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Christian Petzold’s “Ghosts” trilogy

By Max Nelson on February 25, 2014

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Money—who has it, who lacks it, and what those who need it are willing to do to get it—is a constant, corrosive presence in the work of German filmmaker Christian Petzold. In the three movies that make up his “Ghosts” trilogy, it’s the fuel that keeps the engine of the narrative running and the obstruction that makes it stall, an object that corrupts those who have it and cripples those who don’t. It’s what drives a married pair of former West German terrorists to endanger their teenage daughter’s future by committing a desperate, irrevocable deed in the last act of The State I Am In (2002), what brings together—then tears apart—a struggling, marginalized girl and an emotionally shattered businessman’s wife in Ghosts (2005), and what determines every step of a young accountant’s uncertain future in Yella (2007). It’s the hurdle that Petzold’s characters have to jump before they can arrive at any kind of intimacy with one another, and the sudden, pressing interruption that cuts their moments of tenderness short. And it’s bound up closely with a subject that haunts every frame of Petzold’s trilogy: the fault lines created, widened, and exposed in Germany’s national identity in the wake of the country’s 1990 re-unification.

Petzold, who was born in West Germany in 1960, graduated from the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie in 1994—five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and four after the re-unification of East and West Germany. In the following decades, the trilogy suggests, Germany would be united in name only. Nearly half a century earlier, the country had been parceled out Länder by Länder among the Allied powers; in the following five years, as the Soviet Union’s relationship with its former allies cooled, both sides moved to consolidate their German holdings. By 1949, West Germany had become its own independent, fully functioning republic, and its relationship to its British and American occupiers had taken on a strange double meaning. For all their resolve to keep the new state’s government on a tight leash, the Western powers knew that creating strong links between West Germany and the rest of Europe would give them a bulwark against their rivals to the East. It was the same thought on the Soviets’ part that led to the formation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which would spend the length of its existence under socialist rule. Over the subsequent decades, each half of Germany was steadily, decisively absorbed into its respective bloc, while still retaining traces of its prewar history that kept it tied to its closed-off neighbor.

The State I Am In Petzold

The State I Am In

The story of the collapse of the GDR is similar to that of the collapse of several Soviet satellite states in the late Eighties: a progression of violently suppressed uprisings, bursts of mass dissent, and refusals on the part of the ruling powers to bend to their subjects’ demands. It’s important to keep in mind that, when East and West Germany were eventually, officially united, the former state had little to bring to the table and even less traction to make demands. With the collapse of the USSR, the West had won, and it was accordingly West Germany that called the shots when it came to forming a new nation. In 1990, the two states were widely separated culturally, politically, ideologically, and—perhaps most fundamentally—economically. Midway through The State I Am In, the heroine’s penny-pinched parents dig up a parcel of East German money they’d buried under a bridge years before. Pulling out a fistful of long-defunct pre-unification bills stamped with the face of Albrecht Dürer, the father passes the stacks disdainfully on to his daughter as a “history lesson.” (“Nobody wants old Dürer anymore.”) East Germany, in short, paid a price for its increased freedom—once-secure jobs were thrown up for grabs, education stuttered, crime and unemployment rose—and if liberty was, in the end, worth the ticket, the cost still stung.

The State I Am In, Petzold’s first feature made for theatrical release, is the entry in the trilogy that deals most directly with Germany’s post-unification discontent. It’s a softer, tenderer variation on the setup of Oshima’s Boy: two West German parents, leftist radicals wanted for unspecified, decades-old crimes, drift rootlessly from state to state with their teenage daughter in tow. As the film goes on, she grows increasingly torn between her attachment to her family and her need—catalyzed by a budding romance with a young, Brian Wilson-loving surfer—for a stable life. One of the trio’s pit stops is at a coastal pier where they linger in the shadow a German flag, just as, in Oshima’s film, a fugitive family of con artists lingered at the snow-covered tip of Japan. “I wish Japan was bigger,” the older boy said in that scene—and Petzold’s characters, one senses, likewise wish that Germany would grow, or shrink, to accommodate them.

