Worlds of Possibilities: Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhäusler’s Dreileben

Dreileben: Beats Being Dead

By Dennis Lim

After a decade-long procession of HBO critical darlings, in the wake of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos and now Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce, received wisdom holds that television—or more precisely, its funding structures and serial configurations—represents our best hope for narrative filmmaking. Such pronouncements tend to assert the benefits of duration and scope, the breathing room, and the level of detail that bigger canvases allow. But the greatness of the three-part, three-director Dreileben is not, or not simply, a matter of scale.

Like the Red Riding Trilogy (2009), Dreileben consists of three self-contained but interlinked films, each by a different filmmaker (Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, Christoph Hochhäusler), all dealing with related crimes in the same location. But while the Red Riding films span a decade, Dreileben circles around a single time and place, locating different entry points (which turn out really to be points of departure) and refracting the nominally central incident through different perspectives (which often means marginalizing it). Each installment tells what the filmmakers call a “horizontal” story—impelled by the forward motion of a romance, an investigation, a manhunt—but the point of Dreileben is to stack them on a vertical axis. While Red Riding enforces a unity of mood, each Dreileben film, despite existing within the same clearly delineated physical world, suggests a subtly different universe from the others. Which comes as no surprise given how it originated: not through omnibus-film gimmickry or convenience but in the course of an actual exchange of ideas.

The starting point was an e-mail correspondence among the three filmmakers, published in Revolver magazine in 2007, on the state of German cinema that revealed mutual concerns and sharp disagreements. Graf was born in 1952, Petzold in 1960, Hochhäusler in 1972, and each has a distinct relationship to the now decade-old “new German cinema” that has come to be imprecisely known as the Berlin School. Graf, a respected senior figure and a stalwart of German television, predates the Berlin School’s emergence, and has criticized what he sees as the reticence and passivity of many of the films. Petzold is often identified as one of the movement’s de facto founders, part of the pioneering wave that studied at the dffb in the ’80s and ’90s. Hochhäusler belongs (with Benjamin Heisenberg and Ulrich Köhler) to the Revolver-aligned second generation, whose careers have progressed and diverged in ways that reflect the constant sense of flux, born of habitual self-examination, that defines this loose group.

It is perhaps to be expected, given all the former and part-time critics and academics in its midst, that the evolution of the Berlin School—and it has evolved, in more tangible and interesting ways than most so-called movements—rests on an interplay between theory and practice, a compulsion among its affiliates both to discuss and to demonstrate what it means to make films in and about Germany today. If the Berlin School’s house style—cool, precise, observational—was positioned as a reaction to mainstream storytelling conventions, the recent move toward genre experimentation, with an embrace of more robust narratives and more expansive emotions, seems partly a reaction to the marginalization of the early films. (Dreileben begs to be seen in the light not just of the Revolver correspondence, which weighs the possibilities and traps of genre cinema vs. auteur cinema, but also of Heisenberg’s The Robber and Thomas Arslan’s In the Shadows, two exemplary genre reworking and high points of last year’s Berlinale.)

One of Graf’s main charges is that the minimalism of the Berlin School, “instead of expanding narrative possibilities,” represents “a narrowing of gaze.” Expansion is inherent to the structure of Dreileben, which fans out from the tabloidish scenario of a convicted killer and sex offender who escapes while paying his last respects to his mother in a hospital. Petzold deals with the victim-to-be, Graf with one of the investigators, and Hochhäusler with the killer himself. As genre narratives, each comes freighted with expectations, as does the setting. While many Berlin School movies have taken place in the border zones and liminal spaces of contemporary Germany, Dreileben unfolds in Thuringia, the mythic, heavily forested region known as the nation’s “green heart.” (The verdant, imposing landscapes come across most vividly in Petzold’s film; folklore is most directly referenced in Hochhäusler’s, which invokes witch hunts, haunted caves, and the legend of the slumbering emperor Barbarossa.)

Petzold’s Beats Being Dead is as taut as it is volatile, a fever-dream compound of romantic tragedy and slasher noir that focuses on two young people who cross paths with the killer: Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), a pre-med student working as a nurse to fulfill his national-service obligations, and Ana (Luna Mijovic), a chambermaid and Bosnian emigré. As in Jerichow (2008) and Yella (2007), Petzold inscribes cold, hard truths of class and money into almost every scene, fusing erotic tensions with socioeconomic ones—a flirtatious moment sours with a suspicion of stolen cash; the climactic betrayal happens at a country-club shindig. The film is yet another of Petzold’s ghost stories set among the living dead, but if that has often meant a measured detachment, the mood here is deeply mysterious, at once playful and irrational.

