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.

Dead Reckoning (1947)

21 04 2020

After the back-to-back rigor of Christian Petzold’s early anti-thriller classics, The State I Am In and Something to Remind Me, I was beginning to crave something a bit more simplistic. For one, I found myself veering in the direction of the irresponsible writer by making declarations about the dramatic moves his films resisted. I needed something to ground me. I needed a classic noir. The wit of Humphery Bogart notwithstanding (and I’m being intentional in attributing that to him and not the screenplay) Dead Reckoning is unfortunately even more simplistic than I had anticipated. There are pleasures to be found in this film, but they are peripheral elements, intriguing side effects of a production that may have invited too many hands onto the assembly line. Its warts, unfortunately, are the only things of worth.

Paratroopers Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) and Johnny Drake (William Prince) are flown into New York via a French hospital without explanation. Upon arrival, they board a train to Washington D.C., where they informed that they’re going to be awarded the Medal of Valor. Drake freezes up in the midst of the duo’s once playful ribbing. When Murdock gets off at the next stop for a quick photo opportunity, he instead finds that Drake has abandoned the Capital-bound train all together and hopped aboard one headed the other direction. The slightest bit of sleuthing from Murdock reveals that Johnny Drake is actually Johnny Preston, a Yale graduate from the fictional Gulf City.

Murdock follows Preston to Gulf City. The fictional city, which bears a slight resemblance to New Orleans, is one of the most interesting things about Dead Reckoning. There’s a limited amount of on-location photography in the film, but what little there is does flesh out the economy of a town that doesn’t exist. Biloxi, Mississippi to New Orleans is an hour and a half drive and it’s Biloxi that acts as Gulf City’s outskirts and suburbs here. Biloxi’s tourist economy revolves around its casinos and beaches, it’s the sort of minor city neon-sign trash that gets reflected in the fictional Gulf City, which is driven entirely by the nightlife industry. It’s in this industry that Murdock runs into Preston’s old flame, Dusty Chandler.

On the train from New York to D.C., Preston is visibly hung up on Chandler still. His romantic longing is the sort of buzzkill that Murdock has little time for, and he makes quick work of it, “Didn’t I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?” Bogart’s handling of dialogue such as this is excellent, even as the words themselves are so generic and flat that the screenplay reads like a parody of film noir. There are five writers credited here, and a quick glimpse at IMDb shows that most of them are punching high above their weight here with such a star vehicle. Between the five of them, the next most impressive credit belongs to Oliver H.P. Garrett with John Ford’s The Hurricane. Even then, Garrett merely adapted the screenplay of the legendary Wapakonetan Dudley Nichols. Bogart’s cool is the stuff of legends, quite literally. The foundation of his persona lies in the pens of icons like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and William Faulkner. His flat, effortless delivery of their words made them shine, and vice versa. In Dead Reckoning, we have a group of writers composing dialogue that sounds like Bogie. In the moment, they pull off the ruse, but the film concludes feeling like an imitation.

As a film noir, Bogart’s Murdock is of course seduced. Here, it’s Dusty Chandler, played by Lizabeth Scott. She’s introduced with the aid of a would-be classic Bogart line, “Cinderella with a husky voice” and even gets her own Gilda-esque number. This, along with Preston’s visible longing on the train positions us to be in love with her. In Bogart’s best films, his love interests either match him in wits – Lauren Bacall in anything, Dorothy Malone’s short appearance in The Big Sleep – or they offer a compelling enough alternative to his cynicism for him to take a chance. Scott’s Chandler does neither, unfortunately. As compelling as she sometimes is, it seems like a dramatic convenience that Murdock would turn witless under her spell. It’s not that she isn’t beautiful enough or understocked with clever dialogue. Her character’s simply too flat, too by-the-numbers, and cries too many crocodile tears to justify her dramatic involvement. It’s a very surface level way to read a film, but Murdock’s behavior doesn’t fit. He is too willing to fall down the rabbit hole, without an undercurrent of the desperate resignation found in a film like In a Lonely Place. All the surface cool of film noir is accessible in Dead Reckoning but it offers nothing that made specific films in the genre so special. It’s a template film, a 100 minute distraction, but nothing more.

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.

Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)

23 03 2020

In the two weeks since America has shut down, walking has re-emerged as a hobby of mine. I had a passion for it when I was younger, but it has since been replaced with other physical activities. Biking and going to the gym were given top billing, and walking backed down to what it is to many people: the most primitive form of transportation. Obviously, the circumstances are anything but ideal but walking as an activity has become an inspiration for much thinking, especially when there is no destination or goal in sight. The protagonist in Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer has a similarly peculiar relationship with walking: he wanders. He glances at attractive women, follows them leisurely, and then backs off when something else catches his eye. As Bresson’s most humorous film, I’m going to make some leap to say that he has unlocked some deeply embedded truth about humanity. Instead, Jacques’ walking is bitterly in step with ours. He walks, despite not having anywhere to go and nothing much to do.

One night, while aimlessly wandering about Paris, Jacques happens upon Marthe, who is about to throw herself off the bridge. He manages to talk her down, and the two begin to talk about their lives. As Jacques himself admits to Marthe, “I have no story.” He tells her his non-story. He lives alone, and paints. He starts several different projects but doesn’t seem to complete any. When a friend from art school comes to visit him, the two barely seem to recognize each other. Jacques nods his head to signal “no” when this acquaintance asks to come in, but then says yes. The acquaintance then launches into a monologue about art. The seriousness that many newcomers to Bresson grant him sight unseen is here twisted into something amusing. The austerity of the cinematic language is the syntax of the joke here, if you will.

Marthe follows with her story, which has a bit more information than Jacques. She lives with her mother, who rents out a spare room in the house to a lodger. She makes a remark to her mother that all the lodgers are male and suggests that her mother’s intentions are to find a husband for her daughter. Marthe and the lodger becomes lovers, but only fleetingly so. While declaring her love for him, the lodger informs Marthe has he to leave for the United States to start a graduate program at Yale. He promises to return to her in a year, if she is still willing. Back in the present, that year has passed. The lodger has returned from America, but he hasn’t contacted Marthe. This was the context of the suicide attempt where Jacques first met her.

In retelling her romance with the lodger, Marthe tells of an incident where he invited her and her mother to a film premiere. Marthe is disgusted by the film, a simplistic romance punctuated with grotesque violence. Marthe’s disgusts is not reflective of Bresson, though. He takes some glee in this short parody. The film’s presumed protagonist is killed in a shootout, but before he takes his last breaths, he retrieves a photograph of his lover and says goodbye with one last kiss. While the tone is humorous, again, it’s hard not to also think of the similarly sentimental conclusion to Bresson’s own Pickpocket. The parody here never reaches the point of moral superiority, as there’s a familiarity on the part of the filmmaker himself. Tellingly, Bresson’s next film Lancelot of the Lake, also bears some resemblance to the short parody film, but this time in the cartoonish violence.

I’ve resisted using the word “parody” up until this point because I do think there are some negative connotations that I can’t wrestle away from the word. Still, there are parodic elements in this film, more so than any other Bresson film. Parody doesn’t inherently mean to mock, because I’m not sure such a tone was within Bresson’s grasp, nor do I think it was of interest to him. Jacques’ aimless wandering is itself something of a parody itself. To be out at night is something against societal norms. The ideal capitalist subject is in bed and preparing themselves to be a good laborer for the next day’s nine to five. In his book, Nightwalking, Matthew Beaumont goes deep on this dynamic and traces it back to the Middle Ages. The night walk is the territory of the criminal first and foremost, but also of the cultural interlopers that might rub against such a personality. In a way, the aimless wander at night is deemed criminal because the act of nightwalking makes a parody of law enforcement. As Beaumont says, “To nightwalk is to enact a malign parody of the watchman’s patrol; to nightwatch is to enact a malign parody of his supervision or surveillance of the community and its individuals.” One of the ironies here is that Jacques’ nightwalking and nightwatching actually delivers him to perform a civic good: he saves Marthe.

The dreamer referred to in the film’s title is most likely Jacques. This is character, after all, the dreamer in the film’s source text, Dostoevsky’s “White Nights.” At one, Dostoevsky describes said character as neither man nor woman, but instead as “a creature of the neutral gender.” In the text, our dreamer has his head so much in the clouds, so lost in reverie, that he is constantly playing a game of self-deception. In the film, it works for both Jacques and Marthe. They’re both playing a game on their own hearts. This is not a tragedy to Bresson, the way it might have been to Visconti, but it still hurts. Bresson lets the pain flow, as Marthe and the lodger walk into the night. Jacques returns home, likely to move on to another dream. They’ve both fallen in love with an ideal, rather than an actual person. As Marthe says, “That’s stupid.”