Die Beischlafdiebin / The Sex Thief (1998)

27 04 2020

After the rare misfire in Cuba Libre, Petzold is back on track with his usual concerns in The Sex Thief. In all honesty, this feels like his own personal attempt at refining what he accomplished in his debut, Pilots. The story is remarkably similar: two women fighting back against an exploitative labor relationship, framed through the ever-watchful eye of state surveillance. In that earlier film, Petzold’s brevity made his story hit harder. Here, I guess his characters are fleshed out, but I’m not sure that’s exactly a good thing for a Petzold film. As it stands, I think he runs out of steam early. In a way, it makes sense that he had to make Cuba Libre and this after Pilots before he could achieve The State I Am In. Somewhere during this made for television period he found a way to let his camera linger in a way that artfully plays up the tensions in personal relationships without making them resolutely clear. As it is, he is still working through some aesthetic growing pains in this film.

The film opens with our protagonist, Petra, in the embrace of who we presume to be her lover. A bucket of water is quickly thrown on this fire when Petzold cuts directly to Petra robbing this man in his sleep. This, we soon learn, is her profession. Petra makes her money by seducing, drugging, and robbing men. To her, the cause is noble, as she is doing this to finance the education of her younger sister, Franziska. After a close call with a undercover cop, Petra gives herself a break and visits Franziska. She keeps her profession a secret from her sister, telling her that she’s a successful manager. The sisters are telling lies to each other, as Franziska is not furthering her education but working in retail. Upon this discovery, Petra makes it her mission to assist Franziska in finding a job that fits her credentials.

There’s a somewhat recent interview with Petzold in which he is asked about the “transient spaces” depicted throughout his work. He responds by relaying a description of an extended stay in London’s Heathrow Airport. To quote him, “this is a shit place in the world, but it’s filled with images of waterfalls and beautiful women and advertising for wellness. Yet nothing is happening—you’re dying there. Capitalism makes all of the world the same. It tells you that just around the corner there’s an adventure, but there’s nothing.” It’s a telling description because Petzold often perfects this “airport feeling.” In The Sex Thief, Petra spends all of her time in hotels, which she uses as her justification for visiting her sister’s loft. “I work for hotels, I live in hotels, I eat in hotels. I wanted to be somewhere far away from that.” What she seeks is a lifestyle rooted, a routine, and a foundation. She tries to accomplish this with her sister, helping her acquire stable employment, but she helps her by using what she knows, which yields little success.

Petra’s coaching of her sister is sensual and precise, and Petzold’s depiction of it is something that manages to channel both De Palma’s lasciviousness and the otherworldly detachment of late Bresson. I’ve never considered either of these filmmakers in analyzing Petzold but I find it informative, if one applies the comparison with some caution. Bresson is perhaps the urtext to a certain kind of Western European Minimalism of which Petzold, at least in his early days, is undoubtedly a disciple. Meanwhile his fondness for Hitchcock is well-documented, and he does participate in the sort of narrative slight-of-hand that informs all of De Palma’s work. This is the Petzold film that is most specifically about eros, yet it also feels the least sensual of all his work. Perhaps it is that incomparable tension that he slowly builds that can make a film like Gespenster feel uncomfortable and sexy at the same time. Here, romance is a labor-performance, stripped (pardon the pun) of its nervous (and exciting) energies. It’s a cynical view, but it isn’t unearned.

Unfortunately, the cynicism of The Sex Thief isn’t balanced by the humor like it is in Pilots. Fittingly, there’s a laborious sensation felt in watching a film that, despite its many insights offered by a brilliant filmmaker who is just beginning to come into his own, is something of a retread of an earlier film. It’s a form of homework I don’t mind completing mind you, and there are moments of unique brilliance. When Franziska goes in for a job interview, the back and forth between her and her potential employer is filmed. Her seduction doesn’t work, which makes Petra seek the interviewer out. She seduces him and takes him back to his apartment, where he is all too eager to show her footage of the day’s interviews. There, he pinpoints the errors in Franziska’s seduction. The sequence quickly synthesizes Petzold’s chief interests, which are made literal. It’s an austerely observed sequence of labor, sex, and surveillance all interacting at once. One can’t fault him for being too on the nose in this film, because it feels like a necessary exercise on the way to making The State I Am In, his masterpiece.

