Two different eyes

Christian Petzold and Heinz Emigholz on German fairy tales

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Christian Petzold: “My mother told me all the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, by [Wilhelm] Hauff and [Hans Christian] Andersen when I was very young.”
Christian Petzold: “My mother told me all the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, by [Wilhelm] Hauff and [Hans Christian] Andersen when I was very young.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Christian Petzold’s Undine (screening virtually in the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival through Wednesday and in London on Monday), starring Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, is built on the legacy of centuries-old tales and myths. Stories need to change in re-telling in order to remain relevant, otherwise they too will turn to sea foam. Heinz Emigholz has two films in the Currents programme, The Lobby, shot in Buenos Aires during the fall of 2019, featuring solely John Erdman (credited as Old White Male) and The Last City (Die Letzte Stadt) with Erdman, Jonathan Perel, Young Sun Han, Dorothy Ko, and Susanne Sachsse.

John Erdman in Heinz Emigholz’s The Lobby
John Erdman in Heinz Emigholz’s The Lobby

Jean Cocteau in his Beauty And The Beast used the simple magic trick of film going backward. When Petzold shows the broken mending again in Undine, the magic of cinema becomes the subject. It is an eerie power in this enchanted film that seems to deliberately avoid enchanted imagery.

In the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, the figure of Death can be encountered on the road and even tricked for a while (i.e. Godfather Death and The Messengers of Death). In The Lobby, written by Emigholz, the man believes that neither Jesus, nor the Ramones will be with us after death, and we will have no relatives. “Dying is not sexy - death is” he says and estimates that by now the theatre should already be half-empty. Little did he know that we are all watching remotely, virtually right now, although he brings up the option.

At the Crosscuts conversation with Christian Petzold and Heinz Emigholz, presented by HBO, moderator Dennis Lim, Director of Programming for the New York Film Festival posed the comment and question I sent in to the two filmmakers in two parts.

Franz Rogowski as Christoph in Christian Petzold’s Undine
Franz Rogowski as Christoph in Christian Petzold’s Undine

Anne-Katrin Titze: Did you grow up with German fairy tales? Both Undine and The Lobby (the former more than the latter, of course, but there are plenty of Brothers Grimm tales with a personified figure of Death) can be seen in the tradition of oral storytelling.

Christian Petzold: I grew up with fairy tales. My mother, she was a refugee. She came from Thuringia. In Thuringia there is a mountain, the name of the mountain is Kyffhäuser and the German legend says that in the Kyffhäuser Mountain Friedrich Barbarossa, the big German king [and Holy Roman emperor from 1152–1190] is waiting that, for example Wilhelm II would call him, or much later Adolf Hitler would call him and he would come out of the Kyffhäuser with 1000 soldiers. And he will rebuild Germany again as a big fantastic fascist country.

And so my mother told me all the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, by [Wilhelm] Hauff and [Hans Christian] Andersen when I was very young. And I have given this back to my children the same way. It was very hard because some of these fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm are very very harsh. I must say they are X-rated. There’s raping, there’s killing, there’s slaughtering.

Young Sun Han and John Erdman in Heinz Emigholz’s The Last City
Young Sun Han and John Erdman in Heinz Emigholz’s The Last City

So always I have to read when they are lying in bed, the kids, to read with two different eyes. One eye is on the next page, looking for bad sequences, so that I can change them a little bit and censor them so that they are not so harsh and they can find sleep. So I can see movies like Bellocchio’s [Marco Bellocchio’s film Good Morning, Night about the kidnapping of Aldo Moro and the Red Brigades was mentioned earlier in the conversation] later when they fall asleep.

Heinz Emigholz: And did you ever read the real stuff to them later? I mean, you can’t censor it always. A friend of mine, Uwe Nettelbeck, always saved the most ghastly stories for his kids. I mean, that was their education. He showed them cruel films and made them… Okay, I didn’t grow up with fairy tales because my parents, I think, didn’t read. I think I grew up with radio and terrible radio music and sports like soccer and the radio.

And then at school almost every week I learned one of these fantastic poems. We had a nice teacher and great German poems. I can tell them by heart now still. Fairy tales not, unless you say Karl May is fairy tale, which it is. I think I read 80 Karl May books.

Paula Beer is Christian Petzold’s Undine
Paula Beer is Christian Petzold’s Undine

CP: Me too!

HE: But Grimm’s and The Lobby, it’s more like a stand-up comedy than a fairy tale, I would say, when we get back to the person who asked the question.

Dennis Lim: Yes, I’m just reading the full question. Her observation, Anne-Katrin’s observation, is that there are plenty of Brothers Grimm tales with a personified figure of Death. Which is why she made that observation.

HE: Of course! Of course!. And we ourselves die and think about death.

Christian Petzold will do a Screen Talk during the London Film Festival on Wednesday, October 14 at 8:30pm

The 2020 New York Film Festival runs through October 11.

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