Once the Wall Has Tumbled: Christian Petzold’s Jerichow
By Michael Sicinski
In some respects, the premiere of Christian Petzold’s Jerichow at the 2008 Venice film festival recalled the title of one of the director’s largely undistributed TV films: Something to Remind Me (2001). Petzold’s films have premiered in Venice before. His first film to break through internationally, The State I Am In (2000), debuted on the Lido, and went on to become Petzold’s biggest commercial success to date. Co-scripted with Harun Farocki, The State examines radical leftist politics through its intersection with the nuclear family, problematizing both while cheapening neither. However Petzold’s three subsequent theatrical features debuted in Berlin, two in competition. The Berlinale is a crucial launching pad for German art films in the domestic market yet, as many commentators will tell you, it’s also got some serious problems. It’s difficult for strong films to gain attention amid the spectacular bellyflops. Petzold’s recent Berlinale competition entries, Ghosts (2005) and Yella (2007), were very well received, but sustained critical attention tended to wane in the face of flashier, often inferior fare. (2003’s Wolfsburg, which played in Berlin’s Panorama, had a rather truncated life even on the festival circuit, despite strong notices.) So, in addition to the fact that Jerichow is arguably a career-best for Petzold, it’s possible that the distant view offered by the Venice showcase has allowed the man and his cinema to come into clearer international focus.
And then, there’s the problem of the so-called “Berlin School.” Of course, it’s no “school” at all; in many ways it’s a retroactive fabrication of critics struggling to get a grip on exciting recent developments in German cinema. This nouvelle vague Allemande, as Cahiers has more reasonably called it, is a loosely defined group of directors making largely low-budget, experimentally realist art films focusing on late modernist themes of transnationalism, alienation, and spatial dislocation, labour and materialism, and the crisis of consciousness in a diverse, decentered West. (For a complete background and analysis of the Berlin School, see Marco Abel’s comprehensive article in the Fall 2008 issue of Cineaste, available online.) This Berlin School issue has affected the reception of Petzold’s cinema, particularly in North America, in several ways. For one thing, Yella has been one of a tiny few films associated with this pseudo-movement to have received any sort of commercial release here. (The only other was a radar-blip New York run of Valeska Grisebach’s Longing .)
The other difficulty is that special attention is often paid to Petzold’s work vis-à-vis the Berlin School and its ongoing fortunes and vitality, simply because Petzold is one of its putative leaders, along with Thomas Arslan (Dealer, 1999; A Fine Day, 2001; Vacation, 2007) and Angela Schanelec (Passing Summer, 2001; Marseille, 2004; Afternoon, 2007), two filmmakers with criminally low profiles outside of Europe. Without any intention whatsoever, Petzold has become a kind of figurehead for the Berlin School much in the way Andrew Bujalski has been reluctantly appointed the global ambassador for “mumblecore.” What Petzold, Arslan, and Schanelec do have in common is the fact that they studied filmmaking at Berlin’s dffb, an intellectually rigorous film school guided at the time by Farocki and fellow film-essayist Hartmut Bitomsky. Aside from these two Berliner forefathers, and the three dffb graduates, the “movement” fans out all over Germany, also encompassing directors associated with Revolver magazine, such as Christoph Hochhäusler, Benjamin Heisenberg, and Ulrich Köhler, and other non-dffb filmmakers such as Maren Ade, Aysum Bademsoy, and Maria Speth, all rendering the “Berlin School” tag quite misleading. Nevertheless, Petzold has achieved a level of international exposure and acclaim which thus far exceeds that of any other director working under this umbrella, and so, within certain circles of international film discourse, Petzold’s work ends up being at least partially understood as an ongoing referendum on the ultimate value of this broad swath of German counter-cinema. Does it or will it have the staying power of the New German Cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Is it an appropriate antidote to big-budget junk like Downfall (2004) and withering mediocrities like The Lives of Others (2006)? Are Petzold and the “Berlin School” the future of German cinema, or is Fatih Akin? In a way, this comparison might be the most productive of all, since it helps clarify just how significant a breakthrough Jerichow really is. Since winning the Golden Bear in 2004 with the promising but rather desultory Head-On, Hamburg’s Akin has been anointed by many as Germany’s most important international auteur, a status his structurally dishonest perils-of-globalization roundelay The Edge of Heaven (2007) only cemented. There are those of us who find this rapturous praise for Akin a tad premature, but no less a personage than Thomas Elsaesser has gone to bat for the guy, witnessing in The Edge of Heaven a continuation of Fassbinder’s legacy, the first notable elaboration on the master’s theoretical approach to German history and memory and the politics of vision since his death. I would argue in turn that, with Jerichow, Petzold too takes up the mantle of Fassbinder, although from a rather different direction.
