Following the release of ‘Afire,’ the Berlin School director joins the film’s star, Paula Beer, to consider its elaborate fantasies of work, play, and landscape

The films of Christian Petzold have always endeavored to re-enchant and re-dramatize the image of the director’s native Germany during its tumultuous late-20th century. As part of the so-called “Berlin School” of filmmaking in the 1980s, Petzold’s work originated with his studies at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB), and coincided with the vast political and social upheavals brought on by the Deutsche Wiedervereinigung—beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that helped to unify East and West Germany into a single, sovereign state in 1991. For Petzold, the transformations wrought by war, partition, radical activism, and terrorism and reunification demanded not only a new kind of German politics, but also a new imagination and fantasy-life.

Like the previous generation’s New German cinema directors, including Alexander Kluge, Rainer Fassbinder, and Margarethe von Trotta, Petzold’s films explore a particular kind of despairing Teutonic identity that is both uniquely German and deeply entangled in the wider images and cultural mythologies of Europe and America—albeit those which have entered into a new Millennial phase of post-Soviet neoliberalism. Petzold’s link to Germany’s countercultural history was literalized in his decades-long collaboration with filmmaker, artist, and theorist Harun Farocki on films Cuba Libre, The State I Am In, Ghosts, and Barbara. Farocki’s radical cinematic experiments—he was part of DFFB’s inaugural class in the late-1960s—had put him in the orbit of activist artists such as Hartmut Bitomsky, Gerd Conradt, and Holger Meins. While Petzold’s embrace of critical German politics was undoubtedly shaped by his collaborations with Farocki, his films have largely eschewed the latter’s radical visuals and documentarian methods, instead favoring a more subtle, postmodern pastiche of melodramas, soap operas, noirish B-films, folk tales, and urban legends; indeed, his visual style is more akin to the 1950s productions of Edgar Ulmer, Alfred Hitchcock, or Douglas Sirk.

With his 2018 film Transit, Petzold began a collaboration with actor Paula Beer, whose performances in internationally-acclaimed films like Francois Ozon’s Frantz and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away earned her renown across Germany and France. Beer’s background in dance added a new element of spatial abstraction to Petzold’s work, highlighting his ongoing fascination with bodies in rest and motion, as well as their estrangement from the soft architectures of place and the environment. Petzold and Beer have since worked together in the aquatic fantasia Undine and the summery melodrama Afire. The latter is set in a vacation home on the Baltic Sea, where struggling novelist Leon (Thomas Schubert) and photographer Felix (Langston Uibel) have come to work on their stalled projects. But the house has already been occupied by the stranger Nadja (Beer), whose presence is a constant source of distraction and sexual frustration for Leon. To complicate this domestic contretemps, the surrounding forests catch fire and threaten to engulf them; what begins as summer farce soon gives way to tragic drama.

During a recent chat with Petzold and Beer, Document discussed some of the director’s recurring fantasies and Afire’s cinematic themes of work and play, as well as the actor’s creative background and changing perspectives on her craft.

“I am really interested in my characters’ souls—where they have come from and what they have lived through; what has shaped them into who they were at the beginning of the movie, and what keeps on shaping them.”

Erik Morse: I wanted to begin by going all the way back to one of your first short films, Süden. There are themes that reappear throughout your work, up to Afire, apparent even in this very early experimental film: fantasies around the elements of nature, the fairytale, the home and hotel, the small town, and the ghostly. I’m interested in where all of these themes converge in your own imagination.

Christian Petzold: I think it has something to do with my German roots, and the German legends and fairytales that have surrounded me since I was a child. When you are looking [at] German literature, [The Italian Journey] from Goethe is so important. The Germans want to reach the sea; they want to lose themselves; they want to have bodies. For Goethe, his first love happened in Italy, and it changed his poetry totally. In Süden, you see folks lying near the sea, like tourists in the sun, and they are open—like German books opened to the world. I like this picture.

During my work with Harun Farocki, we made a little manifesto for ourselves. The first paragraph says, ‘We are living in a Protestant society where work is our identity.’ When you are at a party in New York or somewhere else, and you meet someone, the first question is, What are you doing? You have to have a job to have an identity. But in our society, work is vanishing, so identities are vanishing—but you need them. In this contradiction, the ghosts arrive.

