Christian Petzold

(Copyright © 2011-22 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

7.7 The State I Am In (2000)
7.1 Something To Remind Me (2001)
7.4 Wolfsburg (2003)
7.2 Ghosts (2005)
7.5 Yella (2007)
6.0 Jerichow (2008)
7.1 Dreileben (2011)
7.5 Barbara (2012)
7.4 Phoenix (2014)
7.3 Transit (2018)
7.0 Undine (2020)

Christian Petzold (Germany, 1960)

Pilotinnen / Pilotes (1995)

Pilotinnen follows the story of two perfume saleswomen who travel around Germany, spending time in small towns and cheap hotels. Despite the stagnant atmosphere that backs every day of their lives, the two women keep believing in their dream of a more satisfying existence.
(Stub prepared by Virginia Liverani)

Cuba Libre (1996)

Cuba Libre confirms Petzold’s predilection for bitter ends. As a matter of fact, the movie tracks a young couple trying to save their soured relationship by escaping to Cuba, but the unfortunate meeting with an unreliable gangster prevents the project of a new start from being as the couple planned.
(Stub prepared by Virginia Liverani)

Die Beischlafdiebin (1998)

Die Beischlafdiebin focuses on the concept of family which is one of Petzold’s typical thematic traits. Despite their will to rejoin to the family, two sisters build their relationship on lies trying to find a place in the post-wall life.
(Stub prepared by Virginia Liverani)

The first chapter of Petzold’s "Ghost Trilogy", Die innere Sicherheit/The State I Am In (2000), is a thriller of a new genre. Not only are we kept in the dark about what the protagonists are running away from, but we never see most of the crucial events (bank heists, fights). We learn of them from obvious clues. Petzold uses a relatively plain visual style but it is full of signifiers. Nonetheless, there is authentic suspense throughout the film, even if we don't know what is going on and why. It's like a more rational and linear version of David Lynch's cinema, but with a similar desolate atmosphere of existential mystery.

In a beach location the teenager Jeanne meets a surfer, Heinrich. Their meeting is brief because she suddenly runs away to her father Hans. At home she overhears her father and her mother Clara discuss a relocation to Brazil. They have done something illegal that requires leaving before the police find them, and they look for places with "drop-outs, potheads and tourists". Jeanne complains they are moving all the time. She can't make friends. In the evening she watches from the window kids riding around on a motorcycle. She meets Heinrich again and lies about her school. They are afraid of people taking pictures of them (they are just tourists actually). At night she hears her parents making love. She leaves the house and meets Heinrich at the port. He takes her to his family's villa, now abandoned after his father drowned in the pool. They kiss. It is almost morning when the parents find Jeanne back at the port. When the family returns to their apartment, they find the police: burglars stole their valuables, including the key to a locker. The police detective see that Hans has a gun and calls for reinforcements. Hans tells Clara and Jeanne to run. Hans and Jeanne walk into the train station and find one of the thieves taking their bag from the locker. Hans gets the bag, but is attaked from behind by another thief. Jeanne tries to help and is hit in the head. The thieves leave with their bag (which contains most of their money). Hans has to load his unconscious daughter on his shoulders to carry her away before the police arrive. Obviously he does not want help from the police. They continue their flight. At a pub they wait in vain for some friend to show up, someone who could help them. He doesn't come, so they go to his house. He must be an old accomplice of them, but now he is rich and works for the government. He doesn't want to deal with them. He's through with their old cause. He mentions that he could help them surrender to the authorities and get a lenient sentence, but Clara scorns the idea of spending ten years in jail. Obviously they have done something that would normally get a much worse sentence. While Jeanne waits for them, she wanders around the house and finds the man's teenage girl, Paulina. They smoke together. Clara comes to get Jeanne. As they leave the house, Jeanne sees the old "friend" wiping blood from his nose. Obviously her father hit him. Hans drives to a place where they hid a metal box containing documents and money, but it's the old German money that is worthless now. From another place Hans digs up a gun. They need money and Hans plans to rob a bank. Whenever they stop, they study Portuguese. Hans and Clara are clearly nervous. When a few cars behave erratically at a red traffic light that takes a long time to turn green, Hans gets out of the car and raises his hands, thinking those are cops, while Clara lowers Jeanne's head fearing a shootout. But it turns out those are simply drivers who lost their patience with the traffic light.
Apparently, Jeanne has always lived this life.
Jeanne is sent to make contact with another mysterious middle-aged friend, Klaus. He hugs Clara like she was a long-lost family member, but Hans refuses to shake hands with him. He promises Clara that he will get her the money to move to Brazil but he needs time. Before parting, he mumbles that Jeanne doesn't look at all like Hans, possibly a hint that he knows Jeanne is not Hans' biological daughter. Later Jeanne asks her mother whether Klaus is her father and Clara replies no. Clara has a nervous breakdown, tired of always being on the run and of sleeping in the car. At night Jeanne takes them to Heinrich's abandoned villa, where they can sleep comfortably. The following day she shoplifts in a music store. She attends a class for a few minutes. Maybe it's her real school, because the teacher complains that she never shows up. The class watches a film on Nazist extermination camps, but she hardly pays attention and runs away when the teacher asks for her comments. On the way back to the villa she has to hide from Heinrich who is playing in the woods with a friend. When she gets into the villa, she hears her parents making love as usual. She's the only one to leave the villa for shopping. By accident, she meets Heinrich again: it turns out he is a pizza boy with no parents and lives in a hostel. He dreamed up the story about the villa and her rich parents to impress her. At home her parents found out that she has been shoplifting and get mad at her: if a security guard arrests her, it will be the end of their dreams of escaping to Brazil. She doesn't tell them that she's been seeing Heinrich and promises not to see boys in general. But she's a teenage girl: she's been shoplifting because she was ashamed of what she was wearing and she hangs out with Heinrich because it's the only romance in her life.
When the day comes to receive the money from Klaus, someone is filming Klaus. A hitchhiker asks Klaus for a ride. Klaus gives her money instead. Seconds later they are both surrounded by police cars. Clara, Hans and Jeanne are waiting in the fields, but Klaus never shows up. Then a helicopter shows up and they understand that something went wrong.
It's night and they are driving back to the villa. Hans explains to his daughter what to do during interrogations: remain silent. Later he starts planning a bank heist: they need the money. Jeanne visits Heinrich at his real place, a humble room in a hostel. Not only does she see him but now they also have sex. She was still a virgin. Heinrich is now curious about her life. He points a lamp at her face and interrogates her. She follows her father's advice and keeps silent. The interrogation becomes a soliloquy by Heinrich. She's jealous of all the girls Heinrich has had before.
Her mother finds her scantily dressed on the way to the villa and understands that she's been seeing a boy. They interrogate her and learn that she took them to the villa hoping to meet Heinrich again. The parents decide to take her to a relative. Jeanne is even more upset: she doesn't want to leave her parents. She swears she doesn't love the boy and doesn't want to see him again.
They send Jeanne into the bank to map out the layout of the building. The plan is to board a ship two days after the heist. Of all people, Heinrich sees her in the car while she's waiting for her parents in front of the bank. She insults him to make him go away. It works just in time. Her parents come with the money and they drive away. Hans is wounded in the back. At the villa Clara tells Jeanne that she had to shoot a man in order to get out of the bank (a door that Jeanne saw open was actually closed). At ight Jeanne sneaks out of the villa and goes to apologize to Heinrich. He has guessed that they robbed the bank. She starts crying. She tells him that her parents are hiding in the abandoned villa and that the plan is to leave the country soon. They hug but Jeanne decides that her place is with her parents and returns to the villa. Heinrich makes a phone call.
In the morning the family starts driving. They are on a country road when three cars (not police cars) approach theirs and attack them. Clara loses control of the car that flips over and explodes. Jeanne is the only survivor. It looks like Heinrich betrayed her.

