Christian Petzold‘s Phoenix is something of a contradiction: precisely calibrated on a screenwriting level and cleanly delivered on a formal level, yet working with a concept high enough and depending upon ambiguities significant enough to inspire debate and doubt right after its final scene, an instant all-timer, has concluded. But what else to expect of a movie that so effectively takes advantage of said concept, in which Vertigo is reconfigured as the story of a concentration camp survivor who returns home to a possibly duplicitous husband who doesn’t recognize her? In light of a stunted run on last year’s fall circuit — Toronto was (inexplicably) the only major festival to make room, despite a clear superiority over much of its ilk — the impassioned response its received is ample evidence of how the right film can capture people’s imagination.
With these open qualities in mind, speaking to Petzold about his ninth collaboration with recently deceased co-writer Harun Farocki and sixth with leading actress Nina Hoss offers many opportunities — more than could be stated in the window of time typically offered by interviews conducted during a promotional tour. But the ground covered herein is fascinating, from an unexpected historical parallel he sees with the life of Billy Wilder, the artistic trait he shares with James Gray, and how he lets go of auteurist control.
The Film Stage: Where are you located right now?
Christian Petzold: Sacramento, in a little hotel. I’m making my way through California. Yesterday, we were at Folsom Lake, which is not far away from Sacramento. I like to travel, sit in a car, and listen to music for eight or nine hours. I like it; I don’t know why. It’s great. You don’t want to see any museum; you don’t want to see anything about the history of California. No gold mines. You want to go by car, hear music, sleep in cheap motels, and eat burritos and have burgers the whole day through. I like it; I don’t know why. I like that.
It’d be more appropriate if you were in San Francisco.
I was there four days ago. I stayed there, and I saw Vertigo there in 1996, together with Harun Farocki, on a new copy which was remixed by Martin Scorsese. I think it was 70mm. It had a new sound mixing, and I really was disappointed with the sound because it was too real.
I read that a Farocki-penned article, which you’d encountered decades prior, was the first source of influence. That’s a long time to be carrying any creative endeavor — even in its most nascent forms — so I have to ask if it manifested itself at all in your earlier work.
Yeah. It was born in the ‘80s, this idea between Harun and me. We always thought about the male perspective. We always thought about a man who creates a woman, but we never thought about the perspective of a woman. Something changed after I met Nina Hoss at the beginning of the century. It was Harun that said we had to change the perspective, so we started thinking about what the the male subjectivity had done to Kim Novak, and the studio system — to the actor and to the character in Vertigo. Why all these stories are made by men, huh?
We started when Harun saw Barbara on the editing table; this was three-and-a-half years ago. He said to me, “Now, there’s the lost couple. It starts at the end of the movie.” Then we thought about our old idea for Phoenix, then we tried to change the perspective to the woman. This was the reason we started with the whole project. Oh, excuse me; I threw my son out of the room because he started laughing at my English, and I hate that.
Are you ever uncomfortable with homage? Do you worry that using certain concepts and frameworks brings you too much in someone else’s direction?
I don’t think so, because I saw the movie many, many years ago — but Sans Soleil? There’s a passage in the movie that says Vertigo is the best movie ever made, but he hates it. He hates it and he loves it in the same way. For me, it’s a little bit the same: I love all the cinematographic images of the Hitchcock movies, and sometimes I hate that everything on the screen was filth. Nothing can come out of the picture.
So it was a love-hate relationship, but, for me, all my movies are made with quotations of Hitchcock things. For example, when I made Yella, I loved the scene in Marnie when Marnie is seen from the back at the train station. The camera is following her, and then the camera stops and she goes by herself to the end of the station. It was a dream-like atmosphere, and I tried to rebuild this with Nina Hoss in Yella, and it was terrible — like, shit. It cost me two days with Steadicams and camera operators, which I had meant for the perfect light, like the technical allure of Hitchcock, and I cut it out. So I’ve made my homage, but I cut them out of the movie.
Your personal aesthetic choices are interesting in their own way. For instance, the brick-strewn, post-war streets have as much of a psychological dimension as they do a physical one. How much would that, for instance, be based on historical research and how much — if any — of it comes from the character’s psychology?
We made it always like this: we have a little factory in Berlin, and, in these factories they have two big rooms — these are “mood rooms.” Half a year before starting shooting, there were thousands of photos from this time, and inside of this “mood room,” we have made our rehearsal, where the actors can go up to the wall, this museum of photos, and see portrayals and the colors. It was a very specific research we have done, but, for me, it’s more important what I can do with all these moods. I don’t want to have material in a room; I want to have a structure, an idea, and it’s tougher for a mood, yeah? I was a little like a professor, I must say, in this moment.
