played the Trabant driver

(Thomas Neumann) is a very well-known GDR actor.

Reaching into the car and touching the steering wheel

was not in the script. He did it because, he said, ‘‘This was

our form of opposition. You show us your naked women

or splendid cars and we’re going to put our hands on

them.’’

 

The two Westerners, Jörg and Gerhard, look

so sleek and well fed, but also—intentionally?—

a bit criminal.

 

I always had the feeling that any Westerner who visited

the East was an agent without realizing it. Just as the CIA

constantly besieged the GDR with music and news,

everyone who came over with the gifts and the cars was

an agent of the West. There is something criminal about

that.

 

Jörg is a little like Captain Smith with Pocahontas; He

comes into a country and gets himself a woman. These

men saw themselves as a hero, an agent, and a fantastic

man. Many went to the GDR for a romance they could end

any time [with] the built-in excuse that they just wouldn’t

come back or she couldn’t come over. It made things terribly

easy.

 

Could you talk a bit about Stella’s character and

the GDR reformatories (Jugendwerkhöfe)?

 

I had been astonished at what came out, in Ireland and

West Germany and everywhere else, about the abuse and

mistreatment in Catholic and Protestant children’s homes.

It’s like destroying an entire generation. After World War

II, when the new, intensely productive capitalism began, all

those who refused this productivity were to be destroyed. I

couldn’t imagine that the GDR was simultaneously

running places like that as well. But when I went to Torgau—

it’s a museum—I could see that fundamentally this

was a fascist legacy, that a Prussian disciplinarian society

had continued to live on everywhere in Germany.

I had a copy made of Torgau’s Fox Den (Fuchsbau), the

cell they used to break young people down. It was tiny,

with no windows, always freezing cold, and they’d be left

in solitary for14, sometimes 18 days. I shot Stella lying in

the cell in a fetal position and singing Der Mond ist

aufgegangen.

 

On the page I found it arresting, but it looked slightly

obscene when I saw it on my editing table. For the first

time I was leaving the reality of this film, almost like

a teacher with a pointer, to say: Look at how wicked this

was. Better to show them pointlessly clearing those canals,

to show Stella’s yearning and anguish.

 

It’s also one of many water references.

 

French filmmaker Sandrine Veysset—who made wonderful

films in the 90s such as Will It Snow for Christmas? (1996)—

told me she began a film by choosing some element, fire, for example. Before I started Barbara, I thought

about the GDR as an island, surrounded by bodies of water.

Fleeing often meant crossing the water. I tried to do as

much with water as possible: Barbara [repairing] the

bike inner tube underwater, her wet hair, Stella’s work

in the canal. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn passage

Barbara reads is about fleeing and the water. There’s

always a water motif.

 

It’s set on the coast, but for most of Barbara, the

sea is heard, not seen.

 

It’s important that we get back to hearing the world again.

That’s why I didn’t have any music track. But it’s also

about being imprisoned. I don’t think Alcatraz prisoners

sat looking at the sea. It becomes a neutral surface for

them, not a place of yearning.

 

The GDR was actually built on yearnings: no fascism, no

anti-Semitism, no more war. But it was built on used-up

yearnings, or rather they’d become misshapen, nightmarish.

I just didn’t think people went to the sea with some kind of

yearning.

 

Could you talk a bit about the relationship

between Barbara and Stella, which hints at

something beyond mother-daughter, doctor patient,

or even woman-adolescent?

 

I find that in our complicated society you can’t explain

things by resorting to older institutions. We can’t really

say that the world is a neoliberal place, but at least our love

is pure. People try to return to proper families with piano

lessons for their children, for example, but the middle class

they pretend exists is kaput. I think that we have to take

the ruins of it and make something else.

Barbara makes something of Stella. Of course, she’s

a kind of rebirth, but it’s more companionable. They

make a kind of unspoken pact, but it’s no mother-daughter

pact.

 

Stella’s pregnancy is also important.

 

Andre knows before Barbara that Stella is pregnant. Stella

only tells Barbara later, adding, ‘‘It’s got to go.’’ The way

Nina played it, she says, ‘‘Do you want it removed?’’ But

Stella means only that she can’t go back to Torgau, can’t stay in the GDR.

At this moment, Barbara is a little like

the doctors in Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson who think, if

there’s a problem, we’ll just cut it out. Barbara has lost the

empathy to recognize that Stella loves something that’s

inside her. It’s the first unsettling shock for Barbara. Has

the state, its Prussian overtones, already infected her so

much that she’s forgotten what it means to have a body

and to feel love? That was very important to me.