Toter Mann / Something To Remind Me

(2001) Something to Remind Me is Petzold's first psychological thriller. Immersed in a world ruled by a feeling of inevitable solitude, a young man becomes obsessed by a fascinating woman who constantly disappears, increasing his interest in seeing her again.
(Stub prepared by Virginia Liverani)

Wolfsburg (2003) is a thriller of sorts: it is not a "whodunit" (we know it from the beginning) but a "will he be discovered?" kind of movie. The suspense rests in the morality act of a man who is trying to redeem himself without exposing himself, without risking the proper punishment (jail), and ends up playing a cruel, sadistic game with the victim. The film has also an underlying social theme, pitting the middle-class white-collar killer who drives a nice car against the poor blue-collar single-mother victim who rides a bicycle. But wealth is not the main parameter: the salesman is bored and unhappy, whereas the worker has a mission in life, no matter how difficult it is to make ends meet. He takes away her mission, destroys the meaning of her life, and then invents a mission for his own life: remedying the misery that he has caused her. It's a hopeless psychological scheme, doomed to failure, in fact doomed to double the pain of the victim because now she will also feel exploited by the man who killed her son, although possibly relieved that she found the killer that she was hunting.

Philipp is driving to an appointment with a client while having a heated discussion on the phone with his girlfriend Katja, who is behaving like a real bitch. Philipp loses his temper, turns the car and drives back. However, he gets distracted and runs over a child who was riding a bicycle. He stops for a second, then decides to flee without even checking if the child is still alive. The film moves to a supermarket after hours where two women are cleaning up and restocking the shelves, initially viewed through surveillance cameras. On the way out their purses are searched by security guards. A man approaches one of them, the young and pretty Laura, and invites her to dinner: it's her boss. Laura and her friend Vera walk away smiling, but then stop by the dumpsters. We realize that they threw in the garbage the things that they want to steal. Just then two police officers look for Laura. It's not about the theft: it's about her son, who had an accident and is at the hospital. At home, Philipp finds that Katja has already packed her bags and ready to walk out of his life, but they make peace right away. Then we see Laura at the hospital by the bed of his unconscious boy. Katja drives Philipp to work, claiming the car has a problem, along the same road, and Philipp sees police checking the site of the accident. Philipp is an experienced car salesman. Katja's brother Klaus is Philipp's boss and scolds Philipp for giving Katja a hard time. Philipp imagines confessing the truth about the hit-and-run accident and actually drives to the hospital and runs into the anguished mother in the corridor. Ironically, she asks him for a cigarette. He begins to introduce himself and just then a nurse calls her because her boy Paul woke up. Paul remembers the type of car and the color: a red Ford. Philipp overhear the conversation and walks out of the hospital without making any confession. Back home, he proposes to Katja. Klaus suspects it's a scheme for getting co-ownership of the dealership. Philipp repairs the front of his car himself and then throws the twisted fender in a junkyard. Paul dies. Philipp and Katja go on an exotic honeymoon with Klaus and his girlfriend. He doesn't seem to feel any guilt anymore. Meanwhile, Laura tries to kill herself. The psychologist tells her that she's punishing herself. The record shows that she tried to put up Paul for adoption when he was six because she was a single mother unable to take care of him. She stays with her best friend Vera, also a single mother, and tells her that she wants to find the man who killed Paul. Vera takes Laura to the junkyard where Philipp dumped the fender of the car and Laura finds it. Philipp and Katja are back from their honeymoon. On the way back from the airport the car passes by the spot of the accident and Philipp sees a cross, which implies that the boy died. Philipp drives to the spot in the middle of the night and sees that Laura left a note under the photo of the child asking for witnesses to come forward. Back home, Philipp tries to tell Katja about the accident but she's a bitch as usual and doesn't let him talk. Laura lives in constant agony. She investigates red Fords, trying to find one whose fender has been replaced. One day Laura shows up at Philipp's showroom asking for a red Ford. She's obviously touring all car dealers. Laura's boss, who is clearly in love with her, offers her a promotion if she returns to work. Philipp runs again into Laura at a restaurant where her boss took her on their date. He see them kissing outside the restaurant. The boss is very nice to her but she tells him that she's not ready and prefers to bike home than to accept his ride, despite the late hour. Philipp follows Laura, who is biking in the dark. He passes her, then turns back. He finds that Laura has jumped from a bridge. Philipp dives and rescues her in time. She faints right away. Philipp then drives the unconscious Laura home. When she wakes up, she tells him to leave, assuring him that she's ok. At home he lies to Katja that he had a flat tire. The following morning he delivers the bicycle to Laura and asks her for a date, but she doesn't reply. Philipp shows up again at her apartment and this time she accepts to go out. The conversation is rather stale. Philipp tells Laura that he would like to find her a better job. A coworker walks into the restaurant and sees them together. Philipp and Laura leave. He drives her around. She ends up falling asleep in his car and they both sleep in the car till morning. She has no idea that he's the man she's looking for, the killer of her son. He drives her to work. On the way she changes into work clothes and forgets a shoe in his car. Her boss sees that she was driven by a man and, in a fit of jealousy, fires her. Philipp asks a friend, Oliver, to hire Laura as a typographer (the job for which she studied) and offers to pay her salary. Katja is furious at him after finding a woman's shoe in his car. He confesses that he's in love with Laura. Klaus fires him. Katja kicks him out of the apartment. Now he's looking for a job and has to pay Laura's salary. Driving by the cross that marks the place of the accident, he notices that it has fallen and restores it. He brings the shoe to Laura and tells her that he split from his wife and quit his job, and he's moving back to his parents' place. They drive to the sea and she's finally romantic. They make love on the beach. In the morning she realizes that his car is... a red Ford. She touches the bumper and realizes it has been replaced. On the way back in the car she tells him that she knows, and then stabs him with a knife. He loses control of the car and the car overturns. They both survive but he's trapped under the car. She takes his phone and calls for help. She then calmly walks away.

Gespenter / Ghosts (2005), the second installment in Petzold's "Ghost Trilogy", is a simple story told at a slow pace. It is to a real film what a novella is to a novel. The film crawls towards the final revelation, and only at the end we fully realize the agony of the girl who spent her melancholy life hoping to find either a sister or a mother, and can't find either. The "sister" is a cynical delinquent who would do anything for money. The "mother" turns out to be a mad woman whose girl died. Nina is powerless to win over either. At the end she is convinced that she is indeed the daughter of the mad woman, because of a scar, a mole and because of the photos, but she simply walks away and throws away the photos: even if she is what she thinks she is, they are useless.

