A conversation with Christian Petzold from the Viennale about his latest film, John Cassavetes, horror movies, and the complexities of characterisation.
By Christopher Small
By Christopher Small
Afire (Roter Himmel, Christian Petzold, 2023)
Then the princess came one evening, quickly speaking to him, softly,
‘Your true name – I wish to know it, your true homeland and your nation.’
And the slave said, ‘I am called Mahomet, I am from Yemen, and my tribe, it is the Asra, who die, when they love.’
— Heinrich Heine, ‘Der Asra’ (1846)
In Christian Petzold’s Afire (Roter Himmel, 2023), a writer is unable or unwilling to admit that what he’s writing (a novel called ‘Club Sandwich’) is shit – and unable or unwilling to relate to those around him. Thoughts are jumbled, painful, impossible to express, whether in art or in normal conversation. In between searching for excuses not to work, Leon (Thomas Schubert) can only gaze out passively at the people around him: namely, his friend Felix (Langston Uibel), the lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs), his publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt), and especially Nadja (Paula Beer).
They’re all staying in a cottage on the Baltic coast; Leon because he needs to finish his novel, Felix because his mother owns the place, Nadja because she’s a friend of Felix’s mother, and Devid because he’s sleeping with Nadja (and later with Felix). Leon, unable to relate up close to anybody around him, is most at home observing them each as objects from a distance; when Nadja in particular – the evident object of his affections – finally approaches him, he quickly becomes brittle and irate. A shared dinner starts out with harmless banter and flirting between Leon’s three companions, but soon Leon begins to cruelly taunt Devid and, through his sheer unpleasantness, causes the whole party to disband. Even so, Nadja asks him afterward, for the hundredth time, to join them for a swim at the seaside, and for the hundredth time, he declines, averting his eyes and arrogantly muttering a stupid excuse – he ‘needs to write’, knowing full well he’s not writing anything. Able to experience neither the joy of creation, which depends on a push-pull between communal experience and private reflection, nor the simple joys of hanging out, for which he’d actually have to relax and consent to spend time with the others, Leon is adrift in a sea of excuses while repeatedly insisting he won’t actually go swim – the activity that everybody else participates in. Repeated extensions of friendship from the others, like Nadja’s or Felix’s, are met with hostility because Leon’s an asshole, but also because he can no longer relate to their world, so bound up is he in his self-imposed exile as a ‘writer’. Inevitably, after each hostile outburst, Leon makes a self-pitying apology, usually to Nadja or sometimes to Felix, for being such a massive dick, something that happens repeatedly throughout their stay.
As always in Christian Petzold's movies, this is all conveyed through a matrix of elegant point-of-view shots: in even the most throwaway of moments, the world is first looked upon, pondered from a distance, and then engaged with. For Leon, this is a serious problem, as he’s a mediocre writer but an even worse communicator – of his basic desires, of his own inner life, or simply how he wants to spend an afternoon. He trails Felix to the beach and doesn’t go in the water. He drags his papers and laptop into different parts of the house or garden in a vain attempt to stimulate creative inspiration. When all else fails, and when nobody’s around, he stands at the side of the summer house and bounces a rubber ball against the wall. Wildfires burn at the peripheries of the town, within sight of their cottage, ever present, spoken about by the group, glanced over the tops of trees – a menace that remains, for now, at an uneasy distance. Meanwhile, Leon’s body, unlike Devid’s or Felix’s more muscular ones, remains covered throughout Afire; we never actually see the broad tribal chest tattoo glimpsed between the folds of his shirt, we never see him vulnerable, relaxed, at ease enough to get undressed like the others. Neither does he express much with his body, even if covered up. For the most part, he is either sitting with his head in his hands, falling asleep in public places, or trudging from one place to another, pissed off. Nadja’s physical presence, by contrast, is, for Leon and for us, built up piece by piece, first by the intrusive and unrestrained sounds of her making love with Devid in an adjacent room, and then as a distant figure pacing back and forth while engaged in her various chores. Leon observes her through the window, silently falling in love.
