In his mind

Christian Petzold on summer movies and Afire

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Christian Petzold, the director of the well-timed summer movie Afire with Anne-Katrin Titze: “I’m really sure that we don’t have summer movies. The Americans have summer movies, the French have summer movies.”
Christian Petzold, the director of the well-timed summer movie Afire with Anne-Katrin Titze: “I’m really sure that we don’t have summer movies. The Americans have summer movies, the French have summer movies.”

Christian Petzold’s slow-burning Afire (Roter Himmel, a highlight in the Spotlight Narrative program of the 22nd edition of the Tribeca Film Festival), shot by Hans Fromm, stars Paula Beer (of Petzold’s Transit and Undine opposite Franz Rogowski, and François Ozon’s Frantz), Thomas Schubert, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, and Matthias Brandt.

Nadja (Paula Beer) with Devid (Enno Trebs), Felix (Langston Uibel), and Leon (Thomas Schubert) in Afire
Nadja (Paula Beer) with Devid (Enno Trebs), Felix (Langston Uibel), and Leon (Thomas Schubert) in Afire

A scene in Leo McCarey’s An Affair To Remember (with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr); Sophie Calle’s Voir La Mer and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs; Astrid Lindgren; a Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre touch; Uwe Johnson’s Mutmassungen über Jakob and Margarethe von Trotta’s Jahrestage series; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; a Nanni Moretti quote; meeting Paul Dano’s Wildlife cinematographer Diego García (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery Of Splendor) in Tel Aviv; Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, and Edgar G Ulmer’s Menschen Am Sonntag; Talking Heads; the first sentence in Eckhardt Nickel’s Hysteria; being a big fan of American horror movies; old houses from the 18th and 19th centuries turned into hotels near the Baltic Sea; goulash, and more came up in our discussion with the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize winner.

Friends Felix (Langston Uibel) and Leon (Thomas Schubert) are on their way to a summer house in the woods near the Baltic Sea when their car breaks down. Animal shrieks fill the air, the area had recently experienced a number of devastating wildfires. When they arrive on foot at the vacation home belonging to Felix’s family, which was supposed to be theirs alone to work on respective projects - a photography submission to the art academy for Felix, finishing touches on his second novel for Leon - they find the washing machine running and dirty dishes and bottles scattered around the kitchen.

Devid (Enno Trebs) with Helmut (Matthias Brandt)
Devid (Enno Trebs) with Helmut (Matthias Brandt)

With neither Goldilocks nor Baba Yaga to blame, they soon meet Nadja (Paula Beer) who sells ice cream on the promenade of the resort town nearby and Devid (Enno Trebs), a lifeguard. Leon’s editor Helmut Werner (Matthias Brandt) is expected to come by on the weekend and Leon reserves him a suite in a hotel which once was frequented by the novelist Uwe Johnson. As best laid plans go awry, lives are altered forever.

From Berlin, Christian Petzold joined me on Zoom for an in-depth Afire conversation on the morning of the second round of toxic air alerts for New York City due to the ongoing Canadian wildfires.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Christian, hi! Good to see you!

Christian Petzold: Hi, yes, you’re in New York now?

AKT: Yes, the sky in New York is afire again today!

CP: Paula told me who stayed in Tribeca, two, three weeks ago, also the sky was red.

AKT: Exactly, for your screening then and now again. How was Tel Aviv?

Christian Petzold on working with the actors: “They want to hear stories and theories and then they can play.”
Christian Petzold on working with the actors: “They want to hear stories and theories and then they can play.”

CP: I like it very much, the festival, the young students there, the masterclass. I met an interesting DP, the guy who made the movie by Paul Dano, Wildlife.

AKT: I’ve seen it.

CP: Diego García, Mexican guy. He made also a movie about wildfires, forest fires - so everything is coming together.

AKT: Unfortunately through fires. In your film, more maybe than in your previous work, I saw so many layers and connections to literature. It felt burning with other texts. Starting with the very first line: “Something’s not right.” I had to think of Eckhardt Nickel’s Hysteria, which begins with “Mit den Himbeeren stimmte etwas nicht.” [“Something wasn’t right with the raspberries” - the novel’s beginning was lauded at the Ingeborg Bachmann festival in Klagenfurt 2017] Something is wrong with this world. Were you thinking of that?

