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.