My father was out of work for more than three years. He had no money; he had to stay at home. It was a small house, in a small village, built for men who would work for more than eight hours a day. But he spent the whole 24 hours at home—in the car listening to music, and drinking alcohol—for three-and-a-half years. For me, he was a ghost. Nobody needed him anymore; there was no place for him. These things are a little bit in my work. But my answer could last more than 24 hours. So I give you a little taste, something from the kitchen. It’s an amuse-bouche.

Erik: I could not help but notice that the German title of Afire, Roter Himmel, bears some resemblance to the 1970 counterculture film Red Sun [Rote Sonne], which stars Uschi Obermaier and Marquard Bohm—who also appears in a cameo in your early television film, Cuba Libre.

Christian: You are the best private detective of my films that I have ever met.

Erik: I bring this up because of your long collaboration with Harun Farocki, and his association with the DFFB—along with the events around the Baader-Meinhof gang. You have discussed that one of the themes in Afire is the conflict or frustration that develops between the rhythms of working and dreaming, producing and recreating, staving off boredom and embracing fantasy. There is something here that was also at the heart of the message of the German counterculture: sous les pavés, la plage—to dream outside of production, to live outside of the mental workplace, to unwork.

“When I am writing a new script and thinking about a project, I have to create a neighborhood. Because I am here, in a hotel in New York—so I know what it is to be lonely.”

Christian: When I am writing a new script and thinking about a project, I have to create a neighborhood. Because I am here, in a hotel in New York—so I know what it is to be lonely. I’m like a ghost. [New York] is a good place to think about cinema, when you are jet lagged and lonely. My neighborhood for Afire was People on Sunday by Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, made in 1930, and Red Sun by Rudolf Thorne from 1970.

[In] Afire, there is a scene with a turntable; it is a little bit like the scene in Red Sun, where Marquard Bohm and Uschi Obermaier are dancing to a record. I think it is The Nice, a band from the ’60s. The young people in Red Sun, they are dancing—they want to be free, they love cinema. In the Billy Wilder movie from 1930, [the characters] are working-class. It is the weekend, they have bodies, they have kissing, they have seduction. This is something which, in Germany, is always destroyed, [by] communism, national socialism, and neoliberalism.

Erik: Paula, Christian previously said that working with you was a shift from his past collaborations, because of your background as a dancer in the Friedrichstadt-Palast.

Paula Beer: It is true that I started dancing when I was seven or eight years old, but I don’t have a classical dance education. I think that is what gives me a connection to my body.

Erik: This sort of choreographic background shows in the way that you embody the otherworldly figure of Undine, and as Leon’s foil in Afire. Do you think the physical practice of dancing gives you an insight into movement that is different from that of the traditional actor?

Paula: It might be. But for me, it just feels normal, so I can’t really say. I do have an interest in understanding acting better, because with every movie and every character, I [create] from scratch. I don’t feel like I know how acting works, because there is not a formula for it; it’s really finding the character with every project. And I have to understand: Where do I, as Paula, have to go to become that character? That’s what I’m looking for—to become the medium, to become a blank page. And then my character has my body to speak to the world.

Christian: There is an old essay by Béla Balázs from the ’20s; it’s about passages in silent movies, [and how they’re] like danced monologues in theater. When Paula was speaking, I thought about all of the passages she had in the movies we have made together. The first passage was in Transit. We had seen Jeanne Moreau in this Louis Malle movie together, because we were trying to think of how to film a woman who is traveling alone through the night in search of her husband. And what she saw in this sequence was that Jeanne Moreau was speaking with herself: She is in a bubble of memories. She is not there in the present. In Undine, she is coming out of the museum, and she wants to meet the guy whom she later has to kill. And she is full of anger and fear; this was a completely different passage.

In Afire, there are some little passages. After [she and Leon] argue at the beach, she is walking another way and you see her from the back; you don’t need monologues when you have the possibility of watching Paula walking. The audience is a witness, but she is doing it for herself. She is a subject, not an object.

“Acting is not about lying, but [about living] as that character in that very moment.”

Erik: Paula, I know that you began your acting career at a very young age—at 14, I believe. I am very intrigued by the experience of the young child actress. Can you tell me how entering the world at such a transformative age might have informed how you view performance?

Paula: I was very lucky that, from the beginning, I had protective people around me. I had a coach for [Poll Diaries] who helped me build a character and understand how it might be different from me—not just me, unprotected, in front of the camera. When I first arrived on set, I remember thinking, What’s going on here? Why do we need all these people? I thought making a movie was about the actor, director, and maybe a cameraman. I think what [director] Chris Kraus taught me was that, as an actor, it’s not about pretending this or that, pretending that you are laughing or you are crying—it’s always about the emotional truth of the character. Acting is not about lying, but [about living] as that character in that very moment.

