Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Berlin School

I recently watched four films by the German filmmaker Christian Petzold: The State I'm In (2000); Ghosts (2005); Yella (2007); and Jerichow (2008). The first three are fascinating, but less than completely satisfying. The fourth makes a quantum leap beyond them. I had seen Jerichow before, when it made a powerful impression; today, it registers as a wonderful, perfect little film. All four are well worth seeing.

I've had a peculiar experience with Petzold. On the one hand, I'm riveted by the precision and rigor of his style: the intelligence of his compositions, the confidence with which he handles shot duration, the sharp surprises in his cuts, and the masterful, exhilarating control of his mise-en-scène. Watching these films do their work is to be immediately reminded of the stylistic flabbiness of most films. But the content of the first three films -- their narratives, characters and themes -- while promising and interesting, struggles in vain to equal the marvels of their style. Jerichow succeeds by molding and developing that content with the same scrupulous discipline and care that Petzold devotes to film form. In its multidimensional political critique, Jerichow achieves a great, stirring resonance that travels well beyond the film's specific narrative and characters.

Despite my reservations, Petzold's films have made me extremely curious to see and learn more about the films of the "Berlin School." The three filmmakers most closely associated with this "school" are Petzold, Angela Schanelec and Thomas Arslan. Michael Sicinski writes in Cinema Scope:

Without any intention whatsoever, Petzold has become a kind of figurehead for the Berlin School much in the way Andrew Bujalski has been reluctantly appointed the global ambassador for “mumblecore.” What Petzold, Arslan, and Schanelec do have in common is the fact that they studied filmmaking at Berlin’s dffb, an intellectually rigorous film school guided at the time by [Harun] Farocki and fellow film-essayist Hartmut Bitomsky. Aside from these two Berliner forefathers, and the three dffb graduates, the “movement” fans out all over Germany, also encompassing directors associated with Revolver magazine, such as Christoph Hochhäusler, Benjamin Heisenberg, and Ulrich Köhler, and other non-dffb filmmakers such as Maren Ade, Aysum Bademsoy, and Maria Speth, all rendering the “Berlin School” tag quite misleading. Nevertheless, Petzold has achieved a level of international exposure and acclaim which thus far exceeds that of any other director working under this umbrella, and so, within certain circles of international film discourse, Petzold’s work ends up being at least partially understood as an ongoing referendum on the ultimate value of this broad swath of German counter-cinema. Does it or will it have the staying power of the New German Cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Is it an appropriate antidote to big-budget junk like Downfall (2004) and withering mediocrities like The Lives of Others (2006)? Are Petzold and the “Berlin School” the future of German cinema, or is Fatih Akin?

The "Berlin School" film that has most recently fired my curiosity is Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below, thanks to Sicinski's review of it. Alas, it doesn't appear to have acquired US distribution yet. (Hochhäusler keeps a German-language blog called "Parallel Film.")

Here are a few more useful links to writings on the "Berlin School":

-- Ekkehard Knörer's invaluable overview piece in Vertigo magazine;

-- Marco Abel's equally indispensable essay in Cineaste, and his interview with the articulate Petzold (wonderfully titled "The Cinema of Identification Gets on My Nerves"), also in Cineaste;

-- Dennis Lim's New York Times article;

-- A "Berlin School" retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario, and Andrew Tracy's essay at MUBI on the occasion of the series;

-- The text "The Berlin School -- A Collage" at Senses of Cinema;

-- Steve Erickson's review of Yella at Baltimore City Paper; and a blog post at Kamera.

I'd love to know from you: Any "Berlin School" filmmakers or films you especially like or would like to recommend? And any thoughts on this "movement"?

