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Survivor’s Song: Christian Petzold on Phoenix

Nina Kunzendorf and Nina Hoss in Phoenix (Photo courtesy of Schramm Film)

The more you consider the nuances of German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s latest feature, Phoenix, the more difficult it is to articulate exactly what this mysterious and allusive drama is really about. It’s the director’s seventh feature for cinema (discounting the five he has made for television), and the fifth he has made in collaboration with actress and avowed muse Nina Hoss. While not quite stripped down to Bressonian levels of formal curtness, Petzold’s style is without fuss. As he explains below, his mode of storytelling is generally more reflective and assiduously built through alternating perspectives than it is literal or eager for spectacle. Take the climax of 2008’s Jerichow, which sees a man commit suicide by driving his car off a beachside cliff. He does this in front of two other characters, and even though it’s clear that a real car has driven off a real cliff and duly exploded, Petzold keeps his camera on the two onlookers whose private romantic meetings sparked this deathly chain of events.

Phoenix subtly channels the noxious perversions of Hitchcock’s Vertigo in a yarn about a female club singer and Auschwitz survivor, Nelly (Hoss), who, as the film opens, is making a clandestine return to a German country manor just after World War II. Only, her face has been pulverized — the upshot of her incarceration in Auschwitz. As she has been led to believe, she was shopped to the Nazis by boyfriend and piano accompanist Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is now loping around in a dive bar as a glass collector. With the help of corrective plastic surgery, the question of whether Nelly is planning long-game retribution or a grand romantic gesture — which would involve her essentially forgiving a man who sent her to a death camp — hangs furtively in the backdrop of the movie. Johnny, meanwhile, believes Nelly to be a miraculous look-a-like of a woman he knows for certain to be dead and decides to manipulate her so he might be able to get his hands on her considerable family fortune. Petzold, in transparent, linear fashion, observes this peculiar relationship.

Hoss and Zehrfeld also played tragic lovers in 2012’s Barbara, although that time it wasn’t human desires keeping them apart but the system of oppression they were existing under: the German Democratic Republic in 1980. Though Hoss played a secondary, though important, role in 2003’s Wolfsburg (the mother of a child run over and killed by a car salesman who flees the scene of the crime and duly crumbles under the pressure of guilt), it wasn’t until 2007’s Yella that her intense screen presence was truly felt. In that film, Petzold allows himself a certain formal playfulness to tell of a woman escaping from her abusive husband by seeking a position in a corporate firm in the sleepy Northern berg of Wittenberge.

I interviewed you in 2007 when Yella was released in the U.K., and I recall you saying the events of that movie occur in “a post-industrial urban wasteland,” specifically the town of Wittenberge. What’s the link between Wittenberge and the location of Phoenix, which in its own way is also an urban wasteland? My favorite novel when I was nine years old was Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I have read this book, I think, 25 times. Whenever I was ill and couldn’t go to school, I would always take out this book. I’ve always been interested in things that have been drained out, whether that’s a marriage, society at large, or just a simple idea. What happens to things after the breakdown? The ghosts of an idea. The stones of a fallen house. You can rebuild things out of this detritus. But how? How can you rebuild an idea, a feeling, a family or a society? So when I was nine and reading Defoe, I thought that he was rebuilding capitalism. Crusoe is an agent of capitalism. He’s there on this island, and he rebuilds the entire history of man. At first he’s a hunter, then he’s a farmer, then he has slaves, and by the time he comes back to England, he’s a pure capitalistic guy. This is the myth of capitalism. We have roots. Deep roots. And when you have a breakdown of any type, people rebuild, but they don’t say, “Ah, now we’re on the top of the world, we have roots, we have ideology, we’re the future.” But they don’t have roots. They just want to survive. That’s what I’m interested in. To survive in Wittenberge, to survive post-Communism, to survive post-Holocaust — you can make that comparison.

