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Christian Petzold • Director

Non-places, women in cinema and German denial


- The new film by Christian Petzold, Phoenix, has as its heroine a woman who returns disfigured from a concentration camp. Cineuropa interviewed the German director

Christian Petzold  • Director

The new film by Christian Petzold, Phoenix [+see also:
film review
making of
interview: Christian Petzold
film profile
, has as its heroine a woman who returns disfigured from a concentration camp and whose husband, whom she still loves, believes her to be dead. When she is reunited with him, after undergoing reconstructive surgery, he doesn’t recognise her, but he sees that she ressembles his wife and so he asks her to impersonate her to claim her fortune. Cineuropa interviewed the German director. 

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Cineuropa: In Phoenix, you explore two realities: the present and the past. Where does this approach, that we find in all of your films, come from?
Christian Petzold: I grew up in a suburb where everything was artificial: the centre, the marketplace... Whereas the idea was just that of building a real town! It’s there, between the real, desired town, and the reality of this artificial town, that we find cinema. 

In your films, this dissociation always relates to the history of Germany.
I’ve always seen Germany as a country of refugees and of return. At the same time, it claims to be a motherland: it needs a national anthem, a national team... The characters, in my movies, are always moving: they go from one non-place to another, in their quest to find somewhere real, like a house, or emotional, like love or a melody. I think that’s what German history is. 

You always prioritize the female characters. Where did the idea for Nelly, the heroine of Phoenix come from?
She’s a reference to the character of Kim Novak in Vertigo. I read a few things about that film, very young, but couldn’t watch it. That’s how the myth was born for me. When I could finally discover it, I saw a lot of things: a depraved man who rebuilds a woman who never existed as a means to overcoming his powerlessness, but also a desperate woman who also performs as an actor, that was created in a Hollywood lab by men, and who views James Stewart with a hoplessness that’s not just Madeleine, but also Kim Novak. I said to myself that if I had to make a movie like that, I’d want the heroine to be the woman, not the powerless man. 

While Nelly is the vehicle of duality, it’s really her husband Johnny who’s ambiguous.
Those who have an obsession, like Nelly, those who love, are rather boring. It’s the ones who don’t want to love, who don’t want to feel, who are more interesting, like this man who has destroyed everything inside himself, but who maintains, deep down, a small remnant, a kind of spark. From this, Nelly’s obsession will become curiosity, and she will begin to show herself. In this way, the two of them will carry out a kind of choreography. It’s a dancing couple.

What’s quite astounding, is that Johnny’s attitude of total rejection prevents him from seeing the truth.
It’s as frightening as a horror movie! It’s like he’s paranoid, he only sees what he wants to see, and opposite him, Nelly waits, to grasp the moment when his armour will fall, which is really fascinating to watch, thanks to Nina Hoss’ terrific acting. Certainly, the husband’s denial is a reference to the German denial. In 1945, the Germans invented a legendary expression "Zero Hour": everything was erased, we recommenced from zero... It was also the fascist dream: destroy everything to give birth to a new race. Nelly doesn't accept this "Zero Hour": she wants to turn back time and to really understand what happened to her. I don’t believe in the tabula rasa. 

Nelly’s attempt to conform to the idea of Nelly, to an ideal Nelly, poses more universal questions about identity.
It’s one of the phenomena that you see with people who return home after a war, who return to their idealised "home" after being completely broken. It’s a long journey to even succeed in returning. Nelly really travels back in time. She isn’t reborn at all. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite! 

The photography, with those vibrant touches of colour that gradually appear amidst the grey, is really beautiful.
I’ve always thought of Berlin in ruin as a fire that’s going out, but where you can still see little pieces of burning coal, and I’ve always imagined that one of those little pieces of burning coal was Cabaret, with Liza Minnelli, and that you had to blow on the embers to make that red glow appear. Survivors tend to try to return to that past period represented by the red glow. 

What will your next movie be about? Will Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld be present?
It will be the third part of my trilogy of historic films. The action will be set in Marseille in 1940. The film will recount the desperate attempts by refugees to flee the Vichy government and to leave for South America. I’m going to try film in French – it’s difficult, because I don’t speak French! –, with German and French actors. So I still have to think about it, but I’ll probably film with my two actors.

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(Translated from French)

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