A girl, Nina, who is picking up garbage in a park, witnesses two boys beating an older girl. When they see the girl, the boys run away, and so does the victim. The girl returns to the field where the other cleaners are only to meet a stern and rude boss who thinks she's been trying to avoid her duties. Later when the young garbage pickers are resting the older girl is spotted trying to steal something. She manages to run away with a torn shirt. They all start chasing her. Nina is the one who found her. Nina not only protects the older girl, Toni, from the posse but even gives her one of her own shirts to replace the one that has been torn in the fight. Nina is even willing to take Toni to the place where she lives (which is an orphanage but Toni doesn't know) when Toni's cell phone rings: it's her friend Susanne asking for her money. Toni rudely bids goodbye from the girl who helped her, hinting that first she might stop at a department store to steal some clothes for herself.
Meanwhile a Frenchman picks up a Frenchwoman from what appears to be a mental asylum. She has torn clothes and is limping. They drive away. She says she is happy to be with him. They take a hotel room. But she is haunted by some misdeed she did that caused pain to a girl and asks him to do something about it. He has scheduled a meeting with a professor about some printers in Poland...
Toni returns to Nina's orphanage and Nina helps her climb her window into her room. Toni makes herself home, discovers that Nina is keeping a fictional diary and demonstrates the kind of stories she can dream up at the castings that she attends. Now Toni talks of her friend Susanne like someone she hates. Suddenly Toni turns very friendly towards Nina: she gives her back her expensive earring that Nina had found in the park and kisses her on the mouth. Just then the manager comes to talk to Nina. Toni hides in the bathroom. The managee found out that Nina flee the garbage-picking party and is mad at her, ready to send her back to where she came from (apparently a much worse place). While the manager is lecturing Nina, Toni waks out of the bathroom, puts her clothes on and leaves takeing Nina with her leaving the manager speechless.
Toni takes Nina to the apartment of a wealthy family. A boy, Mathias, opens the door. Toni apologizes to him and swears she didn't steal the jewelry (now we know where the earring came from). Mathias' mother, however, doesn't believe her and is ready to call the police. Toni demands her belongings. Mathias' mother refuses. Toni is ready to strike the woman with scissors but Nina calls her. Before leaving, Toni vandalizes some furniture, a real psycho. Toni keeps the scissors. She and Nina use them to steal clothes from the department store. As she's walking out, a hand stops Nina. Nina turns and sees the Frenchwoman. Thinking that she's being stopped for stealing, Nina runs away, but the Frenchwoman catches up. Nina surrenders the stolen skirt, but that's not what the Frenchwoman wants. The woman starts explaining in German that her child was abducted. That child, whose name was Marie, had a scar on her ankle, the same scar that Nina has. The Frenchwoman has spent all those years looking for Marie, always being disappointed whenever she thought she had found her. The woman begs Nina to show her back: Marie had a heart-shaped mole that would confirm her identity. While the woman is trying to see her back, Toni steals her wallet and runs. Nina's instinct is to follows her. Then she regrets it, but Toni tells her that the woman was just crazy. Nina asks her to check her mole: it is heart-shaped.
Later the two girls try to pass an acting test. Toni has dreamed up a script for them, but Nina does not do what she was supposed to. She's paralyzed. The director, Oliver, is losing his patience when finally Nina begins telling a real story, the real story of how she always dreamed of meeting Toni and finally she did, a story so moving that even Toni is touched. Oliver invites them to a party in his villa. During the party Nina gets jealous when she sees Oliver flirting with Toni (or, better, the other way around). Oliver's wife gets jealous too and slaps him in the face when she catches the two girls dancing romantically alone with him in a separate room. Nina gets jovial again and lets Toni kiss her on the mouth while dancing.
Meanwhile the Frenchwoman, Francoise, has told her husband Pierre that she saw Marie. This time she is positive. This is a wealthy couple that drives in an expensive car and listens to classical music, all the opposite of the life that Nina had and of what Toni can offer her.
The morning after the party Toni is gone. There is nobody in the villa. Finally Nina finds Oliver's wife, who tells her in a cold angry tone that Toni went out to have sex with her husband. Nina takes the tram back to the city and looks for her mother in the same place where they met. Francoise is waiting for her. Francoise takes Nina to the fancy hotel and buys her breakfast. While they are chatting, Francoise's husband comes and gently asks his wife to go with him. Nina does not understand why her mother simply lets him walk her away. Now Nina demands to stay with her mama. Pierre gives her money, Nina does not want it. Nina tries in vain to show him her heart-shaped mole to prove that she is really Marie. Pierre tells her that Marie died and that Francoise is very ill.
Nina walks back to the park where she met Toni and finds the wallet that Toni threw away after taking all the money. Inside Nina finds pictures of Marie. They do look a lot like Nina, but Nina throws them into a garbage can. Whether she is indeed Marie or not, those pictures will be useless.