* * *

Speaking of German-language cinema-related artifacts, Victor Perkins wrote me a note recently to share news of a Max Ophuls discovery he made "on a visit, or pilgrimage, to Saarbruecken":

In a bookshop opposite the plaqued house in which Ophuls grew up I enquired in case there were new German books on MO that I should know about. Instead of a book the owner sold me a cd which turns out to be major treasure. It offers a recording of the 1954 broadcast from Sudwestfunk, Baden-Baden, scripted and directed by MO based on Goethe's Novelle. It has Oskar Werner as narrator and a distinguished cast including Kaethe Gold. The music is adapted from works by Haydn. Even those whose German is non-existent, or yet more primitive than mine, would be taken by the intricacy of the relations between narration, performance, effects and music. It was clearly a labour of love for Ophuls, and a supplement to the broadcast gives us Ophuls himself commenting on his dedication to Goethe and his aims in the broadcast.

pic: Christian Petzold's Jerichow (2008)


Blogger Maya said...

Great informative post, Girish, thank you. It dovetails nicely with the just-about-to-launch 15th edition of Berlin & Beyond here in San Francisco and offers insight on some of our expected guests.

October 17, 2010 3:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Maya. You were too shy and self-effacing to mention it, but I notice that you have a detailed post about Berlin & Beyond! And I notice that Thomas Arslan, one of the Berlin School "leaders," is premiering his new film (IN THE SHADOWS) there. I've not see anything by Arslan and I hope this film gets picked up. In fact, one of my frustrations is how few of the Berlin School films (save Petzold's) are available on DVD in the US.

October 17, 2010 3:58 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Girish - I'd definitely put in a good word for Maria Speth: especially for her visually striking debut The Days Between, but also for Madonnas.

Is Valeska Grisebach Berlin School? Be My Star was great, and Longing was certainly very interesting.

October 17, 2010 11:57 PM  
Blogger JeanRZEJ said...

Petzold, in the three films of his I have seen (the same as you, less The State I Am In), is very attuned to genre tropes with slight inversions, with the latter two being apparent 'updates' or remakes of previous films with sort of ironic twists on the typical. In this vein there is a film called Summer '04 that I think is better than all of the Petzolds I have seen and is a fairly good film. On the other side of the coin you have the wholly original, incredible filmmaker by the name of Angela Schanelec which one article, that was in general fairly dismissive of the whole 'Berlin School' thing, singled out as the one towering figure above the rest. The evidence certainly plays in her favor, as I think My Passing Summer captures a sort of realism that I haven't experienced anything close to in the relatively Cassavetes-esque films of the American mumblecore. Following that, Marseille is easily one of my 3 favorite films of the decade, a complete shift from her previous film into the sort of austere formal dichotomy of 'Joe', although in no way derivative. I can and have gone on at length about the technique she employs in the film and, well, it's an astonishing film. The cinematographer in those two films is often mentioned in discussions of the Berlin School as he also worked with Speth and a few others, I believe. Additionally, Maren Ade has rightly been praised to high heaven of late for Everyone Else, a film I drove an hour or so each way to see in the theater on its limited run and it was worth a longer drive. Of course, I think Schanelec deserves more praise, but I'm not going to bemoan praise rightfully placed. There is a very, very strong similarity between the endings of her two films, and the ending of the first film seems to be the only thing people talk about. I don't really know what that says. At any rate, I found her second film to be a great leap forward. I have heard great things about her husband Ulrich Kohler's films, as well, but I haven't gotten to them yet. It is nice to note the preponderance of female talent among the non-school. In conclusion, you asked for suggestions, and I suggest Schanelec wholeheartedly. I discovered Schanelec through this post: and while this particular writer favors Passing Summer to Marseille, I cannot do the same. Of course, there are few things that I can, so that is not a slight. Enjoy!

October 18, 2010 1:21 AM  
Anonymous Ekkehard Knörer said...

