?From the great beyond into the present? ? an interview with Jo Lendle

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GoetheInstitute

21/03/2012

Life in a bubble

Christian Petzold on his new GDR drama "Barbara"

Barbara, a doctor, has applied for an exit visa from the GDR. In retribution she is transferred from Berlin to a provincial hospital. Her lover Jörg in the West is preparing her escape. Barbara's new boss treats her with unexpected kindness and understanding. Is he an informer? Is he in love with her? Barbara no longer has¬† a clear grasp on things.

Berliner Zeitung: Mr. Petzold, with "Barbara" you undertake a journey back in time to East Germany in 1980. It is a very historical film - and also a film about a country that was probably very foreign to you.

© Hans Fromm© Hans Fromm










Christian Petzold:
No, East Germany was not so unfamiliar to me. My parents fled the GDR. I spent my initial period in West Germany in transitional housing. Later, between the years of six and sixteen, I spent many extended summer holidays with my relatives in the East. For my parents East Germany became a country from which they had emerged triumphant. They had left at the right time and were now able to buy a Ford, for example. In such moments I felt a bit ashamed for them. But basically they did not travel back to the "other side" to demonstrate that they were better than others, but merely because they were homesick.

In a strange way this was passed on to my brothers and me. We could not wait to travel back to the East. When the Wall came down our second home disappeared. When I was working on the film "Yella" with Nina Hoss in Wittenberge I had a GDR flashback. This city, which seemed a little bit forgotten, reminded me of my childhood stays in Rudolstadt, Zwickau and Karl-Marx-Stadt. I began to reexamine the East and take a look at what had been lost.

© Christian Schulz© Christian Schulz













Did you look for appropriate literature as inspiration for your film? "Barbara" feels like a novella.


Two books were important to this film. One was Hermann Broch's novella "Barbara", which is set in 1928 and tells the story of a female doctor who takes a job in a rural hospital in order to hide her communist activities from the police. The other was the novel "Rummelplatz" (fairground) by Werner Bräunig. My friend Hartmut Bitomsky says that only through this novel did he again realise the extent to which anti-Fascists, workers, farmers and intellectuals had tried to establish a better country in eastern Germany in 1945.

In Bräunig's book there are two passages that I will always remember. A doctor's son from a well-do-to family is consumed by physical work for the first time in a uranium mine. He defines and objectifies himself through this work. Work had almost completely disappeared from the literature and cinema in the West. The second passage that appealed to me very much was when the book tells how skilled workers were almost completely wooed to the West, and women replaced them. For women, this brought a new self-understanding about what it meant to be a woman in the world. I wanted to tell a story about this.

However, in Bräunig's work you already sense that the GDR hardly stood a chance.

Yes, the country is largely isolated, and already in the history of the country's founding, Nazi and apparatnik structures had joined forces. I wanted to relate this, but not from above, from the perspective of a novel, not in a gesture of omniscience. For me cinema is more closely related to novellas than novels. I have more affinity for situations in which history surfaces in relationships between people, suddenly and explosively, in all its inconsolableness and in all its utopian force.

Before you begin filming you have developed a tradition of watching films with your team in order to get everyone into the mood. What did you watch this time?

No DEFA films. I rejected that from the very start. While writing the screenplay, I did watch a number of GDR films, of course, but I only used "Jahrgang 45" (born in '45) by Jürgen Böttcher as a point of departure. And not because of the plot but because of the feeling the film conveys. It is the DEFA nouvelle vague film - an authentic portrait of a generation that experienced the greatest hope and deepest disappointment of their lives in the year 1968. The Prague Spring had brought lightness and sensuality into the system. The moment the tanks of the Warsaw Pact crowded into Prague, it was all over. For me the exciting thing about "Jahrgang 45" was that the main character, a young worker, returns to work after taking three days holiday to try to resolve his love life. Work is a source of identity for him. Work and love are tightly interwoven. In contrast, in the West you always had the feeling that love has to defy work. Or love can only take place when you are on vacation.

© Piffl Medien© Piffl Medien










The work shown in your film involves people in a clinic in northern East Germany. Barbara, a doctor from the respected Charité clinic in Berlin, has applied for an exit visa and is sent here by order of the government. Preparing to flee via the Baltic sea she encounters a colleague, whom she initially treats with a high degree of mistrust.


