Toter Mann / Something to Remind Me (2001)

18 04 2020

In Wong Kar-Wai’s beloved Chungking Express, “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas gets nearly as much screen time as the four major characters. It is impossible for anyone to recall this film from memory and not immediately think of this song. In practice, the song’s presence becomes aggravating, but it is a crucial tenant in the film’s aesthetic of romance. The film’s popularity with budding cinephiles is undeniable: bold visuals, action film editing, and an adorable romance resemble something of an artful upgrade to a perfect pop song. Early in Something to Remind Me seems to be attempting something similar with Dionne Warwick’s interpretation of “What the World Needs Now is Love.” While Wong, in his all-powerful romantic reverie, tapped into the romance of the Mamas and the Papas, Petzold chooses to transform Warwick’s voice and the words of Burt Bacharach from their romantic origin into something sinister.

Thomas, a gracefully aged lawyer, keeps running into Leyla. Their first interaction, at an otherwise empty swimming pool, occurs when he reunites her with a bag she leaves behind. He spots her a short time later as his brother Richard artlessly flirts with a woman named Sophie. After another run in at the pool, Thomas becomes more diligent in his pursuit. He follows her and she agrees to a date. She spends the night at his place but is gone the next morning. Thomas is smitten, which is why he doesn’t immediately notice the absence of his important files. Leyla has taken them and disappeared.

As with The State I Am In, Petzold’s brilliance as a screenwriter comes through in the way he delays information. The “courting” phase of Thomas and Leyla’s relationship that I described above makes up the first twenty minutes of the film. For someone who hasn’t encountered Petzold before or read about the film beforehand, little to no hints are offered at the narrative’s direction. The behavior of his characters is already somewhat unusual, creating a tension punctuated by his camera’s static poker face. When Thomas follows Leyla, we’re troubled. She has already politely declined his advances. Yet, she herself is not at all troubled when she spots him. She smiles, unbothered, and agrees to a date. The two practice “courting” but do so while resisting the conventions of modern social interaction. The effect this has on the audience is exciting, there’s intrigue in such something so strange having an erotic potential.

The strange erotic undercurrent of the film’s opening twenty minutes is largely (but it’s important to note, not entirely) due to the presence of Nina Hoss. Hoss has become Petzold’s most frequent collaborator, the Monica Vitti to Petzold’s Antonioni. Like Vitti, Hoss is often able to carry scenes in which she says nothing and does very little. On her date with Thomas, she answers boring questions, but manages to give off a tenderness that makes Thomas’s infatuation undeniable. After she disappears, Richard pointedly asks Thomas, “So what did you guys do all night?” While under Leyla’s spell, Thomas and the audience are in awe, but when we recall the date night, it feels stilted and boring. The romance in Thomas’s eyes is not reflected in the technique of Petzold, an intentional disparity that beautifully quizzes the audience.

Leyla leaves Thomas behind and gets a job serving food in halfway house cafeteria. It is there that she seduces another man, Blum. Rotund and reserved, Blum has little on the surface to offer Leyla. They meet frequently, but their conversations are brief. In a standard mystery, the author incrementally drops information, drawing deeper into the story. If Petzold does this in Something to Remind Me, he does so while managing to decontextualize the clues. Our intrigue grows, but we really don’t know why. He’s done something similar in The State I Am In, but there we’re given no dramatic payoff. For as slow and mystifying as Petzold is here, he ultimately gives his viewers justifications for his opaque characters and an explanation to his narrative. Personally, this is someone disappointing, as Something to Remind Me is closer to being a “puzzle” film. It still works, however, because the pieces given to us are nearly illegible.

Leyla successfully seduces Blum. The day of their planned date, Thomas tracks down Blum. He tells him he isn’t safe and needs to stay inside. He asks him if he’s met any strange women recently. Even revealing Leyla’s truth (which we’re still kept in the dark about) to Blum doesn’t shake his romantic aspirations. He lies, goes on a date with Leyla, and willingly consumes the poisoned drink she prepares for him. Once again “What the World Needs Now is Love” starts up and then transitions into “Always Something There to Remind Me.” While we’re still unsure of specifics, we now suspect something ominous. The faked quiet tenderness in Leyla’s seduction of both Thomas and Blum has shifted the music’s charm. As we await Blum’s fate with dread, lines like “I will never be free” are stripped of their romantic longings. Maybe all love songs are secretly about death and/or trauma, and Petzold has boldly pondered such a revelation through cinema.

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.