Christian Petzold is one of the most original German directors of the post-reunification period, directing films that are often character as well as social studies. He is considered as one of the key directors of the Berlin School. As Tschiedert notes the films by this movement aim to represent the mundane life without twaddle (2014) and Fisher remarks how “contemporary economy and its remaking of people at the most intimate levels is the focus of many Berlin School films” (Fisher, 2013). Stylistically speaking, as Gerhardt notes, the term largely refers to “to a style of filmmaking, characterized by long takes, long shots, sparse use of non-diegetic sound, and use of little-known or non-professional actors” (2012). It can be argued that the Berlin School constitutes an apt opposite to the ‘heritage films’; films that depict big events of the German past (Abel, 2008). The films of the movement, equal to all Petzold’s films until 2012, are often set in the post-wall era. As a consequence, his 2012 film Barbara surprised the critics since it was the first Berlin School film that was set in the historical past, something that the movement as well as Petzold had critically eschewed (Fisher, 2013). His recent film, Phoenix (2014) is also set in the historical past, concentrating on the Holocaust and its aftermath. However, as Petzold himself has noted Phoenix is not a film about National Socialism or Nazis but about people who have survived the extermination camp (Steinhoff, 2014). Fisher also points out that “Petzold has been concerned with history in various ways in almost all of his films” (2013). Instead of being historical texts these reflect the typical preoccupations in Petzold’s oeuvre and its common thematic and stylistic traits, such as quest of identity, afterlife and being in-between. In addition, his films “usually unfold in dream-like worlds (…) where the distinction between (apparent) reality and fantasy is frequently blurred” (Fisher, 2013). Therefore, whether being set in the historical past or in the post-wall era, arguably Petzold’s films are a very coherent group. This article tries to point this out by looking at two of Petzold’s films, Yella that is set in the post-wall period and Barbara, set in the historical past. Although these films are very different at a first glimpse, they share many similar thematic and formal concerns that make these films very petzoldian and above all, both become character studies where the past merely colours the story.
Both Yella and Barbara live in suffocating environments and they feel trapped. There is an air of paranoia that is evoked by external but also by internal factors. As Fisher states Petzold’s characters are often compelled to hide some truth about themselves and as a consequence, these secrets affect their relationships with others as well as with themselves, causing anxiety and paranoia (Fisher, 2013). In both films this paranoia is palpable, making the heroines unable to utter their inner feelings while questioning every look. Therefore this article looks how the anxiety and paranoia are represented and how they reverberate in the heroines’ environment. Given the importance of landscape and environment, this article argues that the place and space communicate in addition and on behalf of the characters. Barbara and Yella seem to be in a constant move therefore the article explores how their displacement is represented through movement and how these become representations of quest of identity.
Yella lives in Wittenberge, in the former East Germany and she has separated from her estranged husband Ben. Their business has gone into bankruptcy and Ben does not accept that she does not love him anymore. She yearns for something different and has offered a job in Hannover, in the former West Germany. Ben follows Yella and promises to take her to the train station. On a way there, he vows his love to her and drives off a bridge. After a silent shot Yella crawls back to the shore, followed by Ben. She collects her handbag and miraculously catches the train. However, in Hannover the company who has hired her has gone into administration. In a hotel where Yella is staying she meets Philipp who works in capital venture. He hires Yella as his assistant to his dubious deals and they get infatuated. This passage from Wittenberge to Hannover, from home to unfamiliar territory becomes Yella’s transcendental journey to self.
Barbara, equal to Yella, has to habituate herself to a new work environment. However, unlike Yella, she has been forced to a rural hospital after being a successful doctor in Charité, the oldest and most famous hospitals in Berlin. The film does not pronounce directly the reasons for her transfer but it has left to assume that she was trying to get a permission to move to the West to her boyfriend Jörn. She is given a small flat by the regime where she is surveilled. At work Barbara is observed by Andre, the managing doctor. It is left to assume he has been forced by the Stasi to keep an eye on her. The constant surveillance makes Barbara’s plans to escape to the West more difficult but this change also becomes an occasion to question what she wants and relativise the concept of freedom.
