It’s February morning in Berlin. “I’m a little out of consciousness,” Christian Petzold explains, a tad frazzled but keen to talk––and Petzold likes to talk. His latest film Afire had premiered the night before and the party had slipped into the wee hours. “There’s Thomas, he was at the party till 6 a.m.,” Petzold explains as his leading man shuffles by, fresh from a round of junkets and looking just a little shellshocked.
That look is one that viewers will soon be familiar with when Afire is released this week. Taking place in a secluded house by the Baltic Sea, it shows Petzold at his most sultry and melodramatic. The drama stars Thomas Schubert as Leon, a writer struggling to follow up on the success of his first novel. He travels with a friend for a summer getaway but becomes infatuated with a woman who shares the house with them. It is a film about Leon’s infatuation as the shell-shocked man, but also one that looks to subvert that very archetype.
The woman is played, inevitably, by Paula Beer, Petzold’s second great collaborator and muse after Nina Hoss. (Afire is their third film together.) As we readied for the interview, the actress wandered by, bemused and glowing under a pile of gifts and flowers. “Geniesen die deine geburtstag!” Petzold calls out, visibly gushing. “She has a birthday today, 28 years old. You know, when I met her for Transit, during rehearsal, I was sitting there with the other actors and Paula said to me, ‘My mother’s 11 years younger than you.’ I was so totally impressed by this sentence. I said, ‘What kind of experience have you had to say such a sentence to me?’ [Laughs] I loved it.“
The Film Stage: Paula Beer has been so central to your work these last few years. Has your way of collaborating changed or evolved in some way during that time?
Christian Petzold: It’s a little bit like the collaboration I had with Nina Hoss. With Paula, she was 22 or 23 when we first met, but she’s always been a highly intelligent actor. I remember for Transit, she had read the Anna Seghers novel. She told me she couldn‘t believe that this novel was written by a woman because the only female character––her character, Maria––was imagined by a male subject. We started to talk about male subjectivity in movies and in myths, which led to making Undine. Then, after Undine, we started talking about male writers.
I told her about this James Hadley Chase story, Eva, about men who are creating women. I think twice they‘ve made a movie out of it––one with Isabelle Huppert, the other with Jeanne Moreau, by Joseph Losey in the ’60s. This is the thing: men creating women, the Pygmalion story. And this is so great to discuss and to interpret with a female actor who’s in front of the camera, while behind the camera there is a male subject, me. This is great, because it’s not like I say I never want to see a naked woman because it’s bad––it’s that we are talking about the male view of naked women through the history of art.
So it’s great to work with people like that. There’s a German sentence––I don’t like it but it exists––that says dumb people are good fuckers. They say the same about actors but this is untrue.
The film is really about subjectivity and projection. Paula is again playing the only female character amongst the men. The writer, Leon, tries to project something onto her but she remains true to herself and independent, while also not giving up on him.
Leon is a male writer who thinks about women with the conscience of a 19th-century man. She’s not interested in this perspective. She’s the only one we see really working: she is cleaning, washing, cooking, riding her bicycle, earning money to live. Also, she has sex in the night and is amused about life, and all in the same moment. So there is no possibility for this 19th-century guy to project his clichés of women onto her.
There was a long discussion we had about the moment when Leon gives her his manuscript to read and she takes it and goes and throws herself onto the bed to read it. The still photographer came over and said he wanted to take photos because she’s lying there with bare feet, etc. And I said, “Why? This picture doesn’t represent the movie.” Our movie is against this attitude, so naturally it should be represented in the editing and in our mise-en-scène. We weren’t interested in showing her as a playmate for intellectuals.
Christian Petzold, winner of the Silver Bear at Berlinale 2023.
There is a noticeably lighter feel to the mise-en-scène than in much of your recent work. What do you think brought that out?
Could it be that I passed 60? [Laughs] No. During COVID I watched many, many French movies. One from the Berlinale by Guillaume Brac, [A l’abordage], a summer movie about some friends who want to find love at the coast. Then I saw the old Éric Rohmer movies. I saw Louder Than Bombs from Joachim Trier, and this sleepover scene at the end where she’s pissing behind the car. Then a fantastic American movie, The Myth of the American Sleepover.
That’s a great one.
I loved this movie. I started to think it could be something very rich––to use the summer, the young people. Instead of all these coming-of-age things where they have to find a profession and earn money, just to have them waste their youth, to laugh, to hurt, to be hurt. To leave parents or to find a way back to them. This is summer, and it’s a genre which is, in Germany, not so popular now because it doesn’t exist here. In Germany we have regressive summer movies about young people who study in Berlin and come back to their parents for the summer and say “Mama, I’m homosexual.” The whole movie is about this. Or the father and mother want to divorce and the 31-year-old son is getting depressed. I mean, this is not a story.