Cuba Libre (1996)

24 04 2020

Approximately two minutes into Petzold’s second full-length film, Tom, played by Richy Müller, gets smacked in the face with a purse. He falls to the ground, and the opening credits hit the audience. This is something we are going to get very familiar with in the next eighty-eight minutes. Müller’s Tom has to qualify as the most frequently attacked character in the history of cinema. He is constantly taking a punch, and he hardly ever is prepared to defend himself. Under Petzold’s watchful eye, Tom’s frequent abuse turns absurd, and borders on comic. Petzold’s preoccupations are present, of course, and we can track the stylistic evolution that would reach its peak a few years later in The State I Am In. The most unique thing that Cuba Libre has to offer is an unusually pathetic protagonist, and the humor derived from him. It is far from Petzold’s best, in fact it’s probably the weakest of the ones I’ve recently revisited, but I do have to admit that it is the slightest change of pace for the filmmaker.

Tom’s opening violence comes from the hands of an old flame, Lisa. He is nursed back to health by Jimmy, a man who asks for Tom’s friendship. Understandably skeptical but little economic mobility, Tom reluctantly accepts. He uses this to steal Jimmy’s money. He once again runs into Lisa, but this time she’s the one being harassed by a lecherous man. Tom saves her, which she thanks him for her, before kicking him in the gut. We learn more of Tom and Lisa’s shared past. They once lived together, albeit briefly, in Cuba. Tom dreams of going back, but Lisa resents both Tom and the idea of their time together. He hatches a new plan, to escape to Nice, but of course, things don’t go as planned.

Of all of Petzold’s early thrillers, Cuba Libre is easily the most densely plotted and difficult to comprehend. It never strikes the right balance between being opaque and being disorienting. Instead, it feels like too much is going on. This works to a degree, as the rapid dissemination of information falls onto the audience at the same rate in which Tom is physically assaulted. The way Richy Müller experiences pain in the film is ultimately its greatest gift. There’s a melancholy to be found in his bruises, but the fists fly so frequently that he becomes charmingly devoid of luck. Müller wears all of this very well and he drives the film in a way that male characters seldom do in Petzold’s work, but it isn’t quite enough to make up for the film’s narrative driven thrust.

I think it’s probably telling that this is the first time I’ve encountered a Petzold film that didn’t contain any sort of discourse of surveillance. That alone doesn’t make the film weaker. Far be it from me to downgrade a film just because it lacks the salience present in a relevant, but still buzzy buzzword. Perhaps it is important to note that Petzold’s other films aren’t simply great because they deal with Big Things but instead that he brilliantly taps into a sensation felt by living in an era where these forms of domination are become more and more popular. The equivalent in Cuba Libre is that, well, there’s a lot of cop cars on the highway. Petzold himself has said that his films narrate the “melancholy of the bourgeoise” yet weirdly in a film with his characters the least well off, that tension seems to fade away. Tom and Lisa seem simply unhappy.

The one thing that Tom and Lisa do have in common with the rest of Petzold’s subjects is that they see somewhere else as salvation. The film’s title, Cuba Libre, is amusing to me. There’s a certain political valence that comes from seeing the two words put together. It’s something of a red herring for Petzold. Instead, Cuba is the escape that Tom craves, and to which Lisa eventually agree. Again, they never get to where they want to go. As one of the characters succinctly states, “The poor always end up back where they were poorest.” Despite the constant movement of both Tom and Lisa, they never go anywhere. Literal mobility never equals economic mobility.

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.

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.