(2007), the last part of the "Ghost Trilogy", is a visually appealing and action-packed thriller. The general idea of the plot is the one pioneered by Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962), of the dying woman who imagines an entire life, although in a completely different context. The protagonist, in particular, is an icy impenetrable soul who is partly reminiscent of the steely women of Hitchcock's most psychological thrillers. Formally, it is probably Petzold's most accomplished film yet. Yella, a beautiful young woman, arrives by train in a city and starts walking towards home. A man is watching her from a car. He offers her a ride but she keeps walking. She's ready to call for help. He tells her he just wants to talk and keeps at a safe distance. She keeps walking and eventually sends him away. Later she tells her father that she got the job she wanted and she'll be leaving soon. They hug tenderly: she obviously loves him very much. The following day the young man, Ben, rings the bell and offers to take her to the station. She can't say no. Ben takes a detour and tries to impress her with his projects, arguing that she dumped him unfairly. All he needs is a little bit of money to survive until the new airport opens, bringing new business in. She asks him to stop and let her out. He drives off a bridge into a river. She swims back to shore but he's right behind her. She grabs her bags and still runs all wet to the station, just in time to board the train. On board she changes in dry clothes. She falls asleep and wakes up at the last stop. She walks to the place she reserved. On the way she is startled to see see two parents with their child in front of their rich home. She pauses for a while and the mother sees her. In the evening she can finally relax at her hotel but a businessman approaches introducing himself: her good looks obviously attract men. The following morning she arrives at her new workplace only to find out that the man who hired her has been fired. He asks her to pick up a portfolio from his desk, which she does even if the security guard tells her that the old boss is not allowed on the premises anymore. She brings the portfolio to the boss, who is waiting outside, but doesn't hand it over: first she wants to know what will happen to her job. The boss tells her that he will find her something at his new company, but it becomes obvious that he first wants to sleep with her. She returns to her hotel room in tears. He doesn't even know what job she was applying for: accountant. Philipp, the aggressive businessman who approached her when she arrived, instead, really has a job for her. He takes her to an important meeting. Suddenly during the meeting she can't hear them: she hears the sounds of the river where she almost drowned. But then she recovers brilliantly and Philipp is very pleased with her performance. She is a very smart woman, after all. He is a shark who specializes in negotiating deals with entrepreneurs desperate for cash who cannot get loans from regular banks. And it turns out this businessman is not after her body at all. When she returns to the hotel, she finds that someone else has been in her room... and Ben is outside staring at her window. He found out where she lives and is obviously determined to keep stalking her. Desperate, she begins to pack but the businessman, Philipp, comes to ask her for help with another meeting.
He gives her money to deposit but at the bank she realizes that he gave her too much money, exactly the sum of money that Ben needs to stay in business. She diligently puts the excess money back in the envelop but then she tries to mail it to herself. When the businessman drives back and honks at her, she doesn't mail the envelop but hides it in her purse. She has just stolen a huge amount of money. But Philipp knows: he waits for her to say something about it, she doesn't, he does. She mumbles that she wanted to send it to her ex-husband Ben who keeps following her, but Philipp is not interested in excuses. Later he listens to her and coldly debunks Ben's plan: there is no airport being built in their hometown, and the way Ben makes Yella feel bad about her "betrayal" is an old pathetic act.
He hires her for one more meeting and, again, Yella does extremely well, so much so that he invites her to follow him to another town for another business meeting. However, Ben attacks her in her room. She escapes, runs to Philipp's room and hugs him... but there's nobody behind her: did Ben hide or was it just her imagination? She sleeps with Philipp. The following day he lets her drive while he takes a nap. When he wakes up, he realizes that she has turned the car towards her hometown. He gets mad at her, she gets out of the car and starts walking. She happens to be near the bridge where she almost died and, again, she hears the sounds that she heard that day. Philipp finds her and confesses to her that he has been stealing money to invest in a crazy idea of hers that would make him very rich. He only needs a bit more money. He invites her to become his business partner. She smiles, convinced.
The meeting is with three entrepreneurs who believe have an important invention: one of them is the man with a wife and a child who startled her when she first arrived at the train station. With the excuse of going shopping, she takes the car and visit the family that startled her. She wants to talk to the husband, the wife tells her to go away, but Yella insists. Alone with the man, Yella blackmails him: she wants the money that Philipp needs in order to achieve his dream. He protests that he has no money left. She thretens to ruin him if he doesn't sell the house. At the next meeting they can't find him anywhere. She thinks she sees him outside but he's nowhere. Yella drives to his home again but he's not there either. Yella and his wife run to the pond. Yella hears a loud buzz for a few seconds. She and his wife find the dead body in the pond: the man committed suicide.
Yella returns home. She's in Ben's car again and Ben again drives off the bridge... the car sinks... They never get out alive: the rescuers eventually find the bodies and drop them on the shore exactly in the position where we saw them but this time the police cover them with a sheet: they are dead bodies.


