[This interview was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of Barbara.]
One of the best films I’ve seen at the New York Film Festival so far is Christian Petzold’s Barbara. It’s a carefully rendered glimpse of paranoia and moral integrity in East Germany, with a great performance by Nina Hoss as the title character. Barbara is Germany’s official selection for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. It will be released domestically on December 21st.
After the screening there was a press conference with Petzold via Skype, which began with some self-deprecating remarks about his English (which is perfectly fine, but he’s particular about language). That’s why he had two essentials at his desk: a German-to-English dictionary and a pack of cigarettes. That wit and good humor really came through when I talked to Petzold in person, same with his intellect and enthusiasm.
I met Petzold at a film exec’s apartment on the Upper East Side. The doorbell played the first two lines of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” inadvertently interrupting an interview in progress. We sat down in a side room just as the air conditioner came on. Before I had my recorder out, we started talking about smoking and the sounds of cities, particularly when it comes to hotels. I wish I’d gotten some of it on tape. We moved on to talk about film as literature, the persistence and perversion of 19th century ideas, filming stories chronologically, and the sound in “digital-f**k movies.”
But Petzold began, of course, by commenting on his English.
[Editor’s note: I reworded two of the questions in order to avoid spoilers.]
Christian Petzold: When I have a problem or difficulty with my English and my words, it’s no problem. I can ask you the right word, yeah?
Flixist: Perfect, yeah.
Because it’s very hard for me to speak English the whole day through.
You did well on the Skype press conference.[laughs] Oh, it was a disaster! I felt ashamed after!
Oh no. You did fine.
For me [it felt like that], because I have my dictionary there, I have my cigarettes there, yeah? And then the words are out of my mind. I’m always looking for some very, very important word.
You studied literature, so obviously language matters.
That actually reminds me. I read an interview with you where you mentioned that literature complicates things in the world for you. Could you talk about how that plays into your view of film and art?
Literature complicates me. One of my best friends, he’s the dean of the Film Museum in Vienna. He’s a really cineaste-ic nerd, yeah?
And he divided movie makers — directors, film directors — into three parts: one part is musicians; the other is artists, painters; and the third is literature. And I’m literature, my stories are complicated in a literary way, like novels, like short stories, a little bit like this. And I like this. “Are you now angry at me [for this classification],” he said to me. I said, “No, it’s great!” I’m not an artist, and for me all the musicians in cinema, they like post-production.
All the editing and–
Everything, because they are like composers, yeah? I like the two, but I can’t do that. The artist, they make all that on the camera monitor. For me, to be a novelist of cinema, I’m not in the post-production but the pre-production, together with the actors, together with the team; we are thinking about a novel. And then I let the novel go out [to everyone involved] and it’s not an individual novel anymore — it’s a collective novel. And this is the most important thing: to make your own idea into a collective idea and to lose yourself and lose the control.
The idea of a collaborative novel is fascinating because you co-wrote the screenplay for Barbara with Harun Farocki. Could you talk about what it’s like to collaborate with the writing?
The next movie is also a period picture between Harun Farocki and me, and we are working on the new script. We are now on page 50. I’m sending the first 50 pages. Always like this. We are talking, and we are discussing [the film] for two or three hours first at his kitchen table and then smoking outside, going around looking at old architecture. Then I go home and write down part of a script — 10 or 12 pages — and send it to him. Then the next week, I will sit there in front of those 12 pages and he’ll say, “Oh, this thing is a little like Broadway,” yeah? “Too much expression” and “What do you think, huh?” He is–
Something changed in the last two years. At the beginning, I was the melancholic, sentimental guy and he was the modernist. But it changed totally. I’m now the one who’s thinking about structures and modern thinking and he loves the characters.
Do you know what changed, like what brought that about?
I don’t know, but perhaps… Perhaps it has something to do with me being 50 and he’s now 70 years old. [laughs]
Perhaps it’s something like that. Or, for example, because I’ve changed into [thinking about] modern structure things with the Dreileben thing we have made, with Dominik Graf, perhaps… [a beat]
Okay, now I have an answer! I think all things that are very important today are from the 19th century. Everything. We were talking about Godard and Truffaut, and this is 19th century, yeah? And I think Harun is going back to the 19th century because all the ideas of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Marx are based in the 19th century. It’s also the century of modernism and sentimentality, yeah? Because they’re thinking back and forwards in the same moment. And this is happening in our relationship, a little bit.
It even seems like the 21st century is defined by this reflective look at things that are behind us and how they can inform the future.
Yeah, because the 20th century is a perverted dream of the 19th century, so we have to go back to the beginning of the dream [and ask] “What happened?” What happened to capitalism, what happened to industrialization, what happened to work? A big problem is that we are based on work — our identity is based on work. When we are at a party, we ask, “What work do you do?” But we destroy the work in the same moment. We bring the work from Pittsburgh to China. And we destroy societies when we destroy the work, yeah? And these are things that they discussed in the 19th century too. When our identity is work, how can we destroy our identity like this?