Do you refer to capitalism in the pejorative? Of course. In Germany, there’s something very interesting. There was a fascistic philosopher, Carl Schmitt, and he compared two systems: the Anglo-American system, which he referred to as “the sea”; and then there was the other system, which was “the earth,” which was more continental European. He said the Anglo-American system is the new capitalism as they have money flowing all over the world. The Germans, they have the earth. And I thought about that for a long time. In our legends and our myths, everyone is in a cave. Hitler was in a cave. Frederick Barbarossa, the German king. Redbeard and his thousand soldiers. We always have caves. Capitalism is not in the earth, it’s in the sea, it’s around us. To live with an ideology linked to earth and caves, but to dream about seas and going west, this balance is where I think my movies exist.

The novel upon which Phoenix is loosely based, Hubert Monteilhet’s Le Retour des Cendres (1961), was set in France and takes place during a different time period. Why did you choose to transpose it to the German post-war period? I have read so many books about people who come back from war. And there are a lot of movies about this subject. In Germany during 1945, more than half the population is returning from war. The other half has fallen to the war. To come back, to return — for me, this is the central subject of cinema. Either charting someone’s desire to come back, or to chronicle how someone comes back. The Lusty Men, for example, with Robert Mitchum. To come back and to see the place where I grew up — I have lost my country, I have lost my home. So in Germany 1945, everyone is coming back. This is the most interesting and complicated moment in our history. So, why does the German cinema never make any movies about this subject? There are two or three, not more.

Why is that? Because there is a fear to show what happened. I said to the actors in this film that I didn’t want to make a movie about what happened, but I wanted to make a movie about that fear. I have no experience of this time. But I wanted the movie about hiding collective trauma. The basement in which Johnny has his “laboratory” where he builds his wife is also a cave. It’s a typical German place.

Is the act of people choosing to make a return something you respect? Harun Farocki and I started writing two scripts. One is Phoenix, and the other is called Transit, which I hope to start making next year. It’s about refugees trapped in a harbor in Marseilles in 1940, based on a novel by Anna Seghers. For me, all people who are thrown into an exile, and that includes all the refugees from Africa nowadays, they don’t have any identity any more. They have no biography. And so, I like people who say they want to have an identity. People who are not indifferent toward their existence. Nelly in Phoenix says that she wants her old life back. This is not possible. Everybody who’s been in exile should know – there is no such thing as home any more. Nelly wants the old feelings back, the old times back, and it’s impossible. But, these impossible things I’m interested in.

Why is it not possible? That’s my belief. An ordinary example: Twenty years after you quit school — I don’t know what it’s called in England, but in Germany it’s “Abitur” —you have a reunion with old students. The old feelings do come back. You remember how you felt toward this girl or that boy. You want to re-enact something you’ve missed during these 20 years. The girl you loved but she never looked at you. Now, I’m a little bit famous, it’s not possible anymore. But you dream about it. It’s neurotic. But, for Nelly, it’s not an ordinary neurotic feeling, she wants to have it back because she says, “Everything the fascists have done, the selections they have made, dividing Jews and non-Jews, I don’t respect that, I don’t believe that.” In a western, she’d be John Wayne. I like also this moment in the movie where, after 40, 45 minutes, you can see she’s starting to get strong. She’s not the victim with the red dress and tears in her eyes. All the things that occur in this basement – it’s like choreography. They’re dancing. After 45 minutes, she takes the lead in this dance.

On a slightly different note, I liked the fact that to enter the basement, the characters had to walk down a small flight of stairs first. It always added a small but very pertinent dramatic dimension to their “dance.” The first thing is, I like stairs. When an actor is on stage and has to open a door, they’re usually there, straight away in front of the audience. But when you have stairs, a physical action is required. Stairs force an actor not to be an actor. It forces them to be physical. I hate stage acting. I hate that. Even in movies. I like when actors have something to do before they talk. We built that room in a studio entirely from wood. The other important thing is that the basement has two rooms, divided up with a curtain that’s like a stage curtain. She opens the curtain, and she has a new dress or a new face – I do like this. The set also had a real toilet.

