Interview: Christian Petzold
This Saturday, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix has its U.S. premiere in Film Comment Selects. The acclaimed German filmmaker’s borrowings from melodrama and noir are key to his latest feature, in which a scarred concentration camp survivor returns home and is inexorably drawn into looking for her husband. But that husband firmly believes that she is dead, and their meeting leads to some bewildering demands. Petzold muse Nina Hoss plays Nelly, the fragile survivor, and Ronald Zehrfeld is her shifty spouse, Johnny, the two circling one another in a ruined Berlin.
FILM COMMENT spoke with Petzold about Phoenix last fall at the Toronto film festival, in a discussion driven by the director’s exhilarating style of storytelling and spitballing.
No Man of Her Own
Thanks for sitting for an interview—I know you’ve had a long day already.
Film Comment! I have old Film Comments from the Sixties and the Seventies! I bought them at a flea market. Yeah, my English has been getting better, since I’ve talked all day. Three hours ago there was one German interview, and all of a sudden I can’t speak German anymore. I can’t remember things—it’s like a computer, you need links in your own language, and if you don’t have them, you don’t have a memory… like the Germans after ’45, they just lose their memory.
The way your movie works with memory is very interesting. You’ve found such a bold structure for dealing with it—it’s as if you took a Hollywood melodrama for a starting point. Do you know the one [No Man of Her Own] where Barbara Stanwyck gets in a train crash and switches identities with another passenger?
Yeah. This is interesting, because I never talk about Barbara Stanwyck, I always talk about other American actresses. But there’s another Barbara Stanwyck film, where she’s on a ship with Henry Fonda…
The Lady Eve?
Yes, Preston Sturges! It’s a film about two women, but really it’s one woman—Henry Fonda just doesn’t recognize her. I think I told Nina [Hoss] to look at this movie, I’m not sure. The first film we watched together was by Jacques Demy, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. It’s a musical, and I said, how is this possible after 1945? In the film, we see the war in Algiers, and it’s a political film, made by a Jewish director. But the people can still sing and dance. It’s not reality, but it’s real. I said, this is what we have lost in Germany; therefore we should look at this and start writing about it, because it’s fantastic.
The second film we saw was Out of the Past by Jacques Tourneur, because the protagonists, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, have “double light” in their eyes. They are betrayers, they are liars, they are tired, but their eyes are soft and deep. So you see two things—a mask and a soul—in the same moment. This is something that happens in our movie. For example, Ronald Zehrfeld, he has heart, but he has lost his empathy. He’s tired like Burt Lancaster in The Killers, the opening sequence. In his eyes, there’s something—there’s the whole story of 1945.
In the beginning of the film, Nina Hoss has to act with bandages on her face, and since she’s such a recognizable actress, you have that moment of anticipation of when you’ll see and recognize her. It seems as if the whole film is built around these scenes of recognitions.
Yeah, we were thinking that this movie has to have development for each character. For the main character, Nelly, it starts in a car, with a soldier looking in [at a checkpoint]. Nowadays, there’s a pregnant woman in the car, and the soldier says, “Okay, drive on,” and the next scene is at the hospital, the birth—then my first room of my own, then I go out in the night because I want to see the world outside of my parents’ house, then my first boyfriend, my first love affair, and then I’m an adult. This was not exactly the idea, but it came to us automatically. During the fourth or fifth day of shooting, I told Nina, when you’re an adult, you have lost the innocence of youth.
What’s interesting is she wants to go back to her romance with that same innocence. Is Johnny a character who’s already corrupt, or has his empathy disappeared with the war?
It’s a long story, but I can shorten it up a little bit. During the rehearsals, we read an autobiography by a German essayist, who was 20 years old in 1933, studying for the bar. Two days after Hitler won the election, he was sitting in a courtroom, working for an attorney, and the SS comes into the building and starts to beat all the Jewish attorneys. And he’s hearing all the shots and screams of the people, and he says to himself: “Now I’m in a tunnel. I have nothing to do with the things outside. I’m not guilty, because I don’t beat people, I’m just not part of the society any longer.” This is a little bit of Johnny. But one moment, the door opened, and two SS people were there with iron sticks and dogs, and they asked him, “Jewish or not Jewish?” and he said “not Jewish.” And 50 years later, he said, this is the moment where I was guilty. It’s the same choice Johnny made. He accepted the selection of the Nazis, and destroyed love, and that’s guilty, I think.