(2008) Jerichow follows the story of a love triangle born among an Afghanistan veteran and a married couple who hire the discharged soldier as a driver. Internally divided between passion and reason, the characters are unable to fulfill their desires.
(Stub prepared by Virginia Liverani)
Dreileben/ Beats Being Dead (2011) is a TV movie.

At first Barbara (2012) may feel like a tribute to lead actress Nina Hoss, whose facial expressions (or non-expressions) constitute most of what this film is. Her character is a stately, mostly silent and rarely smiling beauty; a chain smoker who frequently crosses her beautiful legs when sitting, and somehow exuding repressed sexuality. Barbara's behavior emanates a sense of distrust for everybody, knowing that everybody could be (and most likely is) spying on her on behalf of a ruthless police state. Barbara's face is so expressionless that the viewer cannot decipher her mind. And there are no flashbacks. Barbara's past is kept from us. One can read solitude in the eyes of the protagonist, but it's only an educated guess. The plot actually recycles very old Hollywood-ian melodramatic stereotypes of tormented love, self-sacrifice and quasi-missionary passion. And here they are immersed in the old-fashioned world of the Cold War, like thousands of Hollywood movies. However, the manically chiseled existential drama prevails over the suspenseful Cold War thriller, and the film is not about escaping from communism at all. It is, first and foremost, about finding a mission in life. Barbara begins the film having already made a choice, but she eventually realizes that there is a choice to make, one between the hedonistic and spoiled Westerner or the idealistic, stoical and, sure, even weak local boy, the former promising her a life of freedom and luxury (and no work) and the other one representing a life of constant fear, poverty and hard work. To win is not so much the attractive personality of the doctor but the principle of having a mission in life. The film becomes a journey of self-discovery: the impenetrable Barbara, determined to leave the country and therefore indifferent to everything that she will leave behind, when confronted with the humanity of the doctor rediscovers her own, the humanity she had lost in her dream of an easy and privileged life abroad. The weak Andre, who does not rebel against the ruthless dictatorship, indirectly becomes her savior. It is not only the young patient that Andre rescues from a vegetating life but also Barbara herself, who initially is hostile to him precisely because she senses the humanity that he represents and that constitutes a danger for her plan to escape.

