Interview: Christian Petzold on the Skillful Seduction of “Barbara”

The director of the German drama about a young doctor caught between the East and West during the Cold War talks about his Hitchcock obsession, his longtime collaboration with...
Nina Hoss in Christian Petzold's film "Barbara"

While growing up in Haan, Germany just outside of Düsseldorf, Christian Petzold can recall exactly how he first decided to become a filmmaker. It was when he was 15, and as with all the stories he tells, he leaves an air of mystery by not identifying specifically the guy who joined his school from the big city, but remembers how his new classmate arrived armed with a copy of “Hitchcock,” François Truffaut’s famous book of interviews with the Master of Suspense, which Petzold would devour in an afternoon.

“Two weeks later in Cologne, there was a retrospective of all of Hitchcock movies,” Petzold recalled. “I went there and I lost control.”

Ironically, the films Petzold would go on to make exhibit pinpoint precision, perhaps because whenever the writer/director feels uneasy on the set he’s prone to use Hitchcock to calm him down. Like a music producer he met in his travels who would throw everyone out of a room and put on the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” to recalibrate, Petzold has been known to do the same with “Marnie” from time to time during a production to get the feeling, “This is cinema!”

For Petzold, the cinema has offered the only real way to understand the world he was born into. A child of parents who fled the German Democratic Republic of the east for West Germany, his films have long dealt with the tortured history of the sibling nations from the end of World War II and beyond, often reflecting on the lingering effects of the Cold War on the present. However, his latest film “Barbara” is the first to actually take place when the GDR still existed, centering on a doctor (Nina Hoss) banished from a respected position in Berlin to the East German countryside to attend to a sleepy pediatric ward after she applies for a Visa. Naturally, that longing to leave isn’t abated by a place where even the lonely whir of the nearby Baltic Sea feels oppressive, though a patient (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) who insists on her help and a compassionate colleague named Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) lead her to reevaluate her priorities.

While the filmmaker was at the New York Film Festival earlier this year, he spoke to me about how his decade-long collaboration with leading lady Hoss inspired “Barbara,” why he wanted to depict work as something more important than seduction and how a Rembrandt painting became the basis for one of the film’s crucial scenes.

How did this film come about?

Two things happened together. I had made my first movie [“The State I Am In”] in 2001 together with Nina Hoss, shooting in the former German Democratic Republic, a region my parents come from. They were refugees and I didn’t grow up there, but remember my childhood there a little bit. We always [spent] our vacations there with my parents together, so something came back into my mind and I found an actress who I [was] looking for the whole time, not because she’s blonde, Hitchcock girl and cool…a little bit perhaps because I’m such a Hitchcock fan. [laughs]

[But] in 2001, I found Nina Hoss because she is the first actress which is totally empty when we start working. She wants to make herself empty because she wants to refill herself with things she didn’t know before. It was so fantastic for me to see that because I didn’t like her at the beginning. The other actors in this production in 2001 [were] so enthusiastic, “Oh great, fantastic…” She didn’t say anything. She was not very handsome because she didn’t use any makeup. She would sit there at the table, writing down [notes] during the rehearsal.

Then in this moment when we are working in front of the camera, she was totally different. I was so astonished. It was not my imagination of the woman I had in my head. She’s totally different. She’s independent. When she starts working on the character, she makes the character like a stranger for me and I thought this is fantastic.

She’s able to do so much with so little in this film – is that really a product of the trust you’ve built with her over these past three films?

Yeah, and it’s in my remembrance of my time studying literature. It was an essay by Heinrich von Kleist about a marionette puppet [“On the Marionette Theatre”]. He said that we’ve lost our innocence, mankind, and we’re thrown out of the paradise. And the idea is they try to come back into the paradise, but the paradise is closed and the only choice we have is to walk through the whole world and find an entrance from the backside of the paradise. That means we have to work very, very hard to find innocence. Innocence doesn’t mean some romantic innocence. It means you have to work to get yourself empty again, something to do with the work with Nina Hoss.

She works so hard and thinks so hard, but she hides her character in front of the camera so that in some moments, a little laugh or just an eye glance or a little laugh or a little smile, it’s like an explosion. In “Barbara,” she’s like a tank. Her skin is like leather, but in her eyes, when she’s lying to the doctor when she says, “On Sunday, we can make the surgery together” because she knows that on Saturday she’s out of the country. And this lie, in her eyes something’s broken, because she’s a Protestant. She can’t lie. This I felt was great. She had to be very, very open to see all these little fine structures and gestures.

