Christian Petzold’s new film Undine is due for release in the UK in the next few weeks. In the meantime, MUBI have announced a Petzold season and the first title that has popped up is this film from 2008. I actually bought the DVD of this title from Germany a few years ago but, as is often the case, I didn’t have time to watch it when it arrived so this was a real treat with the knowledge that whatever happened I could finish it this time round. We are big Petzold fans on this blog and possibly even bigger Nina Hoss fans. She stars in this alongside Benno Fürmann who I remember from an early Thomas Tykwer film The Princess and the Warrior (Germany 2000).
In Jerichow Fürmann is Thomas, who has recently left the Germany army with a dishonourable discharge after a stint in Afghanistan. He has returned to his mother’s house in Jerichow, a scattered community along the Eastern bank of the River Elbe in the East of Germany. His mother has just died and after an altercation with a gangster acquaintance he finds himself penniless. But soon he gets a job with Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a retail entrepreneur who runs a chain of local snack bars and, having lost his licence, needs a driver. Nina Hoss plays his wife Laura. Thomas quickly spots that Laura is abused and eager for a new man. At this point, most critics make a reference to James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice first published in 1934 and filmed at least four times in direct adaptations.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I find the few online reviews rather baffling. Christian Petzold had already emerged as one of the first of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ to get wider recognition outside Germany and this film played in competition at Venice in 2008. Petzold had already achieved a profile outside Germany with Yella (2007) which also starred Nina Hoss and explored capitalism in the new Germany (i.e. from the perspective of East Germans). Prior to that Nina Hoss and Benno Fürmann had been paired in Petzold’s Wolfsburg (2003) which I haven’t managed to find yet.
Part of the problem for critics, especially in North America I think, is the temptation to make the James M. Cain inspiration more important than it is. The context for the triangular relationship is not the Great Depression of the 1930s but East Germany less than 20 years after re-unification. In addition, Ali is an important character as a Turkish entrepreneur whose chain of snack bars includes some run by other migrants. Ali is a complex character. Some readings suggest he is named in reference to the character in Fassbinder’s film Fear Eats the Soul (1974) but that film takes place in the early 1970s in West Germany, in a period when Turks in Germany were just beginning to think about what would happen after the Gastarbeiter scheme ended in 1973. (And Fassbinder’s Ali is Moroccan, not Turkish). Perhaps Ali had been brought to West Germany as a child in 1973/4? Though Petzold gives us some background to Ali’s plans (to return to Turkey, buying a house in the Taurus Mountains), he doesn’t develop this as Turkish-German directors such as Fatih Akin might do. (I note from a Senses of Cinema essay on Petzold that he deliberately attempted to respond to the Gastarbeiter films in Jerichow – but I don’t know which films these might be.) The focus in Jerichow is on the economic impact of reunification on East Germany. The location of Jerichow is significant in that the Elbe was earlier part of the border between West and East Germany. (The filming was actually carried out in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern nearer the Baltic Sea coast.)
Jerichow offers an almost procedural study of the snackbar business. Ali soon susses out that Thomas has the intelligence and the skills (including hand to hand fighting) to quickly learn the business and take over while Ali briefly visits Turkey. Ali explains that many of the operators of the snack bars attempt to pocket small amounts of money which over time can mean that he loses a substantial sum. On occasions Ali terminates their contracts and gets someone else to take over. Ali then takes Thomas to a supplier where they spy on Laura. Is she also ‘on the take’ or is she having an affair? I don’t want to spoil more of the plot but it is important to note that Laura’s marriage to Ali is about money and at one point she rejects Thomas with the cry that nothing is about love, it’s all about money. We get only a little background on Laura and nothing about Thomas apart from the intimation that he had an East German childhood. Ali presumably grew up in West Germany and I’m not sure about Laura. Would the German audience notice things I’ve missed?
Several reviews suggest that Laura and Thomas have a very cold relationship. It’s complicated because their sexual attraction is obvious but Laura must be affected by Ali’s abuse. At one point Ali pushes the two of them together to dance, almost as if he is showing off Laura to Thomas. Rather than the film noir about a doomed man who would be the Thomas character in the earlier adaptations, Petzold’s film is a character-driven acting tour de force in which money underpins the lives of all three characters. The ending of the narrative moves further away from the Cain novel. It makes more sense to view the film alongside Yella than to think about it as an adaptation. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more interest in the UK in looking at Petzold’s output since his first fiction feature in 2000. Nine films in 20 years would make a good season and Nina Hoss appears in five. She is also due more exposure. I should also add that Jerichow features several important collaborators who have been with Petzold on many of his features including cinematographer Hans Fromm, editor Bettina Böhler and music composer Stefan Will. There is more to say about this film and I hope to return to it at some point.