Because we become a series of labels and tasks.
Yes, and this is not an identity. You can see in the last two years. It doesn’t give you any warmth and there is no collective work. Therefore, I love to work with movies because it’s also 19th century, yeah? We have a collective. We discuss [more than] the individual. We are on our own, but we are in the world. I like this.
In collaborating with the actors — to work with Nina so many times — and to rehearse, what is that process like?
With Monica Vitti and Antonioni or Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, they were couples, yeah? When they’re a couple, they get divorces very soon. Like Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman — five movies and then gone. For me, [Nina Hoss] is really, really strange for me. The problem was when I had written the script for Die innere Sicherheit in 2000 together with Harun Forocki, the main actor in our first draft was male. It was a 15-year-old boy in the first draft. So I was in this boy, my biography was in this boy. This was not a good position for me to work — too autobiographic, too close. And then I changed it one night, together with Harun, into a girl. It wasn’t me anymore. It opened the whole story for me.
From this moment on, the next movie [Wolfsburg] was the first with Nina Hoss, and we’re starting to work on the sixth collaboration now. We start shooting next summer. She’s so strange, like the girl in Die innere Sicherheit. We are friends, and we eat and talk each day when we want, but her work, she’s a little bit like an exile actress. She could never play a mother — I could never imagine that she could have children.
Not a matronly figure?
She’s a little more like Lauren Bacall and Gena Rowlands almost.
[laughs] She has that quality.
She’s not a victim of a man, but she has wounds. She’s not a victim and she’s on her own, and she’s getting older in a fantastic way. I think we’ll continue to work together for several years. And this idea to have an ensemble is also very important for me. Now I have I think 20 actors and actresses in my head and I’ve worked with them and I know them, and I will work with them for years. When I’m writing a script, I’m not writing about a character, I’m writing for [the actor].
So you write to the ensemble?
For example, I’d written [Barbara] for Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss. I knew it from the beginning that they are my main characters, and so I have a distance. I was between them and around them, but I’m not in them, and I like this position.
That’s an interesting way to put it. You avoid the autobiography but you know the people.
That’s right. This period picture, Barbara, is a little bit autobiographical, and has something to do with my parents. It’s very near, very close to me, yeah? But with these actors, I can put it away, not to get [the material] cold, but to open new doors with their work.
Was it always your intention to film Barbara chronologically save for one scene?
Yeah. This production is not only a voyage to another town or another region or era, it’s also a voyage into history. And therefore you have to lose so many things, so many pictures and photos, which surrounded you. They said, “We are the history.” Like history is Napoleon. History is a flag and a symbol, but we have to find the history as something that is happening between people. And therefore we are on a research voyage. We need chronological [filming] because working chronologically opens us for new aspects we don’t have in our own mind before.
Do you think that helped in the development of the relationships between Barbara and her co-workers, or the way you play with trust and suspicion?
Yeah, it helped. They identify themselves with the system [of shooting chronologically] — they receive an infection. We start chronologically with Andre smoking at a window when Barbara comes in with a bus. And this was a position, as I said to Ronald, of surveillance. You’re talking about a girl and this girl doesn’t know it. This is what it’s like in Salo by Pasolini — they’re sitting at the windows and looking at the tortured people. This is power. And the whole movie, you are fighting to leave this position of surveillance and power to get on a level where you can look into her eyes. From this moment on. This is chronological thinking.
And then I go to Nina Hoss, the object [under surveillance], yeah? And I said, “You are not an object. You know there is surveillance around you, that people are looking at you. And your opposition work isn’t to say, ‘I HATE YOU, DON’T LOOK AT ME!’ [Instead] she’s like a model. She’s surrounded by cameras.” And so she’s smoking, and she puts her fantastic legs like this. [Christian crossed his legs like Hoss in the film.]
Yeah, she’s posing, there’s a pose.
Yes, there’s the pose, but her development in the movie is to find a pose which is coming out of a different feeling, not defense. This was our first day of shooting. What I told you — these two things with the actors — I didn’t have in my mind before. But this was the first day of shooting and we were thinking where was the camera and why. So we had a discussion about the position of the camera and the posing of the actors. We are together. It’s a collective discourse. And from this moment, everybody in the team — from the ensemble and the actors and me — we are thinking about this, and we are thinking about this from day to day. I think this is very important.
Have you approached any of your other films like this this, chronologically?