This poor young man, Leon the outcast, remains a bystander to all that happens in the film. Devid, the beefy local lifeguard, goes from fucking Nadja to fucking (and falling in love with) Felix; Felix from suffering through a vacation with Leon to fixing the roof of the cottage (and falling in love with Devid); Nadja from nobody knowing her to everybody loving her. Even Leon’s publisher, Helmut, who arrives at the cottage for a short meeting with Leon to try to salvage the first draft of Club Sandwich, gets distracted from his mission. While at the cottage, he gets corralled by Nadja into staying and joining them for dinner outside; distracted, again by Nadja, from thinking about Leon’s book (she wows him with the depth of her literary knowledge, reciting Heidrich Heine’s poem ‘Der Astra’ twice1); and, finally, as the sky turns red with the flames of a forest fire creeping evercloser to their summer house, Helmut's chest gets tight, he collapses, he’s rushed to the hospital. Stupefied in every sense of the word, Leon can hardly process what’s going on. Drive him to the hospital, Nadja implores Leon, tossing the keys at him. Leon spits back that, though he can drive, he doesn’t have a licence; Nadja, exasperated, snatches back the keys and speeds off with Helmut herself. Despite his professed vocation as a writer (and thus, implicitly, somebody curious about human drama), Leon never opens his eyes to take in the details of the real-life spectacle unfolding in front of him. Following a tragic final twist, Leon is face to face with Nadja, who is simply asking for him to be genuine, who is, despite everything, trying to save him by loving him – and he flubs it, sinking back into stumbling, cowardly irresolution, sickening her to the extent that she refuses to talk to him for a whole year afterwards. Leon is thus neither protagonist participating meaningfully in the action, nor distant observer, at least not one emotionally intelligent enough to make sense of it all, to provide any clarity on what’s unfolding.
By the film's epilogue, Leon has been able to find an artistic form for the mercurial emotions that previously dictated his existence. He returns to Helmut’s office with a new novel – Club Sandwich has been scrapped in the meantime. Naturally, it’s a story of their summer, of Devid and Felix’s love, of love and tragedy folded into one another’s arms, of the spectral version of Nadja he fell in love with. Leon’s outsider perspective, his fatal dissimilation, has finally turned, as in many classic romantic melodramas, into a magnificent artistic obsession, producing a work that speaks a language its author couldn’t long ago. That is how he is, finally, able to relate to Nadja, in one sense as a writer but also, more importantly, as a human being. Ultimately, Petzold, the major romanticist of contemporary cinema, suggests that the central metaphor isn’t that Leon’s feelings of grief for what they all lose and his adoration for Nadja are as untameable as a wildfire ripping through a dry Baltic forest. Instead, it’s that the spectacle itself – the confrontation with this reality, this death, this dissolution, this traumatic unravelling of his ego – has finally handed him the tools to make something worthwhile of it.
Christian Petzold once again risks being called kitschy, here as in all of his greatest films. Afire is an especially rich text, but it’s also a pleasurable movie the likes of which don’t get made so often on a decent scale anymore. In Petzold’s case, it’s his own conflicting impulses between lyricism and cool analysis, between the corny and the cerebral, that act as something like genre constraints or the demands of a studio system, spawning abundant, fertile contradictions within the text. Indeed, the final act of Afire has no right to work at all. Yet situated as it is in a world of interlocking gazes and inarticulate emotions, this somehow makes the contrived deus ex machina more absurdly real. Wasn’t it Douglas Sirk who said, about his own work, that it doesn’t really make much sense except emotionally? Petzold, virtually alone in cinema today, keeps this particular flame burning.
The above text appeared in Outskirts Nº2. What follows is a conversation with Christian Petzold that I had in late October 2023 at the 61st Viennale, intended as a complement to the printed text and with the intervening eight months of the film being out in the world.
CHRISTIAN PETZOLD: I just got back from the United States. I went to see the headquarters of this company that I love [The Criterion Collection]. They had a closet filled with their DVDs. Do you know it?
OUTSKIRTS: The Criterion Closet.
PETZOLD: Yes, I did that. They took me there. I hadn’t seen this whole thing before! I received a black bag and was told I can take five DVDs out of their collection. The DVDs in that closet are not in alphabetical order. They are scattered. So you find them by coincidence. You take one DVD, and you have to comment on it. And they give you five minutes, so it can look a little bit rushed... And this, well, I like this whole thing so much.