The film is set in communist East Germany in 1980, when Germany was divided in two, one free and democratic and the other one under a totalitarian regime. Barbara is a beautiful young woman and an experienced doctor from the capital, whom the regime sends to a provincial pediatric clinic as punishment for her political sins. A doctor, Andre, and an official stare outside the window of the clinic at Barbara, who is smoking a cigarette on a park bench, waiting for the exact time of the interview, clearly not excited about her new situation. The official, who works for the secret police, tells the doctor that she was jailed for a while and lost all her friends. The doctor introduces Barbara to his crew. Barbara shows no interest in socializing: she eats alone in the cafeteria shunning the group and never smiles at anyone. The doctor offers her a ride with a smile: she coldly accepts. When he scolds her for not being friendlier, she tells him that he knows her situation, implying that he is part of the system that she despises. She stares outside the window of her room, afraid of cars that stop by. She is afraid to open the door when the landlady knocks. Barbara's hostile attitude is not due to her city upbringing but to resentment and something bigger that is going on inside her mind and nobody can read. Nonetheless at work she quickly gains the trust and respect of her colleagues: she is the first to diagnose meningitis when a girl, Stella, shows up after spending a week in the fields. It turns out she has escaped from a labor camp. Barbara buys a bike so she doesn't have to depend on rides. One day she meets someone in a restroom who gives her a packet and money. She rides the bike to the woods and hides the packet. Back home she finds the secret police: they search her room and a woman searches her body's cavities. Andre the doctor comes to pick her up: Stella, the runaway girl, is pregnant and refuses treatment unless Barbara is there. Barbara is worried that they will take the child away from Stella when they send her back to the labor camp. The doctor has created a mini-lab and Barbara is impressed. She doesn't want his attentions but he is obviously interested in her. On the way home she stops the bike in the woods and waits until a luxury car approaches: inside are her lover Jorg and a friend. They both hail from Western Germany and Jorg has a plan to bring Barbara to the West. They have sex right there in the woods. When Jorg leaves, Barbara finds her bike vandalized and has to walk it home after dark. The doctor confesses that he was responsible for a mistake that left two newborns blind: that's why the authorities sent him to this provincial clinic. Barbara asks if there is anything they can do for Stella, but Andre is pessimistic. After a few more days the police officers come to take Stella away. The doctor watches touched and powerless from the window as Barbara hugs Stella one last time. Andre sends someone to tune her piano, a nice gesture that Barbara resents. She is planning to run away and Andre is just noise. A kid, Mario, is taken in: he fell from a balcony. But Andre immediately realizes that the kid has tried to poison himself and then jumped. They save his life but Andre fears permanent damage to the brain. Andre gets his own bike and rides the bike with Barbara, but in vain. At home whenever a car stops in front of her house she looks apprehensively outside. At night, afraid of being followed, she walks to a hotel for Westerners where her lover is. They can hear Jorg's friend making love to another girl. Jorg gives her details on the boat that will come and pick her up to take her to Denmark. He also mentions that he makes enough money and she won't need to work anymore. When Jorg walks out for a meeting, Barbara meets his friend's girlfriend Steffi. She is just a prostitute but the guy is so dumb he wants to marry her. She is only interested in getting the most expensive engagement ring and treats Barbara like she too is just using sex to get presents from Westerners. Meanwhile, Stella escapes from the labor camp. The secret police search Barbara's room again. Mario seems to have no memory loss but Andre is still worried. During her night shift Barbara notices that Mario's girlfriend visits him and Barbara interviews her: it turns out that Mario tried to commit suicide because he believed that the girl had cheated on him. The girl is scared because Mario does not seem to show any emotion. His memory seems to be good but there are no emotions associated with it. Barbara realizes that Andre was right: they need to operate. She is getting ready for the big night. She feels bad that the doctor is so serious and passionate whereas she's abandoning him in this depressing provincial hospital. Barbara physically bikes around town looking for Andre until she finds him. Andre quickly prepares for urgent brain surgery and asks Barbara to be there, but that's the night when Barbara has to escape. Andre cooks dinner for her. She kisses him, touched, but then leaves: it's a goodbye kiss. At the clinic the doctors are getting ready to operate, but Barbara does not show up. Barbara is ready to leave when Stella shows up at her door, exhausted. Now Barbara has three responsibilities: Stella, Mario and Andre. Barbara takes Stella with her to the beach. They ride the bike to the place where the boat is supposed to pick up Barbara. Andre looks for Barbara at her place but only finds the secret police, who have already found out she has escaped because a neighbor tipped them. Andre cries because he thinks she has been arrested. Instead Barbara is paying for the smugglers to take Stella on the boat. Barbara remains on the beach staring at the freedom that is moving away from her. Barbara simply rides back home, and penniless. She heads for the clinic. Andre is sitting next to Mario, waiting to see if the operation worked. Barbara silently sits next to Andre.

Barbara began a trilogy dubbed "Love in Times of Oppressive Systems". The second installment, Phoenix (2014), moves from the Cold War back to World War II, replete with Kurt Weill's music, centered upon a concentration-camp survivor and set among the ruins of post-war Berlin; but the way the plot unravels evokes Hitchcock's thrillers. There are also existential and philosophical strands. The protagonist simply wants her life back, exactly as it was before her internment. She wants her old face and her old husband. One can guess that she survived the concentration camp only because of her hope to get back to her old life, and now she is not completely "saved" unless she gets it back. She doesn't get it back because this film is also very much an essay on evil, an endless evil. The film begins after a terrible evil has caused immense suffering. In theory the evil has been defeated in the war, but in reality it is still there, lurking behind ordinary people like her husband, the man who is responsible for her suffering and now, far from repenting, is ready to exploit her for money. He represents the endless evil that lurks inside ordinary people, an evil much more difficult to defeat than the evil of armed soldiers. It is this evil that keeps her from getting back her life and that leads her friend to kill herself.

