Although he’s generally considered among the most critically acclaimed of contemporary German directors, Christian Petzold and his films remain relatively unknown to North American audiences. Perhaps that’s because of the exceedingly specific cultural formations within which Petzold’s films take place, namely the neoliberal spaces of contemporary Germany, where places and setting play just as significant a role as the characters, themselves. At least, these are the foundations of analysis laid out by Jaimey Fisher’s excellent new book examining Petzold’s entire filmography; Fisher seeks to contextualize Petzold’s films within prior scholarship, which has generally discussed their “movement spaces” (space remade by systems of mobility in modern society), but perhaps more importantly, he examines the ways in which neoliberal developments have “changed how individuals experience work, relationships, and themselves.” These combined help articulate what Fisher deems Petzold’s “ghostly archeology,” and terms his films “art-house genre cinema.”
The latter point is likely Fisher’s most provocative and reflexive, given that the neoliberal dimensions of Petzold’s cinema are seemingly their most explicit elements. In films like Yella, these financial motivators are made literal within the narrative, but in Jerichow, they’re more firmly filtered through a genre prism—in its case, film noir and, more specifically, The Postman Always Rings Twice. In fact, Fisher goes so far as to name a genre film in relation to nearly Petzold film, as a barometer for the levels of genre engagement. Sometimes they’re more obvious, as with Jerichow or even Yella, which takes Carnival of Souls as its basis. In other cases, however, the relationships are more opaque and unusual, as with the comparison of The Last Picture Show and Near Dark to The State I Am In, not because of directly identical narrative parallels, but more due to sensibility and style; thus, with Petzold, as with Peter Bogdanovich and Kathryn Bigelow, Fisher talks about each director’s refusal of nostalgia and recognition of creating art at the end of either a cycle or time period—“a fading western lifestyle.”
The combination of art cinema and genre is something that certainly aligns Petzold with the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jean-Luc Godard, which Fisher brushes on, but at no point is Fisher content to firmly position Petzold within a specific tradition, primarily because Petzold appears to have a hand in several. A primary source in this light is the concluding 20-page interview, which gives fascinating insight not only into Petzold’s influences for particular films, but his outlook on various cinematic movements. Admitting to have watched nearly 1,000 films in his first year at film school, Petzold explains how even his actors are often unfamiliar with the films he draws upon: “With the last film Dreileben, I showed all the actors The Last Picture Show. They really are not familiar with films anymore—one can buy films everywhere, but no one really watches them.” Later, he heaps praise upon Robert Altman and Roman Polanksi for “respecting genre,” but lambasts what “many European directors do—they make parodies of these genre films. I hate that like the plague. That’s really the cheapest shot. The parodist says, ’I actually know more than this, I am just parodying.’ That really disgusts me. One sees with Chinatown or The Long Goodbye that they really love these films, that they have great respect for them.” Finally, Petzold recounts having seen a screening of Pretty Woman with a theater full of women ogling Richard Gere and feeling like he finally understood American genre cinema for its physis, that Gere “is a neoliberal ass, he destroys companies or whatever, but he represents a new kind of body.” Fisher’s smart questions elicit both useful and humorous responses from Petzold throughout.
While Fisher’s interest in space and capital in Petzold’s films is a fantastic beginning to English-language examinations of this essential German auteur, the book’s brevity leaves ample room for further discussion within these contexts, but also outside. For example, Gozde Naiboglu gave a compelling talk at the 2013 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago entitled “Post-Cinematic Germany: Temporality and Affect in Christian Petzold’s Jerichow (2009),” which acknowledged that prior discussions of transition in Petzold’s films are often only acknowledged in spatial terms and that examining them, instead, for their temporal effects will enable a further understanding of “cinematic expression of time, affect and philosophies of process” within his work and elsewhere. While several of Petzold’s films remain unavailable on DVD in the U.S., more than a handful are, so the arrival of Fisher’s approachable book should be enough to inspire retrospectives in cine-clubs and archives alike.
Jaimey Fisher’s Christian Petzold is available now from University of Illinois Press; to purchase it, click here.