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Christian Petzold (#110 of 7)

Toronto International Film Festival 2014 Phoenix, Tokyo Tribe, & Hill of Freedom

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Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Phoenix, Tokyo Tribe, & Hill of Freedom
Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Phoenix, Tokyo Tribe, & Hill of Freedom

Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss collaborate on yet another fine quasi-thriller with Phoenix, about a concentration camp survivor, Nelly (Hoss), who undergoes facial reconstruction surgery for a wound and emerges unrecognized by Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband who gave her up to the Gestapo. Well, not entirely unrecognized: He thinks she looks just enough like his presumably dead wife that she could pose as Nelly in order to receive her hefty inheritance. The performative scenes that result from Johnny’s coaching elicit yet another spellbinding performance from Hoss, who always makes Nelly look as if she wants desperately for Johnny to see that it’s her while also dreading what will happen if he figures the truth out. Further, the film uses this setup to make a keen, occasionally funny comment on the male gaze, as Johnny knows every small detail of his wife’s body and movements, yet cannot put together the whole image of Nelly now that it no longer exactly matches up to his idealized memories.

Review: Jaimey Fisher’s Christian Petzold

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Review: Jaimey Fisher’s Christian Petzold
Review: Jaimey Fisher’s Christian Petzold

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.”

New York Film Festival 2012: Barbara

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New York Film Festival 2012: <em>Barbara</em>
New York Film Festival 2012: <em>Barbara</em>

For those who’ve seen German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s previous films (most recently, Jerichow and the first film in the Dreileben trilogy, Beats Being Dead), the style he employs in his latest film, Barbara, will be familiar: cool, precise, omniscient in its gaze. And yet it’s quite possible that he has never quite put that style to such appropriate and cumulatively devastating use.

The director’s close-to-the-vest approach fits in the context of a narrative that takes place in 1980 East Germany, a time marked by paranoia thanks to the prominence of the Stasi, East Germany’s notoriously corrupt secret police. In an environment marked by fear and distrust, it’s no wonder that Barbara (Nina Hoss) maintains a reserved, distrustful profile among her co-workers at the small pediatric hospital in which she works (previously a more well-known doctor in Berlin, she’s been banished to this small-town hospital as punishment for applying for an exit visa from the GDR). It doesn’t help that, outside her day job, she’s spied on and periodically hassled by one Stasi officer, Schütz (Rainer Bock).

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2012: The Joke, The Silence of the Sea, Beyond the Hill, Room 514, Barbara, Holy Motors, & More

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Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2012: <em>The Joke</em>, <em>The Silence of the Sea</em>, <em>Beyond the Hill</em>, <em>Room 514</em>, <em>Barbara</em>, <em>Holy Motors</em>, & More
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2012: <em>The Joke</em>, <em>The Silence of the Sea</em>, <em>Beyond the Hill</em>, <em>Room 514</em>, <em>Barbara</em>, <em>Holy Motors</em>, & More

The global economic maelstrom found a way to creep its way into the 47th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival—but only for a moment. The first few days saw slower ticket sales than usual: In past years, all of the (non-industry/press) tickets for next-day screenings would be gone by 10 in the morning, while this year it was still possible to find tickets for less hotly anticipated titles the day of. And on the third day of the festival I saw Claude Miller’s The Best Way to Walk in a theater with at least 20 empty seats—which is almost unheard of for this festival. However, since July 5 and 6 are national holidays in the Czech Republic, there was a swell in attendance and the festival became its usual teeming not-a-seat-left-empty place. And so, as always, the city hosted nine days of cine-paradise.

New York Film Festival 2011: Dreileben

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New York Film Festival 2011: <em>Dreileben</em>
New York Film Festival 2011: <em>Dreileben</em>

Most people who come upon Dreileben at the New York Film Festival may immediately think of the Red Riding Trilogy, which screened at the festival two years ago to generally wide acclaim. The Red Riding Trilogy was a series of three made-for-television films that explored corruption in various corners of British society during a yearlong investigation into the murder of a bunch of Yorkshire girls. Though there were consistent plot and thematic threads in all of them, each installment was handled by a different director, with each one bringing a different approach to their respective episodes (each director even chose to shoot their own installment in different formats). Dreileben is a likewise dense and detailed epic, also made for television, that features three different German directors bringing their own styles and themes to more or less the same set of incidents. The end results, as was the case with the Red Riding Trilogy, are, perhaps inevitably, wildly mixed.

Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Dreileben

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Dreileben</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Dreileben</em>

There’s been no worse trend in 21st-century cinema than the emergence of the water-cooler puzzle movie. Defined by the films of Christopher Nolan (ambiguous highbrow entertainments) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (sentimental works of art-house prestige), they exist to carry no meaning of their own, preferring to offer a string of possibilities up to the viewer as a flattery to her ability to figure out a meaningless problem or make meaningless connections. It would be a mistake to call these talking-point machines generous; as much as the franchise film, these are the apotheosis of film as product, as a child’s desire for a new toy has been replaced by an adult’s to confirm his own intelligence.

Happily, I can report that Dreileben, a triptych film made of parts by Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhausler, takes this fragmented approach and makes something genuinely worth being called Faulknerian with it. The result of a conversation among the three on the state of German cinema, the film sets off from a central event—the escape of a convicted murderer, Molesch (an alternately blank and delirious Stefan Kurt), while visiting the body of his dead foster mother at a nursing home—and tells three tenuously connected stories that in concert present a brutal vision of a world on a wire. Because each happens to run a feature-length 90 minutes, the three sections of Dreileben are being shown individually elsewhere, a regrettable decision given how thoroughly dependent on the direct mingling of divergent aesthetics and contradictory narrative facts the cumulative wallop of the film is.