In both films the first minutes introduce key themes of Petzold’s oeuvre that also bring these films together: movement, paranoia, watching and being watched. Yella starts with the eponymous main character on a train. She changes her Western clothes to those of more typical Eastern jeans and black cardigan. She is filmed in close-ups and middle shots, emphasizing her hesitancy. The act of changing clothes connotes the oppressiveness of her destination and the impossibility of personal emancipation. As Yella gets off she is watched by Ben. He follows her and makes remarks on her movements, stating how he recognises them. The camera films Yella from behind, from Ben’s distorted perspective. He is in control, looking at her and analysing her movements that he claims to know. This introduction punctuates the mental as well as very much physical imprisonment she feels and the yearning of personal emancipation. In the same way Barbara start with a close-up shot of Barbara on a bus, the camera registering her cautious look outside. She gets off and the next shot shows her in a hospital courtyard, smoking a cigarette. She is filmed from a high angle, in long shot from Andre’s perspective. He and a Stasi officer Schütz are looking at her from the window, the officer drawing conclusions on Barbara’s personality through the way she looks and behaves outside. Therefore, in both films the initial vision offered is twofold; Barbara and Yella are watching and being watched.
Connected to this dualism the films have a specific milieu that accentuates the paranoia of being looked at. It also characterises the inner world of the heroines and shapes them. In Hannover, the camera assumes Yella’s perspective and follows her decisions. Yella has booked a hotel room in an empty, moribund corporate fair zone where Expo 2000 was held. The hotel echoes modern blasé life and clinical monotonousness through its dull and lifeless colour scheme and an abstract painting. There is no warmness in Yella’s room and it lacks individuality and personality. The cold material of glass is highlighted, and in addition to the Expo zone it is often visible in the corporate offices that Yella visits due to her work, or one of her clients’ modern home. Although this beckons to transparency it exposes the subjects to looks of others, as when Yella and Philipp watch their clients from behind a balcony glass door, analysing their next movements. This exposure makes them vulnerable in the same way as at the beginning when Ben was following Yella, analysing her movements from behind. This idea of being looked at becomes concrete when Yella returns to her hotel after working with Philipp and Ben is watching her from outside. The big windows expose her and make her vulnerable to his gaze again. Although Yella’s paranoia can be more personal and psychological, the glass surfaces emphasize modern exposure and defencelessness, seeing in offices as well as in the (temporal) homesphere.
For Yella this display seems to be connected to her personal accomplishments. The more success she gains from work the more confident she becomes. However, this is shadowed by a feeling of being looked at and Ben’s apparitions, filling the scenes with paranoia. As Petzold notes in an interview with Abel Yella’s ghosts do not appear only from outside “but are within her and want to pin her down” (2008). Her ghosts, the acts of paranoia are often linked to her own success outside the marital life; for example seen in a scene when she returns from work after a successful deal. She is filmed in a same camera angle as Petzold often uses to film her in her hotel room in order to register her state of mind. She lies on the bed, her body language conveying joy, while she calls her father. This happy side shot is interrupted by Ben’s apparition in the room. While Yella runs away down an empty corridor to Philipp’s room, it becomes clear these apparitions are Yella’s mental imagination.
However, despite being merely Yella’s imagination, the paranoia she is feeling is very palpable. This is enhanced by Yella’s cautious looks and the feeling of recurrence and repetition. The film draws on this recurrence or memory retention, for example when Yella wakes up at her father’s in Wittenberge and he peels an orange in a particular way. This becomes a déjà-vu when Yella wakes up in Philipp’s hotel room and he peels her an orange in the same way. This repetition is also concrete on an audible level. Yella keeps on hearing the sound of a broken glass and water that ultimately beckons to Ben’s driving of the bridge. The element of water becomes a key motif that follows Yella throughout her journey that eventually intensifies the feeling of repetition and inner, psychological fear as well as paranoia. On their first encounter at the wistful hotel restaurant Yella feels transfixed by Philipp’s sooth screensaver of waves that leads her working with him. The decisions she makes at work have consequences that are bound to water, such as one of her clients, Mr. Gunthen’s suicide. After blackmailing Gunthen in order to set a good deal for Philipp, Yella sees a vision of him soaked behind a glass wall, and he is later found in a lake.