 

Stella opens something up in Barbara—she even

smiles for the first time in the film.

 

In the course of my research on Ghosts (2004), I was often

told that orphans go after potential parents. They don’t

wait. They promote themselves, touching and trying to

please the visitors. I told Jasna you always have to reach

out to Barbara. Tell her to lie down, to get some sleep, do

something, send Andre home. Stella sparks life in Barbara

and not the other way round.

 

But it’s not familial.

 

Yes, that’s very important. Even at the end, when Mario is

lying there and sees the two doctors sitting across from

each other. The scripted scene was from the young man’s

perspective because I couldn’t see any other way to do it. It

made them into a kind of family. But the actors were dead

set against this approach. They said it has nothing to do with the young man.

I thought it was great that they stood up to me.

 

Among the many excellent edits, the scene in

which Andre walks in on Barbara in her slip struck

me. Can you talk a bit about editor Bettina

Böhler’s contributions?

 

We filmed it as written in the script. Andre comes in, sees

she’s half dressed, and slowly exits. She hears the door close, but hasn’t seen him. Bettina said that makes

men look awfully, awfully good. Instead, in her cut, they look at

each other, which corresponds with their last look in the

film. Both of them act as if nothing happened. It’s much

more intense.

 

Bettina edits while I’m still shooting, and I have no

influence on what she does. I come back to a slightly rearranged

story. Most directors shoot all the way through,

then go to edit. But our system is great because she is not

on location, she’s a woman, and she is not vain. She has no

idea that a shot may have taken 10 hours to get. If it doesn’t

work, she’ll yank it out. It’s what I like about working

collaboratively.

 

You mentioned that the actors did away with the

dialogue in the final scene.

 

They made other changes, too. We had lighted the room,

positioned the young man in the bed, and had a stool on each side for the doctors. Ronald refused the stool

because he wouldn’t have any physicality. We put in a chair with

arms, so that he could collapse a little bit.

He went out to have a smoke. Same with Nina, who

said she would have to think too much about sitting on the

stool: ‘‘My body may be wiped out, but the eyes have to still

be strong.’’ Then she went out and I heard them laughing

outside and knew they had been telling each other their

stool stories. They were absolutely right. It’s just great

when you have intelligent actors.

 

Could you talk about the cultural objects

in Barbara?

 

I always thought that in the West, Chopin, Rembrandt,

and Turgenev were things that belong to the bourgeoisie.

But I’d just read Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance

(Duke University Press, 2005), in which he describes a

group of working-class children who later fight in the Spanish Civil War.

They fundamentally do not reject culture. They want to read the books, play the piano,

and analyze the paintings better than the bourgeoisie. I

liked resistance as not being against the culture, but a way

to take back what actually belongs to them in the first

place.

 

In this way culture becomes engagement. Barbara

plays Chopin like a weapon, but it’s also a part of her.

Andre doesn’t have the Rembrandt reproduction to

impress anyone. Because The Anatomy Lesson shows the

collapse of the Enlightenment it also shows the entire

Communist collapse. Everything in Andre’s place is part

of his experience.

 

You also use the forest, a key German cultural

element.

 

The forest is part of German culture and never belonged to

the Nazi culture. It’s part of the Brothers Grimm, the place you hide in and where you become an adult.

I read that all GDR conspiring meetings took place in the woods because

the directional microphones couldn’t penetrate the trees.

This scene between Barbara and Jörg had to take place in

the woods. You could be free there.

 

The houses look almost unchanged from the 1920s

or 1930s.

 

They reflect ideas about living communally at the beginning

of capitalism and the industrial society. In the 1920s

architects built according to Bauhaus ideas. It was a bit like

thinking about the GDR as a construction of its own where

the old buildings are just ruins. What was to be a utopia

for the working class fell apart. I wanted to show that this

historical line no longer has a reality in Germany. The

clinic where we shot was part of communal life. They had

a house of culture, a cinema. I miss that alternative to

capitalist property.

 

Did you have special reasons for choosing 1980 as

the time?

 

Besides autobiographical reasons, 1980 marked a huge

change in the West and ultimately in the Eastern Bloc as

well. We had punk, New Wave, the dissolution of the

hippie era. There was a new kind of mix of neoliberalism,

Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. You knew something

would change in the next few years. Only the GDR closed in on itself.

And closed societies die very slow deaths. But Barbara and Andre will

experiment with something; they’ll try. It’s not a happy

end. They’re not necessarily a couple. Instead their look

says, If we stay, it might happen sooner. If we leave, it

could be an eternity.