Christian Petzold is a leading figure of the Berlin School, arguably the first significant collective of German filmmakers since New German Cinema. Originally, the term “Berlin School” referred to filmmakers associated with the Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie Berlins (DFFB, the German Film and Television Academy), such as Thomas Arslan, Petzold, and Angela Schanelec. Among the DFFB’s educators are directors Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki. Farocki frequently collaborates with Petzold, co-authoring screenplays, as he did for Petzold’s new film, Barbara.
At this point, the term refers less to filmmakers associated with the DFFB and more to a style of filmmaking, characterized by long takes, long shots, sparse use of non-diegetic sound, and use of little-known or non-professional actors. Thematically, Petzold’s films tend to convey a sense of the precarity of life in post-reunification Germany (a motif worth exploring there, even if precarity is so much more prevalent in the country’s neighbors to the south). Throughout, Petzold’s oeuvre considers the quest for economic security and how it colors personal relations. Most of Petzold’s films involve characters that have been randomly thrown together and often take place in settings that underscore transience—rest areas, hotels, moving cars—and where financial and emotional interests stand in competition with one another.
Each of Petzold’s 11 features produced to date, including five made-for-television films, rests at the intersection of the main characters’ desire to belong or to have a home (or at the very least, not to be on the run) and the socio-political-economic conditions that thwart or stymie this desire—Heimat-building, or the creation of a home, as Petzold called it repeatedly in interviews he gave on the release of Jerichow (2008). Barbara, too, dwells on these questions of Heimat-building, but marks Petzold’s first foray into pre-1989 divided Germany.
Set in 1980 in East Germany, Christian Petzold’s Barbara tells the story of Barbara Wolff, a doctor (played by Petzold regular Nina Hoss in her fifth film with the director) who has been transferred from the renowned Charité Hospital in East Berlin to a small town hospital as punishment for applying for an exit visa from East Germany. She handles the demotion with cool reserve, preserving a distance from her new colleagues. When the hospital’s head doctor, André Reiser, offers to give her a ride home and seems to know the route without asking her address, she quickly suspects that he has been enlisted as an informant by the East German Ministry of State Security (or Stasi in common parlance) to report on her movements and actions.
Stasi officer Klaus Schütz orders frequent searches of her house and body. Undaunted, Barbara continues to plan her escape from East Germany via the Baltic Sea to join her lover Jörg in West Germany. As the day for her planned escape approaches, the film’s pace quickens, and emergencies demand her attention and force her to decide whether to stay or go.
Filmed in the fall by frequent Petzold collaborator Hans Fromm (Yella , Jerichow, Beats Being Dead ), the film features a palette of lush dark greens, navy blues, muted yellows, cranberry reds, and deep autumnal oranges reminiscent of pumpkins, deliberately avoiding the gray tones often associated with recent films about East Germany. It is a stylistic decision common to recent German films about East Germany: in commentary accompanying their respective DVDs, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck stated he sought to avoid grey in his Oscar winner The Lives of Others (2006), and director Volker Schlöndorff said of his The Legend of Rita (2000), “I didn’t want again this cold war lighting where everything is grey.” Barbara is set not only in the countryside but mostly in nature, which is frequently a site of escape: Barbara meets her lover Jörg in the forest for a tryst; the Baltic Sea’s arctic and choppy waves form the proposed route of escape; and throughout the film, Barbara bicycles through the landscape. Other photographic choices, frequent medium-to-long shots, level framing, and long takes combine to create a slow-moving film, with an emotional reserve, but palpable feelings simmering beneath the surface.
Barbara screens at the New York Film Festival and will be released theatrically in December.
Recommended further reading:
Marco Abel, “IntensifyingLife: TheCinemaoftheBerlinSchool,” Cineaste 33.3 (2008).
Jaimey Fisher, The Cinema of Christian Petzold: A Ghostly Archeology (Urbana: University of Illinois, forthcoming 2013).