OUTSKIRTS: Did you take films that you had already seen?
PETZOLD: Yes, films I had seen many, many times in my life. And some that I sometimes pretend to have seen. [laughs] But the first movie was Husbands (1970) by John Cassavetes. Which makes me think of a story, which involved the first American distributor for a movie of mine, Barbara (2012). This guy, who is one of the owners of this company, was the assistant of John Cassavetes when he was young. And he told me the story of Husbands. Cassavetes and his team shot it, and they’re looking at all the rushes in the editing suite. The the editor says to Cassavetes, ‘I can't find the story in all this – I’m sorry, I can't work with this material.’ So Cassavetes grabbed a typewriter and went to the Chelsea Hotel, locked himself in a room. There he wrote a novel based on the experiences he had during the shooting, based on the material he had shot. And Cassavetes then handed this novel to the editor. ‘Now I understand it’, the editor said. And this idea I liked so much: that you need literature to find a structure in a film – in this case, a novelisation of Husbands that Cassavetes had written in the Chelsea Hotel. This was the gift of adaptation, in a way.
OUTSKIRTS: Well, it's funny that you mentioned Husbands. I saw Afire at the Berlinale and then a few months later, I saw Something to Remind Me (Toter Mann, 2001), one of the last films of yours that I hadn’t seen. And in all three films, what I find fascinating is our strange relationship to the protagonist. Somebody who is so irresolute, who doesn’t know how to express themselves, or refuses to, in the case of Nina Hoss’ character in Something to Remind Me. In the case of Afire, it’s because Leon can’t express himself. In the case of Something to Remind Me, it’s because as an audience, there’s no way inside this person’s head. And that’s a little like our ambiguous relationship to the protagonists of Husbands, with whom we rejoice in the mania of life but who we are also a little repulsed by.
PETZOLD: Well, when I remember Something to Remind Me, I remember the three protagonists: one is a male subject. Living the penthouse like a captain on a big ship. Peering out into the night from high, like in a Melville story. And he’s very lonely, surrounded by the sea, living his melancholy dreams. He has a vast collection of records. Surrounded by that music, he’s alone. And the woman he meets, she’s coming out of the water, the swimming pool, at the beginning. She’s like a nymph. And so, in contrast, you have Nina Hoss playing someone who wants to take revenge, a bloody revenge, and yet she hasn’t had a life and a love of her own. She’s infected, consumed by the plans she has made to kill a man. She’s infected by a missing life. So this is her tragedy. And you have a third guy, who has killed someone, because he is ugly, and he's lonely, and nobody loves him. He’s killing because he wants to make a connection with people. So with these three protagonists, I’m building a narrative system. They are, together, their own system of different parts and contrasts. This was the idea. And it’s a little bit like in Husbands, where these three men, representing different things, do the same on their own journey. At home, there is an ordinary life that’s waiting for them, but out there the rules are different. It’s a little bit like one of those Hangover movies. It’s The Hangover (2009) without jokes. [laughs]
OUTSKIRTS: And yet somehow still funny.
PETZOLD: That’s exactly right.
Thomas Schubert and Christian Petzold on stage at the Viennale - October 2023.
Photo Credit: Heidrun Henke, Viennale.
Photo Credit: Heidrun Henke, Viennale.
OUTSKIRTS: It’s been a while since I last saw Husbands, but I remember towards the beginning that the main characters are very abusive to their wives. And yet, somehow, this doesn't destabilise the film, doesn’t entirely disrupt our identification with them. It adds a deep strangeness and a complicated kind of dissonance.
PETZOLD: Well, that’s perfectly put. All protagonists who are interesting are sad, they are weak, in one way or another. You need that weakness. When you have someone who’s strong, who has fantastic morality, who’s vigorous – well, you’re not going to be interested in watching somebody like that for 90 minutes. When you see a Martin Ritt movie with Paul Newman, as a half Native American, half white guy in a stagecoach with others [Hombre, 1967], you know he’s the best guy, he can kill everyone, he doesn’t need the help of others. And yet there's something in him that makes him different, his empathy. And this makes him weak – to feel for other people. Therefore, you’re interested in him, in this ‘problem’ of his character. And this kills him at the end, brings about his demise. This is interesting. But if he’s a killer, or he doesn't need anybody, you’re not interested. You always need a scar in the character of your hero.