The writer-directors of My Little Sister, Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, were able to introduce their film for the Borderlines Film Festival. They told us it was written for Nina Hoss and was made possible through a chance meeting with the actor. This is one of two Nina Hoss films in the festival and I posted on the other film The Audition (Germany 2019) from Glasgow last year. The two films are similar in some ways with Ms Hoss as an independent woman who finds herself close to someone she considers her charge, her responsibility at a time of crisis – even though this might undermine her marriage. Both films are made by women. My Little Sister was the official Swiss entry for the 2021 Oscars as ‘Best International Feature Film’.
This is a traditional European arthouse film, a drama designed primarily as a psychological study of twins from a Berlin family of actors and writers. It does however have a genre base in the form of a narrative about a potentially terminal illness. As the film opens it appears that it is the Nina Hoss character, Lisa who is facing a serious illness as she lies in a hospital bed attached to various bits of medical technology, but soon we realise that it is her twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger) who is seriously ill and that Lisa has been donating blood and marrow. This is one of those films that place actors in the odd position of playing roles which replicate aspects of their ‘real lives’. Sven, like Eidinger himself, is a star actor of the Berliner Schaubühne ensemble and the connection is extended through Thomas Ostermeier, the ‘real theatre’ director, who in this film plays David, the theatre director. Sven leaves hospital and visits the theatre hoping that David will take him back as Hamlet, the role he has played many times before. David is clearly wary of Sven’s condition but Sven is determined to spend his convalescence looking forward to returning to a role he knows so well.
Life in their mother’s flat in Berlin is chaotic and Kathy (Marthe Keller, the veteran German star) is not really equipped to keep house for Sven or to organise his medical appointments. Lisa decides to take him to her home in Switzerland where her two small children will be pleased to see Sven. She also has a husband Martin (Jens Albinus, also a lead actor in The Audition) who is the headteacher of an élite private school in the lakeside resort of Leysin (once known for its TB sanatoria). It is quickly apparent that Lisa’s close attachment to her sick twin (he is a few minutes older) is going to cause problems in her marriage. This is the basic plot outline. The genre base of the narrative more or less directs where the story will go but the interest is in the development of the relationships rather than the ‘action’ events.
Lisa has been a writer, including for the Schaubühne. She needs to write for Sven and she needs to write for herself and to stand up to her mother who represents the political theatre of the past. We wonder why she married Martin who is good in bed but whose ambitions for his career don’t really match what she wants for herself and her children. This is a cleverly scripted and beautifully presented film with terrific performances. I don’t really enjoy medical dramas which always make me think of my own mortality. On the other hand I could watch Nina Hoss being magnificent in virtually any kind of film. The connection between Lisa, Sven and the two children is at the centre of the film and it is this that kept me engaged throughout. I’ve said it is an arthouse film, but the narrative drive is strong, powered by the performances. The medical theme could be an ingredient in a melodrama, but in this case I feel that the melodrama possibilities are not developed and the narrative relies more on the performances. One interesting aspect of the film is that Leysin is in Vaud in the South West, part of francophone Switzerland and the school over which Martin presides is anglophone, reflecting its attraction to East Asian parents preferring the idea of an international school. Wikipedia tells me that there was indeed once an American international school in Leysin, but it is now closed. Some of the scenes in the school are interesting as Lisa is roped in by her husband to charm prospective students and their families. Lisa converses in French and then German on the phone as she walks towards the school and is then introduced in English. I should point out that all the films I have seen at the Borderlines Festival are subtitled by default.
According to the festival programme, My Little Sister has been acquired for the UK by 606 Distribution, a small independent which is “Dedicated to releasing female focused films from around the world”. I hope this means we shall see the film in UK cinemas later this year. Nina Hoss is a huge talent who is not well enough known in the UK and the more of her films that open here, the better. Similarly we don’t get many Swiss films and it is always good to see different aspects of European cinema. The US trailer below gives a good idea of the film.
Nina Hoss is a star and a very talented actor and I have enjoyed all her work with Christian Petzold. Now it seems she is keen to support the work of German women as directors and I was excited to see how The Audition, one of two films Hoss made with women in 2019, would pan out. The film was co-written and directed by Ina Weisse, an actor who has now directed three features. Her co-writer here was Daphne Charzani.
