When the wall came down, German filmmakers found themselves ushered into two clusters: those that concentrated on the country’s fascist past and the others that shined light on anything else. The latter clique was hailed as pushing the medium forward; they often dabbled in social-realism with little dialogue and snail-like pacing — and though their box office receipts were low in comparison to their brother faction, they seduced international audiences and held their ground at many of the world’s foremost film festivals. As the first and second generation of directors emerging after the split, the media dubbed their movement the “Berlin School” (a moniker they’re not thrilled over) and the team pressed on making films, a trio of them even coming together to shoot a “Red Riding”-esque trilogy in “Dreileben.”
One of those filmmakers was Christian Petzold, responsible for many great collaborations with German actor Nina Hoss in “Yella” and “Jerichow.” The dynamic duo return for “Barbara,” a subtle period piece centered on one woman in 1980s East Germany. Hoss’s titular character arrives as a new employee in a small, quiet hospital, her reserved nature and fierce mug deterring the advances of another doctor at the complex, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld). But there’s more to her behavior than meets the eye, and eventually it’s revealed that she plans to escape the German Democratic Republic with her conspirator husband — but with the State Security keeping close eye on her suspicious demeanor, it may be easier said than done.
We caught the film at the New York Film Festival and loved the subtlety of its being: “Barbara” refuses to hold your hand, eschewing any expositional moments in favor of low-key scenes that allow the audience to piece together the puzzle in their head. Director Christian Petzold was in the Big Apple this spring to talk about the movie and we had the chance to discuss with him the films that inspired the movie, differences between German and American actors, and what he’s got cooking next. “Barbara” will hit US shores on December 21st.
Cracking The Idea
Born on the West side to parents from the East, Petzold had this link to the former GDR but found himself mostly in the dark in regards to what life was actually like for that particular society. “My mother and father spent their whole youth in the GDR and they never talked about it. We always went to the there to visit my relatives and I just thought… 40 years, 17 million people, and nobody was telling their story. The wall fell and nobody wanted to hear from them anymore. In 2002 I wanted to make this period picture, but I couldn’t find my position in it because I wasn’t a part of it. I’m a guest, from the outside,” he explained. It took him almost five years to finally crack the perspective of what eventually became “Barbara” thanks to a book by an East German communist. “The author wrote about the dreams that founded the GDR, all the dreams of the anti-fascist people from the exile, the survivors from the Nazi time. They wanted to build up a society that was a better Germany — socialism. These dreams eventually changed into nightmares.” That’s when things clicked for the director and the titular character played by Nina Hoss was born. “Barbara would be a doctor, a fantastic one in the East, and she had to be part of this dream. She must be a socialistic woman. But she lost her trust, so this must be tough — someone who lost the dream and what is coming behind the dream. It’s for her person and also a story for the whole society.”
Exploitation Of A Country For Box Office
“The windows of history always have the fantastic position of telling stories, they’re telling about the GDR as if it was North Korea or something,” expounded Petzold on his distaste for any sort of representation of East Germany that was severely grim or miserablist. “The West had advertisements, music, erotica, everything, and in the East they had nothing, they looked like anabolic swimmers who swam one world record after another and they’re all ugly, etc. And this I hate, because when I stayed there as a child, it was a complicated system with many people who were looking and searching for their position.” He refused to showcase only the horrible elements of that time and place, instead finding an interesting middle ground between the good and the bad. “The GDR was an island surrounded by capitalistic structures and societies, so for themselves they were like an island with two meanings. One the one hand it’s like Robinson Crusoe's island, an island of dreams, a paradise. One the other, it’s a prison. From these two conflicting elements there is a tension between them and this tension must be where ‘Barbara’ has its place,” he explained, adding that he wanted to “make pictures of infection.” The inhabitants are infected by the mistrust of their government, and on the flip-side, the political body is poisoned by its people, who just want freedom and independence.
Instead of conventional rehearsing, the “Berlin School” filmmaker prefers to spend their time watching films that he feels are important to the project — rehearsals extinguish the off-the-cuff, in-the-moment collaboration that Petzold favors. “It’s not that I wrote a script that I wanted to realize. I hate that cinema stuff. I’m so glad that the best movie according to Sight & Sound is now ‘Vertigo’ and not ‘Citizen Kane’ anymore. Nothing against Orson Welles, but ‘Kane’ is always the movie of a genius, and I don’t like that. ‘I have so many fantasies in my head and I just want to realize them!’ For me cinema is a collective work and therefore the rehearsals I do are much different than practicing lines and hitting specific beats.”
Some of the movies that were most important to “Barbara” were “Klute,” “The French Connection,” “To Have And Have Not,” “Summer With Monika,” and “Stromboli.” “After the second day of looking at movies, the actors said that the subjects had nothing to do with the GDR in the 1980s. But the movies have to do with a morality. I wanted to open the actors to cinema. ‘French Connection’ is a movie where you can reflect the position of the director. He’s never over-the-shoulder of the sniper, he’s always on the sight of the victims and the weak. The murderers don’t have a subjective. ‘Stromboli’ is a movie about an exile, ‘To Have’ is about a man who wants to live on a fishing boat because the sea is his only society. This is always the mistake for a person, you cannot have an apartment on the ship. The society infected everything and you can see the infection in Humphrey Bogart and you can see it with politics and love in the same moment with Lauren Bacall,” mentioned the director, who stressed that the actors loved Howard Hawks’ film so much that they watched it an additional three times without him. “There was a scene in a night market in ‘Klute’ where Donald Sutherland is buying things for dinner and Jane Fonda watches him. He takes a melon and he’s touching it and it’s very erotic. She sees that he has senses, he has skill. She is living in her body, in her apartment, like a tank. So she’s looking at him and she knows in this moment, he’s not representing, he’s presenting and it’s a total difference. So love starts at this moment.” It seems that both “To Have and Have Not” and “Klute” were very influential towards the love story between Hoss and Zehrfeld, as their relationship plays out very similarly to those in the aforementioned films.
On Acting, German vs. American
“I thought about American acting because it’s totally based on European professors like Stanislavski, but also it is physical, it’s no expression. It’s something to do because the theater is so bad here, in Germany we have so many actors coming from stage, and that means loud speaking, face working. The American acting is of hiding and being. The people open a window, they have the skill to do it. The German theater actors never open a window because there are none on stage. Therefore I make rehearsals with actors I show them five American movies, by Gus Van Sant or something. ‘This is walking,’ I say. Germans can’t walk in front of the camera because they’re looking at the camera. When you’re on the street, everyone is looking 45 degrees to the ground. They are thinking, dreaming. But the German actors want to express something for the audience, they are never on their alone. People on the street are dreaming, in a bubble or something, they’re a bit sad when you see them. They’re thinking about their children, money, etc. The German actors have to learn so much.”
Next Stop, 1945
It seems Petzold isn’t done with the past — without a breath, the filmmaker already knows exactly what he’s doing next. “It will be in Berlin, 1945, in which a survivor of Auschwitz is returning to get her life back.” His muse Nina Hoss will be on deck again, and also returning from “Barbara” will be Ronald Zehrfeld and most of his trusty crew, including Director of Photography Hans Fromm. He does stress that he hasn’t got the money just yet — the film requires a bigger budget than the film he is currently promoting — but he remains confident that this will be his next outing.