I like that in French and American movies, the summer is not only a season––it’s something where you learn something about yourself. In many of these movies, bad things can happen, but the movies themselves are like summer. It’s the wind, the water, the bodies. It’s light, and they are light and elegant. This: this I like.
It also allows you to focus on a more secluded setting. We have an isolated cabin and four characters who don’t really meet anyone else. Was it interesting for you to explore the tropes of a setting like this?
The cabin in the woods is an American genre. I’ve seen hundreds of bad horror movies set in the woods, maybe 25 fantastic ones. I saw a movie, very hard stuff, I Spit on Your Grave. I love Part I; Part II was really bad, but I is a masterpiece. It’s like this: the Americans need the horror and the cabin, not the beach. The French need the beach. The Americans need the cabin to create loyalty, solidarity, strength, love––at least when two or three characters are left alive and the others are goulash.
I like it because it’s something to do with growing up via horror. In the cabin-in-the-woods films, there is no father and no mother. You have to do it by yourself. It’s the same on the beach in Bordeaux or the beach near Nice: there’s no father, no mother, they’re on their own, and this I like very much. I leave traces of these American horror stories in the beginning of my film: the car accident, the shortcut in the woods, the house in the woods. Something is happening in the house, but it’s not a horror movie.
What is it about I Spit on Your Grave that resonated with you?
You know, at the beginning of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, there is this fantastic Badalamenti title sequence, then the shot of this girl who has survived the rape and the violence, and she’s passing on a bridge, half-naked and traumatic. This is based on a sequence from a documentary Sam Fuller made in 1945 in Germany, where a raped German girl, 16 years old, in a soldier’s coat, is going down the street. You can see that she’s very, very beautiful, but they’ve really punished her. It‘s very hard stuff. And she’s just standing there and the soldiers don’t have anything to give to her. Then one of them gives her a deck of cards.
This is the same walk as the girl from Lynch‘s movie. This scene from 1945 was recorded so deep in our minds that Lynch quoted it many years later, and then it’s quoted again in I Spit on Your Grave. After the young girl is raped, she’s walking over a similar bridge. It’s just like in Lynch and Fuller. So I watch I Spit on Your Grave because I want to make a little essay about traumatic pictures that leave a trace through the history of cinema, but I watch I Spit on Your Grave grave because I like it. It‘s not just science.
It’s been spoken of as your elemental trilogy. Undine was water. Now we have fire. Where will you go from here?
I have got no idea for the third element. I thought about earth, I thought about wind, but it doesn’t give me anything. I don’t want to make a movie about planes or a movie about agriculture. Perhaps it‘s possible, but for now I don’t think about the third part of the trilogy. The next movie will be about a family under pressure, hard pressure. And I think this could also be an interesting trilogy: groups under pressure. The first group would be this family, the second a political underground group with something to do with the climate.
Do you want audiences to read ecological messages in these films?
Yes, but not like an eco-thriller or something. The first siren you hear in the film is original because the forests were really burning. We could see smog in the air. I said to the DoP, “Let’s go there and film so we don’t have to use this CGI,” but it was totally forbidden. Then afterwards we made photos of the burnt forest. I was with my wife recently in Turkey, near Cilicia, where the forests are totally burned away. There is a word in German, totenstille, it means “death silence.” This forest in Turkey was the first time in my life I’ve experienced it. There’s nothing. No wind, no insects, no birds, no sound, just black wood as far as you can see. It’s not the subject of my movie but it is part of our world.
We see Thomas’ character, this writer, struggle to follow up on a previous success. I’m curious if there was an autobiographical element there. Is this something that you’ve experienced in your career at some point?
It wasn’t biographical when I wrote it but I know how he feels. My actors asked me about Leon‘s bad novel, The Club Sandwich: where does this title come from? Whenever anyone asks me which is my favorite movie I’ve made, I always give the Manoel de Oliveira answer: “the next one.“ Then when they ask what movie I don’t like in my career, I say my second one, Cuba Libre. So my actors, they see Club Sandwich and Cuba Libre, second movie and second book, and they say it’s a little biographical and I thought: yeah, shit, it could be.
I told them the story of my time with Cuba Libre. I had success with my first movie. I was surrounded by people who wanted to speak to me. I did many interviews. I was on stage and received awards. I wasn’t anonymous anymore and I wanted to stay in that moment. So with my second movie I had money, I had a 35mm camera, the actors were brilliant, and I began to play the director. I talked about film history; I shot this fantastic chorus of half-naked women on the Berlin coast. And after 48 hours of shooting, my wife––she was my assistant at this time––she said, “What is happening? You‘re playing the director, not being one.” And she was totally right; then I had a total breakdown. I changed the script to rescue myself and I changed the perspective from the male subject to the female subject, from the perpetrator to the victim, and everything changed. Maybe it’s not a good rescue, but you can see in the movie that it rescued something. Afire is somehow connected to that experience.
Afire opens in U.S. theaters on July 14 and will expand.