CP: Yes. I must say it had something to do with literature. My whole library I had to move into another office some time ago and I read again old books. I read a sentence by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that all stories start with something like an accident for example, or someone is not coming home at the right time.

Nadja (Paula Beer) in the wildfire ashes
Nadja (Paula Beer) in the wildfire ashes

For me a sentence between two young men in a car that something’s wrong, something doesn’t work, could be the beginning of a horror story, or it could be something deeper than a horror story. It could be something with all our summers, with all our youth - our future could be wrong. It could be very private and it could be very political. Therefore I like the sentence so much.

AKT: It’s a perfect starting-off point. And you have “In My Mind” a song that is so completely about this character played by Thomas Schubert. A person so totally in his mind.

CP: That’s right! Schubert’s character, I must say, there are many many traces from my own biography. I know very well who he is and he knows that I know that his character I know much about. The actor knows this and he’s always laughing about himself because he’s always laughing about me and perhaps this is the reason that we have a very good relationship and that there was some kind of humour in the movie.

AKT: I think it was Nanni Moretti who told me this. He always wants the character and the actor stand next to each other and both wink at the director.

CP: That’s good! This is a good picture.

AKT: This character of Leon is in his mind, and not in his body. There are constant invitations: Come to the beach! Come swim with us! He feels this supreme discomfort in his body and he takes it out on everybody around him.

Nadja (Paula Beer) by the Baltic Sea
Nadja (Paula Beer) by the Baltic Sea

CP: When the others are on the roof, for example, working to repair something on the roof, they look like a homosexual band from the Seventies with their half-naked bodies and the sweat and everything. We never see Leon naked or with swimming trunks. He’s a tank, a German tank. He’s talking about work and the Protestant ethics are deeply ingrained. This is something I know very exactly from myself.

When I was 22 I was in Milan with friends and I was studying literature at this time. There was a concert of Talking Heads, there were clubs, parties, everything - and I was so unsure at the time. I don’t know where I am and what I have to do with my time. So I destroyed the others with my behaviour. “I can’t go with you to the club or the concert because I have to work.”

AKT: “My work won’t allow it,” as Leon says in Afire!

CP: My work won’t allow it! And they have a bad feeling that they are at a party, because I’m working. When they come back, and in the morning we have breakfast together, I said “it was a fantastic night, I have worked so much, I have written 22 pages, it was like a stream.” I made it into the sexuality of writing, but it was loneliness, loneliness, I couldn’t do anything, I was bored by myself. All these stories I told Thomas Schubert. He’s from Vienna and he starts laughing a lot at this and he can play with this information.

Christian Petzold with Anne-Katrin Titze holding up a Hiroshi Sugimoto photography book, collection Ed Bahlman
Christian Petzold with Anne-Katrin Titze holding up a Hiroshi Sugimoto photography book, collection Ed Bahlman

AKT: Throwing the ball against the wall! I think every child knows this feeling as the ultimate sign of boredom, you all alone just throw a tennis ball against the wall! You talk about him not wearing swimming trunks - he wears linen jackets and shirts all the time and the editor also wears linen. It had a Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre touch.

CP: Oh yeah, and the novel is a little bit like Stuckrad-Barre, I must say. I didn’t want to mention his name, but he was the reference. [Christian gets up] I have to let the cat out, sorry! Cat out! Our daughter has left the apartment seven years ago, but the cat is still here.

AKT: What is the cat’s name?

CP: Mio. It’s from Astrid Lindgren’s Mio, my Mio. It was her decision.

AKT: I’m a great Astrid Lindgren fan!

CP: Me too.

AKT: Actually, just a few weeks ago I was on the subway in New York and there was a father with his daughter, sitting across from me in the crowded rush-hour 6 train, reading “Wir Kinder aus Bullerbü”

CP: Oh, fantastic novel! The German version?

AKT: The German version! The father was Austrian, I could hear it from his accent, reading this book to his daughter at 8:00am on the Upper East Side subway! Back to Afire - with Felix’s project I was reminded of Sophie Calle’s Voir La Mer.