A lot of the films are out on dvds with English subtitles and can be imported even via (region code 0, i.e. none). Christoph Hochhäusler's brillant "Falscher Bekenner" ("I Am Guilty") was even published by a US label, so it's very easy (and cheap) to get. Maria Speth, Maren Ade, Valeska Griesebach certainly all belong to the "group", which is a group in the way these clusters of friends and associaties with similar aesthetic convictions tend to be. I.e. there are tight bonds and loose bonds and internal disputes etc. Stefan Krohmer is a bit of a different story, not really belonging to the Berlin School, but I'd say "Summer 04" is very fine film indeed.

A lot could be said about the difficulties most of those filmmakers have (always had, still have) trying to make production ends meet here in Germany (Christian Petzold being something of an exception). There is some backlash at the moment even in the (generally) Berlin school friendly critical community. And, by the way, I do not at all agree with Michael Sicinski's dismissal of Angela Schanelec's latest "Orly". I think it is a kind of departure, a very interesting kind of release.

October 18, 2010 6:56 AM  
Anonymous Neil Young said...

for me, 'The State I Am In' remains by some way Petzold's finest achievement. The others are all at least worthy of note - my personal standouts are 'Something to Remind Me' (2001 TV)and 'Yella'. His early 1995 TV movie 'Drifters' is also worth seeking out. I curated a pretty full Petzold retrospective for Bradford Int'l Film Festival back in 2008 which included 'Drifters' and also 'Cuba Libre' from the following year.

Arslan's 'In the Shadows' remains one of the most impressive new features I've seen this year - I caught it at the Berlinale in February and wrote about it here:

I subsequently did an e-mail interview with Arslan, transcripted here:

Finally, one overlooked German film of the past decade which I think can come into discussions of the Berlin School and its waves of influence, is 'School Trip' (2002) by Henner Winckler:



October 18, 2010 8:33 AM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

Let me play the troll today.

Last year, I attended a workshop on Berlin School where I saw Petzold's Yella, Shanalec's Afternoon and Arslan's Vacation. And also excerpts from some other works such as School Trip. The discussion that ensued focused only on the formal aspects of these films which went on to reveal that there's nothing really radical they're willing to explore in the films we saw.

Except for Yella, all of them left me underwhelmed. These films seem to revel in taking tied-and-tested broad themes and imparting a few eccentric aesthetic touches to illustrate what they want to say. I mean, there's nothing terribly geospecific in both Afternoon and Vacation. Whatever these films want to say urban isolation has already been said better and with more conviction. The strokes are all too broad and the sociopolitical examination too shallow. It's as if they are treating this isolation as an end in itself. These films, I hear, are produced for late night airing by TV studios and it shows (The final shape of these films, I'm sure, was largely determined by the budget!). The German history could well have been replaced by 50s America or contemporary Asia. And no, I cannot accept that they tell us something very insightful about the post-Wall Berlin. Too self-important films these are. May be I'm shortsighted. May be I need to see more of these films. But if the films I saw are anywhere near the high points of the movement, I'll pass.

October 18, 2010 11:15 AM  
Anonymous Neil Young said...

"I mean, there's nothing terribly geospecific in both Afternoon and Vacation. Whatever these films want to say urban isolation has already been said better and with more conviction."

-- um. 'Vacation', if it's about "isolation" at all (which I'd contest), is surely more about rural than urban isolation, considering it all takes place in the countryside...

October 18, 2010 11:41 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

First off, Girish, thanks for kicking off this discussion.

I'm very glad you chimed in, Ekkehard, because I think ORLY is a film that ought to be defended, and seen, even if I have major problems with it. In fact, I can't shake the worry that many of my difficulties with it are very similar to the ones leveled against Kiarostami with respect to CERTIFIED COPY. Certainly enough to give one pause.

Even though my favorite recent film by the group, by miles, has been Hochhäusler's THE CITY BELOW, I do remain uniquely miffed about Arslan's IN THE SHADOWS being ignored by most North American fests and distributors thus far. It's so accessible, and so expertly directed! But it seems like these days the U.S. arthouse world is so codified that there's little place for a Melvillian thriller with artistic ambitions.