When the film is so steeped in historical context, do you approach it in the same way as a dramatist?

Do you know when you hear all these stories around football teams, for example, that their coach has discussions with each of the players? We made our rehearsals collective. Half the ensemble grew up in the German Democratic Republic, so we are thinking about this script in a collective way. Everybody’s telling stories. All these stories have nothing to do with the script. Somebody told about his first cigarette, his first kiss, first car, the first bath in the Baltic Sea. Then they started remembering the acoustics. They didn’t have traffic [because] there [weren’t] so many cars and they didn’t have so many planes. But when you hear a plane or a car or even a bird, it’s very loud. So I decided to throw out all the music score. The smell also opens the remembrance always. You smell something and you say, oh this reminds me of grandma and pancakes or something…[laughs] So for two days it’s like a collective voyage into history.

There was one of the actors [who] was a theater actress and [her troupe] played in Hamburg, so for one day they are leaving the German Democratic Republic and she wanted to escape in Hamburg in the night, out of the hotel, so she didn’t return to the East, but in the last day in East Berlin, her friends are coming to her and say tomorrow evening, “We’ll make a dinner, everybody’s coming, all the friends” and she said, “I will be there.” But she knows she will never come back, and she said, it is so hard to know that you’re leaving your friends, your society and your country and you know you can never come back.

You’ve often dealt with the aftermath of the German Democratic Republic, but was it interesting to deal with it directly in the time it was happening in as a period piece?

Yeah, for me, the past is like an infection into the present, but in this period picture “Barbara,” it’s the other way around. You see the past as present, but our present from today, our knowledge that we know that in 1989, everything would break down. It’s like an affection for the past and this I was interested in. People feel that something’s happening. They feel something’s dying and something will be broken and how can you live in a society that starts to vanish? Because in this society, it’s not an abstraction. When the state is vanishing, your identity is vanishing, your history is vanishing, your memories are vanishing and how you can stop this entropy?

Is that why the hospital occurred to you as a setting?

Work doesn’t exist in cinema, really. My friends and I were sitting together and thought about all American movies that are based on work and factories. We just [thought of] “Blue Collar” by Schrader, but mostly, the movies [take place on the] weekend or people are so rich they don’t need work. [laughs] The only place we found [where people can be seen doing work] is the hospital or in the emergency room, but the hospital in American [films] is not like a factory. You can bring so many stories together, but you don’t see the work really. They show sometimes a scalpel or something like this, but in the Communist states, the factories are the basis of identity.

In the movies of the German Democratic Republic, they start at a factory in the morning. We start our movies when they come out of the factory, when the shift is over, and for me, the hospital is a possibility to have a factory and have at the heart of the movie, work as something that is more important than seduction between man and woman. Barbara opened her mind to Andre not because he has fantastic eyes. It’s because he has skill and he knows how to work and the only people she can respect are people that can work. It’s like in the American movies, the Western [genre] – this was, I think, one of the last period of American cinema where you can see work because there is nature and there are horses and they have to ride.

I’m running short on time, but one of the first scenes where Barbara first takes an interest in
Andre is when he surprises her with a story he tells about his past while ruminating on the Rembrandt painting “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” that there’s a replica of in his office. How did the painting become an inspiration for that crucial scene?

It’s a little bit quoted in a novel by [W.G.] Sebald, the German writer who lived in England, but he made some notes about this Rembrandt – [I thought] there must be something strange. Then I did some research in art history and many people are talking about the wrong arm [being dissected] and then I note this whole picture is made by Rembrandt in a time where the modern time starts and the modern time means [Rene] Descartes, Hadyn, all the new philosophy, Napoleon and the French revolution and at this time, the people said, we make the fate of our own. There is no God anymore. We heard that God is dead. And we can build up societies, we can build up democracy.

Every time when people think that they can make an organization of the world, there are victims. People who want to build up a democracy like George W. Bush in Iraq, for example, it’s anarchy there. And these guys [in] this Rembrandt picture are scientists and like Dr. Frankenstein, they want to rebuild their Gods. This is also a symbol for communism and for capitalism. But in this part, it’s communism. They want to build up a society and when you build up societies, the victims are everywhere. The blood is flowing because for them, society is a laboratorium. So they kill this man who’s a thief, they open his body — he stole three potatoes — because they need fresh flesh. They lost their empathy.

“Barbara” opens on December 21st in limited release. A full list of theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Fairfax, Seattle, Tucson, Washington D.C. and Brookline can be found here.

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