FEAR OF A BLACK BMW : CHRISTIAN PETZOLD’S THE STATE I AM IN
Die Innere Sicherheit : Germany 2000 : Christian PETZOLD : 106 mins
Emerging from The State I Am In, dazzled audiences may find themselves asking two questions: just how good a film-maker is this Christian Petzold? And why aren’t his movies shown outside Germany, apart from screenings on the film-festival circuit? The first query is more easily answered – on the evidence of State and follow-up Something To Remind Me (2001), Petzold is extremely good. In fact, among current European directors it’s hard to think of a more intelligent, impressive talent – and he’s surely out on his own when it comes to the brilliance of his screenplays (which he sometimes co-writes with Harun Farocki.)
The issue of Petzold’s international profile – or scandalous lack of – is altogether trickier. Perhaps it’s partly due to the clumsy English titles with which his films are saddled, and which bear little relation to the German originals: Something To Remind Me for Toter Mann (the swimming term “dead man’s float”), and, even more awkward, The State I Am In for Die Innere Sicherheit (internal or inner security). In certain snobbish quarters, meanwhile, it probably doesn’t boost his status as a ‘serious director’ that most of his work has been made for television – of his half-dozen films to date, only two are cinema features: State and Wolfsburg (2003).
Then there’s the related issue that his films tend to be somewhat ‘flat’ visually – especially compared with, say, his fellow Westphalian Tom Tykwer, whose Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior and Heaven have all been commercially released in the UK. But, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder before him, Petzold shows that a talented director doesn’t have to be a painterly visual stylist: his films are blunt and straightforward, as befits their genre aspects – both Something and State are, on one very basic level, crime movies. There’s a whole lot more going on besides, of course: the pair are intimate films about personal relationships in crisis, with small casts and economic dialogue.
An unclassifiable combination of teen romance, coming-of-age drama, and paranoid political thriller, State is mainly told from the perspective of 15-year-old Jeanne (Julia Hummer). Like many girls her age, she’s growing resentful of parental demands: who she should see, where she should go, how she should dress, etc. But for her father Hans (Richy Muller) and mother Clara (Barbara Auer) Jeanne’s blossoming independence poses unusual problems: the pair are renegades, permanently on the run from the police for unspecified reasons. All we know is that they were once part of some kind of underground organisation – presumably a Baader-Meinhof type gang. When their money is stolen in Portugal, the family must return to the more hazardous surroundings of their native Germany, where Jeanne soon resumes her ‘holiday romance’ with surfer-kid Heinrich (Bilge Bingul). But this proves increasingly difficult, as her parents sense the law closing in.
Though a very serious film, The State I Am In isn’t without some unexpected moments of dark humour – at a large cross-roads regulated by traffic lights, Hans fears the worst when menacing black BMWs arrive simultaneously on the scene: as his wife and daughter duck down in their seats, Hans gets out and puts his hands in the air. only for all the cars and their bemused, non-cop drivers to pull away when the lights change. Early on, however, when Hans and Jeanne are attacked by the crooks stealing the family’s stash, we see that the family do indeed inhabit a very dangerous world in which violence – and, even worse, the threat of capture – is seldom far away. This assault, which leaves both father and daughter unconscious, is played out in an almost casual manner, without any of the pointless muzak most directors would instinctively deploy to amp up tension: Petzold’s technique is closer to the offhand killings in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend.
Not that The State I Am In eschews music altogether: Stefan Will’s score is all the more effective for being so very sparingly deployed, and the film is bookended with Tim Hardin’s plaintive 1967 song ‘How can we hang on to a dream?’ – the question confronted by Hans, Clara and Jeanne herself. For Jeanne, the dream is of romance – her stormy relationship with Heinrich is very convincing, and we get the impression this is very probably her first sexual experience. But her intimacy with Heinrich is clearly dangerous – it breaches the ‘internal security’ of the family unit, as Jeanne occupies that ever-hazardous transitional phase between youth and adulthood: between, in effect, reliance on parents and taking responsibility for one’s own actions.
Hans and Clara’s ‘dream’ is much less concrete, pressing and well-defined. In fact, it’s a source of minor frustration throughout the film that we’re never told anything about the activities that have forced them into ‘permanent hiding’ (reviewers’ assertions that they are part of the “70s generation of German political terrorists” seem wide of the mark – this mid-thirties pair would have only been Jeanne’s age at the end of the 1970s). But Petzold knows exactly what he’s doing by tantalisingly withholding this apparently vital information: Hans and Clara are no longer motivated by any specific ideology – their choices have led them down increasingly narrow paths, where flight and subterfuge have become daily routines. Jeanne, brought up in this environment, has never known any other life – and the impact is clear on Hummel’s lived-in face, reminiscent of Linda Manz’s street-urchin from Days of Heaven.
Because she never speaks about what her parents did, or now do (“they fuck” she tells Heinrich), we’re also kept in the dark. To parallel this, dramatic developments that Jeanne doesn’t witness herself remain tantalisingly unshown to us: we see the bloody aftermath of violent events (a former colleague of Hans nursing his bloodied nose after presumably receiving a punch; Hans’ bullet-wound after a botched bank heist), but not the events themselves. And though the dialogue is often outstanding (“over-conformity can often attract attention too,” complains Jeanne when forced to wear a particularly drab outfit), as in the best scripts it’s the unspoken stuff that carries the greatest weight.
Petzold places high demands on our attention – we must be alert to the details and nuances of every event and conversation, and the pace of the film is often rather slow around the mid-section. In addition, several crucial developments seem to rely on rather distracting implausibilities. But, as in Something To Remind Me, the compellingly vivid characterisations by the actors constantly engage: most scenes revolve around Hummer, Auer, Muller (a stockier Jurgen Prochnow) and Bingul (a youthful Val Kilmer type). And, as in the follow-up film, the brilliant structure of the screenplay means that everything clicks into place only at the very end, when we’re finally made aware of the threat facing Jeanne and her family, and of the remarkable ends their enemies will go to trap them. Everything hinges on Jeanne’s decision on whether or not Heinrich can be trusted with her family’s secret. Trained by her father never to say anything when under interrogation, Jeanne at first tries out the tactic in a romantic context when Heinrich jokingly ‘grills’ her using his bedside lamp – but by the end, the personal and political elements of their relationship, of Jeanne’s life, and of the film itself, are utterly indivisible.
3rd April, 2003
(seen 1st April, Tyneside Cinema)
click here for the short review of The State I Am In
by Neil Young