I'm glad that THE ROBBER is going to be released in the U.S. next year. A berth at the New York Film Festival still counts for something over here. (See also: EVERYONE ELSE.)

October 18, 2010 1:19 PM  
Blogger JeanRZEJ said...

'The German history could well have been replaced by 50s America or contemporary Asia.'

Since the story is specifically adapted from The Seagull, a Russian play set in, what, turn of the century Russia?, I think the portability of its setting is both implied in the repositioning of it elsewhere and essential, since it is just a story about people. Why German history should in any way be a part of the film is beyond me. We don't ask that of Fassbinder, of Herzog, of Wenders, etc. If you want that, you certainly have Syberberg, and you have a slew of Nazi rehashes over the course of the current decade, but...

I don't see why your complaints are any more applicable to Schanalec's film than Chekhov's play, nor do I think they are applicable to any other film.

October 18, 2010 6:30 PM  
Anonymous Neil Young said...

"I do remain uniquely miffed about Arslan's IN THE SHADOWS being ignored by most North American fests and distributors thus far."

The fact that this outstanding film has still not played in *any* UK festival - more than six months after its Berlin premiere is also a cause for bafflement and concern.

I'll certainly do my level best to get it into Bradford's lineup next March (perhaps as part of an Arslan tribute/retro).

Meanwhile, anyone in or near Vienna can see it for themselves at the Viennale which starts on Thursday.

October 18, 2010 8:03 PM  
Anonymous Romance Movies said...

I have to admit I haven't seen any movies from the Berlin School, but after reading your article I am very interested in it and will be adding some of these movies to my to-watch list. Thanks also for providing all the great resources! I am new to your blog, but I already enjoy it and am learning so much! Thanks!

October 18, 2010 8:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all, for this informative discussion!

Dan, I noticed that Maria Speth's THE DAYS BETWEEN is at MUBI, so I'll be able to catch up with it there.

Ekkehard, your piece at Vertigo was the first of large scope I ever read on this "school" of films--thank you for writing it. And for recommending I AM GUILTY (which I just received Netflix today)!

Michael, your words about THE CITY BELOW have made me very eager to see it!

Neil, let me include clickable links to your pieces for future visitors to this post: on Arslan's IN THE SHADOWS at MUBI; an interview with Arslan; on SCHOOL TRIP at your site, and at MUBI.

Ekkehard and Neil, I've long been a reader of your work but--apologies!--I've been lazy about updating my blog roll and adding your sites to it. I've just done that.

Srikanth, like you, I've seen only a small sliver of Berlin School films, and I welcome your dissenting views. I hope they further the productive discussion which has begun here!

A word on geospecificity. I find JERICHOW to be very much a film about a particular place: New Europe, not its urban centers but its small towns and countryside, the kind of setting that I know from Cantet's TIME OUT (probably no coincidence since its lead actor Aurelien Recoing pops up in Petzold's GHOSTS). The film is also about this specific time of global 'late capitalism' in which personal/romantic/familial relationships simply *cannot* exist without being intimately bound up in money and monetary exchange. There is also a Fassbinderian element (that Michael has so eloquently written about) that takes up issues of ethnic prejudice (not just the characters'--but also our own). It's a sophisticated film that is rooted in our present time and place.

JeanRZEJ, I've known of SUMMER '04 through the film festival circuit and have just added it to my Netflix queue. Thanks for suggesting it.

RM, I'm glad this post was able to spur your interest.

October 19, 2010 2:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I've also trawled Netflix to identify the Berlin School films available there. I came up with:

--Christian Petzold's GHOSTS; YELLA; JERICHOW.

-- Christoph Hochhäusler's I AM GUILTY


-- Ulrich Kohler's BUNGALOW

And, as I mentioned to Dan above, Maria Speth's THE DAYS BETWEEN is available for viewing at MUBI.