Although in Barbara the vigilance extends to the whole community, once again Petzold films his heroine in a way to illustrate her personal, psychological torment. To highlight this, the use of setting is very expressive yet highly unique. It is not grey and full of socialist’s artefacts as often seen in German films set in the historical past. Petzold has stated how he wanted to eschew the typically seen opulent backdrops, opting instead for a simplified setting where simple things convey the story (Zawia & Grouling, 2012). As in Yella, in Barbara the story revolves around (temporal) quasi private homesphere and communal work place and there is a difference when Barbara is filmed in these. The hospital is a warm environment despite the ruling regime, exemplified by its reading corners and light colours. At work Barbara is often filmed in middle shots, giving her space to breath. In comparison, when Barbara is alone in her flat, she is often filmed in close ups and tight-framed middle shots, highlighting her constant personal, psychological imprisonment. Her apartment seems to suffocate her through what it represents and there is a high degree of displacement. There are hardly any furniture or personal items and its bareness equates Barbara’s own feeling of emptiness there. Its eerie atmosphere is intensified by diegetic sound and every step, closing and opening car doors and someone walking outside emphasize the paranoia of her surveillance. Therefore this idea of vigilance is omnipotent through the soundtrack and connotes how sound can be terrifyingly penetrative. There is no non-diegetic music to heighten emotions and as a consequence Petzold brings the audience closer to the feeling of paranoia in the same way as Barbara feels it. Her imprisonment is metaphorically conveyed by a caretaker appearing on her door carrying big, heavy bunch of keys, almost as if a prison warden. This imprisonment is also concrete and corporal as Barbara is twice physically punished for being late from home. Therefore, her flat acts as an extension to her body. This is seen how not only her flat is submitted to searches but also her body. The camera registers this brutal invasion of Barbara’s private space and her body, lingering on it, showing her naked back, moving to a profile shot of her face. Barbara’s body is seen as a bare material object in the same way as the flat is seen. As a consequence, how Barbara feels and interacts with the flat and the way Petzold films her in it come to represent her inner feeling.
This physical and material invasion also makes her paranoia more concrete. Barbara is very much part of the community physically, forming a pillar of it by being a community doctor, however, she does not share its values and ideas. Therefore almost every human communication is loaded with mistrust and paranoia, questioning whose look can be trusted. This air of distrust causes Barbara to take distance from her colleagues, for example in the canteen where she walks past a table of other doctors, choosing solitude instead. Her feelings are sanitised and it seems that detachment is the only way to survive. Throughout the film the idea of sight and seeing is highlighted through direct observations, soundtrack and metaphors. Andre is transferred to the province hospital due to a work accident that left two babies blind. It could be argued that in order to be forgiven for this ocular accident he has to give his eyes to the Stasi. However, whether he dedicates himself to this obligation is left unanswered, for example when he casually refers to Barbara’s Western cigarettes. There is also a special scene where Andre teaches Barbara the ways of looking through a painting by Rembrandt. Depicting an anatomy operation, the camera registers the looks of men in close-ups, observing a textbook rather than the body. However, as Andre states, its viewers start to see the painting through the eyes of the victim. Equally he could be referring to the ways Barbara is not seen but observed and even anatomically examined through the regime’s written rules, ignoring the physical, existential selfhood.
Yella and Barbara’s discomfort in their environment is illustrated through a high degree of displacement that is represented by constant movement of the characters and different modes of transportation. As Gaspar has stated automobile has become a key visual and dramatic motif in Petzold’s oeuvre through which he expresses modern society. The characters are in a constant quest of displacement without a clear destination and the aim of the movement is merely to generate more movement (Gaspar, n.d.). Therefore it is not coincidental that both films start the heroines in movement to a new place where they need to re-discover themselves. In line with this, both Yella and Barbara spend lots of time in impersonal, anonymous transit zones such as hotels, hospitals, offices and public toilets. These reflect the dislocation, feeling of not belonging and loneliness of the protagonists.
