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"We have stars but no sky"

German director Christian Petzold talks about his new film "Yella"

Der Tagesspiegel: Mr. Petzold, "Yella" is your third film with Nina Hoss. Why do you like working with her so much?

Christian Petzold: I knew her as "Das Mädchen Rosemarie" (the girl Rosemarie), a blond temptress in the hands of exploitative men. And since I believe that the roles actresses play become part of their biography, I thought that she could play the temptress in my film "Toter Mann" (dead man). But one who plays with the men herself. At the first rehearsal Nina Hoss sat there straight as a pole and wrote everything down. This really got me. How can a woman who is so precisely centred be the vengeful temptress? But then I understood. She empties herself and sets off on an expedition into the unknown.

Christian Petzold with lead actors Devid Striesow and Nina Hoss. © Christian Schulz. All photos courtesy Schramm Film Koerner & Weber

Yella is the woman who heads off for the West. Did you have role models?

Hitchcock's "Marnie!" But that turned out to be a mistake that cost us a day of filming. I always hold little seminars before we start and show the actors other films, we read literature, I air my office to a certain extent. This time one of the films I showed was "Marnie". And because my cameraman Hans Fromm and I are Hitchcock fans, we filmed the arrival on the platform in Wittenberge on the Elbe exactly as Hitchcock did. It was not until we were in the editing room that I saw that this was completely wrong, because the perspective in "Marnie" is that of the desirous man who heats up the view of woman from behind with his fantasies. But "Yella" is not about men's fantasies – but about women's. So we had to dump the 42,000 euro steadycam platform scene.

© Hans Fromm

But you do film Nina Hoss as the star, in close-ups, almost glamorous.

Yella' is the portrait of a dreamer who remains in her dream. There are shots which portray her classically, and there are views inside. That's why it has this star quality. A star is always a dreamer who exists for and with him/herself and to look at one is to go off into a dream. There are no stars in television because it's tuned to recognition and viewer figures, and it molests the viewer: Stay with me! A star is not a prostitute.

People often ask why we don't love our stars in Germany.

It annoyed me for ages that people asked only two questions of the cinema. One being: We have a sky without stars, where are the stars? But it's the other way round. We have stars without a sky. German actors are filmed as if they were stars, they make appearances on the red carpet or in Gala magazine, but there are no films surrounding them. How else do you explain the loneliness of Nastassja Kinski? Why weren't 30 films made with Franka Potente after "Run Lola Run"? And what is Jessica Schwarz up to? And why is Martina Gedeck not permanently surrounded by a culture which she carries, like Isabelle Huppert in France? They are celebrated for a single film, stars for half a year – and then the gazettes move on to the next one.

Devid Striesow and Nina Hoss. © Hans Fromm

And what is the other question?

The one about the script. The script is seen as an exchange value, one that can be laid down anywhere. If it's good then the film will be good too. Nonsense! Chabrol's "Le Boucher" or "Les Biches" were simple stories which only gained in depth through the direction and location – Paris, Versailles, the Americanisation of the French bourgeoisie.

You once said that German films did not ask their country any questions. Do you still think this?

No, the situation has improved. I was referring not to Realism but to a certain sensibility. I find the intrusion of the private sphere in film utterly cynical, because it creates a caricature of social existence. I know how the Precariat (hybrid of precarious and proletariat - ed.) lives: that's RTL 2 territory. The same goes for bigger connections. In the films of the Weimar Republic you feel the fascism, and Vietnam is reflected in New Hollywood cinema. Sensibility has returned to German cinema, for example in the lonely landscapes of the East in Valeska Grisebach's "Longing".

© Hans Fromm

And what questions does "Yella" ask Germany?

In "Yella" Wittenberge looks at first like my model railway. There's the Elbe, the factory tower with the clock, the early industrialisation. This was all destroyed by the private property trusts that took over the GDR real estate after the Wall came down. The factories are still standing but the people have disappeared, like Yella, the fortune seeker. Cinema sees things that have not yet been registered empirically. You could feel that women were leaving East Germany, long before it appeared in the press. The other half of the film takes place at the Expo site in Hannover. This is where capitalism builds its own documenta, complete with run-down aesthetics in glass, steel and leather.

© Hans Fromm

You don't have many good things to say about television. Particularly when it comes to the debate about the hybrid film and TV productions in "Päpstin" (Pope Joan) for example.

The problem with "amphibian film" is that neither good cinema nor good television comes out of it if the idea is to make TV and cinema versions from the outset. Actors have to find their rhythm, even the tension between two lovers has a certain length. Cinema is always also the documentation of the work on a scene. If a story is created for two different media at the same time, for the 100 and 180 minute versions, this work is nothing more than material for post-production. The film has no opportunity to find its heartbeat.

Christian Petzold with Nina Hoss. © Christian Schulz

Does that mean that you will only make cinema from now on?

Television is not bad. Wolfram Staudte's "Der Seewolf", "Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn", "Treasure Island", these four-part TV series from the sixties are wonderful. But German television with its billion-euro budgets is not taking risks any more. There has been no cinema there for a long time. The channels are not interested in the latest Chabrol; the new Tarantino runs after midnight at the earliest. And it's also terrible when television uses amphibian productions to get its hands on film funding, and big productions take the bread from the mouths of smaller films, even das Kleine Fernsehspiel (TV slot for films by young directors). The most interesting it gets are the crime series by Dominik Graf or imports like "The Wire" or "The Sopranos". These are the best things I've seen on television. Cinema is nouvelle, TV is roman and "The Sopranos" is an absolute epic. Thomas Mann would make TV series today.

* The interview originally appeared in German in Der Tagesspiegel on 11 September, 2007.

Christian Petzold (born 1960) lives in Berlin and shot to fame with his film about the Roter Armee Faktion "Die Innere Sicherheit" (The State I Am In). He worked with Nina Hoss on "Toter Mann" and "Wolfsburg".
Christiane Peitz is head of the cultural section at Der Tagesspiegel.

See Ekkehard Knörer's review of "Yella" here.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european