19 March 2003

Going Deutsch

Christian Petzold examines the aftermath of German terrorism

WHEN I FIRST SAW CHRISTIAN PETZOLD'S fourth feature-length film, Die Inner Sichereit (literally, "Internal Security," but showing in the U.S. as The State I am In), in 2001, the possible influence of several German filmmakers seemed apparent.

Yet after a couple more viewings the look of it, plus his 2002 Something To Remind Me (Toter Mann), are definitely his own. The sort of intent, painterly gaze the theater-trained director displays is rare in contemporary European film, where any whiff of the art-house or fallen state-run cinemas generally gets shunned in favor of good bubblegum like Tom Tykwer's 1998 Run Lola Run or decadent eye-candy like Gregor Schnitzler's 2002 Til Schweiger-starring pop travesty of recent German history, What To Do In Case of a Fire. While the 1970s were fertile ground for young filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and lesser-known social chroniclers like Rudolf Thome, times change, and with them, the kinds of filmmakers who are encouraged and supported.

It's a lovely, severe and haunting telling of a few days in the lives of Hans and Klara, two 1970s German terrorists who are still on the run, burdened with a surly, solemn 15-year-old daughter, Jeanne. Julia Hummer's performance as the young girl grounds the elliptical story, and the look of the film (lit by Hans Fromm) dazzles, effortlessly emulating the brilliant hyperrealism of Hans Richter's figurative paintings. Comparisons have been made to Sidney Lumet's worthy 1988 Running on Empty, yet the family dynamics of State are more suggestive and the performances less Method than methodical. And comparisons to filmmakers still obsessed with the politics of 1970s West and East Germany, such as Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta, melt away with Petzold's succession of dynamically composed yet predominantly static images.

The film works cleanly with cinematic archetypes of criminals on the run, but not romantic young lovers. Instead, we get the family—society at large?—as almost mute with fear, wearied from a life where politics could not be discussed or applied, a life lived in silence or duplicity.

Daughter Jeanne? She's the classic broody teen. Thus, in The State I Am In, all is behavior: what have they left to talk about? The tensions tear at this small nuclear family, traveling across a featureless continent like a lonely life raft in the Euro sea soon to come. It seldom seems didactic or willed, unlike the impression one's left with at the end of Schlondorff's beautifully acted yet rote 1999 The Legend of Rita.

While there are elements apparently drawn from the history of the Red Army Faction terrorists, the daughter is an invention, a splendid, disinclined audience surrogate who's tired of looking out the car window at a succession of landscapes. At times, Jeanne's scowl is suggestive of the melancholy of seventies-era Wenders, in films such as Alice in the Cities: so much to be gained by the image of the tossed, tangled shoulder-length hair of a teen girl innocent. The State I Am In also profoundly suggests how the legacy of one generation often means nothing to the next, and is, at best, a galling encumbrance. Jeanne lives in the present. What's history when there are pop songs to discover, boys to kiss and jeans to steal? In the first scene, on the rustic Portuguese coast, listening to Brian Wilson sing about some "sunset beach" somewhere, Jeanne has but one instinct: to bum smokes.

[Newcity, 19 March 2003]