OUTSKIRTS: But it is taken to such an extreme in Afire. I just saw Thomas [Schubert] in the [Viennale] press lounge as I was waiting for you, and I couldn’t find my words to say too much to him. I didn’t know what to tell him, because in this film, he has the most difficult and thankless part that you can possibly imagine, and yet he makes it beautiful. You’re quite cruel in denying us a certain kind of mercy with him and to us an audience. There are moments where we feel that you’re about to let him be okay, somehow. And then you just pull back again. He doesn’t want to go to the beach. He can’t work. Again and again and again. And yet, what’s kind of a miracle about his performance is that there’s still something there. We’re not totally repulsed by him.
PETZOLD: Life is inviting him from the first second. Do this, do that. And he refuses. It has something to do with Protestant ethics, which kills your desire to realise your desire. You can see him like someone in a prison, a prison of his own making, a prison of himself. At the same time, you can always feel and see his desire: behind the windows, behind the doors, behind the walls. You hear the life, the sex, the lust of other people. And Leon wants to be part of that, but he can’t. And always, if someone wants something but can’t get it, he is the hero, at least in my book. I’m interested in him. You can feel that in his inner monologues, there’s a constant fight. And he doesn’t want to show that fight. The best actors are those who hide something, fighting not to express a hidden urge. Like a child who has fallen down in the street and has cut their knees and their palms and are bleeding everywhere. There are kids who, in that moment, will start crying and shouting immediately. ‘Mommy, help me!’ But if you see a child who doesn’t want to cry, who fights against the pain, this is the moment that I start crying. This is a human fight; where someone is fighting against something. This gives me something to work with as a director. And so actors like Thomas Schubert playing this part, who want to hide themselves, are much more interesting than actors who truly, openly express themselves.
OUTSKIRTS: Well, the way that you stage scenes, which is very different from Cassavetes, for example—
PETZOLD: Yeah, totally.
OUTSKIRTS: It’s almost like we are experiencing the world simultaneously with the protagonist. In the literal sense that often it’s a shot of his face, then it looks to the side, and you see what he’s seeing. And he moves slightly, the camera moves with him. So this prison, this world that he’s in, is also the prison that we’re in, because we’re peering—to some extent—outside, like him, always.
PETZOLD: Of course, but it’s also a question of morality. Everything like this is. Each day, the DOP and I talk about the position of the camera, after we have seen the rehearsals. There is no storyboard set in advance. We see the rehearsals and then think about it. So with Afire, I said to [the DOP] each morning, ‘We have to remember our fundamental position here. The film’s a portrayal of someone. We are not this guy. We are portraying someone who's watching the world and can’t be be part of it. So we are interested in him and but it’s not direct identification. It’s just a portrayal.’ In that moment, we understood that we have to produce, in the audience, something in relation to Leon. We are not him, we cannot be him. We see him watching a woman, but we don’t see the women through his eyes, not directly. Because when we see the woman through his eyes, we are part of his desire. And then in this moment, Paula Beer’s character, for example, would be an object. No, we insisted that she must be a subject. When she’s riding her bicycle, I have the feeling that she has a life of her own outside of the frame. But if I am Thomas Schubert, if the audience feels they are just Thomas Schubert’s character, then she’s just living in my subjective impressions. When she leaves the frame, there is no life for her anymore. And so the whole movie was constructed that way, playing with that idea as best we could. We start directly with these two young men in a car, Leon and Felix. Driving in the forest. We don’t know anything about them. No names. That’s the opening scene.
OUTSKIRTS: Like in a horror movie.
