The Berlin School
I recently watched four films by the German filmmaker Christian Petzold: The State I'm In (2000); Ghosts (2005); Yella (2007); and Jerichow (2008). The first three are fascinating, but less than completely satisfying. The fourth makes a quantum leap beyond them. I had seen Jerichow before, when it made a powerful impression; today, it registers as a wonderful, perfect little film. All four are well worth seeing.
I've had a peculiar experience with Petzold. On the one hand, I'm riveted by the precision and rigor of his style: the intelligence of his compositions, the confidence with which he handles shot duration, the sharp surprises in his cuts, and the masterful, exhilarating control of his mise-en-scène. Watching these films do their work is to be immediately reminded of the stylistic flabbiness of most films. But the content of the first three films -- their narratives, characters and themes -- while promising and interesting, struggles in vain to equal the marvels of their style. Jerichow succeeds by molding and developing that content with the same scrupulous discipline and care that Petzold devotes to film form. In its multidimensional political critique, Jerichow achieves a great, stirring resonance that travels well beyond the film's specific narrative and characters.
Despite my reservations, Petzold's films have made me extremely curious to see and learn more about the films of the "Berlin School." The three filmmakers most closely associated with this "school" are Petzold, Angela Schanelec and Thomas Arslan. Michael Sicinski writes in Cinema Scope:
Without any intention whatsoever, Petzold has become a kind of figurehead for the Berlin School much in the way Andrew Bujalski has been reluctantly appointed the global ambassador for “mumblecore.” What Petzold, Arslan, and Schanelec do have in common is the fact that they studied filmmaking at Berlin’s dffb, an intellectually rigorous film school guided at the time by [Harun] Farocki and fellow film-essayist Hartmut Bitomsky. Aside from these two Berliner forefathers, and the three dffb graduates, the “movement” fans out all over Germany, also encompassing directors associated with Revolver magazine, such as Christoph Hochhäusler, Benjamin Heisenberg, and Ulrich Köhler, and other non-dffb filmmakers such as Maren Ade, Aysum Bademsoy, and Maria Speth, all rendering the “Berlin School” tag quite misleading. Nevertheless, Petzold has achieved a level of international exposure and acclaim which thus far exceeds that of any other director working under this umbrella, and so, within certain circles of international film discourse, Petzold’s work ends up being at least partially understood as an ongoing referendum on the ultimate value of this broad swath of German counter-cinema. Does it or will it have the staying power of the New German Cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Is it an appropriate antidote to big-budget junk like Downfall (2004) and withering mediocrities like The Lives of Others (2006)? Are Petzold and the “Berlin School” the future of German cinema, or is Fatih Akin?
The "Berlin School" film that has most recently fired my curiosity is Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below, thanks to Sicinski's review of it. Alas, it doesn't appear to have acquired US distribution yet. (Hochhäusler keeps a German-language blog called "Parallel Film.")
Here are a few more useful links to writings on the "Berlin School":
-- Ekkehard Knörer's invaluable overview piece in Vertigo magazine;
-- Marco Abel's equally indispensable essay in Cineaste, and his interview with the articulate Petzold (wonderfully titled "The Cinema of Identification Gets on My Nerves"), also in Cineaste;
-- Dennis Lim's New York Times article;
-- A "Berlin School" retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario, and Andrew Tracy's essay at MUBI on the occasion of the series;
-- The text "The Berlin School -- A Collage" at Senses of Cinema;
-- Steve Erickson's review of Yella at Baltimore City Paper; and a blog post at Kamera.
I'd love to know from you: Any "Berlin School" filmmakers or films you especially like or would like to recommend? And any thoughts on this "movement"?
Speaking of German-language cinema-related artifacts, Victor Perkins wrote me a note recently to share news of a Max Ophuls discovery he made "on a visit, or pilgrimage, to Saarbruecken":
In a bookshop opposite the plaqued house in which Ophuls grew up I enquired in case there were new German books on MO that I should know about. Instead of a book the owner sold me a cd which turns out to be major treasure. It offers a recording of the 1954 broadcast from Sudwestfunk, Baden-Baden, scripted and directed by MO based on Goethe's Novelle. It has Oskar Werner as narrator and a distinguished cast including Kaethe Gold. The music is adapted from works by Haydn. Even those whose German is non-existent, or yet more primitive than mine, would be taken by the intricacy of the relations between narration, performance, effects and music. It was clearly a labour of love for Ophuls, and a supplement to the broadcast gives us Ophuls himself commenting on his dedication to Goethe and his aims in the broadcast.
pic: Christian Petzold's Jerichow (2008)