An interview with the German film director Christian Petzold

by Johanna Schwenk

German film director Christian Petzold joins a talk with French film director Olivier Assayas in Mainz to discuss politics and aesthetics in film, (“Film d'auteur under the banner of crisis and utopia”). In an interview with Johanna Schwenk, Petzold speaks about his dramaturg Harun Farocki, the 'infected space' and explains how to film a dream.

Also I don't want to show them up. It's not about them being culprits; the pigs having a nice vacation. I imagine them having had that kind of [nice] vacation. But as a spectator I know that something happened in the meanwhile: A suicide attempt. A child died. All this has happened. And because they don't know anything about it, I don't show them up.

JS: It's about discretion.

CP: It's about discretion, about respect. And it's about the fact, that common dramaturgy usually knows everything about the characters and the fate of the protagonists. That I don't like. One has to be humble.

JS: In your films nothing seems to happen haphazardly. Even though you refuse a too detailed or definite interpretation of your and other works. How does that go together?

CP: No, I think the structure may be definite, without any coincidence. Almost like a machine. But it's not about making a film like a machine. The film itself needs to be like some people who constantly need to satisfy their own control addiction. The vacation: I'll get up at nine o'clock, at nine thirty I'll go down to the jetty, then I'll jump into the water and then I'll go for a nice walk and after that I'll have a nice French breakfast... Everybody builds up something like that about their life. And everybody who makes a movie and therefore moves a lot of money, needs to be controlled. I actually like it when you see the loss of control, and how people deal with the loss of control, with failed dreams and failed plans. In order to narrate all this failure, I need to build a working system first.

JS: And the form? Your films seem tightly organized.

CP: It's not that rigid. In the beginning there's only a very basic idea of the film. There must be some idea of course so I can talk to the departments like costume or camera, talk about the colors and so on... But the film basically emerges during the rehearsals and then we start to shoot. And if this seems so exact it's because the rehearsals were exact.

JS: So is this impression of organization based on your minimalist approach?

CP: Yes, because there is so much you just don't need. If you have no general idea in the beginning, you start shooting from sixty different angles because you think you can deal with it in the editing room. What I want is the one moment, that certain look. I want to see in the film what I saw through my eyes at that specific moment. Therefore I need more time to think about each scene but fewer takes.

JS: Mr. Petzold, in an interview you said once: 'Farocki is my dramaturg – a dramaturg who doesn't care about dramaturgy...' I think your films are extremely suspenseful though. How would you explain that?

CP: That interview must have been very old! After my last two films I must say; Harun cares immensely about dramaturgy! I am the one who tends to move away from the plot and towards a more generally descriptive approach, like a short story where there's only one metaphor. Harun is the one who always reels me in and says: Hey, if this motif appears here, it needs to reappear in this scene as well. So Harun is much more of a dramaturg...

JS: ...than you thought back then.

CP: Than I thought back... maybe I just wanted to win a laugh, that's possible... Harun is an excellent dramaturg!

JS: Your films tend to ask questions rather than give answers. When does a film benefit from a secret and when does it start to fall apart?

CP: Well, let's talk about WOLFSBURG for example. There is a script that says that the character of Benno Führmann and his wife spend their honeymoon in Cuba. So my colleagues think I should go and film in Cuba. At least one day and one night. And I ask myself: Why? Why should I follow them to Cuba? Sure. I could go make beautiful pictures, how they dance together, sunset in Havana. And also show how doubts start to enter their relationship. Is there already irritation? All this I could show. But that doesn't fit in there at all. If I instead just let them drive to the airport, and in the meanwhile tell the story of the other woman, they come back and one can see it [the trip] in their gestures and one can imagine how they might have spent their time in Cuba.

JS: In JERICHOW Laura says: 'You can't love, if you don't have money!' Doesn't that contradict your view that characters shouldn't explain themselves?

CP: This sentence turned out to be inaudible because Laura said it while she was crying in Benno's arms. I had to dub it in the editing process. Usually the characters in my films don't say anything like that. But she says it to build up the pathos for her planned murder.

JS: She doesn't say it to the spectator but to herself then?

CP: Exactly. She creates a suffering, a pathos for herself. And she basically means: 'You can't love, if you don't have money. But if you, Benno, get money, then we can love each other and be happy.' Then she sleeps with him and when she wakes up she says: 'when Ali touches me... I can't stand it. You should have dropped him.' She prepares her murder. That's why this sentence seems to be a sentence for the spectator or the journalists... but it's not!

JS: You say Yella's red blouse in the film YELLA is merely a colour accent, not a symbolic motif.

CP: No, it's not a symbol.

JS: But the repetitive water motif or the cawing crow, that makes one think of some deeper meaning.

CP: Of course. Every dream has an order. Otherwise there wouldn't be oneiromancy. And so every story has order. If you read the Brothers Grimm, why are there always three children? Why is one of them always left in the forest? Those are different stories but with very similar structures. I always make sure that my stories have a grammar.