PETZOLD: Like in a horror movie, yeah. But in a horror movie, well, they make it very fast. Two men in the front and three girls in the backseat. And one of the girls is very beautiful and maybe a little bit stupid. And thus she had to die very early in the film. You get the idea. But in Afire, we as an audience have to think about these two guys, we have to produce something here that isn’t immediately obvious. We are not [Leon], but we are watching him and thus have to fill in what he is thinking, what he’s doing. We have to be curious. Because, you know, when you have a beautiful young woman, like Paula Beer, squeezed in between three men, as I do with the guys here, it can easily become a very bad movie. You can see her thighs, her breasts, you can see her half naked. I knew we should never see her naked. We just hear something. We hear that she has a certain lust for life. We can see her smile, we can see that she loves to live. She has no problem to earn very little money working as an ice cream vendor. She is by herself, and happy. And so she is not an object. This was, of course, also important for Paula [Beer] herself. She’s always telling me how much she hates to read those kinds of scripts or see those male directors who love to show the naked body of young women. Often those guys will say to their cinematographer, taking the camera themselves, ‘Hm, I’ll operate the camera for this shot, don’t worry.’
OUTSKIRTS: This problem is faced by a lot of filmmakers who don't want to film sex in that way, because they see it as a form of exploitation, or appropriation. But you need it for this film, in some way. You need sex.
PETZOLD: Yes, that’s right!
OUTSKIRTS: You need them to also be bodies. So it’s a very interesting solution to have it so that Leon only hears Nadja or the two men having sex. It’s actually more disturbing, because then he’s also part of it, implicated in listening. He’s also projecting himself into it. It’s his discomfort that we’re feeling, in a way. For me, it speaks to this idea that, for me, all of your greatest films come so close to a certain… danger. Frankly speaking, to being really quite bad. You come so close to a certain tipping point, after which the given film would easily be a horrible one. Like you said, two men or three men and the girl—
PETZOLD: Fuck, yes!
OUTSKIRTS: It comes so close. And then, wow, you survive it somehow, stronger.
PETZOLD: Yes, but you have to know where that border is. You have to move very close to the border. Because cinema is there at the border; that’s the place of cinema. For example, it’s not a problem to film sex nowadays. There's so many intimacy coaches, and all that stuff. It’s easy. But I don’t like actors who are confident after they play naked, play having sex. Because after they have done so, they are proud. I don't like to point a camera at their face and capture that pride. ‘We have made it!’ I don’t like seeing that in the film. It’s the same as when I have to use some complex special effects. For example, with a car accident; there are special companies who make this happen. They come from Cologne or somewhere like that. They’re talking loudly with their walkie talkies. Wah-wah-wah. Specialists. And I hate it, when they have made the accident—the car, upside down, burning, whatever—and the whole crew starts to clap. There’s a pride in the air. Come on, it’s a job like any other. I wouldn’t clap my hands when someone was repairing the fuse box in my apartment. Neither do I like it when the pilot lands the plane and everybody starts to clap. It’s his job! Once actors have made a sex scene together, there’s that same proud face, like they conquered it. I don’t like it. However, what was interesting in this film was to make acoustic sex. Now that that is very, very difficult for the actors.
OUTSKIRTS: How does something like that affect the casting process?
PETZOLD: When I am casting, and I’m searching for new actors, supporting actors, I never watch the DVDs they send me. I just hear the DVDs. I close my eyes. You can hear if someone is good or is bad. You can hear it. When I was a child and my parents would have guests at home, they’d be sitting there at the kitchen table in their conversation. We the children are sitting on another table, not so far away. And we can hear when the adults start to lie. We can hear it. Mnh-mnh-mnh. They’re ambitious, they’re pretentious. You can hear it in the sounds, in their voices, in everything. So when two actors have to have sex in an acoustic way, they’re in one room. They have microphones. They close their eyes, and then their imagination starts. Incidentally, there’s this Marshall McLuhan book, ‘Medium Cool’—there was also a Haskell Wexler movie based on it. McLuhan said TV is cool, radio is hot. In Rwanda, the radio makes the genocide, not the TV. Television, visuals, images, are too cold. Neither can you start a pogrom with TV alone. It always begins with radio, music, the voice. So here, the actors are lying on the bed. They close their eyes and have to make their sounds of love. They have to imagine a scene. And this is something totally different. To imagine is something very close to real intimacy, because you become part of the mix. This was hard work. I can hear it on the headphones immediately when something’s not good. We wait for one day, and then we do it again. With that extra night to think about it, the actors are suddenly brilliant with their sex noises. I know they like each other, of course, so I know it will work. It’s not hard for them to imagine doing it together. For example, the two guys who had to make sex noises [Enno Trebs and Langston Uibel], they’re lying there in that special room and I am outside with a with headphones. Already after 120 seconds, they come out. ‘No problem for us’, they say. They’re not proud. The work is done. [laughs] Well, overall this time [on Afire] was the luckiest work I ever made up my life. These two months together with these cars, this house, and these people, the forest, was really perfect.
