Searching the Ashes: Post-War Scepticism in Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’

This essay is by our guest writer, Harrison Hughes.

When it comes to capturing the complexities of human relationships, there are few directors as bold and profound as Christian Petzold. Born in Hilden, Germany in 1960, Petzold graduated from the German Film and Television Academy Berlin in the mid ‘90s with his debut feature Politinnen (1995). Released on German television to critical acclaim, Politinnen depicts the close relationship between two working women as they drive across Germany selling cosmetics. Although distant in age, the two women bond over their mutual exploitation and grow closer as they navigate the German landscape. With Politinnen, Petzold establishes his cinematic approach to human relationships and interactions as they develop and unfold on screen. Jump forward 19 years and nine films later, Petzold directs Phoenix (2014), his most ambitious and successful work to date.

Set in the rubble of post-war Berlin, Phoenix explores similar themes to Petzold’s early films such as the confusion of identity and the uncertainty of love, but with a much more ominous tone. The second film in his self-proclaimed “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems” trilogy, Phoenix, is not so much about love, but the distrust that surrounds it. In the wake of WW2 and its horrors, post-war society was afflicted with a great scepticism that haunted the bombed-out city streets like a spectral reminder. From religion and politics to modern civilisation and the nature of mankind, everything was questioned, and nothing remained the same. Phoenix explores this scepticism on an individual level by questioning the extent to which we can truly know ourselves, the world, and the ones we love.

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Berlinale ’18 Review: ‘Transit’ and the state of aimlessness

Christian Petzold tells emotionally rich, often female-led stories, which he intertwines closely with the settings they are located in. But he is most of all known for the stunning conclusions of his narratives – these moments have often been considered the best parts of his work, films like Phoenix and Barbara seem to only come full circle during their last beats. The reason for that, is Petzold’s way of letting the temporal and spatial aspects of the narrative fade into the background for a moment, narrowing his gaze down on the humanist, universal and timeless truths that the characters are confronted with.

With Transit, a mainly Marseille-set story about a man that gets caught up in complications of love and identity while trying to flee Europe as a refugee, it seems like he wants to reshape the way he tells these stories – it is a logical and very bold step forward in the context of his body of work.

MV5BYTI0MTcwMDAtOGY1NC00ZmExLTlmNTAtMTAxYmRiOGE5Y2RiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTk3NTI2NTk@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1555,1000_AL_Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer in TRANSIT. All rights to Schramm Film / The Match Factory

The film is an adaptation of Anna Segher’s World War II novel with the same name, but while the narrative is similar in general plot points and dialogue, the film removes it from its original historical context and reframes it into a modern-day setting. One would expect Petzold to adjust the story to that new setting, but he doesn’t. It’s very strange and feels borderline kafkaesque, but it works immensely well. The narrative manages to comment on its real-life context by highlighting universality instead of being specifically descriptive – the refugees of today’s Europe get a part of their story told too, even though the book template is broadly based on the experiences of refugees more than 70 years ago.

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