Both Yella and Barbara spend some time in hotel. Hotel can be seen as a transcendental space par excellence that conveys break in passage, being between places. As Petzold has stated in an interview with Abel he is “interested in the mobile immobilities, the so-called transit zones, these no-places: that’s where something modern is happening” (2008). It could be argued that hotel is one of these transit zones that embodies the modern loneliness. In her hotel room, Petzold often films Yella in medium shots, accentuating the emptiness of the room and how lonely Yella feels in it. She is often filmed in a profile shot sitting on a bed that reflects and let us observe her state of mine. The transitory bed connotes a fleeting moment and a feeling of not belonging. In the same way Philipp is filmed alone, sitting on his bed after an argument with Yella, his room echoing the same emptiness as Yella’s. Both characters leave their doors open and Philipp and Ben both enter Yella’s room twice, and she Philipp’s. It can be argued that the hotel rooms and doors come to signify the loneliness of these characters and their wish to exit it, making the open room as a metaphor for a site of passage. Barbara, on the other hand, enters Jörn’s hotel room through a window and secretly spends a night with him during his business trip to the East. The East/West division but even more crucially that between freedom/imprisonment is made concrete and questioned when Jörn states that once in the West Barbara doesn’t have to work as he earns enough to support both of them. The room, filled with Western goods, such as a shopping catalogue, cigarettes and alcohol makes Barbara feel very out of place. The scene is very communicative as it reflects the Western promise Barbara does not necessarily want and as a consequence makes the question of freedom very tangible but also relative.
Through movement and the (temporal) new home sphere both films observe the protagonists’ gradual transformation amidst socio-spatial and personal restrains. Whereas the films started the heroines in movement, both films end Yella and Barbara at standstill. In the same way as Ben’s car is retrieved from the river conveying the end of movement it also refers to the end of Yella’s constant move. She moves from the home sphere only to return to it, making her journey circular. Therefore, in the end we start to see Yella’s journey as a recollection of memories that can be seen as her mental reworking of the causes of her paranoia in the asphyxiating marriage with Ben and the economic hardships it had. This transcendental journey is also emphasized by a degree of in-betweenness, to enforce the idea of duality. Yella is often in bed and sleeping. This state of awake/asleep mirrors her being between dead and alive. She is a phantasm and while her body is anesthetized, her senses are revitalised and all living, moving world around her is intensified. She can hear the wind humming, babbling water and screeching magpies. It can be seen that in order to feel her environment, her own body, she has to leave Wittenberge and the suffocating marriage with Ben. Essentially, the film draws on material reality and material wellbeing through Yella’s work and all signs of modern existence, however, Yella’s transcendental passage is a highly emancipatory journey to self, where the material world ceases to exist.
Likewise, in Barbara material world and bodily existence has a strong narrative motif. Unlike Yella’s phantasmatic existence, Barbara is fully alive and her profession is to keep people alive. However, her own existence is shadowed by being in-between imprisonment and freedom that the environment in many different ways communicates. This inner restlessness is conveyed through Barbara’s continual move. When she is not working, she is constantly moving around the landscape – cycling through the fields, taking a train or bus, walking hastily. Reflecting this, the end is highly expressive emulating Barbara’s choices and transformation. Instead of embarking into even further movement as planned, to the boat that would take her to Denmark, Barbara decides to stay and sends a young patient Stella to the journey instead. When Barbara stays, unmoved, we can see her moved, emotionally. She stays still, but she is emotionally stirred by her choices – even maternal choices she has made for Stella – and there is a certain conclusion to her quest.
Reflecting these spatial odysseys, Abel argues Petzold’s characters are usually on the move against their will and they “are driven by the double desire to find their way home and to maintain a certain amount of independence and autonomy” (2008). In Yella and Barbara, it seems that the journey enables the women gradually to gain some independence and autonomy on a spiritual, immaterial level. Even the film titles point to this quest for identity, to explore who Barbara and Yella really are, giving them both subjectivity and authority of the story. Therefore, more than films about the DDR or post-unified modern Germany, Petzold’s films become narratives about quest for identity where the journey is more interior than exterior.