In fact, Petzold and Akin could be said to embody a dialectic in terms of understanding how to expand Fassbinder’s very timely project onto the contemporary German and global landscape. To grossly oversimplify: both directors centre their work on border crossings and national/economic points of exchange. But while Akin focuses on (supposedly) fully formed human subjects who are thwarted by external political circumstance, and with whose fortunes we’re supposed to identify, Petzold instead fixates on the spaces in between human beings, the material constraints that prevent identifiable humanist subjects from coming into being in the first place. It’s worth noting, after all, that Petzold’s Ghosts is, among other things, a film that implicitly critiques the faddish, everybody’s-connected jerryrigging that The Edge of Heaven exemplifies. At the end of the day, Akin’s cinema is fundamentally of the 19th century; Petzold’s is 21st through and through.
In Jerichow, Petzold’s Fassbinderian intellectual project becomes crystal clear, and this is but one of its many virtues. Petzold has acknowledged that Jerichow is a rather loose adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, and/or a remake of the 1946 Tay Garnett film starring John Garfield and Lana Turner. But Jerichow is a “remake” only in the sense that Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a remake of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), or Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven (2002) is a partial remake of Ali. This is part of an ongoing project for Petzold; his previous film Yella was a high-finance fever dream based in large part on the cult film Carnival of Souls (1962). Yella and Jerichow are not remakes at all, but dialectical reconsiderations, working to draw from the original films the social and political circumstances which have not changed, and constructing an armature for those present-day material circumstances that are, in fact, very different. Fassbinder located in Sirk a fundamental emotive truth, a pathos that sliced away frivolity and raged against the hypocrisy of “respectable” people. The fact that Sirk achieved this with so-called “women’s films” made it that much more remarkable, since these films channeled existential female despair in ways similar to their male counterparts, Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray. What Petzold finds by revisiting Fassbinder is a system of vision that subjugates, one that implicates the look within power relations and refuses to treat desire as a way out. Unlike Akin, Petzold knows (as Laura states outright in Jerichow) that “it’s impossible to love without money.” However, this doesn’t make Petzold the fatalist to Akin’s humanist. Far from it, Petzold countenances this crisis because he knows only a radically different global arrangement could ever change his characters’ fortunes. Love is not enough, certainly for Marxist-Hegelian sublation. And so, when we first meet Thomas (Benno Fürmann), leaving his mother’s funeral and failing to shake the crooks he swindled, Petzold asks us to consider the idea of what it means for a petty criminal to go straight. This frequent trope in the noir triangle plot is typically taken for granted, and it never works out. But, following Fassbinder, Petzold demands that we envision Thomas, see him as the blank lump in the Eastern hinterlands that everyone else sees. He’s treated shabbily at the employment office, lectured at the supermarket about how to properly use his public-assistance card, and, finally, we watch him ride a mechanical harvesting vehicle in a supine position, along with a dozen or so other itinerants, picking cucumbers in the hot sun. All the while, Petzold’s camera lingers over the rugged, impassive Thomas, muscular and tattooed, a figure we wait to understand. However, we never really do. Petzold, fully exploiting Fürmann’s rather blank, bullet-headed mien, treats him like a Bressonian model, a man without interiority. Instead, he is a placeholder for certain objective situations in both East German economic reality, and in conventional film grammar. Thomas is the “protagonist,” or so it would appear. Likewise, Laura (Petzold regular Nina Hoss) is a kind of placeholder for the femme fatale in Jerichow, although her moves and demeanor never actually suggest that she has any killer instinct whatsoever. Instead, she is a passive half-hearted schemer who adopts whatever plan happens across her way. It is impossible to say whether Hoss plays Laura as forlorn, anguished, petulant, long-suffering; only in her momentary post-coital discussions with Thomas, detailing her material circumstances, does she evince any actual personality. Petzold, following the Sirk/Fassbinder lineage but in his own stringent, austere rendition, instantiates Laura as a social position rather than an actual woman, a set of coordinates and not a point of identification. When Thomas and Laura first meet, Petzold may as well insert a dotted line between their eyes, since their mutual gaze is instantly inscribed and immediately legible as a genre function, this time with racial and political undertones. This is because Jerichow places a Turkish immigrant at the third point in the love triangle. Ali (Hilmi Sözer, in a phenomenal performance) is Laura’s husband, a well-to-do owner of a chain of roadside snack bars dotting the former East German town of Jerichow, serving a predominantly immigrant clientele. Following the Postman template, Laura sees her relationship with Ali as a primarily financial arrangement, although the original film’s age disparity between husband and wife has been eliminated, replaced, it seems, with racial and cultural difference. Ali, meanwhile, struggles with alcohol and crippling paranoia, convinced his vendors and his wife are cheating him in their own fashion. As it happens with many paranoids, Ali is partially correct. Thomas watches Ali drive his SUV into a ditch