The truth is out there | Christian Petzold

With the European Film Awards taking place in Malta on 1 December we got a chance to speak to director Christian Petzold, the rising star of German filmmaking, whose sixth feature film, Barbara, scored Best Film and Best Actress nominations for the prestigious ‘European Oscars’.

German director Christian Petzold at the red carpet during this year’s edition of the European Film Awards, held at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta on 1 December. Photo by Ray Attard.
German director Christian Petzold at the red carpet during this year’s edition of the European Film Awards, held at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta on 1 December. Photo by Ray Attard.

Being invited to speak to German director Christian Petzold a day before the European Film Awards took place, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. European cinema is rife with diverse characters whose egos can range from the benign to the overblown, and having had the privilege to see Petzold's subdued GDR-era thriller Barbara - in which the director's perennial actress-muse Nina Hoss plays a doctor exiled to East Germany after she attempts to obtain a travel visa - I half-feared that I would be facing a forbidding artistic force, on what was already shaping up to be a very hectic Friday afternoon.

Happily, my fears proved to be entirely unfounded. Petzold greeted us (a mercifully small band of international journalists) with an unassuming friendliness, and by the time our allotted 25-minute slot had run its course, he was still happily chatting away.

This was partly because our conversation - and it really did take the form of an informal chat - spun into several directions, true to Petzold's own politically-charged cinematic oeuvre.

Though nominated in their respective categories, Petzold and actress 'muse' Nina Hoss both ended up losing to Michael Haneke's Amour on the night (the decorated Austrian director's austere elderly couple drama swooped up the Best Director and Best Film, as well as Best Actor and Actress awards), Petzold was clearly happy - if slightly "anxious" - about being nominated for a high-profile award for the very first time.

READ MORE: Film Review | Barbara

"When I first got the news about being nominated, I felt great anxiety. But then, a few hours later, I felt proud. So I'm still caught between those two emotions: anxiety and pride. I just don't know how to behave for these kind of things! Nina Hoss told me to just go there and have fun, but I've been raised Protestant, so it's very difficult for me to just have fun..."

But on a more serious note, Petzold did distinguish between award ceremonies despite being green to them, and is particularly critical about how some film awards in Germany operate.

"I'm suspicious of all awards that don't have a jury. Because a jury actually goes to the cinema to watch a film together, the others just receive a box with DVDs. And this is not the right way to experience films. Films are by their very nature a lonely experience - but a collective lonely experience," Petzold said, seemingly unaffected by the paradox he just described.

"Think of all those Edward Hopper paintings of people drinking in bars alone, it's that same feeling: you're alone, but you're alone in a larger group..."

Which is why Petzold believes digging into a box of DVDs completely ruins an experience that's part-and-parcel of watching any film, and that it also means that inevitably, some films get skipped over. "It's also a problem that these awards consist of very private groups, which are open to corruption..."

PHOTOS: European Film Awards 2012

Underhanded dealings and secrecy are par for the course when it comes to Petzold's Barbara, however. Told as if it were a slowed-down espionage thriller, the film deliberately seeks to smash cinematic clichés about East Germany prior to the collapse of the Wall, as the exiled Barbara, while planning an escape to the West with her lover, gradually begins to be charmed by the rural landscape of the ghostly town she's stationed in. A will-they-won't-they quasi-romance with Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) complicates matters further... especially given the fact that he's charged with spying on Barbara by the Stasi.

According to Petzold, previously, the East tended to be depicted like some kind of dystopian wasteland populated by "unhealthy, pale-skinned people who looked as if they could be from North Korea".

"This was a perception of the East fomented by the West at the time, but it wasn't my experience of it at all. My parents were refugees from there, and my memories of it are full of fantastic summers filled with colours, dances, girls, great music (covers of Beatles songs with German words). I mean yes, at the end of the day it was a bureaucratically repressive State, but to me, it also represented 'life'..."

He described this ambivalent feeling - a nostalgia just about crushed by political realities - as being the central motor to the drama that builds up throughout Barbara.

READ: How it happened – European Film Awards live blog

"It's always like that, when you're leaving a structure you hate. I remember my own experience of leaving my native Dusseldorf to head to Berlin: the last two years were torture, I was counting the days before I left. But in the final week, I start getting sentimental, I start having doubts, and feeling somehow 'guilty' about it all. And I think Barbara has these doubts too. Her exile is, of course, a punishment, but throughout the course of the film she discovers that this could potentially lead to some great things. There's a chance for a collective life, a culturally-rich life..."

It's hardly surprising that Petzold trusted Nina Hoss with this conflicted role. It is, after all, their fifth collaboration.

"She is an actress who likes to play 'against' something. Her impulse is not to play someone falling in love, but someone who deliberately doesn't fall in love. And I like this very much."

Because the film itself keeps its political cards very close to its chest - and maintains our curiosity and its tension by revealing as little as it possibly can - our group conversation about it serves a spring board for a number of topics: from the apparent rise of a far right movement in Europe during times of economic crisis ("this gives me great fear, I must say"), to the state of German cinema in particular and European cinema in general - which is, after all, what was being celebrated at the Mediterranean Conference Centre on 1 December.

"There is a tendency to group European films in 'issue' based categories, like we're looking for our culture and our cultural heritage, instead of just focusing on being the best we can be - none of the great cinematic movements of the past were concerned with this."

And in Barbara, Petzold's intention was precisely to capture the fragmented, "disparate" elements of a very specific but fundamental development in German culture.

"We tend to think of historical narratives as being air-tight 're-enactments'... images of Abraham Lincoln speaking from a balcony springs to mind. But there's more than just one picture, and it's not as clear as all that. Now, what I want is to look 'between' the photos and the re-enactments. That's what Barbara is really about."