The hospital in our film assumes the function of the factory, of the site of production. Here two people come together who for all intents and purposes don't like each other. The man is a proletarian doctor. He did not become a doctor because his father was a doctor, but, as he says, because the system gave him and many others the opportunity to take on educated professions. This is why I cast Ronald Zehrfeld in the role. He has a strong physical presence, he seems proletarian but also refined. Not someone who socialised in libraries but someone whose educational path had been painful. And then a blonde female doctor comes from Berlin, who has applied for an exit visa, a young, so-called better-situated woman with a clear degree of class conceit. However, she examines this arrogance when she is denigrated by her circumstances. She asks herself: What are the rulers afraid of? The educated middle class!

© Piffl Medien© Piffl Medien










In order to protect herself from the resentment directed at her because she wants to leave East Germany, she surrounds herself with an intensified sense of class arrogance. Suddenly she wants to "separate" herself and speaks sentences that seem to come from a French drama. This is how we introduce these two figures. We need the hospital, so that the two figures come to respect each other through their work. Love is not something that just blossoms for these two; they have to attain it. They both handle their instruments with care, they both have particular skills, deal with patients' emotions so brilliantly that each of them becomes someone to admire.

Like the central characters in your films "Gespenster" (Ghosts) and "Yella", Barbara also lives in a twilight realm, balancing between yesterday and tomorrow, here and there. In a universe of intuitions rather than certainties. A sleepwalker.


Cinema is closely linked to dreams. This does not mean that cinema provides the images of dreams, but in contrast to television or the computer, you sit in a dark room and are physically present but absent at the same time. In prepping for "Barbara" one of the films we watched was Roberto Rossellini's "Stromboli". I did not have the impression that  Rossellini was a great researcher trying to scrupulously convey how the Americans occupied Italy after World War II. However, I did have the feeling that the film came very close to life at this time and the tumult of emotions. Why? Because "Stromboli" is like a dream.
 
"Barbara" is not an objective view of the GDR but quite the opposite. It is told completely from the subjective perspective of its title figure.


Only in one scene in the very beginning did I decide to use the perspective of a surveillance camera. Instead, I wanted to only film personal gazes, how people look at each other. Looking and being looked at. We film the impressions of an individual. And also impressions of a world with confined borders. This has much to do with East German society, with the thousands of private islands that people had, the retreat into the protected sphere of the private. In "Barbara" the aim is to convey the sense of a life lived in a bubble through the hospital. The film was never conceived as claiming to show how things were in the East as a whole, but from the very beginning the idea was to concentrate on this bubble, this niche.

Precisely in her protected space Barbara is overcome by a strong sense of insecurity.

When someone has decided to leave but has to remain, it makes for an interesting time. Someone who leaves something develops a great sensibility for what is being left behind. Suddenly there is a feeling of having made mistakes, of having missed something, of not having taken the other, unknown path but of having cultivated one's own sense of discomfort. Barbara carries this feeling within her; never before had she recognised the original beauty of East German ideals. She realises this but is unwilling to admit it; she doesn't want to have any doubts. And yet, the moment the film begins so do her doubts. She understands clearly: I will go to the West, there I will be warmly received. I will find work right away, will be recognised as a doctor. There I have a man waiting for me. He owns a large four-room apartment with a view of the Rhein. It all sounds as good as an imagined holiday. But in the two-and-a-half weeks in which the film takes place Barbara is shown a Western mail order catalogue and her lover from the West says to her: You won't ever have work ever again. I earn enough for both of us.  

A powerful statement that sets a lot of things in Barbara in motion.

At one point Harun Farocki, who wrote the screenplay with me, said that we didn't need this sentence. I admit, I am also wary of these kinds of statements that jump out at you. And then I talked with Simone Bär, our casting woman, and she convinced me that the sentence had to stay. It is absolutely key. Without this sentence, the whole drama of 1989 would no longer be comprehensible. When the women of the GDR were taken over by the West, suddenly they lost everything that they had worked for and achieved in a matter of seconds. They were thrown back a hundred years, if you will. I understood right away: a row house development, the Avon lady rings the doorbell, the women in the West were kept at home. And Barbara understands this the moment she holds the mail order catalogue in her hands: I will stay at home and page through the catalogue for the rest of my life. That can't be it. Then a chill comes over her, which is at least as powerful as the surge of hate that the East had aroused in her. Then she is utterly distraught.

In contrast to the many films made about East Germany in recent years, it is not a film about leaving but about landing.