and Ali pays him to pretend he was driving to avoid a DUI. Eventually, Thomas becomes Ali’s full-time driver and business assistant. Now, it must be said: the original 1946 Postman is in most respects a ridiculous film. It’s overacted, its would-be hard-boiled dialogue hits the floor with a thud, and, well, John Garfield has the bearing of a hyperactive rodent. His sex appeal is purely theoretical, and it isn’t hard to see why he has failed to retain a permanent place in the Hollywood pantheon. Part of Petzold’s keen intelligence comes from the fact that in Jerichow he treats all his players as social positions in a very blatant manner, pulling the noir mechanics out front so that other issues can assert themselves. To reiterate, Thomas and Laura barely hold as points of identification, and are certainly not interesting as human beings. And so, when Petzold shows Laura and Thomas expressing their “desire” for one another, it’s as though a switch flips, and two creatures are simply performing the actions they were long ago programmed to do. From their initial rutting coitus in the hallway, to Thomas’s comically invisible emergence from behind trees outside Ali and Laura’s house, caressing Laura’s body in the dark like a phantom in plain sight, these two present one of the most purely functionalist couplings the movies have ever seen. And Petzold knows this. In fact, he expects that we, as viewers, expect this coupling of Thomas and Laura from the get-go. This is partly because of genre mechanics. We know there must be a sexualized double-cross. What’s more, attentive students of noir will pick up on the Postman riff rather quickly, making the plot points seem rather inevitable. But more than this, Petzold is counting on a deeper, unconscious spectatorial structure, a desire we’ve been conditioned to bring with us into the theatre and that clicks into place from Laura’s first appearance. Here, Petzold is aligning genre with Western bigotry, in order to demonstrate how neatly they line up, so much so that we at first don’t even notice. We instinctively understand: Ali is not the appropriate object choice for Laura. Thomas is. Why on earth should this be the case? If there is any inkling that this desire is a racist one, Petzold, for a while, gives us an out, because the result we crave is dictated by seemingly neutral genre mechanics. As Jerichow unfolds, Petzold offers his viewers fewer and fewer opportunities for plausible deniability. Like a scientific paradigm shift, Jerichow amasses narrative and formal anomalies as it continues, and we are eventually forced to ask: why am I rooting for the two blandest, least soulful characters onscreen? Why am I, like Thomas, so prepared to accept that Ali having pushed Laura down during one fight (however inexcusable the physical act may have been) means that she is a battered wife? Why am I willing, like Thomas, to accept that a Turkish-German man would necessarily subjugate his wife, when all available evidence shows that Ali generally treats Laura like an equal partner? And why, even as I’m well versed in noir logic, am I inclined to take Laura’s word over Ali’s? Petzold is tapping into prejudices that we may or may not exhibit in the social world, but that unconsciously govern our relationship with the visual world and its marked bodies. Jerichow becomes an occasion for coaxing us into old, harmful habits of seeing in order to shift those habits in surprising, productive new directions. As I have stated above, Petzold’s cinema is largely concerned with liminal spaces, borders, and boundaries, and in particular the “non-spaces” or transit zones that refuse to cohere into any sense of home. These spaces militate against the formation of solid, centered subjectivity, instead producing exteriority, reaction, alienation, a semi-subject who is in some very real sense “just passing through” the entire world. One visual signature that has appeared in all four of Petzold’s films I’ve seen is that of a person driving, shot at something like a 105? angle from inside the car. The driver’s side mirror is always visible. Petzold occasionally shows us the open road ahead of his protagonists—Ali and Thomas hitting the snack bars; Yella (Hoss) and Philipp (Devid Striesow) moving between business trips in Yella; Françoise (Marianne Basler) and Pierre (Aurélien Recoing) leaving the mental hospital in Ghosts; Jeanne (Julia Hummer) and her parents on the run for the last time in The State I Am In. But more often than not, he shows us these drivers attempting to move forward while all we can see is the past, spiraling out behind them. This signature set-up in some sense exemplifies Petzold’s cinema. The vast non-spaces of late transnational modernity are Janus-faced; moving forward through them, they’re a void, and only after having passed through, having lost them forever to the propulsion of time, do those spaces assume any solidity or recognizable shape. Petzold, like Sirk and Fassbinder before him, understands that the experiential being of that non-space, that liminality, might be momentarily grasped and examined by means of certain affective maps or “structures of feeling,” such as genre reinscription or repetition-with-difference. With Jerichow, Petzold has taken a rather basic tale of infidelity and betrayal and revised it for our time. As Ali tells Laura moments before his death, “I’m in a country that doesn’t want me, with a wife I bought.” At this very moment, Ali’s recognition that no amount of struggle, success, or assimilation will ever make him “German enough,” or “likeable enough,” becomes radical allegory. Petzold’s subversion of the codes of film noir or the unexamined racism of Western spectatorship suddenly becomes something else entirely: a cinematic referendum on Turkey and the E.U. If Ali’s fate is also an allegorical representation of our troubled future, the West only has itself to blame.
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