I said to them, to the actors, and also to the cameraman — who was part of the rehearsal — “We have this fantastic movie made by Billy Wilder and Edgar Ulmer and Robert Siodmak. It was made in 1932. The German title is Menschen am Sonntag — People on Sunday.” It was a half-documentary story, and you can see Berlin, you can see fantastic daylight, a life without studio light. It’s like nouvelle vague; it’s free, the movie. One year later, everything was destroyed by the Nazis. I said to them, “We have to tell a love story which was born in 1932, like the movie Menschen am Sonntag, but this time is gone — and now, like Billy Wilder, who left in 1932, who was exiled to Hollywood, our movie has the colors of The Lost Weekend.” I showed them The Lost Weekend. So we have this idea for something we have missed and lost in this time. My English is a little… do you understand what I’m talking about?
So the cameraman said, “We can recreate this historical time with trees, but what we have to do is to recreate the light, the colors — we have to create the atmosphere.” So we take the atmosphere from The Lost Weekend, and almost Robert Siodmak’s The Killers with Burt Lancaster. I showed the first five minutes of The Killers by Siodmak, and this hired man — Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past — they are all really tired, because they have lost everything. All the movies are based on the last energy of the male subjects, and they want to have a last chance. This is the atmosphere of the Johnny character.
Physical movement is such a big part of this film, especially the many routines Nelly, Nina Hoss’ character, is put through. When filming these scenes — as she’s walking around or lifting and dropping things — do you like to capture actions in a single take, or is it repeated many times?
No, no, no. We do it always in one take. I talked to, I think, James Gray, and he’s working in the same way. It’s always the same. We have these rehearsals I told you about, but we don’t talk about the book. And then, during the shooting, the actors and I meet at 8 a.m. in the morning — without costumes, without masks — and have rehearsals for half of the today, until 12, for example, and then they have found something. For example, Johnny is in his basement room. He’s always looking how he can move, because both actors know that this is a choreography in a basement. It’s also like a dance of a couple who had loved each other many years ago, and they have tried to recreate their love like in a dance movement. They have tried for themselves.
I’m sitting there, smoking, they’re talking a little bit, and then they find something. Then the technicians are coming — the cameraman, the DP, the sound and the light man — they’re coming and looking for what they have done, and then the actors went to the trailer to get their costumes, their masks. We build up the lights and we make the shooting list, and then we do it in one take. Always just one take. It’s not like Hitchcock or Bresson; it’s the other way around. We are reflecting very hard on the movie, and to refresh our reflections we had not to rehearse much.
In the case of being acquainted with collaborators, I wanted to ask about your relationship with Hans Fromm, who’s been your cinematographer since the mid-’90s. Does this long-standing fidelity mainly stem from aesthetic agreement, professional comfort, or both?
Because we’re old friends, for example. [Laughs] We are like a family I see only during the shooting. But, since the beginning of the shooting, we are sitting together for two days, and I hate to obtain all these takes. He’s also someone who… looking together through movies and photographs and graphic novels, thinking about how we can do this, and then he goes away and he’s working on his own. I never look through the camera, I never have the monitor display; he’s doing this stuff for himself, and I trust him. When I see the rushes two days later, it’s not my movie. It’s a little bit strange, what I see. I like that I can trust it, hopefully.
Is there anything liberating, then, in it belonging to multiple people? How do you feel, recognizing this as a collaborative project as opposed to something marked mostly by your stamp?
Nina told me a couple of weeks ago that, from the first moment, she was afraid when we worked together, because I have so much material and talk so much, and she thought there was no space for me during the rehearsals, at the beginning. I think, when everything I have worked on one-and-a-half-years for — all the music I heard — I did for the actors. This was my reflection; this was my work. You have this material you can use, but there are also actors who hate to have too much material. You can use it or you can throw it away.
Then we made a little journey, two or three weeks before the shooting, to all the shooting places, and then I left them alone for two or three weeks. So they have imaginations of the shooting places, of the rooms, of what we created there, so they can do it by themselves. I’m very, very in the margins during the shooting, and don’t talk too much. I let it flow a little bit because I’m a little over-reflective in my life, so it’s good to let the movie go by itself a little bit.
[Editor’s note: The ending is briefly discussed below.]
It’d be best to end with the ending. You and Farocki had a picture of Nina Hoss in front of you as you were writing and going over the role with her throughout. With all this thoroughness in mind, have you thought much about what happens to this character after the final scene? Does this sort of question sit with you, or is the story truly done once it’s done?
I think Harun told me that the end of the movie… he likes the ending very much because it’s the end of the story, yeah, and it’s not the end of living. Something goes on; it could be a new movie, at the end, when she’s living. She could be going to Palestine or she could be going to the United States to start a new life. It’s also worth to tell this story in 95 minutes, this story of the past — a love story — and also the story of the Germans between ’33 and ’45, and also the story of people like Jews in Germany at this time. This story is finished.
Well, that’s all the time we have. Thanks again.
Thank you very much. It’s fantastic to sit in a hotel room with a cold glass of water and the roommates always knocking on my door. I like the situation.
Phoenix is now playing in New York and will be expanding to more theaters in the coming weeks. Above, you can watch a video essay on Petzold’s work.