October 19, 2010 2:08 PM  
Blogger JeanRZEJ said...

girish, I think you'll see how Summer '04 resembles Petzold in its genre twistings. I would definitely check out Ade and perhaps dedicate a moment of silent lament to the unavailability of Schanelec films in R1/NTSC/blu ray/yearlong midnight showings at every theater in the country/etc.

October 19, 2010 5:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know really if they all belong to or are considered part of the Berlin School, but I find very interesting several of the "new" German filmmakers commented here. Of the Petzolds, I've seen Gespenster, Yella and Jerichow (obviously the latest unavowed remake of Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice"), and all three are on DVD Region 2 with English subtitles, at least available from
Of Schanelec, Mein lansames Leben can be obtained from the same source with English subtitles, and Marseille and Nachmittag only with French subtitles from
Of the very interesting (though perhaps not Berlin schooled) Grisebach I've only seen Sehnsucht.
Miguel Marías

October 20, 2010 7:31 AM  
Blogger Ekkehard Knoerer said...

Petzold's JERICHOW as well as YELLA are even more geospecific as meditations on (former) Eastern Germany and visible and invisible rifts between the reunited halves. YELLA very consciously moves from the East to the West, JERICHOW's geographical and psychological wastelands (appropriated, fittingly, from depression time Cain) are very much the playground for diagnoses of hinterlands left behind by reunification. Petzold is always very (and sometimes perhaps too) smart in overlaying political, geographical and film-historical disourses in his films. (YELLA, for example, is among other things a "remake" of "Carnival of Souls" as well as a variation on Harun Farocki's documentary NOTHING VENTURED.)

October 20, 2010 11:18 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Ekkehard, that makes a lot of sense; I didn't pick up on the reunification-related themes when I saw the films.

October 21, 2010 1:31 PM  
Blogger girish said...

On another note, just got a tip from Chris Keathley: Renoir's LA NUIT DE CARREFOUR, which I've been hunting for years, has quietly been released in the US on DVD by Turner Classic Movies.

October 21, 2010 1:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

And also: an interesting, recent interview with Tom Gunning.

October 21, 2010 2:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Miguel, thanks for letting me know the region-2 DVD availabilty on

October 21, 2010 7:29 PM  
Blogger André Dias said...

I’ve worked a bit on this cinema, organised a film program called «New Berlin School — A cinema of unease» and a complete Angela Schanelec retrospective called «Cruelty after theatre» and interviewed three of the directors: Schanelec, Petzold and Speth (in Portuguese, though).

My selection from the “first wave” (by date):

DAS GLÜCK MEINER SCHWESTER Angela Schanelec 1995 !!
DIE INNERE SICHERHEIT Christian Petzold 2000
DER SCHÖNE TAG Thomas Arslan 2001 !
MARSEILLE Angela Schanelec 2004
GESPENSTER Christian Petzold 2005
NACHMITTAG Angela Schanelec 2007
FERIEN Thomas Arslan 2007

In general, I’m a bit less enthusiastic about the “second wave” (Winckler, Heisenberg, Hochhäusler, etc.), except for:

MEIN STERN Valeska Griseback 2001 !!
SEHNSUCHT Valeska Griseback 2006
MADONNEN Maria Speth 2007

The most interesting thing my research revealed about the New Berlin School was that its roots (at least of the first wave) were on Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki's pedagogic (and documentary) work around the dffb in late 80's. On it, see «The Petzold-Farocki interference» (an brief interview with Farocki in Portuguese) and «The reach of a thoughtful cinephile pedagogy: On Hartmut Bitomsky's films on film».

Also worth mentioning: the fabulous cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider.

October 22, 2010 1:32 AM  
Blogger André Dias said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 22, 2010 1:33 AM  
Blogger André Dias said...

Shit, I’ve misspelled “Grisebach”... About her inclusion in this very loose “school” (the opposite of any Dogma), notice that her graduation film — the wonderful MEIN STERN — was also made at the dffb.

