Renowned German director Christian Petzold says film is a way for people to learn about themselves and others - and many cinema-goers abroad are particularly curious about how Germans live.
Christian Petzold is one of Germany's most renowned film directors and has also made a name for himself abroad, particularly in France and the US. Petzold is considered a pioneer of the so-called Berlin School, a loosely connected group of directors that drew attention in the 1990s and 2000s.
The Berlin School is characterized by long scenes with few cuts, sparse music, a restrained style of acting and unspectacular settings. The plots usually deal with everyday life and the lives of the protagonists are shown with little embellishment or action.
DW met Christian Petzold at the Munich Film Festival, which presented a retrospective on the director's work.
DW: What experiences have you had abroad when your films have been shown in other countries?
Christian Petzold: People in other countries are curious, of course. Germany is a country that doesn't produce many images of itself, except for those of the Stasi or the Nazis. And viewers abroad are curious about what kind of country it is and how we live here. Just like I am when, for example, I watch a Danish film. Then I'm interested, too - because Denmark isn't Germany.
The horrible thing about movies is always when they're talked about all over the world yet look completely the same. And that's the reason that I always have the feeling that curiosity Germans have about our own country is not far away from the curiosity that people from other countries have about how Germany is portrayed in films.
It doesn't really make sense to ask about reactions abroad because every country responds differently to a film. But what has your experience been? For example, in the US, where your film "Phoenix" was shown in theaters? [Eds: Set in post-war Germany, "Phoenix" is about a Holocaust survivor who was disfigured in the war and returns to Berlin to find her husband, who fails to recognize her.]
The film has a colportage character. It's a crazy story, but it's also about the Holocaust. The connection between the Holocaust and colportage is different in countries that were affected by the Holocaust and by Germany's extermination policies than it is in the US. The Americans love colportage. They love anything that can be told as a story.
At the same time, there are large Jewish communities in Los Angeles and New York that enjoyed the colportage because it was a different way to talk about the Holocaust. In Germany, we always think we're not allowed. In France, that's less so.
In the US and France, you are seen as one of Germany's most significant filmmakers. How does that make you feel?
I try not to think about that very much because that would lead to a perverted form of narcissism. I don't want to have anything to do with that. But of course I also feel very honored.
You are seen abroad as a representative of the Berlin School. In France, this style has even been equated with German cinema. What do you think of that? At a discussion during the Munich Film Festival, an audience member even called you the "Hitchcock of the Berlin School"…
The term "Berlin School" was invented by other people. But it's harder to get rid of names (other than your own) that other people have given you. Yes, the audience member called me the "Hitchcock of the Berlin School" - which is not that far-fetched. The Berlin School was a return to cinema - and not to topical TV film, which has reigned alongside Hollywood remakes and comedies in the style of German broadcaster Pro7.
The Berlin School wanted to know how we live here. We wanted to see the new faces and the new bodies and also to tell stories. That's not so far away from Hitchcock.
In France, where there's talk of a "nouvelle vague allemande" and your films are highly respected, cinema has a strong culture. Would you agree?
I do think that's the case in France and that's why they're also a bit of an island, cinematically speaking. The French go to the cinema to assure themselves of who they are. In Germany, cinema - maybe that still has to do with the Nazis - has always been a pedagogical propaganda tool. Even in times of crisis, the French have always found something in the cinema. They found their history. I always see that when I'm in France.
French cinema doesn't have such a strong market share because there are quotas, but because the people want to see how they live.
It's a bit like the Tour de France. They don't just watch it to see doped athletes bodies but to say, hey, that's our country! That's where wine is grown and there is a castle and there is the aristocratic line. And that's where they cracked down on the workers' revolt. I like that when a country tries to give itself a story in the cinema.
What is Germany missing?
The name "Berlin School" already implied that it works in Berlin. There are cinemas in Berlin. There are conflicts in Berlin. That's why the Berlin model should be expanded upon.
Your new film, "Wolves," which was shown at the Munich Film Festival, was made for television: for the crime series called "Polizeiruf." You've been critical of a specific TV aesthetic, but can films be made for television today that don't implement a TV aesthetic?
That has changed a bit with big-screen televisions and projectors that people have in their homes. I work for television using the same means as for cinema. Though you have to be a bit more careful with wide shots and close-ups, that's hardly noticeable.
The big difference is how a film is shown. It's a different feeling if a film is shown between the daily news and a political talk show than if it's shown all by itself in a cinema. If you go there just to watch that film, then it has a different setting. But that's the only real difference.
So you don't do anything differently when it comes to things like camera, light and post-production?
No there's no difference. I just have to make sure that my budget covers enough production days. If wage squeezing for production days were to take place, then I'd stop right away.