The Audition is a complex drama about music and the passion of expert performers. It’s also about tuition and pedagogy and the emotional intimacy of one on one tuition. All of this concerns Anna (Nina Hoss), a violinist who has had to abandon an orchestral career because of anxiety about her playing and who now teaches in a music school in Berlin. Anna is married to a French luthier, Philippe ( Simon Akbarian), who works beneath their apartment and she has a son, Jonas (Serafin Mishiev) who is clearly also a talented musician but as a young teenager is beginning to rebel against his mother. Finally, Anna also has a caring responsibility for her elderly father. It’s a great deal to contend with, especially when Anna takes on a new student, Alex (Ilja Monti), and when she has an offer to join a string quintet led by a fellow teacher.
Female-centred melodramas often feature the woman who has to be wife, lover, mother and daughter but here she must try and be teacher and performer as well. Nina Hoss can manage to represent all of these challenges and she is supported by the script, the ensemble of other players and the direction. Watching the film I had a real sense of just how complex and intelligent was the script and how much Nina Hoss had to express herself through posture and gesture. In an interview she revealed that she could play the piano but had to learn how to hold the violin and how to use the bow. I also thought about how much high art culture seems to be venerated in Germany and other countries of mainland Europe for its own qualities and not, as sometimes in the UK, because of social cachet. I’m not knowledgeable about classical music but I was engaged by the intracacies of the music teaching processes here. I’ve seen some reviews that mention similar American films like Whiplash. I haven’t seen that film but I did think about several European films. Two that sprung to mind were Vier Minuten (Four Minutes, Germany 2006) and La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner, France 2006). Both of these films share elements about tuition and performance with The Audition, although all three titles offer different narratives. Crucially they all deal with passion related to music and tuition.
The Audition is a good example of a contemporary melodrama. The music drives the passion which in turn needs a release in Anna’s sexual behaviour but also causes an anxiety. There is a great deal happening in the narrative which is difficult to sort out and analyse after a single viewing. Anna finds herself in some form of ‘contest’ with a range of male figures – her husband, father and son, her tutee and two of her colleagues at the music school. Unusually for a female-centred melodrama she doesn’t have a close female friend and the two women she does communicate with are both in some way competitors. One intriguing aspect of the interpretation of Anna concerns the costumes that Nina Hoss wears. One reviewer refers to them as ‘matronly’ and it’s true that I did notice the lack of glamour. There also seems to be a tension between the elegance that Nina Hoss brings to any role and the awkward stances taken up by Anna on occasion. An issue with her skirt also adds to her anxiety at one moment.
In many traditional melodramas the woman who has ‘too much’ passion is ‘punished’ in some way by the resolution of the narrative – a punishment that brings her back ‘into line’. We hope that we’ve moved on from that ideological position and the resolution of the narrative in this film is much more complex. It is a very dramatic ending and it isn’t necessarily all about Anna. In one sense she triumphs but in another she fails. There are consequences for several other characters.
This is certainly one of the best dramatic narratives I’ve seen for some time and I’m still processing it. I’ve read several reviews that I don’t agree with on a range of points. It was sheer joy to watch Nina Hoss present the complex world of Anna Bronsky. The good news is that distributors New Wave have acquired the title for UK distribution but no details of a release are available yet. When it does appear I hope to be able to use it in teaching.
The clip released for Toronto below shows a short scene between husband and wife. The German trailer (no English subs) gives a better impression of the range of incidents in the film.
Christian Petzold is no stranger to dealing with the idea of ghosts. Even though this film differs significantly from his earliest films, and forms part of the recent ones which have dealt with aspects of Germany history very much in the vein of the vergangenheitsbewaltigung tradition, there are resonances with his Ghost trilogy which gained him such International visibility as one of the Berlin School of filmmakers. These were directors, such as Petzold, Christoph Hochhäusler (Unter dir die Städt reviewed here), Thomas Arslan (an interview from 2011 here) and Angela Schanelec ( a trailer for Orly (2011) here). A disparate group but who all looked forward towards and at a modern Germany and the challenges faced in the new constitution of Europe. Thus, the first feature in the trilogy Die Innere Sicherheit (The State I’m In) dealt with what life was like as the daughter of two ex-terrorists (implicitly from something like the Red Army Faction) constantly on the run and never allowed to settle or make relationships. Similarly, Gespenster (Ghosts) cast Julia Hummer as a young, rootless girl trying to survive in Berlin. In Yella, Nina Hoss gives an eerie performance as a woman trying to move from the economically-deprived East to the more affluent West. Without giving any of the details of these plots away, Petzold’s characters definitively experience what it is like to be ghosts within the new economic Europe and to be a shadow within your own life. Watching Hoss play the role of Nelly in Phoenix, returning to her old life from the camps, was a further revelation of this theme with melodramatic intensity. Nelly is a ghost in her own life, unrecognised by her own husband and forced to act as her own doppelganger. All the unsettling, psychological associations having a double are at play here as in other such narratives and a scene in the hospital where Nelly is undergoing facial surgery made direct visual reference to it. Whilst Nelly as a shadow is a cultural metaphor, Hoss captures the emotional fragility so naturalistically that her performance protects the film from being schematic or overly symbolic. It works, as Keith and Roy have said, perfectly on a thematic level. It expresses exactly what might have been the emotional dislocation of returning from such an experience to attempt to take up your old life and relationships. And that the ending works is testament to the emotional conviction in the playing – from Hoss and Zehrfeld but, importantly, also from Nina Kunzendorf who offered such a convincing protective warmth and love – and a different response to circumstances – as Nelly’s devoted Jewish friend. The ending of the film, as Keith and Roy say, is incredibly moving, retaining an emotional ambiguity whilst being so satisfying. It generally reached back, for me, to Fassbinder in a way I haven’t know Petzold do so much before especially the post-war relationship in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). Weren’t the nightclub scenes quite parodic – with an uncomfortable sense of victors moving in to take the place of Nazis?