October 22, 2010 1:47 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Tee hee, nice little bit of serendipity here: it turns out that for my year out in Osaka University, the Osaka European film festical decides to dedicate a section to Thomas Arslan...
I've seen a film in Japanese with German subs (Love Exposure), maybe it's time to try the opposite combination!

October 23, 2010 12:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

André, thanks for taking the time to share those lists and links with us.

October 23, 2010 12:14 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

A slight digression: German lost a great talent last week with the death of Thomas Harlan at the age of 81. I've seen one of his few films (Souvenance/Remembrance, 1991) and on the basis of that astonishing work, a brief but mesmerising personal encounter and a life we all hope no one else ever has to lead - atoning for the sins of a father named Viet Harlan - I became a huge fan. Souvenance never played anywhere and appears not to be on DVD, which is a great shame.

October 25, 2010 11:42 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

That's "German cinema lost a great talent".

October 25, 2010 11:44 PM  
Blogger André Dias said...

Yes, caboose, a great loss indeed! Thomas Harlan was also the director of one of the most amazying political documentaries of all time. It concerns the period following the Portuguese Revolution in 1974 when lands were taken by workers, and it's called TORRE BELA. Definitely, a must see!
[I've wrote — in Portuguese — a small text regarding one particular polemical aspect of the film: «O Homem da enxada (The Man with the hoe)»...]

October 25, 2010 11:55 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Caboose and André ~ I didn't know of Harlan fils until I heard the news of his death last week. Now, after reading your posts, poking around on the webs, I discover that in 2007, Edition Filmmuseum released a Thomas Harlan 2-DVD set that includes SOUVENANCE and TORRE BELA (and other films). They sound fascinating.

October 26, 2010 5:22 AM  
Anonymous caboose said...

Girish, that 2-DVD Filmmuseum DVD includes a 24-minute excerpt from the feature 'Souvenance', not the whole thing, alas. No doubt worth seeing to get a taste of a highly unusual and compelling film otherwise unavailable, but . . .

October 26, 2010 7:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh, darn...

October 26, 2010 8:42 AM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

I'm always intending to see more Berlin Schoolers, so this thread's been informative -- thanks, Girish. Favourites for me so far: Schanelec's Marseille and Arslan's Der Schöne Tag (thanks to André for recommending them a little while ago) -- both great city films, counterpoints to the decentralised economic 'wastelands' (as Ekkehard calls them) of Petzold's Yella and Jerichow.

p.s. re: that DVD of La nuit du carrefour, apparently it's some sort of 'official' bootleg, with Eng subs stolen, without attribution, from one of those sites-of-which-we-do-not-speak...

October 29, 2010 5:14 PM  
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November 26, 2010 12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

40 films in 15 years --- an album of BERLIN SCHOOL films (collected by C. Hochhäusler)


December 07, 2010 6:57 PM  
Blogger Therese said...

Girish, I just saw Petzold's Barbara in Berlin, and wonder if you've seen it and if so, what you think. I want to teach a course on the Berlin School at Facets. The hard part is that I'm limited to 6 films, so if anyone has suggestions for the list of films, I'd be grateful!

April 01, 2012 9:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Therese, I can't wait to see BARBARA! I know it has US distribution. I heard a wonderful panel on the Berlin School at SCMS in Boston last week, and hope to blog about it soon.

In terms of suggestions, the number of Berlin School region-1 DVDs available in the US is all too small: Petzold's JERICHOW, GHOSTS, YELLA and THE STATE I'M IN; Hochhausler's I AM GUILTY; Maren Ade's EVERYONE ELSE; Benjamin Heisenberg's THE ROBBER, and a few others. I wish Hochhausler's THE CITY BELOW and Ulrich Kohler's SLEEPING SICKNESS would join them.

April 01, 2012 10:02 AM  

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