JS: So we don't talk about symbolic depths but about something that emerges from itself, like an attribution, a repeated motif...

CP: Like in a song.

JS: As a rhythm.

CP: As a rhythm. Exactly. I also think it's interesting not to psychologically assess the characters but to compare them to states of aggregation. You say, 'This woman is water and he's fire'. That's an idea actors can work with very well. Much better than: 'You've been raped by your gynaecologist for thirteen years.' That's bullshit. 'You are liquid, you wanna float, you wanna disappear.' I think those kind of ideas inspire actors much more.

JS: You focus on the surface of the world of things [Dingwelt].

CP: Yes, I do. And I always try to make the space visible... Not by a long shot. My characters often stand in front of blurred, adumbrated backgrounds. Because of this the rooms seem deep. Not like theatrical characters standing in front of the mise-en-scène. My characters act in acoustic and visual spaces and depths that we can't read and fathom entirely but instead must develop further in our imagination. I want a human being in the room and not an actor.

JS: Your characters are visible but not graspable.

CP: Yes, or they have their own space. It is like opening into someone's room; the room belongs to somebody, to the person who is in that room. I will enter the room with a certain caution. I want the camera to be like that too. The characters have their own space. And if they experience feelings, like fear, love, coldness, they 'infect' the space around them. I need to film that infected space too. Or at least make it fathomable. I need to take a certain stance instead of throwing in music that says: 'hey, she's really frigid', or 'he's an asshole' or something like that.

JS: I would like to talk about two films from the so called 'New Berlin School': I realized that the characters in EVERYONE ELSE (ALLE ANDEREN) by Maren Ade verbally address their problems, they discuss very excessively. Very different from your films...

CP: I don't think so.

JS: ...and in WINDOWS ON MONDAY (MONTAG KOMMEN DIE FENSTER) by Ulrich Köhler the characters are very taciturn. Both films have in common, that they follow a concept of realism, which is based on a physical and emotional disclosure of the characters. There isn't only nudity but also a lot of soul striptease. However your characters remain very discreet and sober. I think that is very different indeed.

CP: It certainly is. Despite that, there is a connection. I think that Maren made a film that shows the emergence of a crack in a relationship, whereas Ulrich made a film were the crack has already happened; he narrates the aftershocks like I usually do.

JERICHOW is different, there are back stories. It actually tells a story about a monetary cycle. But I don't know... I really think all these films have real stances, they are real films. I don't understand why all these people go on [negatively] about the Berlin School... They have reverse shots, they have highly intelligent lines, like in Maren's films. Also I see my generation in both but particularly in Maren's films. Her characters live in their parents' house in Sardinia and have no idea what to do with their lives.

JS: A different approach to the same topics?

CP: I actually think we have a similar approach to the spatial mise-en-scène. Maren films the house in such a way that the spectator gets lost: Where is the kitchen? Where is the bedroom? You can see the house all the time. Her characters are even architects themselves. They talk about houses, they have pending renovations. But somehow this house remains virtual – like with children, who have the idea but wouldn't be able to draw the outline. This 'childish' perspective on the house is similar to how I imagine rooms in my films. The people's feelings; love, hatred or vengeance, change the space around them. And the way they change and get infected is how I need to film them. That's why I think our approaches are kind of similar. One could say that – also Ulrich's film, who shows the forlornness in the hotel – the three of us believe that a drama is in the room as well.

JS: In YELLA a ghostly interweaving of different levels of reality occurs. However you don't seem to make a strong distinction. You visually treat supernatural events and the mundane very equitably.

CP: There's nothing worse than dream scenes with fog or blurriness. That is all bullshit. I think that someone's impressions and the virtual, the imaginary and the real, blend irrevocably. That is what it's all about. She lives in her own imagination. Therefore that's the only way you can film it. Whoever would do this differently is a classic case for special education.

JS: So in fact there are no different levels of reality in YELLA at all.

CP: Exactly.

JS: How come you decided to actually film Heinrich's descriptions of Villa Stahl in THE STATE I AM IN as an imaginary tour through the mansion?

CP: Nobody understood me back then. The film critic of the newspaper FAZ, Seidl, or whatever his name was, said I should take a dramaturgy course! I don't get that. 'Is the mansion in Portugal or what?' That I don't get in turn. I always think when you kiss each other early in the morning, tired out, you fall into your partner's arms and then... it's like walking through a field of flowers! Those pictures are real. Heinrich tells her with his voice, almost in a dream: There's a mansion... And then he takes her hand and they go into the mansion. Whoever doesn't get that... oh well.

JS: Probably because it happens without any transition.

CP: Yes. The good thing is. This mansion actually exists! He shows it to her later and she thinks: Oh my god, is that really true? Floor heating! I think this is great!

JS: Thank you very much for the conversation!

Note: Publishing of the interviews and the screen shots with kind permission of Christian Petzold.