‘Undine’ Director Christian Petzold’s 7 Tips for a Successful Career

Independence, Hitchcock, and changing up leading players inform Petzold's strategy for keeping his movies sharp, fresh, and engaging.
IFC Films

Few auteurs today have as consistent a track record as German director Christian Petzold, whose enviable output is on display on Mubi this month, hooked to the national release on over 50 screens of his ninth feature, “Undine,” out now from IFC Films. It’s the filmmaker’s second film starring the “Transit” duo of Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer, who won the 2020 Berlin Silver Bear as well as the European Film Award for Best Actress. This time, Petzold twists an ancient mermaid myth into a visually stunning and romantic ecological message movie. After the Berlinale, “Undine” played well in theaters in Germany just under the wire before COVID created a global lockdown.

On a recent IndieWire Zoom from his book-filled office apartment in Berlin, where Petzold completed two pandemic scripts and went on a movie-watching spree as he recovered from COVID-19, he shared some views about how to make entertaining and provocative movies without being boring. “Undine” certainly qualifies.

1. Write your own movies.

Petzold has no trouble resisting Hollywood’s inevitable siren call because he rejects what they have to offer. “I love to write by myself,” he said. “They sent me some scripts. I must say I was not the first one they sent the script to — so bad! A bad script from Hollywood has a period European story; they need European money, therefore they’re calling a European author like me. I could get $1 million from France, $2 million from Germany, $1 million from Norway. I want to make German stories like Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I’m not international.”

Take “Barbara,” Petzold’s haunting 2012 Berlin Silver Bear-winner and German Oscar entry. In Petzold’s fifth collaboration with luminous actress Nina Hoss, she plays an intrepid East Berlin doctor sent to the boonies in 1980 as punishment for wanting to leave the country. Like everyone around her, she lies to survive; she sneaks around in the night to meet her West German lover in the woods. But she cares for her patients; that bonds her with her charismatic fellow doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld) who she trusts despite an overwhelming atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and paranoia.

Growing up in Berlin, Petzold’s parents would return to the Eastern German Democratic Republic (GDR) to visit their relatives. “All the pictures we can see in West Germany,” said Petzold, “are black, white, and grey, like Communism; it’s all like Richard Burton in ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.’ Each year we have to do holidays. It was in color: water, people have skin, it was not black and white. My mother told me that in her youth, working in a chemical laboratory as a young woman, it was filled with color and she has a life of her own. This was ‘Barbara.'”

Nina Hoss in “Phoenix”The Criterion Collection

2. Ask “what would Hitchcock do?”

As Petzold manipulates mystery and tension, withholding information from the audience until the right time, he is always thinking about the master of suspense. “All movies have something to do with Hitchcock,” he said. “My movies have something to do, always, with each camera position. I am thinking like Hitchcock: there is the look of someone — who’s looking here? — or a look like God, this is objective. He’s so close to cinema as a dream. That’s what cinema always has to be.”

For the post-World War II Berlin drama “Phoenix” (2015), Petzold built upon his co-writer Harun Forocki’s essay “about men who create women like muses,” Petzold said. “We are talking together about Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo,’ and ‘Pygmalion,’ about all the men who create women. I said to him, ‘Let’s tell the same story from the perspective of the created women.’ For example, in ‘Vertigo’ the whole time you can see Kim Novak through the eyes of James Stewart; when he’s going with her to the Catholic church with the tower, in one moment you see the world out of the car, running through the forest, from her perspective. Why did he change the perspective? Because she has to die now, so she is the subject for a moment. ‘Phoenix’ is about a man [Zehrfeld] who created a woman [Hoss], and the woman knows she is created; she is looking at the man who creates her. This is a perspective we like.”

“Vertigo”Universal Pictures

3. Keep things fresh. 

For years, Petzold talked with Farocki about adapting “Transit” (2018) from the Anna Seghers Marseilles classic. “For us, this was the cinematographic novel of our life,” said Petzold. “A man with no identity [Rogowski] takes the identity of someone else. This is, for me, cinema, to try and live in another identity, to pretend to be a good man, or a family, or a father, or a lover.” After Farocki’s death in 2014, Petzold went on without him.

