Saturday, February 9, 2013

Christian Petzold, Berlin Filmmaker

A few weeks ago we saw the movie, Barbara, written and directed by the great German filmmaker, Christian Petzold. Since then we have seen three others. His work is characterized by a unique signature of mobility, mystery and nuanced characters moving across the moral spectrum, both sympathetic and compromised in turns. He is a mature artist in full command of his craft and unlike most American movies his often create personal stories within a socio-political context in the background.  

His characters attain a remarkable dimension in an existential crisis which he captures cinematically through subtle images of small gestures, a water glass shattering or wind rustling trees. He resists explicating and withholds pieces of the narrative making demands on the viewer until just the right moment.

We enter the psyche of a Berliner with a new-found burst of mobility, however illusory. What appears as movement may be more an inner transformation in search for a sense of coming home to one self. Cars and trains are a seen moving from East to West in post-wall Germany but the trade-off is many-layered. He examines the constriction of life under the old regime with the shadow of the ubiquitous Stassi. At the same time Petzold portrays the West with a cautionary note.

In his 2008 film, Yella, a young woman from the East with a talent for spread-sheets is seduced by the allure of easy money in a corporate culture of corruption which leads to her spiraling-down life. The moral ambiguity of his characters is so beautifully nuanced that Petzold seems to find a third choice between Western-style Capitalism and the repression of the East. There is a pull for the collective or at least the sense of community over individuality; a suggestion that money, without end, has become a goal in itself rather than simple autonomy.

In his ghost story trilogy he depicts the power of desire to create its own reality, of a sort. He gives voice to the longing and deferred dreams of a suppressed people and the creative burst now underway centered in Berlin.

The contrast with studio films from Hollywood is stark. Petzold’s movies are told without the multi-million dollar production values we’ve grown accustomed to. Yet his work is well-lit and well-paced but with unexpected turns which dodge the easy pitfalls of genre films. Even in his derivative film, Jerichow, which is admittedly a take on, The Postman Always Rings Twice, the characters turn in ways we don’t see coming.

He dwells in some in-between place fraught with possibilities and uncertainties; people displaced psychically and physically entering into a new society yet unprepared with vestiges of old ways pulling them back. He is most interested in creating this transitional space.

European filmmakers such as Petzold can better see the global box-office strategies of studio projects and their effect on the art of cinema, how a sense of place is no longer local but must appeal to the world market. Movies have become deteritorialized. He is free to explore material left behind or issues neglected in the rush for blockbuster hits. For those of us hungry for independent work with substance we look abroad for artists such as Christian Petzold.

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