That makes me think about past German films about World War II and the Holocaust. Did you feel a burden to approach the period with a rigorous ethical standard, or did you just want to forget what people might say or talk about?
I didn’t think about the burden. I thought about Fassbinder, when he made his period pictures like The Marriage of Eva Braun—I mean Maria Braun!
He should have made that movie!
Yeah! I’ll make that movie in five years, an Eva Braun movie, but not in a Fassbinder way, not in a Downfall way. Actually, with Eva Braun, I saw a really, really good thing. This has to be our next script. We have found some material from 1958—because they didn’t find Adolf Hitler’s body right away, they started to say, he’s Elvis Presley. [Laughs]
Like conspiracy theories?
Yeah, but there were so many witnesses from the bunker who saw him dead. And they have so many interviews with the witnesses from the bunker, so they wanted to re-create the suicide of Hitler and Eva Braun, and not how it happened, because no one was inside the room, but how the witnesses found the bodies. So we want to make a movie about this scene, and the people who reenact this scene—a weekend of two policemen who reenact the deaths of Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler.
I’d watch that. Have you seen the documentary about Hitler’s secretary?
Yeah, she’s another witness. I don’t like all these witnesses from the wrong side. Something is a little bit wrong about Hitler and the bunkers. In German history, all the dictators live in caves, and there are so many tales where there’s a shepherd who goes into a little cave, and finds Barbarossa, Red Beard, with his 10,000 soldiers, waiting for a thousand years, and he asks: “Are they waiting for me? Do you need me, Germany?” And it gets tied to Adolf Hitler, like: “We need you, Hitler.” So I just hate it. In the caves, there are the German monsters. But the ghosts, and the phantoms and the survivors—they need stories, too.
Speaking of stories, that’s something else I really noticed watching this film: Nelly wants to continue her life story, but Johnny’s forcing her to follow a different story. I like those dueling stories.
A lot of it happens in a basement, like a laboratory. We always said, Frankenstein was also created right there, Pygmalion was created right there, and all the artists working on their sculptures. There’s always the same male subjectivity, and the male artists always create their own projections of women. This woman, Nelly, wants to be created, but she also wants to tell her story, of the camps. It’s like a dance—she’s dancing around the table, trying to catch his eye.
The basic conceit is fascinating in all its layers. It’s also as if Nelly’s story is being turned false for others because Johnny is turning it into a lie. It’s a waking nightmare. That’s also why it felt like a film noir to me.
It is a film noir! Fassbinder needed the Douglas Sirk films to make his period pictures, and I need film noir to make mine. Douglas Sirk was a German, of course, and the light in film noir comes from Berlin. There’s a fantastic German essay by Frieda Grafe called “The Lights from Berlin,” and this song by Kurt Weill, “Berlin im Licht,” that says, “The light from Berlin is going to Hollywood.”
You co-wrote the film with your collaborator, the late Harun Farocki. What ideas did each of you bring to the table? I could imagine that you each could bring quite different perspectives.
Well, this particular story was his idea. He wanted to do it by himself in the Eighties, but he lost his connection to feature films. He was my best friend, and we’d meet daily. He always said, it cost him 10 years to understand that the mainstream is the true home of the avant-garde. You can find more experimenting in the films of Hitchcock or Fritz Lang than in experimental films. Whereas the Surrealists were against novels, in three years they were writing sentences like, “It was six o’clock in the morning when Lady Ashford took her tea.” So I think Harun was right: feature films are grammatical. You have to fight against the grammar, but that’s just part of the story.
What was the reception of Phoenix in Germany?
I don’t know. Some reactions were positive, but you know, Germans don’t like each other.