Film In Conversation
CHRISTIAN PETZOLD with Anthony Hawley
I first saw a Christian Petzold film in 2007 at the Retrospective of Contemporary German Cinema: The Berlin School at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Curated by German film theorist, professor, and subsequent author of the comprehensive The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (2013), Marco Abel, the series featured films by Christoph Hochhäusler, Angela Schanelec, Christian Petzold, and others. The first of its kind in the United States, the series brought to centerstage one of the richest movements in international cinema today. I was particularly taken with Petzold’s 2005 film Ghosts, one of his most haunting and emblematic films capturing individuals on the economic edges of a post-unification, now EU-embedded Germany. Petzold has spoken widely about his characters occupying a kind of “bubble,” ghosts suspended between our more accepted socioeconomic routines and spaces. This past December during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Petzold retrospective, The State We Are In, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Christian during a screening of The State I Am In (2000). We talked about his newest film, Transit (2018), as well as language, embodiment, exile, Anna Seghers (whose novel Transit is based on), and more.
Anthony Hawley (Rail): I wanted to start with language, if we could. I loved it last night when you were speaking on stage about the word “bartender.”
Christian Petzold: [Laughs] Ah, “bartender is the night!”
Rail: Exactly. You were thinking about the word “tender” and its meanings, and you said “Bartender is the night,” thinking out loud. That moment reminded me of the scene I was just watching again in The State I Am In with the “staffed aubergines” opposed to “stuffed aubergines.”
Petzold: Ah, it’s the same! It’s like someone mixing a strange language, like a Dadaism.
Rail: Yes, it’s a playful turn and also a liberating one, but maybe indicative of something that’s trapped.
Petzold: The gefühlte aubergine and the gefüllte aubergine. I found it in a menu of a Turkish restaurant in Berlin. Because they didn't want to pay someone to make a good translation, they did it by themselves with Google or something. Gefühlte aubergine means aubergines you can feel, whereas what they meant was gefüllte aubergine: eggplants that are filled with some other food.
Rail: Many of the characters in your films are in a kind of bubble, a liminal space between realms. In Transit, language itself seems to occupy this space, not just between German and French, but also inside sign language at certain points. I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.
Petzold: It's a little bit like this: at the beginning, when I was writing Transit, I knew that this would be the first movie that would have another ensemble, other actors. I didn’t know who could play them. So for the first time, I used photos of famous stars directly near my monitor when writing. For the main actor, I had a picture of Jean-Paul Belmondo from Breathless . Because I was looking for someone who didn’t have language, someone who was just body. Someone who was a little bit criminal, who’s not interesting and reflective. This character, like Belmondo’s in Godard’s film, is moving from Paris to the South and back. Neither of them reflect. But this moment, when they start to reflect, they realize they are in a bubble. So I think about this moment when he finds the script of the author and he’s on the train. It’s two or three days and it’s a boring time and he’s filled with fear. This moment when he picks up the script, he is being scripted. He’s receiving words from the outside. He receives a tragic identity. And at this moment he loses innocence, and he loses his body. He starts thinking. When literature starts to make you reflective about your life, there’s the possibility that you have to die. So the character is nothing in Transit, but this moment when he reads the script, something changes. He starts to feel guilt, responsibility.
Petzold: Shame, yes. Maybe this could be the answer.
Rail: But I was thinking about something else, the way that time is collapsed—or at least reconfigured—with their communication via sign language. Maybe that goes back to the body, and then you stop having to reflect on thiscollapse?
Petzold: Yes, but there’s one thing—when you’re in an exile situation, and when you are from Germany, and you are Hannah Arendt, or Walter Benjamin, or Thomas Mann, or Anna Seghers, you are part of language, and this language is doubly destroyed. It is destroyed by the Nazis, who wreck language. Then you can’t use it anymore. It’s gone. And then there’s the fact of exile itself. You can see it in The Sopranos when they talk about Italy, or the Irish people in New York when it’s St. Patrick's Day. I think you have lost something. I think there is a little bit of paradise you lose. You will never come back to this language and to your home. So you need bubbles. All exiled people in the world need bubbles. They’re sitting in a bistro speaking German, sitting at the harbor speaking German. Reading German magazines. In their exile, they want to have a little island, a survival capsule of their language.
I met the son of Anna Seghers in Paris at the screening of Transit. He’s 92—very old—and he was sitting there in the first row, and I was little bit ashamed because it's a book of his mother’s, and I made a movie about it and it’s totally different from his images maybe. I was worried, but he liked the movie very much. However, the most important thing was that he told us that when he was six and his sister was eight, they were in Marseille with their mother, Anna, and the husband was in the camps in the Pyrenees. Each night she told the kids stories so they could sleep. And all these stories are about ports. About people who wait for something. Songs from the Greek, old Romans, songs about Odysseus. So it was a very bad exile situation—they were in a nowhere-land. But she gave her children a fictional tradition. And in Transit the same thing happens. He’s a little like a sailor, he has an identity like Odysseus. You are on your way somewhere... But in exile, from the ruins of your culture, you can build a weapon: a survival weapon.
Rail: I’ve been thinking about song in Transit, for instance when the main character is singing “Abendlied.” And now I’m thinking about how he is stuck in something, similar to what you are saying in terms of that stoppage, like listening to something on repeat.