Beats Being Dead has the flavour of myth and the power of a trance. Petzold underscores his fairy-tale inspiration—Undine, the tale of the water nymph who yearns to join the human race—by having Ana and Johannes begin their love story by a lake, in the nude. There is a comic edge, a kind of screwball syncopation, to their push-pull courtship—one of them is forever walking away, chasing after the other, or apologizing. Music is crucial to the film’s tone of ominous romanticism. In contrast to the minimal, ambient scores of Petzold’s previous films, he envelops the action here in a Bernard Herrmann-esque cocoon (a leitmotif-heavy swoon by Stefan Will), and makes inspired use of Julie London’s “Cry Me a River” as the siren song that casts the spell—and, in the enigmatic, pitch-perfect final scene, breaks it.

Graf’s contribution builds directly on his Revolver remarks, where he complained of the Berlin School’s “distrust of communication, of language.” Don’t Follow Me Around is a screenwriter’s movie, in the best sense: talky and witty, packed with revealing tangents and glancing micro-observations. Shot by Michael Wiesweg in soft-toned Super 16—a striking contrast to the crisp, controlled visuals of the other two entries—Graf’s film makes a virtue of skittishness. The distractable camera snoops, wanders, lingers on odd details, and the narrative likewise keeps shifting its attention.

The protagonist, Jo (Jeanette Hain), is a police psychologist, called in to investigate the escaped killer. But the real point of her trip is an internal affairs investigation into local corruption. The core of the story, in any case, turns out to be Jo’s reunion with Vera (Susanne Wolff), the old friend she stays with—and an unexpected conduit to an ex-flame. Both women find out that years ago in Munich they were in love with the same man at the same time, unaware of each other’s existence. Jo and Vera’s relationship—which gets more complicated as the women compare notes while withholding information—reinforces Dreileben’s larger context: a world of imperfect knowledge.

In A Minute of Darkness, Hochhäusler turns back to the primary narrative, which he propels to a genre payoff and imbues with philosophical richness. A brooding dual character study, it follows the killer (Stefan Kurt) in his interlude of freedom (overwhelmed by the natural world, rendered with tactile immediacy by Reinhold Vorschneider) and the grizzled policeman (Eberhard Kirchberg) who revisits the original case, haunted by the missing minute in the surveillance footage of the crime. Hochhäusler has said that the early inspiration was Petzold’s misremembered summary of Schiller’s novel The Dishonorable Reclaimed, which he had inaccurately described as the story of “a man who became a murderer only because he was hounded,” but the premise also recalls Hochhäusler’s own Low Profile (2005).

The taunting lacuna at the centre of A Minute of Darkness, the most self-reflexive aspect of Dreileben, speaks to the impossibility of certainty in the absence of observable evidence, the danger of imposing stories onto what we cannot know for sure. This conundrum is, of course, intimately linked to the de-dramatized cinema of the Berlin School: the fear of narrative as, to quote Hochhäusler, something that “contaminates the picture,” a lie, and what’s more, a lie that could become the truth.

Coming at a single starting point from multiple angles, Dreileben takes what might be called a cubist approach to storytelling, reinforcing a basic fact of human coexistence, that shared experiences reverberate in different ways. But as an epistemological exercise, which such Rashomonic endeavours tend to be, it has an obvious advantage over, say, Lucas Belvaux’s La Trilogie (2002)—with three filmmakers working in concert but also autonomously, subjectivity is built into the project. In toto, the Dreileben films offer many of the pleasures of the puzzle movie: stories intersect and characters move between foreground and background; ellipses are filled in and questions answered, one segment providing a (sometimes literal) reverse angle on another. These are satisfactions that tapestry movies, with their criss-crossing plots and chance encounters, supposedly provide. But Dreileben avoids the sins of Babel (2006) and its like: the smug omniscience, the thesis-driven diagramming, the dutiful slog of connecting the dots and filling in the blanks. Instead, each installment enriches and complicates the others. These stories do not add up so much as tunnel outward. To put it another way, Dreileben represents a termite solution to a white-elephant problem. Taken together, the movies attest to the limits of knowledge and the potential of imaginative empathy. The self-contained modesty of each film belies the immensity of the project: Dreileben conjures not just three lives but worlds of possibilities.


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