Some reviews have talked about Petzold employing naturalism. I tend not to agree. Petzold uses his landscapes and his characters to create parables and to explore moral issues quite overtly and schematically. His style is better described as restrained and resists visual or aural excess but it does not lack elements of fantasy or melodrama. He often relies on the controlled intensity of actors such as Hoss or underplaying in performance in very extreme, narrative circumstances (as happens in Barbara (2012) or Jerichow (2008)). Part of what is fascinating about his work for me is this exploration of how to marry these disparate kinds of styles of expression. His collaboration with Harun Farocki – the great social documentarian – goes back to his film school days where Farocki taught him. Farocki was an inspirational documentarian on social issues as they related to the modern economic world. In returning to themes of the post-war era, crafting what some see as very conventional dramas for an international market (and therefore see Petzold as reneging on some of his principles) do these two collaborators suggest there is unfinished business there that can no longer be resisted?
I’m glad I saw this on the big screen at Vue West End (but disappointed to miss the live appearance of Nina Hoss). Put simply this is a great melodrama by Christian Petzold with a setting associated with the Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble film’. It includes elements from Fassbinder’s ‘BRD trilogy’ including the image of Hanna Schygulla as the Maria Braun character from The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) stepping through the rubble and the nightclub at the heart of Lola (1981).
It is a few months after the end of the war in 1945 and two women drive into Switzerland. One is swathed in bandages and is being transported by her friend Lene. Beneath the bandages is Nelly, whose face has been disfigured during her escape from Auschwitz. She is about to visit a plastic surgeon and get a new face. Lene searches in the archives for a new Jewish identity for Nelly who was a famous popular singer before the war. Lene’s plan is that the pair of them should go to Palestine where Lene has already rented a flat in Haifa. But Nelly has other ideas – one of which involves finding her husband Johnny back in Berlin. This is where the bar, the Phoenix comes in. I won’t spoil the plot except to say that Johnny reappears in the guise of Ronald Zehrfeld (previously paired with Nina Hoss in Petzold’s Barbara (2012)). What follows has been likened to Hitchcock or film noir. There is a suggestion that Petzold didn’t know how to end the film, but I thought it was a perfect ending and as Howard Schumann suggests in his IMDB posting, it creates a moment so resonant that it could become one of the great final scenes in cinema.
The script is based on a novel by the French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet which was first adapted for the screen for a British film directed by J. Lee Thompson with Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow and Samantha Eggar in 1965 under the novel’s title Return From the Ashes (Le retour des cendres). This film (which I now want to see – I don’t remember it coming out – is only available on a Region 1 ‘print on demand’ DVD from MGM Archives). Petzold, working on a new adaptation with the late Harun Farocki, changed the location from Paris to Berlin and some of the other story elements – shifting the genre from crime melodrama to something more metaphorical concerned with identity and fidelity.
I’m a little frustrated that I can’t find a Press Pack for the film so I’m forced to look for interviews with Petzold to explore some of his ideas. The film was first seen at Toronto and has since then provoked a great deal of discussion – much of it querying why it was turned down by Cannes and Venice. I haven’t seen Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep yet but if it’s better than Phoenix it must be quite something. I’d like to explore aspects of the film in detail but I’d need to see it again first and I don’t want to spoil the surprises. What I would say is that it looks stupendous shot on Super 35 film in CinemaScope and with rich reds standing out against the rubble. Nina Hoss gives a breathtaking performance. Nelly has to gradually recover her confidence and her sense of self – and then the plot requires Nelly to play another role.