OUTSKIRTS: Since the Berlinale, I have been thinking a lot about this film in relation to the history of melodrama. Everything that you’ve spoken about so far concerns this tension: between what you’re depicting and how you’re orienting yourself, and us as an audience, to it. When talking about a film like Something to Remind Me, you clearly still remember it as its distinct, structured parts, as genre elements: which position each character fulfils, what their relation is to historical archetype. That’s also what I feel in Afire. On one hand, a sort of looseness, a modernist looseness. But on the other hand, a very classical idea of narrative construction, that every person has to fulfil a role in some sense. This person has to write a book, or this person has to fall in love, these two men have to fall in love in contrast to them. And also Paula Beer’s character, what she represents. I think it is the most romantic idea in this very romantic film. She has to save him by loving him. And he won’t let her.
PETZOLD: That’s right. That’s something from the American movies I like so much. Like Husbands. We started with Husbands and we will finish with Husbands, okay? [laughs] I have the feeling that there are no supporting actors in my favourite American movies. The whole frame is filled with subjects, filled with these people as possible subjects. In the ‘90s, when I was a student, I told myself that when I would eventually write a book or direct a movie, all my characters have to be worth telling a 90 minute story about, a film from their position. In this narrative world that we’re seeing, they happen to be meeting there and fulfilling specific roles, but that’s just in this world. This is an idea that I took from John Cassavetes movies. Or, for example, when Paul Schrader is writing a script for, say Taxi Driver (1976), for example. He’s got a character, Wizard, another taxi driver, played by Peter Boyle. He’s an idiot, he gives bad advice, he doesn’t know anything. But you feel totally that it would be worth it if Martin Scorsese’s camera would start following him for the next 90 minutes. I’m immediately interested in him, just from a fragmentary meeting. And so there is a fixed narrative conception, a melodrama, as you describe it. But on the other hand, all of them—the writer, the student, the lifeguard—would be interesting to follow in any direction for 90 minutes. I really feel it would be worth making a movie out of all of them. But in this moment, in these two days, when these characters are meeting in one place, in one space, it’s simply the story of their relationships. It is very important for me to make it like this, that’s it.
OUTSKIRTS: And then at the centre, you have Leon who can’t access the world of the others at all.
PETZOLD: You want to smack him across the face! Because it’s his job as the writer to do that. He had to bring these characters together. He had to give their relationships, their ambiguities, a structure. He’s the writer! Only at the end, when everything’s broken—two are dead, one has cancer, the girl is missing—can he write his story. This is what I hate about literature, that one can always only write it down when something’s dead. In this case, this is Leon’s ultimate fate. This is the story. And this is the story of all stories. All writers are sentimental. They have to kill something first, and only then can they start writing.
OUTSKIRTS: That’s what's so beautiful about the ending [of Afire] to me. It feels somehow ‘happy’ in its sentiment. But then when you just look at their faces, Leon’s and Nadja’s, and you see something unresolvable. It’s like you describe. Leon’s only now tentatively able to access this world through his writing because everything is destroyed. The relationships are completely uncertain. He's standing there, and like a spectator he’s completely impotent. It’s a very Hitchcockian idea. And ending where the character is peering out at a world they can no longer access.
PETZOLD: Yeah. And I am a Hitchcockian, I must say. He brought me to cinema when I was 15. What you’re saying makes me think about the last shot of Vertigo (1958), when James Stewart is standing there at the top of the tower, looking down at Kim Novak’s dead body far below. He is now back, a male subject who’s no longer impotent. He has triumphed over his fears, his vertigo. It’s a triumph of his character, but it’s the saddest story in the world in the same moment.
OUTSKIRTS: Because it cost everything.
PETZOLD: Yeah, it cost everything.