Pilotinnen (1995)

22 04 2020

In my review of The State I Am In, I described the film as a quasi-debut for Christian Petzold. It was his first film released in theaters, but Pilotinnen is his first full length film made for television. Unsurprisingly, this ends up playing like something of a warmup for The State I Am In. Once again, we have a set of characters on the run and in hiding with the cold gaze of surveillance lurking in the background. As a television film, one would be unfair to not forgive Petzold for certain concessions he’d make, but there’s surprisingly few anyway. It seems from the start he had a very clear vision for how his narratives would treat paranoia and tension. The dread of surveillance hits with a greater power when depicted with Petzold’s profound and concise reserve.

It’s the day of Frank Sinatra’s death, but it’s also just another day of work at the cosmetics firm for Karin. She breezes by a chatty and static public that listens to forced eulogies on the radio and television. If one can practice mourning passively, then the people she walks by seem to be experts. Her speed suggests a lack of enthusiasm for her work. It’s easy to see why, her exploitative boss has paired her with a younger woman, Sophie, who vocalizes her distrust for a tired and old employee like Karin. Karin has no interest in a friendship with Sophie and she fails to even perform superficial pleasantries despite the fact that the two log long hours driving together and eventually have to sleep in the same hotel bed.

Karin’s cold demeanor towards her work is justified by her lifestyle. Dreaming of moving to Paris, she treats everything about her life in Germany as temporary and motivates elements around her into motion. For example, she does not have an apartment. She either sleeps in her car or in hotel rooms. There is nothing rooted about her life, something that is mutually reinforced by her boss, a man who exploits his all-female staff financially and sexually. The one thing that finally brings Karin and Sophie together is their precariousness towards their labor. Dissatisfied is one thing, as many of us have all had jobs that we didn’t exactly care for, but their particular set up affords them no leisure. They can’t mourn the death of a celebrity they never knew in person like the people around them.

Petzold’s TV debut shows a filmmaker already fully confident in his powers. I would say the aesthetic experience accomplished is this film sets the standard for his work at least up until Gespenster. Again, since I’m revisiting all of his films, my opinion on the later stuff is of course subject to change. He manages to observe a quiet desperation in his performers, and it is particularly impressive that Karin and Sophie’s mutual distrust never subsides and makes way for some life-affirming friendship. Instead, they learn to tolerate one another because they have no other choice. Their bond is made not from individual appreciation but by being exploited by the same person.

Needless to say, there is some apathy between the two women. There are moments when this is interrupted, usually from violence. In one sequence, Sophie follows Karin to a dinner she has planned with an old flame. She mocks her, a confrontation follows, and Karin slaps Sophie in the bathroom. Petzold immediately cuts to Sophie nursing her inflamed cheek. Karin is besides her, but offers no apology, and there’s an acceptance of this silence from Sophie. They realize their frustrations come from other pressures that end up exploding on to one another. Of course, in Petzold’s hands this tension never feels as such.

The scenes of Karin and Sophie driving offer a temporary (and conditional) bit of freedom for them. Early on, Petzold establishes surveillance’s eye on their activities. The televisions that play back the surveillance footage remind us of the televisions that populate the myriad hotel rooms in which their itinerant lifestyle finds them. Shots of Karin looking out windows always show either a hauntingly empty suburban cityscape or some sort of police presence. State control is never necessarily “looming” in Petzold’s early films as much as it is integrated into the landscape. It’s there, but never calls attention to itself. The balance that is achieved is a more accurate reflection of how surveillance invades our daily space. In a short 65 minutes, Petzold establishes an understated misery, which would become the foundation for his subsequent films.


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