As well as Hitchcock and Franju (Eyes Without a Face) some critics have also referenced Douglas Sirk’s 1958 Hollywood adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel ‘A Time to Live and a Time to Die’ set in the last few months of the war. Sirk changed the title to A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Apart from the setting in a bombed out Berlin suburb for part of the film, Remarque’s story is rather different, but Sirk produced one of the first films to try to deal with the emotional lives of individuals in the chaos of Germany’s defeat. This is certainly what powers Phoenix. Nelly has to find an identity and a major part of her quest is to find out what happened to her husband. Did he betray her? Does he still love her? Does she love him? How will people live in the new Germany(s)? How will they deal with memories? The simplicity of Nelly’s final appearance is a response to these layered questions.
Soda Pictures have Phoenix for the UK and Sundance Selects for the US, Films We Like for Canada and Madman for Australia/New Zealand. In fact most territories are taking the film. Keep your eyes peeled – don’t miss it!
Here is an Australian trailer for the film:
There was a moment when I was watching Barbara – which admittedly means quite a lot of watching the wonderful Nina Hoss – when it occurred to me that if there was a film like this to watch every week, I’d be very happy. When the film finished, my viewing companions surprised me by not agreeing with my sense of satisfaction. Perhaps they’ll comment on this post and explain why?
Many of the press reports have compared Barbara to The Life of Others (Germany 2006) which proved a major international hit. Barbara is similar in theme, but not in ‘feel’. Some aspects of Das Versprechen (The Promise, Germany 1994) seemed more apposite for me. I think director Christian Petzold set out to make a film quite unlike The Lives of Others in its depiction of life behind the Berlin Wall.
The setting of Barbara is East Germany in 1980. Barbara (Nina Hoss) has arrived in a small town in Pomerania near the Baltic coast to take up a new post in a hospital. Gradually we learn that she has been forced to leave a prestigious hospital in Berlin following her request to leave the country. Having angered the authorities with this request, she is now not to be trusted and is therefore subject to routine surveillance in her allocated apartment and suffers doubly in the hospital. It will take her time to sort out who is unfriendly because they think she is a stuck-up metropolitan type and who has been assigned to watch her closely and report back.
Barbara knows the score and therefore she is reluctant to respond to the overtures of Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) who is effectively her boss. He seems warm and welcoming, but is he too good to be true? Forced into moments of close contact (they are paediatric surgeons, working together) he at one point tells her a story to explain why he too has been ‘sent to the provinces’. Is he lying? Zehrfeld, who comes across as a slightly podgy but much nicer Russell Crowe, is very engaging but the film’s production design and cinematography creates a narrative space so pregnant with distrust that we are equally as unsure as Barbara about who to trust. (He clearly is under surveillance himself, but this might be a cover, a double-bluff.)
There is an excellent Press Pack for the film available here (as a pdf) in which Petzold discusses the film at length in terms of what he was trying to achieve and how he and the cast and crew prepared themselves. He tells us, for instance, that the two films that were most important in influencing the story and how he approached it were Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not in which Bogart and Bacall develop a romance in Martinique under surveillance by the Vichy French police in 1940 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons. The latter is one of several Fassbinder melodramas which present the feel and tone of life in post-war West Germany. Petzold showed the Hawks picture to his would-be lovers before the shoot and then looked to create something similar to Fassbinder’s mise en scène in representing the GDR in 1980. He argues that in recent films, the GDR has been portrayed in greys and browns – too symbolically drab and desperate. Petzold claims to have steered away from symbolism as such and tried for a very realist presentation, meticulously recreating hospital rooms etc. Certainly he shows the late summer as full of vibrant colours in the fields, but some scenes still seem to have an expressive edge (on several occasions when Barbara makes dangerous journeys by bicycle near the sea in order to secretly meet her West German lover or to hide incriminating evidence, there is a howling wind blowing). Overall though I think the approach works and the atmosphere is created more by narrative suspense than clunky symbols.
The last section of the narrative is both the most emotional in terms of the potential romance and the most suspenseful. It is also the sequence in which Petzold seems to contrive a thriller narrative with a plot that is either full of holes or too obvious in its direction. I can see these criticisms but neither of them bothered me as I watched the sequence. The careful mise en scène and slow pace – even as the tension mounts – kept me enthralled. I felt both the horror of living in a society where every sound of a motor vehicle or a step on the stair means possible discovery and arrest and the romantic intensity of choosing between security on the one hand and genuine passion but no security on the other. This kind of desperate choice is really what the film is about. I though the film’s ending was appropriate and satisfying and overall I found the film to be humanist in its approach.