“Transit” also marked the year Petzold broke away from Hoss after six films together. He bristled when a journalist asked him if Paula Beer was his new and younger muse. “Had I exchanged my muse as one is getting to be 45 years old with a fresh new one?” said Petzold. “I never talked about Nina that she is a muse. She is too intelligent. We are in production and have many reflections about our work together.” His answer to the journalist: “No, Franz is the new Nina Hoss.”

And so “Undine” was born. The characters Hoss played were “lonely,” he said. “She was alone in this world and has to fight for herself. For me, Paula and Franz, they are a couple. Not like a collaborator. I’m thinking of Paula and Franz together as a couple I have to find my relation to. This is interesting to me.”

Hoss understands, said Petzold: “I met Nina some time ago and we were talking together; she liked this switch too.”

“We’re still a good match,” Hoss told IndieWire a few months ago before the release of the Swiss Oscar entry “My Little Sister.” “We’re making a pause after ‘Phoenix.’ We needed to let some air in. It made sense to give it a little break. It was such a big long stretch of six films, one after the other, and it felt like a conclusion. It doesn’t mean we’ll never work again.”

Christian Petzold

4. Play freely with your source.

After “Undine” was finished, a Swiss professor told Petzold he got the myth totally wrong. The director didn’t care. He had been haunted since he was 18 by one image from the 1811 German novel “Undine” by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. “When the naked Undine is coming into the wedding suite,” said Petzold, “where he is lying with his wife, she’s naked in a bubble of water. She takes him into the water bubble so he drowned and died. When the servants are coming in this room and see the naked Undine, she says, ‘I cried him to death.'”

Petzold also hangs onto the mermaid’s threat to the lover who breaks up with her. “If you leave,” she says, “you have to die.” That’s what Undine (Beer) says to her boyfriend (Jacob Matschenz) before returning to her job as a Stadtmuseum Berlin urban development tour guide. After watching her, industrial diver Christoph (Rogowski) follows her into a bar where an aquarium shatters and throws them onto the floor. “As the water pours over them they’re lying next to each other like on a beach,” said Petzold. “They open their eyes like a rebirthing scene, wet with mud and old fish. They look at each other and the first thing they see are the eyes of the other. That’s a good start for a love story.”

Christian Petzold’s “Undine”IFC Films

5. Stick to real locations. 

“Undine” is set in Petzold’s home of Berlin, which he has watched transform over the years from a student hangout with low rents and a thriving art scene to an expanding metropolis. “The gentrification was coming so soon,” he said, “Everything changing from one day to another, people looking into buying houses and seeing money, not possibilities. This was the idea, the myth coming out of the lake and looking: ‘Centuries I am looking at your city, this city is starting to get like Paris, London, and New York.’ l love the young woman of the myth with the curse on her shoulder, asking, ‘What are you doing to your city?'”

One of the most vivid set pieces is shot deep on the floor of a mossy reservoir. “We had the possibility to make it cheaper if we can do many things more in the computer and CGI,” said Petzold. “For me it was important to build this underwater world with a cave and this reservoir wall there. We have to build it in the reality so the actors are acting in a dreamland, not in front of a green screen.”

6. Aim for theaters. 

“I always think for the big screen,” said Petzold. “Two years ago I was in a big Berlin loft for a party. On the side the son of the owner had created a bar for himself, with drinks there. You could see how he’d come home and make the martini in his own bar. For me, looking at big flat screens at home is like him at the bar, very lonely as he recreates the cinema at home on the big screen with a big sound system. It’s not. Cinema is a social place like a bar, a common place where people buy a ticket sitting beside you in darkness who you have never seen before. We are lonely, but we are not alone in our loneliness. This is a fantastic place. This is my big screen.”

7. Keep writing.

Next up, Petzold is shooting “The Lucky Ones,” to star Beer. It is a racy, sexy script written during the pandemic about “a group of young people who are on holiday in the Baltic Sea,” he said. “It’s a part of Germany with big forests, like the California redwoods. They’re in a dangerous situation where there will be fires in the forest and so I’ve written a script about the fire of desire in their hearts and the desire in the forests out of control. It’s something we are part of, this ecological world, not just our bodies and our minds.”

The film will wait to go into production next summer when safety protocols are looser “because it’s about love and skin, and touching and kissing,” said Petzold. “We can’t do it with a test each morning.”

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