Petzold: But, for example, when Nina Hoss is singing in Phoenix (2014), in the last scene, she’s becoming human. When you can sing, you get your voice back and you get a soul in that moment. And the moment in Transit is similar. He remembers a tune, which he had forgotten, and it’s coming into his body. They are old words he had forgotten and they come back to him. In Something to Remind Me , the first film I made with Nina, she plays a character who wants nothing but revenge on her sister’s killer. She has no individual autonomous life. And she meets a man from whom she only wants information. And he plays a song for her, “What the World Needs Now”—and she understands nothing but revenge, she knows nothing about music, nothing about life. But later she starts singing this song while working in a kitchen. The tune comes on, and she starts singing and is totally impressed by the sound of her own voice. So at this moment she starts to have the possibility of being someone capable of loving, of kissing, of feeling, after not having been part of our society for the last 25 years. This is the tragic and truthful situation.
Rail: It’s almost like muscle memory, like being able to swim or ride a bike.
Petzold: I talk about that with the actors. Muscle memory always has to do with cinema. Because it’s just there for a moment. We have all these actors from theater. Theater is controlling, whereas cinema is about finding muscle memory between the controlling.
Rail. How is theater controlling? In the schooling?
Petzold: No, because they have to repeat it. It’s part of the choreography.
Rail: Cars, trains, and vehicles occupy a really particular point in your films. People are caught in them, but it’s almost as if the cars don’t run the way they should? Does this have to do with the idea of exile?
Petzold: Yeah, it’s something to do with trains. First, there was the stagecoach in the 19th century. There were a few people on one side, a few on the other. So you have a little society. People can talk with each other. Same thing with trains. In North by Northwest , for example, people can talk with each other as they are sitting in the restaurant car, and there are reverse angles. But in cars you are sitting beside each other. There’s not a society anymore. You are isolated. You are not looking at each other. There’s a windshield in front of you. You’re in a chamber, a pressurized chamber. So everything that is happening in a car is different from all other social situations in other modes of transportation. Falling in love in a car, things are out of order—everyone’s by themselves. Thus what we get to see is always something like a man’s hand going to a woman’s thigh. Dialogues in cars (I need to have a look into film history) are never very tender—therefore they need accidents, to leave these situations.
Rail: Just thinking about cars… American car culture is such a specific thing. A car is a whole ecology.
Petzold: But I think that since Two-Lane Blacktop something happened with cars in American movies. Before that, the car was nothing; they put cars in studios. You had this theatrical situation. They put the camera in front of the windshield. But with Two-Lane Blacktop the camera is inside the car; it’s never through the windshield. This is the first time I have the physical feeling of what driving is. And the people in it are part of the machine, of the engine of it. They lose their names.
Rail: I noticed in Transit there are very consciously no cellphones, no laptops. But there is surveillance footage. And the police guns are very contemporary.
Petzold: As are their uniforms and everything.
Rail: Yes, that’s all very contemporary and thinking about this brought me back to that very haunting surveillance footage in Ghosts,when the stranger takes the shopping cart with the child in it. I would be interested to hear you talk about the surveillance footage, the decision to make the police and the machines, the technology of surveillance (which is obviously something very important to the movies and to you and HarunFarocki) and control, very contemporary and yet other things not.
Petzold: We talked a lot about this. There was a movie at the beginning of the ’80s, a documentary that we loved very much, called The Giant  by Michael Klier, which is made of thousands of meters of surveillance material that he bought very cheap. You see a girl and the dog in a mall. You see a man smoking cigarette in his garden. You see a train station and a plane landing. He used music by Gustav Mahler. And you have the feeling as if this is the end of cinema. These are fictional situations but then they’re gone. The title has to do with the position of the camera, the giant looking in on. He’s a little bit dumb, like surveillance cameras—they don’t have the knowledge of fiction, of stories, of fantasy. The camera movements are like a giant whose muscle and bones are too big. This situation is something Harun and I liked very much. In making the films, you have a story and there is desire, but for a moment we try to see from the position of the giant who can’t understand everything. This is also the position of the state.
Rail: Yet that’s the space we are all exiled to in some way. Can you use that as a bubble or is that a space meant to be ruptured?
Petzold: In Ghosts, the French mother has this moment at the police station. She has a picture of the last seconds of her child’s life, but it’s the experience of the surveillance camera—an engine and a mother coming together for a moment. I like this very much.
Rail: That’s not dissimilar from repairing the radio in Transit.
Petzold: It’s similar. The ear and the eye. And there’s the skill of the adult person and the young boy who lost his father. When my daughter was 12 years old, her favorite movie was Juno . There’s one scene where she’s coming home and her father is sitting in the kitchen repairing the washing machine. And he’s doing it like someone whose hands are skillful and tender, and they don’t have to talk. And there’s a zone of comfort for this moment because someone can do something. And I’ve thought about this scene when we shot the scene in Transit with the boy. Suddenly they both produce a melody or tune out of the radio, and it brings him back to being a young boy. This is a transition. Transistor and transition.
Rail: And often we don’t acquire those sorts of skills because we wouldn’t even bother to repair the machine, we would just throw it away.
Petzold: But it’s like the muscle memory—when children come into a room with adults they know right away whom they can trust. For example, Nina Hoss’s father is a very famous leader of German unions, and my son, when he was at breakfast at our house, went right to him. He knew. This is a man who can repair a washing machine, I can trust him. This is what I talk to my actors about.