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Uneasy Riders: Christian Petzold’s Postindustrialist Road Movies

Petzold, on the Jerichow set

Life is a highway in the films of German director Christian Petzold — perhaps not surprising given that Petzold hails from a country dominated by the automotive industry and famous for its high-speed Autobahnen. But cars and the roads that they travel on are much more than a means of transport for Petzold’s characters, who are forever in motion, living off the grid, migrating across real and perceived borders, grasping at fragments of identity. In Petzold’s debut feature, The State I Am In (2000), a couple of former ’60s radicals and their teenage daughter move clandestinely from Portugal to Germany while trying to set up new lives for themselves in Brazil. In 2007’s Yella, the title character — a corporate accountant from Germany’s economically depressed East — leaves home for Hanover, where she finds herself in the employ of a cutthroat venture capitalist.

And in Petzold’s latest, Jerichow (which opens in Los Angeles theaters this weekend), a dishonorably discharged Afghanistan vet traverses the Saxony-Anhalt countryside as the driver for a Turkish snack-bar entrepreneur, with whose wife he’s having an affair. For these denizens of the postindustrialist Europe, the car is nothing less than an extension of themselves — a V8 supercharged metaphor for existential drift. Recently, the 48-year-old filmmaker spoke with me by phone from his Berlin home.

L.A. WEEKLY: What is it with you and cars?

CHRISTIAN PETZOLD: I’m living in a country which is built on cars. Yet although this country is built on cars, you never see cars in the German movies — only cars on sound stages, in studios. The people in cars are not driving, really. For example, they move the steering wheel as if they want to have a dialogue with it, but when you are really driving a car, you never move the steering wheel that much. You are in a kind of dream atmosphere. All those things I remember from my childhood, when I was sitting in the back seat looking over the shoulder of my father, who was driving over the German autobahn. I never see that in the movies, so I said to myself when I started to make films: I want to see that in movies.

The characters in these movies exist in a constant state of transit, always trying to go somewhere but never quite getting there.

Some years ago, I read a book by a French author, Mark Augé, called Non-places. It’s a sociological book, and there’s a little story inside about how when you are driving on highways, you always have these tourist signs that say things like, “On the right side, there is a very old town with an old church.” But you never see that town — just the sign. For me, this is the modern world. You see signs of something very famous or very old, or ruins, but you never see them. You are going down the highway and nothing changes. This for me is a picture of modern loneliness. Also, the titles of the movies, like Jerichow, are a little bit like these signs beside the highway. You never see this town Jerichow — you are always on the outside, on this highway.

It’s been noted that Jerichow is something of an uncredited adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, in the way that Yella was a conceptual remake of the 1962 American horror film Carnival of Souls and The State I Am In a kind of homage to Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty.

When we were shooting Yella, my screenplay collaborator Harun Farocki visited me on the set and we were talking about American movies — we are always talking about American movies. We were talking about why the world of industrial work is not in the American movies. In some, like The Deer Hunter, you can see something like that — Pennsylvania and the dying industrial zones there. But you almost never see factories, except for a little bit in Blue Collar by Paul Schrader. And he said, the Americans don’t need that — you can see class struggle in little micropolitical movies like The Postman Always Rings Twice. For him, that was a story about class struggle, based on three people. So we started to think about James M. Cain’s novel, which is one of my favorite novels — I read it when I was 17 or 18 and I never lost the memory of it. We read it again, and because we are in the German Democratic Republic, or in the ruins of the German Democratic Republic, which is also a ruin of the industrial time, I thought I could use an American novel and it wouldn’t be like a quotation, or that I’m feeling ashamed of living in Germany and I’m using an American novel to say I want to go to Hollywood or something like that. It describes to me our current situation — this old novel that was written in the American Depression of the 1930s.

You once said that you make movies “in the cemetery of genre cinema,” and Jerichow, like all of your films, manages to address a range of sociopolitical issues covertly, under the surface of a genre story, much like the Hollywood film noirs of the ’40s and ’50s.

For me, it was a problem when I was a film student at the [German Film] Academy. All of the students loved genre movies, but they just used them to make retro films. You’d see a blonde girl getting out of a taxi cab and a man in the rain with a cigarette and whisky or something like that. And I hate those kinds of movies; they are like caricatures of the noir movies. I grew up with the New Hollywood movies of the ’70s, and all the New Hollywood movies used the old genres and they deconstructed and reconstructed them a little bit. When you see a movie like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye — a really fantastic movie — it’s modern but it’s also not a parody.

Capitalism is also a driving force in these stories. The main characters in Jerichow are both prisoners of debt. The family in The State I Am In is trying to put together the money it needs to start a new life. Everything — people especially — has a price.

What I like in American movies is the moment where the bank robbers have robbed the bank and now they have the money and they’re in a motel near the highway, and in this moment they don’t know what to do, they make mistakes, and the police are coming. When you receive the money, it’s like the red-light district in the morning, when the daylight shows, you see the skin of all the people who are living there, and the skin is very gray and very old. Money is a little bit like this in my movies — people desire money but they don’t know what to do with it, and if they get money, they never get the things they have dreamed of with the money. For me, this is capitalism.

You are often mentioned alongside such filmmakers as Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec as a member of the “Berlin School” — a wave of new filmmakers whose films are expressly concerned with life in present-day Germany, as opposed to the many recent, popular German films that have offered very authorized versions of important events in German history.

All those movies, like The Lives of Others and Downfall, they are exploitation movies, and we are trying a little bit to make a new neorealistic movie. That doesn’t mean that we want to put the camera on our shoulders and film in the streets. It has something to do with what is happening here and now, and we want to make movies that, if you look at them in 25 years, you will experience how we laughed here, how we kissed here, and how we walked, how we thought in our contemporary times. The directors of movies like The Lives of Others, they just want to make one movie, and after they have made the movie, they close the door. And a really good neorealistic movie is opening a door for many other points of view, for many new sights.