The State I Am In Petzold

The first two minutes of The State I Am In go a long way towards explaining Petzold’s methods and intentions in the trilogy. A young girl with blonde, wind-tossed hair—eyes downcast, lips set in a natural frown—gets change at a seaside bar, strolls over to the jukebox, and puts on an American pop song (“How Can We Hang On to a Dream?” by Tim Hardin). The camera hovers on her shoulder, lingering over the curve of her neck, then pulls back slightly to follow her as she saunters with studied casualness towards an empty table. (“What can I say,” the singer asks plaintively: “she’s walking away…”) She glances off-camera, casts her eyes back down, lights a cigarette, and sits silently for another twenty seconds, lost in thought. Her eyes barely move; her mind is busy turning over invisible possibilities, considering options, and reflecting on a past to which we don’t yet have access. When she looks back up, Petzold cuts to a shot from her eyeline of a handful of surfers chatting at the other end of the dock, and her desire finally connects, in our mind, with an object. But it’s in those previous twenty seconds, I would argue, that she comes alive to us. For a moment, her desire seems to exist outside of, or prior to, the narrative that is about to be constructed around it. It would be hard to count the number of times over the course of the trilogy that Petzold films a young woman sitting alone like this, planning what kind of movie she wants to inhabit.  

What kind of movie does she want to be in? One, presumably, in which her parents don’t force her to wear baggy, secondhand clothes so as “not to attract attention,” in which she isn’t forbidden from seeing boys because “lovers have no secrets,” in which she doesn’t stiffen up when she passes a cop in the street, and in which she never has to choose, as she now does, between her family’s commitments and her own. The world Petzold gives her to inhabit is smaller, tighter, and more restrictive in nearly every way than the one she imagines for herself before the movie begins—and it’s this contrast, further developed in Ghosts and Yella, that gives the trilogy much of its moral thrust. Petzold’s characters are more often than not condemned to be drifters, loners, and ghosts, but they each carry around some image of a brighter world. It’s when those images brush up against one another that we get scenes like Jeanne (Julia Hummer)—the heroine of The State I Am In—suddenly, desperately embracing her estranged surfer beau when they encounter each other again in a fast-food restaurant bathroom, or the two young female lovers in Ghosts drawing closer to one another after the sleazy businessman who’s been watching them dance gets called away by his jealous wife, or Yella’s financier partner tenderly kissing her shoulder after their first night together. That said, it’s never long in these films before the economic realities of post-reunification German life intrude back on the characters’ lives, forcing them to act in a movie—directed variably by history, commerce, and human biology—rather than make their own.



The heroine of Ghosts, too, enters the film alone. We first encounter Nina (Hummer, five years older, her forehead now hidden behind a row of dark bangs) standing in an empty field wearing a bright orange Park Maintenance jacket, collecting trash. She hears a muffled scream, looks up, and sees a young woman being pulled forcibly away by a pair of anonymous men—which prompts her to stride haltingly towards us. The camera, just as it advanced to follow Jeanne at the start of The State I Am In, retreats back. When the woman and her assailants vanish into the brush, Nina stops to pick up an earring left lying on the park’s graveled path. Like Alice chasing after the white rabbit, or Jeffrey in Blue Velvet—who finds an equally portentous object lying in a field—she is stepping from the public world, with its civil duties and economic obligations, into a private one of fairy tales, erotic fantasies, and waking dreams.  

Later in the film, in fact, she reveals that it was the memory of a recurring dream which led her to follow the screaming girl; it occurs to us that, again like Jeanne in The State I Am In, she must have been silently replaying the dream in her head as she advanced. “I walked towards the music, and there was a little wood, a birch wood. There was a car there. The roof was open, and the music was coming out of it. And then I heard someone screaming. I followed the screams into the wood, and in the wood was a little pond. There I saw a girl.” What comes next is an account of sexual violence that, like the car, the music, and the pond, doesn’t correspond to the film’s first scene. (The two men turn out to be robbers.) But it explains the sense of erotic possibility that hangs between the two women throughout the film, occasionally crystalizing in a kiss, a dance, and—in the end—a one night stand, but always being superseded by the pair’s need for work, food, shelter, money, and clothes. After a second chance meeting, the two girls team up and start drifting through Berlin’s Potsdamer Plaz—once bisected by the Berlin wall, now a prime urban renewal site. Nina spends the rest of the film moving between the external world and her private, internal Wonderland, alternating between the movie given to her by her status as a young, unemployed, rootless Berliner and the seduction drama playing in her head. She’s fated for defeat as soon as she gives Toni (Sabine Timoteo) the central role in the latter movie, since Toni herself, tougher and more pragmatic, is willing to surrender anything—and anyone—to meet the former movie’s demands.