What are the advantages of having a real toilet? The actors, they like it. The toilet had water and everything. I wanted it to be realistic, but then I actual thought this is bad realism. I don’t want to see a toilet in a movie. I don’t want to see Robinson Crusoe’s toilet.

The scenes that take place in this basement see Johnny engaging in this impossible struggle to, as you say, build a person. Is Phoenix about filmmaking? Are you Johnny? I didn’t think that at the beginning of the work on Phoenix. But Nina Hoss and I are good friends. We’ve worked for 12 years together. And on this movie, for the first time, there was something happening which neither of us could quite describe. And I think this relates to your question. I am a director and there is this blonde girl. This exploitation and the idea of male subjectivity — everything was in this movie. It became such a complicated movie about fascism, the Holocaust, women… The cameraman, the director and the female actor. It was so complicated, that in the evenings after the shoot, we are not innocent. I want to be innocent and a little bit stupid during shooting. I want to be dumb. A film is a reflection of two years writing scripts and talking to people and getting money. We always reflect, reflect, reflect. So, when we shoot, there must be some levity. And this was not possible in Phoenix because we all had to reflect about so many things. I was so relieved in the moment when I said to Nina that Nelly is a person who makes her own freedom. She’s leading the choreography. She’s getting out of this cave. She’s moving away from the gaze of this “director.” She’s leaving us and we can’t follow her any more. This was a relief for me.

There would be a certain dark poetry if, after this film, you were never to work with Nina Hoss again. I understand what you’re saying. We have, in fact, made the decision to take a break from one another. I already have an idea for a new project for her, but we need some time apart.

Could you have cast Hoss in the role of Nelly had you never worked with her before? This wouldn’t have been possible. We talked about this Nelly character when we were working on Barbara. I wrote the script together with Harun Farocki, and we wrote it for Nina. We actually physically had a picture of her in front of us. She was also part of the development. I’d call her, and we’d go for a walk and talk about the subject of the movie. She’s a very reflective and clever actor, and she knows that this is also a movie about acting and costumes and being on a stage in front of a man who thinks he’s in control. What was very interesting was that, three months before shooting, she threw herself out of the development. She did physical things, like going on a diet, but she didn’t want to talk anymore. And I love that about her. She enters a bubble. She doesn’t want to be partaking in the “university” of rehearsals. I think she had lots of doubts about this movie. After 20 days of shooting, I said to her that I didn’t think it was just the story of Nelly, but the story of someone who was born in Auschwitz — a perverted thing, I know — who grew up in post-war Berlin, and now she’s leaving the house of her “mother” in the night to have her first love affair. It’s a rite of passage story in that sense. At least, when she is an adult, there is no love anymore. Or there’s the coldness and loneliness that comes of being an adult. But only then can she leave this system and this Germany. She has made it like this for herself.

Considering the instant pre-history of the film, where Nelly has been in Auschwitz and suffered unspeakable brutality, how much did you feel you needed to be clear about exactly what happened to her? In Germany, we have our literature. It’s there. But let me tell you this: The first day of shooting I always end up cutting out of the film. And because of that, I always try to shoot things I know I don’t like or I know won’t work. It’s like a serum. You have to infect yourself with a little bit of the poison so the body can fight against it. For this movie, the first day of shooting took place in a fantastic forest. Everyone was wearing beautiful costumes. We had German Jeeps from the era and original guns. It was a death march from Auschwitz into this forest where a lot of people were killed. We shot the killing of people. It looked amazing. The light was perfect. There was blood. All the members of the crew were excited. After five minutes, I knew that this was all garbage. It’s morality garbage. So, back to your question, when we want to show brutal things to impress an audience, or to impress ourselves, we simply don’t then believe what happened to the real people. You can only believe something by not seeing it. We shouldn’t show it because we can’t show it. It’s not possible. The really stupid directors think it’s enough to show some kids wearing striped pajamas behind a wire fence —shooting, it was very good for the crew as it was like a rehearsal. Then I said, “Cut that out and throw it away.” We made a mistake, and we can laugh about that mistake. But now, we have a shape. The violence has to be in the acting. It has to be in the eyes. Not in something obscene like these scenes we filmed in the forest.