In US-occupied Germany at the end of World War II, US troops stop a car driven by a German woman, Lene. She is carrying a passenger whose face is bandaged and tells the cops that the wounded was just saved from a concentration camp. The cops demand to see the face. The passenger, Nelly, removes the bandage and shows a horribly disfigured face. Nelly was a choir singer before the war. Lene explains that Nelly can inherit a huge sum because her entire family is dead. Nelly undergoes cosmetic surgery to restore her face. The doctor advices her to pick a new face but Nelly demands to have her old face back. The doctor warns her that the new face will not be exactly like the old one. After the surgery, she wakes up in the middle of the night and follows her own ghost through the hallways of the hospital to a room where pictures of her are posted on the wall. Lene finds an apartment for Nelly in the bombed-out city. Nelly wants to be taken to where her old home stood, but there are only rubbles now. The bandage has been removed and she looks almost like her old self, but not quite. She is disappointed. Lene says that there are no news of her husband Johnny. Nelly seems obsessed with finding him. Lene, instead, wants her to emigrate to Israel with her: she already obtained visas for both. Nelly meets a blind man playing the violin in the streets and inquires about her husband, who was a pianist. The violinist suggests to look for him in the pubs for US troops. She visits a night-club called Phoenix and hears someone being called Johnny while he is brutally abusing a woman. She follows him and it turns out that he is just a thug who also steals her purse. Back home Lene advises her to get a revolver because the streets are not safe, especially at night. Lene tells Nelly that Johnny betrayed her: Johnny was arrested and then immediately released when Nelly was found and arrested. He is the one who turned her in to the nazis. He is a traitor, and the one who condemned her to death. Nonetheless, Nelly is happy that he is alive. She goes back to the club and faces Johnny but he doesn't recognize her. She runs away in tears. Lene gives her a revolver. Nelly returns to the Phoenix and talks again to Johnny, who doesn't recognize her again: he now works as a waiter and janitor, not as the pianist. Johnny thinks she is desperately for work and offers her a deal: if she impersonates his wife Nelly, whom she resembles, he will cash his wife's money, which he cannot touch because there is no evidence of her death, and he will give her part of it. In other words, Johnny asks Nelly to impersonate herself. She tells him that her name is Esther. When she meets Lene again, Nelly tells her the truth: that she met Johnny. Lene is shocked that Nelly would not simply kill the bastard. Even more shocked that Nelly seems ready to forgive the man who betrayed her. Nelly moves in with Johnny in his rundown basement. He is skeptic that she can impersonate Nelly, but she begs him to give her a chance, and she soon shows that she can imitate her handwriting perfectly (it is, of course, her own handwriting). He buys her a red dress. She objects that nobody will believe that a concentration camp survivor shows up in a red dress, but he is stubborn. Ironically, he keeps criticizing her impersonation of his wife (of herself), but eventually he begins to feel confident that the scheme may work: she will show up as Nelly and all their friends will recognize her as Nelly, and he will get her money. She starts asking him questions about Nelly, maybe to check is he is telling her the truth. She tells Lene that Johnny still loves her and she refuses to believe that he betrayed her. She tells Lene that she survived the camp because she was thinking of him all the time. She tells Lene that she doesn't want to go to Israel anymore. Johnny first tests her impersonation with the last people who saw Nelly the day she was arrested: a couple of innkeepers. Nelly was hiding in a nearby houseboat and they saw from the windows that she was being arrested but didn't do anything to help her. Now the woman pretends that she is happy to see her, while her husband seems ashamed. Chatting with the woman also increases the evidence that her husband is the one who betrayed her. On the way back to town she asks him whether he betrayed Nelly. He doesn't answer but she makes up excuses for him, tries to justify his cowardice and betrayal. Johnny is now ready for a dramatic return of his wife. He invites five friends to welcome her at the train station. Nelly visits Lene one last time but Lene is not there anymore: she killed herself. Lene left Nelly a letter in which she reveals that Johnny divorced her right after she was arrested, yet another piece of evidence that he is a traitor. Nonetheless, Nelly goes along with Johnny's plan. She only refuses to get a number tattooed on her forearm, something that all prisoners had, but of course she already has one that Johnny never saw. The show at the train station works at perfection: all five friends recognize her as Nelly and are excited that she is alive. They have a little celebration at a restaurant. Nelly asks to sing for them and asks Johnny to play the piano. As she starts singing, Johnny begins to suspect that she is the real Nelly. And then he sees the number tattooed on her forearm and freezes. He stops to play as she finishes the song and then walks out of the building. We are not told whether she simply disappears, kills herself, grabs the revolver to kill him or what, only that now he knows that she indeed survived the concentration camp.

Transit (2018), based on Anna Seghers's Kafkian novel "Transit" (1944), that was set in Marseille during World War II, is both a love story and a ghost story. It completes the "Love in Times of Oppressive Systems" trilogy. It is filmed in contemporary Marseille with modern cars and fashion and even modern guns, and even a modern cruise ship, therefore reminding one more of the forcible deportation of refugees than of World War II. The recurring scenes of the film are police raids and the crowds of desperate refugees in the corridors of consulates and in the bars of the port city. It is a sort of Brecht-ian way to create "estrangement": you are never completely immersed in the film because it is so obvious that it is just the film, obvious because people don't wear the right clothes, don't drive the right cars and so on. Like Phoenix, the plot revolves around a mistaken identity and the twists and turns that it creates in other people's lives, but here it eventually leads to a crisis of conscience: Georg originally was only interested in making money delivering some letters and then becomes interested in the opportunity of stealing the identity of a dead man, so he is basically a cynical loner; but then by the end he sacrifices himself (a` la Casablanca) for the twisted happiness of two strangers, the wife of the dead man who still doesn't believe that he is dead and her boyfriend who can create a hospital in exile. The protagonist is constantly surrounded by desperate people who are trying to escape: hunted dissidents like him, homeless refugees, a deaf-mute woman with an asthmatic child, etc. Everybody is on the run, but stuck in the port city. The cryptic ending completes the ambiguous portrait of the the main female character, who is torn between three men: her husband, the man who (unbeknownst to her) impersonates her husband, and her new lover who is trying to secure her passage. It looks like she does not believe in monogamous sex or conceives of three different kinds of love. Does she truly feel guilty for having left her husband? Does she truly love the doctor who missed an opportunity to leave in order to stay with her? Does she truly love the stranger who helps her get a visa? Her behavior is confusing up until the end, as if she couldn't make up her mind about what her goal is. She floats around the film like a ghost from the first time that she taps on the man's shoulder (and walks away without saying a word) to the last time that she appears and mysteriously disappears.