Ghosts Christian Petzold

Ghosts, then, is always threatening to turn into a kind of dark fairy tale: a parentless, penniless girl, drawn in by a talismanic earring and a prophetic dream, meets an older, worldlier young woman who takes her on a threatening adventure, with all the sexual consequences that description implies. What’s fascinating about the film is that it keeps briefly becoming the fairy tale its heroine wants it to be, then returning, somewhat cruelly, to its real subject: the way that individuals have their identities slowly effaced when their society fails to give them either a share in the past or a place in the present. Germany, as depicted here, is suffering from a sort of collective amnesia, unable to bear the guilt of its crimes in the first half of the 20th century and equally unable to come to terms with the legacy of those crimes in the second half: the GDR’s long history of violence and repression, or the traces of Nazism and anti-Semitism that pervaded West Germany and persist in the country today. (Memorably, in The State I Am In, Jeanne sneaks into a high school class on the day they’re scheduled to watch a documentary on the concentration camps. When the lights come up, the teacher’s first line is to scold the kids for their poor attendance: “When it’s movie time, suddenly everybody shows up!”) But because the country is also unable to guarantee its citizens economic security in the present, it forces them to stake their identities and their lives on the future—which is, perhaps, why Petzold’s heroines are so quick to lose themselves in thought, and so susceptible to falling, ghost-like, between institutional cracks.

Petzold is fascinated by people who fall through the cracks, drift towards the margins, or—in the case of the subplot that makes for Ghosts’ central enigma—simply disappear. The film’s third heroine is Françoise (Marianne Basler), an upper class, middle-aged French woman scouring Europe for her daughter, who was abducted nearly two decades earlier outside a German supermarket at age three. She fixates on Nina as a possible match, but outside interventions cut their two brief interviews short. (Tina swipes her purse at their first encounter, and the woman’s husband—who suspects Nina of manipulating her for cash—breaks up their second meeting.) Here is the missing link in Nina’s fairy tale: the mysterious, regal woman who arrives from a faraway land to tell her that she isn’t like the others, that her heart-shaped birthmark and scarred ankle are, in fact, marks of a higher birth. The irony is that Françoise, who seems at first to come from a different movie in which she’s reserved Nina a new and better role, turns out to be one more victim of modern Germany’s refusal to remember its missing and its dead. All three films in the trilogy include jolting inserts of security camera footage, but the most devastating of these comes late in Ghosts: a brief, slowed-down clip of Françoise’s toddler daughter, momentarily left unattended in a shopping cart, being pulled by an unidentified man out of the frame—and away from the state’s narrow jurisdiction. Is Nina the missing girl? The question lingers in the movie’s final frames like an unfinished sentence at the end of a dream, but it won’t, we sense, have a chance to linger for long. There are clothes to steal, shows to audition for and money to make, somehow or another.



Yella is the coldest, grimmest, and most aggressively materialistic film in the trilogy. It is also, to an extent that only becomes apparent in the movie’s final minutes, the entry in which Petzold moves deepest inside the consciousness of one of his heroines. The great Nina Hoss, in her second of four performances for Petzold—a fifth is on the way—plays a young professional under pressure. Her estranged husband, desperate to win back her love by reviving the failing business they once ran together, is stalking her; near the start of the film, after insisting on taking her to the train station, he drives their car off a bridge.  Soaked and alone, she arrives in a new town for an accounting job that, as it turns out, doesn't exist. In the bar of her hotel, she meets a young, ambitious businessman; they bond over balance sheets and form a partnership that, by the end of the film, has spilled over into an affair. The movie’s dialogue is a tangle of charts and figures, net values and selling prices, offers and counter-offers, audits, deductions, and percentages. From time to time, Yella drifts off into her own private world, where the rustling of the leaves outside and the music of birds in the distance take on sudden, overwhelming intensity. Another movie is peeking through, but—unlike in Ghosts—it never appears in more than flashes, glimmers, and pinpricks. Petzold’s movie, in contrast, eventually evolves into a kind of corporate thriller-cum-morality play, complete with a Macbeth-like touch: in the film’s last ten minutes, Yella becomes the first of the trilogy’s heroines to see a ghost.  

Yella is a hard, opaque object shaped by unresolved tensions and contradictions; it underlines rather than answers the questions posed by the first two films in the trilogy. Are these movies about the state of post-reunification Germany, or the state of their heroines’ inner lives? Are they tough, sharpened studies in the uses and abuses of power, like the films of Petzold’s first two cinematic influences—Hitchcock and Lang—or are they defined more by their brief-but-central moments of tenderness and mutual understanding? Are they rigidly deterministic, or open to the intrusion of outside possibilities? Are the relationships they depict cold and businesslike, or charged with erotic potential? Is human life, in these movies, given inherent or only instrumental value? What extent of imaginative freedom does Petzold allow his heroines? And is that freedom a blessing or a curse? They’re the kinds of questions that the trilogy’s heroines might ask themselves, before turning back to their bank notes or balance sheets.

Christian Petzold's Ghosts screens  Wednesday, February 26 as part of Film Comment Selects.

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