A father reads Astrid Lindgren’s Wir Kinder Aus Bullerbü to his daughter on the NYC subway
A father reads Astrid Lindgren’s Wir Kinder Aus Bullerbü to his daughter on the NYC subway

CP: That was in my head a little bit. And also this Japanese artist who makes photographs of empty oceans. I liked them very much, but I saw them thirty years ago. But Sophie Calle is good. I read this book by her where she found an address book. You remember that?

AKT: Yes, I do.

CP: I read this about two years ago and it was for me a little bit disgusting to read, as if it were a plastic bag with goulash inside. Because it was a little bit too much intimacy into another person, yes?

AKT: Totally. Good tales always need something that is disturbing, something that is disgusting, the goulash-in-the-bag trope. Also in the beginning how you introduce the forest! You can’t have a German forest and someone saying “I know a shortcut.” That must be a wolf!

CP: Yes, this is the beginning of a tale or the beginning of an American horror story. I’m a big fan of American horror movies. I’m pretty sure that we in Germany, and this is just a sentence by me, but I’m really sure that we don’t have summer movies. The Americans have summer movies, the French have summer movies.

The French are summer movies about these two months where all the cities are empty and all people are in the mountains or at the beach and all the social classes are mixed. In these summers people are becoming adults, they get disappointed, betrayed, people learn something, explore sexuality - everything happens in these two months. People remember later when they are adults about the summer when a door was opened and they are passing through this open door or they miss the moment.

Christian Petzold on Thomas Schubert as Leon: “There are many many traces from my own biography.”
Christian Petzold on Thomas Schubert as Leon: “There are many many traces from my own biography.”

There’s a melancholic, sentimental feeling about summers. In the USA, so often it’s a car and a shortcut and a petrol station and a cabin in the woods and the hills have eyes and there’s a boy with a chainsaw who has a sexual disaster education and therefore has problems with the world. They are also from the high school so they know who is loyal who is strong, who is an asshole or not. This we don’t have in Germany and I asked myself why is it like this. I’m really sure, perhaps it sounds a little bit too big, but in 1932 there was a black and white movie by Billy Wilder and Edgar Ulmer.

AKT: Menschen am Sonntag [People on Sunday]!

CP: Yes, Menschen am Sonntag! And this is our summer movie! This could be the beginning of this genre of summer movies. But directly after, the Nazi fascism starts and all of these directors, they have to leave Germany and they work in Hollywood.

AKT: And they took the summer with them from Germany!

CP: That’s it! And the summer never comes back! This is something I’m waiting for like the Messiah. We have to work on the summer coming back, but without wildfires. I talk with the actors like this. They like it when they don’t have to hear something about their psychological structures of character. They want to hear stories and theories and then they can play.

Christian Petzold on Menschen am Sonntag (1932): “All of these directors, they have to leave Germany and they work in Hollywood.”
Christian Petzold on Menschen am Sonntag (1932): “All of these directors, they have to leave Germany and they work in Hollywood.”

AKT: And the ashes look like snow. Let’s hope for the summers to come back! Thank you Christian!

CP: Thank you, Anne-Katrin!

AKT [holding up book]: P.S. Is it Hiroshi Sugimoto you were talking about earlier?

CP: Yes, this is the one! Yes, very good. This is it! Fantastic!

AKT: Let’s have a coffee when you are in New York!

CP: That would be great! Ciao, ciao, bye bye!

Read what Christian Petzold told us about An Affair To Remember, Paula Beer and the wheelchair, pronouncing Uwe Johnson and Walter Benjamin, new tourism in the old east, and the goulash in the bag.

Afire opens in New York on Friday, July 14. Sneak previews with Christian Petzold participating in Q&As will take place at the IFC Center following screenings on Wednesday, July 12 at 8:00pm and on Thursday, July 13 at 8:00pm. At the Walter Reade Theater, Film at Lincoln Center on Thursday, July 13 at 6:45pm. Opening night Q&As following screenings at 6:15pm - Walter Reade Theater and 7:30pm - IFC Center.

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