Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Wolfsburg




Germany 2002 (premiered 2003) : Christian PETZOLD : 90 mins

After the masterly The State I Am In and Something To Remind Me, Wolfsburg represents something of a disappointment from European cinema’s reigning  “poet of apprehension.” But, taken on its own terms, this is an effective, slow-burning study of guilt and grief. At this stage in his career, however, Petzold needs to deliver rather more if he’s to make his long-overdue breakthrough to the next level of international renown: at the time of writing, for example, not one of his films has ever obtained commercial distribution in the UK. That situation isn’t likely to change as a result of the rather too low-key Wolfsburg, a film named after its setting: the northern German city known as Volkswagen’s  ‘company town.’

But while the film revolves around ‘car trouble’ of various kinds, VW oddly isn’t mentioned once – the autos we see are mainly Fords and Audis. They’re the stock-in-trade of Philipp (Benno Furmann from The Princess and the Warrior) a thirtysomething yuppie-ish car-salesman whose relationship with fiancee Katja (Antje Westermann) isn ’t going too well. Driving through a deserted rural area on the town’s outskirts one day, a lapse in concentration after a mobile-phone-row with Katja leads to Philipp knocking down a young cyclist, Paul (Martin Museler). Impulsively driving off, Philipp is racked by guilt and fear of punishment. He surreptitiously tracks down Paul to hospital, where he gets to know the boy’s mother, Laura (Nina Hoss). Paul dies, and Philipp and Laura eventually drift into a relationship  – which, when Katja twigs on, causes crises at work as well at home as her brother Klaus (Stephan Kampwirth) is Paul ’s boss. His life falling apart, Paul throws himself into an amour fou with Laura  – who is determined to track down her child’s killer …

Like 21 Grams, Wolfsburg traces the spiralling tragic/romantic consequences of an automobile accident: “One thing leads to another, ” someone says, summing up one of Petzold’s recurring concern. But whereas Grams tries to distract the viewer from its more melodramatic aspects with gimmicky script construction and hyperkinetic editing, Wolfsburg risks a cooler, more distanced and matter-of-fact approach. It’s essentially a stripped-down two-handed character study, and the performances by Hoss (as in Something, an implacable angel-of-vengeance) and Furmann (haunted, hollow-eyed, intense) are sufficiently strong to overcome the contrived aspects of the couple’s background connection.

It’s clear that, as a result of his split-second decisions on that quiet country lane  – one act of commission, one of omission – Philipp is doomed and damned, spiralling helplessly towards his fate. Likewise, we see that Laura effectively died with her son: a single mother, stuck in a dead-end job, she has little else to sustain her. Until, of course, Philipp comes along  – but it’s only matter of time before the truth emerges and the couple’s tentative happiness shatters into dangerous shards of revenge.

In State and Something, Petzold meticulously structured his screenplays so that they only made sense in the final reel, the tension building throughout until the climactic twist was revealed. Wolfsburg similar ratchets up the anxiety levels as we wait for the inevitable catastrophe, but the payoff doesn’t quite hit the mark this time: Laura’s discovery of the truth relies on an implausibly careless slip from Philipp. Unless we’re supposed to infer that he subconsciously desires the punishment he knows Laura won’t hesitate to deliver. Ending with an unexpectedly quiet and ambiguous coda, Wolfsburg remains open to interpretation and, refreshingly doesn’t feel the need to deliver answers to all the questions it poses. It’s a minor work from a major talent.

21st November, 2003
(seen 5th November : National Film Theatre, London  – London Film Festival)

click here for a full list of films covered at the 2003 London Film Festival

by Neil Young