I’ve tried to, but… Barbara cost, what? Barbara cost $3 million, yeah? I’ve haven’t gotten so much money before. And to film chronologically costs money, yeah, so that’s a problem. [laughs] But, we did it on Jerichow, a little bit chronological. The scenes at the Baltic Sea, we had to do it out of the chronological process because it’s too expensive for the production to pay twice for hotels.
Because the air conditioner has just come back on…[laughs]
Can you talk about your use of sound in Barbara? So much of that sense of suspicion is conveyed in the silence or quiet. It makes the sound of a car pulling up seem so menacing.
Yeah. Yesterday on the plane I saw Prometheus by Ridley Scott.
Oh yeah, yeah.
I had to pull off the headphones. It was 100% music!
Yeah, there’s hardly a moment of silence. Even just some music to hint at suspense or danger.
And I remember the beginning of Alien 30 years ago, it was silence.
And the tagline: In space, no one can hear you scream. There’s something creepier about it.
I said to the composer for Barbara, Stefan Will, who’s one of my best friends, “The score is just 45 seconds.” At the beginning. That’s the only score, we have no music.
Oh yeah, only what the actors play on the piano and the song in the end credits.
That’s right. Music that the actors made, or the radio, but there’s no score. “Why don’t you use music,” he said to me, and I said, “Because I love music.” [laughs]
I hate that — I hate the [film] music which is just a medium to transport emotions. When you make a period picture, the acoustic room is of the same importance as the visual room. Often in cinema, people are closing their eyes for some seconds. They’re looking at their shoes or… [Christian demonstratively fished into his pockets.] Because they need it. They need to hear something. I’m always totally disappointed when I see something like Prometheus because it’s dead. It’s a dead picture. Pity it’s a dead picture.
And so I want to hear the German Democratic Republic in 1980. They don’t have the cars we have. They have another rhythm. They have just two programs on the TV. They have just six programs on the radio. The basis of their lives is not on their headphones or in the scores and not near the highway. There are birds and there are engines and there are factories and work, but the sound is not the sound today. And so we researched the sound of the German Democratic Republic in 1980 and we built it, yeah? We are sitting together with people who lived there in this time, and they remember [the experience]. And I said to them, “Close your eyes and think about when you went to bed [in the GDR]. What did you hear?” So every noise was very, very loud in the German Democratic Republic because they don’t have the air conditioning in this room, they don’t have a sound curtain or sound carpet.
Yeah, yeah, because in New York you have a sound carpet, and in Berlin we have the sound carpet. Near the Batlic Sea — in a little town near the Baltic Sea — there is no sound carpet. There’s just the wind, and you hear the wind. Every sound has a kind of identification.
I showed the actors an old German movie from 1946 by Helmut Käutner: Under the Bridges. There’s a girl who’s anxious in the night on a boat, yeah? [She is frightened by what is out there.] And then this man says, “The sounds that give you fear, this is music.” “But this sound,” she says, “And this sound.” And he says, “No. This is a toad that is in the woods.” He identifies all of the sounds for the girl. Then she goes to bed and she can hear all these sounds, and you know where they’re coming from. This gives you a feeling of being enriched, enriched because your senses hear. The senses hear the world. And I want to hear the world of the German Democratic Republic in 1980. I don’t want to paint it with the shit music or something, yeah?
[laughs] It’s interesting because trying to recreate this place sonically makes it seem more authentic. Not only do you do it visually, but it’s about this full experience. Going back to the collective idea, it’s a collaborative effort to recreate the past with testimony of people who live there.
That’s right. I can give you a very good example. Sometimes I’m also a professor at the German film academy in Berlin. Next time I might do something about acting, but then I’ll do something about acoustic rooms. For example, this bicycle which fell down near the sea in the wind. The sound of this bicycle, it’s the sound of this bicycle. When you see one of these digital-fuck movies…
They’re not all fuck, but mostly.
You see that in the post-production, there are some of these Avid nerds. They give you bass more bass inside. Boomf! Everything sounds the same. When I’m sitting at the cinema with my children — I go to the cinema each day, or every second day — there are trailers shown before [the feature]. Each trailer had the same sounds. It’s the same [program or recording]. So you don’t hear a car breaking or a roof in the wind. You hear bass and you hear the whole Apple program. Everywhere.
Each movie has to find its own acoustic room and identity. And therefore, I said to the sound engineer, who loves Apple, and the sound system, because it’s great, and after 10 days in the studio I want to feel something; I want to hit the audience out of their chairs, yeah? But it’s always the same. I said, “No, no, no. No music, and not this digital shit. I don’t want to hear it.”
You mention the bike falling, and you end the film with a a kind of quiet that emphasizes what sound is in the scene. You become more attuned to real sounds rather than synthetic sounds.
The reactions of the actors [in that end scene], this is original sound. We [digitally enhanced] it a little bit because the microphones are far away, but the reaction of the actors is reality at this moment. This I like very much.