In Paris, during a war that might or might not be World War II but that involves fascists "cleansing" the city of illegal refugees, Georg, an illegal refugee (presumably a Jew), is drinking alone in a bar when a friend approaches him to deliver two letters to a writer, Weidel, who is staying in a hotel. One letter is from his wife Marie, who wants to get back together after having abandoned him, and the other one is from the Mexican consulate, granting a visa to him and Marie. Georg delivers the letters to the hotel but only to find out that Weidel has killed himself in the bathtub and the hotel owner is desperately trying to clean up the mess. Before leaving, Georg takes Weidel's last manuscript that is lying on the desk. Later he runs into cops who are checking foreigners for the permit to live in France. Not having one, Georg has to run away and narrowly escapes arrest. He then visits friends and is told that Heinz is mortally wounded. Nonetheless, they will try to ship him out of the city. At night Georg boards a train with Heinz, their destination being his wife Melissa in Marseille. Heinz dies during the trip and Georg has to jump from the train to escape another police raid. During the trip he has read Weidel's manuscript and has become familiar with its story. Georg walks into Marseille and is approached by a mysterious young woman who seems to think he is somebody else. He witnesses another raid. He then meets a child, Driss, and plays soccer with him. He is Heinz's son. When his deaf-mute mother returns home, Georg tells her that her husband is dead. Georg takes a room at a hotel popular with all sort of refugees who are desperately trying to leave France for Latin America via the USA. They all line up at the consulates. Georg uses Weidel's papers and pretends to be him. Weidel has an advantage: he is a well-known leftist writer, and the Mexican consul gladly allows him to enter Mexico but warns him that he also needs a transit permit from the USA because the ship stops there first. He has three weeks to get one. The consul also tells him that his wife Marie was just there looking for him (looking for Weidel). The consul is granting visas to both him (Georg pretending to be Weidel) and to Weidel's wife Marie. At the consulate he also meets a female architect who is certain of obtaining a visa because she has to deliver two dogs to some rich US citizens. The mystery girl passes in front of him again at a cafe. Georg visits Driss, gifts him a soccer ball and fixes his transistor radio. Georg confesses that he was a radio technician. Back at the hotel, Georg witnesses another police raid. A woman was dragged away by the cops and nobody tries to help her. Georg is safe because he can show Weidel's papers. The following day Georg visits the US consulate to apply for the transit permit. The consul is suspicious that a famous antifascist writer like Weidel wants to relocated in Mexico. On the other hand, he hints that Weidel would not be welcome to the USA because he is a "communist". Inside the consulate, Georg witnesses the death of a man who was standing in line, despite the efforts of the female architect to resuscitate him. Again the mystery girl touches him but then runs away. Driss cries when he understands that Georg is trying to leave the country. While Georg is eating there, the deaf-mute mother comes to the cafe begging for a doctor for her son. Georg offers to go and look for one. He knocks at the door of a German doctor, Richard. The doctor visits Driss who has asthma. The doctor tells Georg that the child now hates him and doesn't want to see him. The doctor also tells Georg that he too wants to flee to Mexico. In fact he had already arranged for him and his girlfriend to flee but then she disembarked and now she cannot get a visa anymore. He is tempted to leave her behind and his excuse is that he could build a hospital in Mexico. Just like Georg is willing to leave behind a child who loves him, Richard is willing to leave behind a woman who loves him. Georg and Richard are sitting at the table of the cafe when Richard's girlfriend shows up: she is the mystery girl that showed up in many places where Georg was. She tells Georg that her husband forgot about her and she's been looking all over for him. Georg understands that she is Marie, Weidel's wife. She's been alerted that Weidel was being seen here and there and rushed to find him, but that Weidel was actually Georg, and that explains why Georg kept seeing her. She knows that her husband has her visa, so her interest for him may simply be about getting the visa to leave the country. Georg sees that Richard has prepared two backpacks and realizes that he wants to try and climbs the mountains into Spain. Georg thinks that's madness. He offers to get a visa for Marie (in reality he, as Weidel, has her visa) without revealing how (that he is pretending to be Weidel). Richard is suspicious of Georg's generosity. Here the narrator talks in first person and we realize that he must be someone who works in the cafe. Richard can now leave with his visa, trusting that Georg will get Marie her visa. But Marie tells Georg that she has no intention of leaving: she acted as if she wanted the visa simply to make Richard leave. She is determined to stay in town until she finds her husband. Hence she is really in love. But she says this while flirting with Georg. Georg tells her that Weidel is dead. She doesn't believe him. They kiss. (She is desperate to find her husband but has no problem having sex with Richard and now flirting with Georg). Richard comes back: the ship sent him back to make room for some officials. He is desperate. Georg finds out that Melissa and Driss have disappeared. He is invited to dinner by the female architect he met at the consulate, who says that she doesn't want to dine alone. Then they smoke a cigarette on the roof of the building. He doesn't even realize it until he hears people screaming but the woman jumps to her death. Marie now wants to leave. Georg walks into the US consulate and obtains the transit permits for himself and Marie. They take a taxi towards the port. She kisses him again but is also excited at the idea that she will meet her husband on the ship (because the consul told her that her husband Weidel has a visa and a ticket for that ship, both in Georg's hands, unbeknownst to her). Georg, clearly upset by her passion for her husband, suddenly stops the taxi and gets off. He walks back to Richard's apartment and hands him Weidel's documents. He helps Richard pack in a hurry and dispatches him to the port. We now see that the story is being narrated by the cafe's bartender who has listened to Georg's story. Georg thinks he sees Marie walk into the cafe but she disappears. He rushes to the port to verify whether she really boarded the ship. They tell him that she did and that... the ship sank and there are no survivors! Georg returns to the cafe and Georg sits at a table, indifferent to the new police raid, staring at every person who walks in. Eventually he turns towards someone who just walked in and smiles...

Undine (2020)

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