Where to begin with Christian Petzold

As his new film Afire goes on release, we pick a path through Christian Petzold’s haunted, slippery tales of modern Germany.

Yella (2007)

Why this might not seem so easy  

Combining the inscrutability of arthouse with genre’s rushed pulse, German director Christian Petzold’s cinema plays out on borders, alert to the contested, slippery nature of time, place and identity. A leading figure of the so-called Berlin School, emerging in the 1990s with Angela Schanelec and Thomas Arslan, he makes intentionally modern films, yet ones full of ghosts. For nowhere does a nation feel more haunted by its past than Germany. 

His latest film, Afire (2023), exemplifies all that is elusive and alluring about his work. At first, it seems a sharp-witted but light summer holiday comedy of romantic and artistic rivalries, as two creative types get away to the Baltic coast and find the house already occupied. By the end, it’s transported us somewhere altogether weirder, as a fire rages, death looms, and love takes on a fated force. 

Afire (2023)

Petzold’s parents had emigrated from East to West Germany. In 1989, the year he was admitted to film school, the Berlin Wall fell. The ideological fractures, trauma and inequality that persisted after reunification find expression in his films of noir unease, economic anxiety and volatile emotions under controlled surfaces. Spectres of past stories and movies shimmer, inventively reformulated, from the wandering vampires that yearn to rejoin normality of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), whose predicament influenced The State I Am In (2000) and its on-the-run radicals, to his reworking of The Postman Always Rings Twice through a lens of post-unification discrimination in Jerichow (2008). 

Reality and fantasy, self and other, life and death are not opposites but varying degrees of uncertainty in a liminal territory of secrets, charged with erotic possibility. Petzold is a voice for today’s Europe, where nightmares co-exist with dreams, and utopia has evaded us. 

The best place to start – Phoenix

Two of Petzold’s greatest films, and arguably his most accessible, Phoenix (2014) and Barbara (2012), fold suspense and searing melodrama into visions of a Germany prone to destroying itself, as its people live on in ruins. Part of a trilogy, ‘Love in Times of Oppressive Systems’, they turn on hidden truths and impossible choices. They were made with two of Petzold’s frequent collaborators, co-writer Harun Farocki, his former teacher and a key experimental documentarian, and actor Nina Hoss.

Phoenix (2014)

A haunting noir with a staggering end featuring Kurt Weill’s 1940s song ‘Speak Low’, Phoenix (2014) takes place in a ravaged, rubble-heaped Berlin just after the Second World War. Hoss plays Nelly, a Jewish cabaret singer who has survived Auschwitz and had her face reconstructed after a bullet wound. Her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who works at the Phoenix nightclub and may have betrayed her to the Nazis, doesn’t recognise her, and asks her to impersonate his wife to gain her inheritance, like an erased ghost returned. 

Barbara (2012), set in East Germany in 1980, stars Hoss as a physician who has been stripped of her position at Berlin’s Charité hospital and sent to work in the provinces under Stasi monitoring. Her planned escape to the West is complicated by developing feelings for Reiser (Zehrfeld again), a fellow doctor. Naturalism and a sensorial sense of place combine with a paranoid, surveillance-state atmosphere in a rare, nuanced vision of the GDR as a state in which solidarity and a potential future can coexist with oppression and systemic failure.

What to watch next

The Berlin School’s aim was a cinema of the present, in reaction to the stuffy heritage drama dominating the German mainstream. After making films for television in the 90s, Petzold’s ‘Ghosts’ trilogy summoned the drifting and dispossessed of a state in post-unification discontent.

The State I Am In (2000)

His 2000 film The State I Am In deals with the controversial subject of leftist terrorism of the 70s and 80s. Wanted for crimes, two radicals (modelled on the Red Army Faction) have been living underground in Portugal with their daughter Jeanne (Julia Hummer), who has hooked up with a surfer. Hoping to fund a flight to Brazil, they return to Germany, as Jeanne flounders between incompatible generations.

In Ghosts (2005), a woman who has been in a Berlin psychiatric facility fixates on Nina (Hummer again), a troubled girl from a youth home, convinced she might be the daughter abducted at age three from outside a supermarket. 

Loosely remaking Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), the eerie horror Yella (2007) takes alienation to a further extreme, in that Yella (Hoss), who takes up with a venture capitalist in Hannover after her estranged husband and failed business partner turns stalker, might already be dead.

Where not to start

Transit (2018)

Confounding efforts to pin it down in time and place, Transit (2018), the last in the ‘Love in Times of Oppressive Systems’ trilogy, recreates a 1940s story about flight from Nazi occupation by German-Jewish writer Anna Seghers in a contemporary Marseilles of sirens and troops in jackboots. Petzold uses this cognitive dissonance to reflect on resurgent nationalism and statelessness in what might be his most woozily disorienting film. Franz Rogowski carries the radical, paranoia-driven noir with burning intensity as Georg, a political refugee on the run who is desperate to get out of France. Tasked with delivering letters to a leftist he discovers has committed suicide, Georg assumes the dead writer’s identity to obtain his transit visa and that of his wife (Paula Beer). 

Rogowski and Beer again team up in Undine (2020). The first of a trilogy of fables inspired by the elements, it channels Fouquet’s 19th-century early German romance about a water spirit who married a man to become mortal then killed him for betraying her. Beer’s Undine tries to defy her fate after her partner leaves her for another woman and she crosses paths with industrial diver Christoph (Rogowski) in a spectacular meet-cute involving a shattered aquarium. She is a graduate who lectures on the changing face of Berlin through the ages, making for a singular, offbeat mix of enchanting whimsy and urban design that defies easy interpretation in its musings on how history and myth make and remake the world.

Afire is in cinemas from 25 August 2023.

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