I’m sure you know what you’re doing, but this seems like the sort of tactic that might antagonize a crew. It’s okay, because I actually think that at the time I said it, they didn’t believe me. The costumes are all so fantastic and the producers know the sequence will cost €100,000. I remember when we were shooting the scene that there were these toilet cabins in the woods, and I think I just stayed there for more than 30 minutes. I said to the cameraman that I think this will all be cut out, and he was very depressed. For him, the light and the camera movement were all so great. We were shooting on 35mm with CinemaScope lenses. The last time in the life of this cameraman to work with this material. He was really, really depressed. He said that I should look at the footage and give it a chance when I got to the editing table. The editor, Bettina Böhler, edited it, and it looks fantastic. We had this Chopin music and these dead bodies. This scene was based on a photo I found at the Shoah Foundation taken by a Russian soldier. It’s a color photo, and you have this romantic setting, and then only when you look closer do you see dead bodies. This was an arty, obscene thing. I was so glad that I cut that out, and I’m so glad the producer knew there’s no chance to rescue €100,000.

What was the equivalent scene when you were shooting Barbara? And was it as expensive? Yes, this is also interesting. In Barbara, the first thing I wanted to shoot was her on a bus heading to her first day in the hospital. The first half of the first day of shooting, we were looking at the world through her eyes. She’s on the bus, you see her in close-up, then you see what she’s seeing in the GDR through the windows. This is wrong. We can’t see the world through her eyes because we don’t know her. Barbara is a movie about observation, surveillance, and so first shots must reflect that. The camera must observe her. So we shot all this bus footage again but placed the camera in a completely different position, as if someone is looking at her. And I told Nina Hoss that we have to see that she knows someone is looking at her, but also that she doesn’t care. Like a lady sat at a bar. This was her fight against observation. So, there we cut out a half-day of shooting, which wasn’t so expensive.

Do you see your films as existing as a single body? Is each film born out of the previous one? There’s a connection with the subjects for sure, but the main connection is Nina Hoss. She’s not really from this world. She’s always looking at things in this way. If she was a man, she would be Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men. There are no kids, no husbands, no social groups around her. She’s always a loner. But she has this desire to find something, but often doesn’t have a target. So, when I edit a movie, that’s when I think of the next target for her.

It’s strange to see her in a movie that you haven’t made. It’s like she’s cheating on you. I think she has the desire to be a comedian. And she could be a very good one. But I can’t see her in other movies. It’s a problem. It’s not jealousy, it’s that I don’t recognize her. I must ask my fictional psychoanalyst what that all means.

From reading past interviews, you don’t come across merely as an avid cinephile, but also someone who voraciously consumes literature. How did your reading habits develop? I grew up in a very little village. The last cinema closed there when I was 9 years old. The only place that could be a substitute for cinema is the library. I was in this library every day. It was like the cinema. I didn’t want to go home. I sit there for three hours and read. They had things there like Hitchcock by Truffaut, which I read. They had archives of film magazines. I would read Sight & Sound when I was 15, 16, and it helped me to develop my English. In this library, I had a head cinema. And we had television, which I would watch in the night. They would screen movies. I think about movies like I’m in a library. I remember there was a big bay window and through it was this park and in front of it was this desk. I’m reading, and I would occasionally look up through the window. I felt like a pilot. A friend of mine once said that some directors are musicians, some are painters, some of them are writers. And he said, “Sorry, Christian, but you are a writer.” And I was so jealous because I wanted to be a musician or a painter. Anything but a writer.

Have you ever tried your hand at film criticism? Yes, I was a critic before I made films. It was only to earn some money. I was 23. I was studying literature at the time. On the radio, seven in the morning, there was Christian Petzold with three minutes on the microphone. For me, I loved to go to the cinema and earn some money. But the atmosphere in the press screenings I hated. It was in the morning, you get a bad coffee, the distributors ask you how it was, everyone is angry. I don’t know how it is nowadays. I prefer to be anonymous.

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