Since Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister", in every Bildungsroman a figure sets out and leaves their world. But apparently these novels are often not read through to the end. The heroes end up returning home, including¬†Wilhelm Meister, Green Henry, and all the others. This return home is the most interesting part; this is not the failure that it is usually considered to be but the result of a process of maturity. The film is intended to end at the moment when both Barbara and André have passed through a maturation. From then on the story belongs to them, and it is no longer meant for us. Regardless of what happens to them - maybe they have to go to jail, maybe they have to undergo questioning. One thing stands clear: they have opened a door.

The agony of the GDR is made physically evident to the viewer, also through the exhaustion of the main characters.

In the final sickbed scene both Nina and Ronald asked, independently of one another, for chairs with backrests, not stools. I asked why, and they answered that what they had endured in the previous ninety minutes of the film could not be acted out on a stool. With a proper chair you can sit back, the body relaxes and uncramps. Words fall away. You just sit there so naked, stripped bare - you can only convey this in a chair with a backrest.

How difficult was it for you to reconstruct the setting of the GDR in the early '80s?

As I mentioned, it's my first historical film, and I have really gained a taste for it. Of course, you can't always reinvent cinema for yourself, but you also live with the films that surround you, which themselves are historical. These films often reconstruct the past merely through the set, but I was not satisfied with that.

François Truffaut and Jean Renoir once had a conversation about Renoir's "The Golden Coach". Truffaut was of the opinion that you could only do history in the studio, you couldn't show any sky, because the sky is always the sky of today. Renoir disagreed. You had to use both, the studio and the sky, that is, the historical and the present. If we were to act as if the film were only about the past and had to relationship to our present time, then the film itself would be a lie. I though to myself: he is actually right. In American films the stars are the link to the present - Russel Crowe as a gladiator, for example. For me, the logical consequence was that "Barbara" needed lots of sky, lots of wind, flowers, colours - absolutely not what we imagine in terms of East Germany, ORWO film material for example or the faded tones of the TV detective series "Polizeiruf 110". We wanted our film to be as bright as "Heißer Sommer" (Hot Summer). We collected thousands of photographs and we were amazed how much colour there actually was in the GDR. The pictures were hung in various spaces and the actors had time to contemplate them, and that proved to be a decisive component of the rehearsals. ¬†

How did you find the locations?
 
The magnificent Romanian film "Police, Adjective" made me realise how East European cities have a completely different architectural fabric from those in the West. They always have a patchwork construction. Here something from the Victorian era, here a modern building from the 1950s, everything all together. And that's precisely what we were looking for. A housing complex built for railroad employees during the Weimar Republic, a Social Democratic government project. A place with lots of light but in a state of decay with a few modern details. We found just this kind of place in Kirchmöser in Brandenburg. Before we began filming the actors were allowed to spend two days in "their" rooms, in the apartments and in the hospital, and they defended these spaces to the last.

One of the film's discoveries is the experience of how two people develop a new, very intimate language of their own under extreme circumstances.

We watched "To Have and Have Not" by Howard Hawks with the single aim of studying how lovers set themselves apart from the predominant language in an extreme situation. They talk between the lines. Their language is more physical, more dance-like in order to create other viewpoints, another language, another form of eroticism - and this is what Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld also intended. This passion is most evident at the end of the film, and it could have served as a GDR utopia, if it had stood a chance. In phases of utter stagnation or agony, history itself is constantly in motion, and nothing is clear, also not now, in our time.

You mentioned that you have developed a taste for historical films...

Yes, my next film will also be historically based. It is set in 1945 - an Auschwitz survivor returns home.

Also with Nina Hoss?

I really enjoy working with her, although even my friends say "enough already"! But then I answer with Fassbinder and Schygulla or Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich or Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman. When I have a project like "Barbara" and I know that Nina Hoss will play the lead, I feel reassured. I prefer to think about my projects lying down, when half-asleep, instead of researching in the library. And I can conduct somnambulant conversations with Nina Hoss about what dreams and in-between worlds actually mean. She doesn't come with set ideas, but joins me on my search and is open to what comes. There are two lines on her face that tell me if something is right or not. We talk together extensively before filming, and on the set we are almost completely in agreement. Her attitude toward the people she works with is similar. She is utterly unpretentious.


*

The interview was originally published in the Berliner Zeitung on March 7, 2012.

Christian Petzold was born in 1960 in Hilden and grew up in Haan. He moved to Berlin in 1982, where he studied from 1988 - 1994 at the German Film and Television Academy. As a director he has repeatedly worked with Nina Hoss, for example in his 2007 film "Yella".

Ralf Schenk writes regularly on film for the Berliner Zeitung. His areas of specialty are DEFA film history and Eastern European cinema.

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