Die innere Sicherheit / The State I Am In (2000)

17 04 2020

In 2020, the name Christian Petzold carries substantial weight in the arthouse film circuit. 2012’s Barbara earned him an Oscar nomination and 2014’s Phoenix finally made an international star out of his frequent collaborator, Nina Hoss. His follow-up, Transit, expanded his cultural pull further. As someone who was enamored with Petzold early on in his career, this is exciting. Yet, returning to The State I Am In, which may or may not be his debut feature (it depends on how one situates the director’s earlier made-for-TV features) I can’t help but be dismayed. While Petzold has evolved, I find his slick period pieces as of late to just be a bit too handsome and perfect. They’re immaculately staged dramas, but here in this pseudo-debut, he managed to capture a perfect icy minimalism that would become much more common at the beginning of the 21st century. And yet, Petzold’s wandering anti-thriller of sorts lingers with a strange power. If it does indeed qualify as a debut film, it is surely one of the most accomplished debuts in recent memory.

Jeanne is a 15-year-old girl beginning to defy her parents. This is typical of a teenager, of course, but unfortunately her parents’ situation is anything but. Clara and Hans have been on the run from the government since before Jeanne was even born. Their past is not elucidated, but one firmly understands that they’re on the run for something with a bit more political substance than say, robbing a bank. They plan to run away from Europe entirely, but Jeanne’s desire for social interaction stumbles their plan, eventually forcing them to return back and rely on the help of former comrades and old flames. All the meanwhile, Jeanne still desperately clings to the hope that she may one day live her life as a normal teenage girl with a more rooted upbringing.

Early in the film, Julia Hummer’s Jeanne remarks “We’re always going somewhere.” This is right after her parents, Clara and Hans inform her that they’re once again on the move. The parents are surprised, as Jeanne’s protests clash with her standard apathy. This time, her family’s transience has interrupted her budding (but secret) romance with Heinrich. For the rest of the film, Jeanne’s diagnosis is proven true. The family is constantly on the move, but there is also a strange underlying feeling that they’re not ever really going anywhere. Once their escape plan to Brazil is thwarted, they seem to be constantly on the move. There’s anxiety and chaos in their transience and yet Petzold’s patience suggests a deeper stasis underneath.

The brilliance of Petzold’s screenplay, written alongside German legend Harun Farocki, is that the thriller set up never brings to the front the details necessary to calculate the tension. Don’t be mistaken, there is an undeniable tension in every frame of this film, but it doesn’t come from straightforward dramatic motivations. The paranoia of Clara and Hans registers, but so does the teenage frustrations of Jeanne. While I would argue that Julia Hummer is the face of the film, no one’s anxieties are privileged over someone else’s. If we draw on the logics of narrative drama, we should be as frustrated with Jeanne as her parents are when she shoplifts. After all, such a petty crime could lead the authorities to her parents, spelling the end of their freedom. Yet, Hummer’s brilliance is that we understand and sympathize with her character even as she gives us no justification for her behavior. Her cold expressions and silence should infuriate us (and maybe they do) but instead our curiosity grows.

This aforementioned tension is exacerbated further by what the film continues to leave out. A cynical reader might view Clara and Hans’ relationship as a one-dimensional cycle of fucking and then fighting. Again, though, Petzold’s camera never takes advantage of behaviors. He doesn’t devolve into exploring the couple’s back story. The distance makes the text richer, as the extent of their motivations are never fully understood. An alternate film that takes would undoubtedly turn the setup into yet another forgettable middlebrow drama wherein Serious Adults discuss Serious Adult things in a Serious Adult tone and then have Serious Adult sex. Clara and Hans’ cycles aren’t vicious. Their arguments are not filmed to add gravity to the situation, but instead they are observed because they’re happening. Similarly, the couple’s intercourse is never seen and thus never used for sensual poignance. Instead, the sex is depicted through sounds heard by Jeanne who responds with agitation.

For Jeanne, her parent’s boisterous copulation is a smack in the face. She wants a romance herself, specifically with Heinrich. Although, Heinrich is a peripheral character, Farocki and Petzold flesh him out with enough touching details to emphasize Jeanne’s pain in not having a normal teenage romance with him. When they first meet, he tells her he’s a surfer. They meet on a beach, where his long flowing hair and tales of Malibu fascinate her with a youthful reverie of America’s west coast. When she encounters him again, the magic of the first meeting has stripped away entirely. He’s actually a dishwasher at a pizza joint in the mall, and he’s never surfed in his life. He’s just obsessed with Brian Wilson. We observe more “information” from him in the straight-forward sense, and these details color in the bitterness of the doomed teenage love. It’s not a tragedy, but it has a dull sting that adds to Jeanne’s reserved nature.

The static yet transient complex of the family meets its dramatic conclusion in the film’s non-climax. Jeanne scouts a bank for the family to rob. Clara and Hans map out a highly specific escape plan. There is little excitement to come from this caper. I can’t imagine an audience member particularly getting their hopes up for this family to finally find sanctuary. Petzold’s quietly observant camera continues to resist exploiting the dramatic potential. When Jeanne does scout the bank, that observant camera becomes further depersonalized: the controlling visual hum of a surveillance camera. The security footage of Jeanne scouting the bank reverberates later in the security footage of Clara and Hans’ botched robbery. The surveillance camera merely gives us information, lacking dramatic clarity. Petzold’s camera throughout the film has accomplished something similar: he shows what people do and what they say but the opacity of his characters doesn’t expand the dramatic potential. Instead, we watch them and then suddenly their story ends. This narrative neutralization is exhilarating, and makes the film’s resistance to being a thriller all the more powerful.


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