I never had that moment of saying, I want to become an actress, so I have to take this step, then this step, then this step. It actually happened a bit by accident, and for me, it was really an adventure. I spent my summer holidays in Estonia shooting that [first] movie, and I thought it was all fun. I kept on doing it, because I liked the transformation and the fantasy becoming more real. I think I have this attitude, [up until] today, [that acting] is not too holy, but a game that you agree to play together.

Erik: I’d also like to ask about the fairytale setting of the house in Afire, which I read that you actually filmed in separate locations: one near the Baltic Sea, and the other deep in the forests of Brandenburg.

Christian: I like when, in Western movies, someone is in Laramie, and then there’s a horse ride, and two minutes later, he is in San Francisco. You have the feeling that the whole of California and Nevada and the desert is a dreamland. Americans need myths and legends; they want to know who they are, so they have the Westerns. For me, it’s a house in the forest, a glade around the house, a day-for-night with moonlight, trees, dunes. And beyond the dunes, the Baltic Sea.

It’s a little bit like Nevada and California. You have this coast of the German Romantics like Caspar David Friedrich, and you can find the same coast in Murnau’s Nosferatu. And on the other hand, you have this glade in the night where the nymphs are dancing, where the tales of the Brothers Grimm occur, where there is a witch’s house. I need this, because Germany is really ugly and you have to re-enchant the world.

Erik: Paula, I’ve been trying to think of what makes your characters in Afire, Undine, Frantz, and Transit so poignant and wistful. I think I find myself drawn to the idea that all of these characters are experiencing a form of afterlife; they have become adrift in a world not of their making. I feel like there is something deeply painful about all of these characters, because they are confronted with the tremendous burden of starting over in life, even if this new life ends in their death. Do you feel as if these characters are somehow related, like sisters or ancestors of the same cursed family?

Paula: [Laughs] Maybe they are, because they have all been portrayed by me.

Erik: Do you ever pull from the world of a previous character when portraying the next?

“I like when, in Western movies, someone is in Laramie, and then there’s a horse ride, and two minutes later, he is in San Francisco. You have the feeling that the whole of California and Nevada and the desert is a dreamland.”

Paula: I am really interested in my characters’ souls—where they have come from and what they have lived through; what has shaped them into who they were at the beginning of the movie, and what keeps on shaping them. I was really contemplating the [way that] Undine comes to our planet. She falls in love, and has to stay with this man until the man doesn’t love her anymore. And then she goes back to the water. The water is her home.

I have to understand what that underwater world is for her. Concentrating not only on the script and the dialogue, but also on what you can’t see in a movie creates a deeper energy around these characters. It’s not that I take something from one character to another—but, of course, it stays somewhere in me.

Christian: I think Paula works on her characters so that, in the end, she doesn’t need us anymore. This is freedom: She doesn’t need the camera, she doesn’t need the look of male subjects. She can leave and have a life of her own. In Afire, when she leaves the glade [on] the bicycle, I always have the feeling she has a life of her own. She can eat ice cream and have her friends; she doesn’t need us.

Erik: This reminds me of how I feel watching Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s films.

Christian: You know, Afire and Il Deserto Rosso are very similar.

Erik: I want to touch on your interest in elementality, which, again, we see throughout your films. Particularly with water: rivers, oceans, swimming pools, aquaria, tropical islands, harbors, shipwrecks. Do these images have some special experiential link to the act of watching film?

Christian: In the German tradition, we have two kinds of water: Water as a border between life and death, like the River Styx or the Wupper River, which is near the town of Wuppertal. In German, there is a saying, to go over the Wupper, [which] means you have to die. There are rivers and oceans you can take your ship to, and you can vanish, or go away. Sometimes, water is a border—and sometimes it is a possibility, like a horizon. But I was interested in water in this third way: an element in which you can live, like in Undine, or die, like in Transit.

In the German Romantic tradition, water is something you can die in. And it is [also] the possibility of being free—both exist. I thought a lot about water, and I [had] the idea of making this trilogy about water and fire and so on. I [haven’t had] an idea for the third element—I can’t do anything with air, I have no ideas for air—so I started a new trilogy. Perhaps it’s because air has nothing to do with cinema. Water [does]: You are inside and outside. You can’t live in it, but you can dream yourself inside of it.