The State He’s In

Christian Petzold discusses his approach to filmmaking

Christian Petzold.

German filmmaker Christian Petzold may be cinema’s foremost melodramatist—an auteur, but for the people. For three decades, he has borrowed from various genres––most noticeably, film noir––to ask questions about labor, love, and systems of oppression. Here, Artforum’s Matthew Carlson talks with Petzold about his career, now a focus of a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center that runs through December 13, 2018. The retrospective, titled “The State We Are In,” includes his early student work, his collaborations with Harun Farocki, a small selection of films that have influenced him, and his newest work, Transit (2018).

MC: Can you talk about your approach to making films?

CP: I read about cinema before I saw my first movie in cinemas. I read a book by Gilles Deleuze about the theory and philosophy of movies, and there was a phrase, the “mental image,” I’ve thought about for years. There must be sequences that are objective, for moving from one point to another, but in between there has to be the mental image. There’s a sequence in Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin [1964] with a stewardess, Françoise Dorléac, in a plane, and there is a man looking at her, and you can see about ten centimeters under this curtain, and he sees her naked feet because she’s changing her shoes. She’s wearing shoes for work, and now she’s going out and wants to have fantastic high-heeled shoes. And so he sees the naked feet—really beautiful feet—but he also sees how the feet are telling us that she likes changing from the working stewardess to the girl on the boulevard. He falls in love with her because of her naked feet. Truffaut later said that he made a mistake, because he just shows the naked feet of the woman and not the face of the man. Cinema should be about desire, not the object. The object is advertisement—commercials; they show us the new iPhone, the fantastic skin of nineteen-year-olds in swimming pools, the naked feet. But what we need in cinema are those who desire.

MC: You collaborated with the late Harun Farocki on the script for Transit. What was it like working with him?

CP: In the beginning it was a master-student connection, but we were both on the same football team in Berlin, and when two guys stand naked under a shower, the master-student thing doesn’t work anymore, so we began a really deep friendship. He went to Berkeley at the beginning of the ’90s as a professor, and I followed him there for four weeks. This is where we started our collaboration, in an intense way. We went through Berkeley and started talking about many things we wanted to do together. The first was The State I Am In [2000]. We wrote the script together at Berkeley. And then, one after another. We did our work while cooking in his kitchen, and during our long walks through Berlin and Berkeley and other cities. I don’t like to write a script with images in my head and have to find these images in reality. I want to find the reality in the images.

MC: You seem to work in trilogies. What do you like about that structure?

CP: A film should have a neighborhood. When you have a neighborhood, you need a school. When you need a school, you need bus traffic, and so on. When I’m thinking about trilogies, I’m thinking about streets, about neighborhoods, and I’m thinking about my friends from the Berlin School who have made houses in this era, not masterpieces with subjects from the nineteenth century.

Christian Petzold talks about filmmaking.

MC: What do you make of the recent rise of nationalism?

CP: Europe was built on blood. I thought we had learned from this. This time it looks a little bit more like what Karl Marx said about the second nationalism wave: that it’s more comedic. You can see it with Trump here. I think he’s a comedian of nationalism, but there’s real blood, not theater blood, and people are wounded and hurt.

MC: Could you talk about how your cinema has evolved?

CP: Because this is the fourth retrospective in the last two years, I have to think about how my filmmaking has developed. But I don’t want to know. It’s a problem because if I knew, I might start to make movies based on what the critics say about me. I’m more aware of how the industry is changing¬¬––how in ten, fifteen years, there will be no production anymore.

I’m always astonished about the USA because there are so many movies where the LAPD is a group of bad, fascist, bad-smelling cops and you can do it here. You can’t in Germany. My movie Wolfsburg [2003] is about a man who has a car accident that kills a little boy, and he escapes from the scene. At first, Volkswagen wanted to give me cars and also a place because it’s about a car salesman. They wanted to give me a glass house with many models of Volkswagens, until they read the script. It’s a crime car story against driving because car driving is very egocentric—it destroys the working class because they have to pay so much money to have this stinking car. You are sitting inside something, you have your own music, you have noise reduction, you have the windshields, you have now these digital things. You are inside yourself. There’s no empathy to the world. The world is an enemy. So, this guy can’t leave the car after he has made this accident because this is his body, his tank. So, he can’t go out. This the people from Volkswagen didn’t like so much.

One of my favorite movies is The Deer Hunter [1978] by Michael Cimino. It starts in the steel mill. All these guys are working, and they’re really masculine. They hunt, they live in trailers. They’re proud of their work and their power and energy. Then they go to Vietnam and they die there, and you can feel that these people have no chance in the world economic scene, so they have to go to Vietnam to die, because they feel that nobody needs them anymore. Now, factory work has gone to the Global South. I want to see how labor conditions today affect people who are alive now. What has happened? You have to find the answer in movies, I think.

Christian Petzold’s latest film, Transit, will be released in the United States on March 1, 2019.