Christian Petzold May Be the Best German Filmmaker You’ve Never Heard Of

After becoming known for movies distanced from his country’s history, culture and memory, he has drawn from them in some recent works.

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By A.J. Goldmann

BERLIN — In the past decade, the German filmmaker Christian Petzold has made a Hitchcockian thriller set in postwar Germany, a time-tripping literary adaptation about exiles in occupied France and a magical realist fable about a water sprite in contemporary Berlin.

In his latest film, “Afire,” showing at the Tribeca Festival, which runs June 7-18 in New York City, a young writer struggles to finish a novel at a summer home he is sharing with a beautiful stranger, while forest fires tear through the surrounding landscape.

“Afire,” which will be released in theaters in the United States on July 14, won the Silver Bear grand jury prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. It was Mr. Petzold’s sixth time competing at the Berlinale, as the event is known here, where he has been a fixture since 2005 and where he won the best director trophy in 2012 for the tense period drama “Barbara,” about an East German doctor plotting to defect.

Mr. Petzold, 62, is a leading figure in what is sometimes called the Berlin School, a loose movement of independent filmmakers who emerged in the 1990s and whose closely observed work, focused on small human dramas, refreshingly eschewed grand historical narratives. (“Unlike many German directors, Mr. Petzold has no interest in excavating the past,” a 2009 profile by The New York Times summed up.)

But all of Mr. Petzold’s films from “Barbara” onward have found the director confronting his country’s history, culture and memory in a way that few would have expected from a filmmaker whose early works appeared to consciously rebuff mainstream German cinema’s emphasis on that nation’s tortured history — a trend exemplified recently by the Academy Award-winning 2022 remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

“He’s an extremely German filmmaker,” said Florian Borchmeyer, a programmer at the Munich International Film Festival who also works at Berlin’s Schaubühne theater.

“He’s like a free radical, in some sense,” he continued, referring to how Mr. Petzold makes films outside the German film establishment. “He gets in touch with the trauma of German society and the German past. But at the same time,” he added, “he gets in connection with something that is almost beyond reality.”

Speaking from the Cannes Film Festival in May, Mr. Borchmeyer called Mr. Petzold one of the best German filmmakers working today, along with Maren Ade (“Tony Erdmann”) and Angela Schanelec (whose “Music” won the screenplay award in Berlin this year), Philip Gröning and Andreas Dresen.

“Afire” was not the film that Mr. Petzold set out to make. He had secured the film rights to Georges Simenon’s novel “Dirty Snow,” an existential noir set in an unnamed country under foreign occupation, and was writing the screenplay when the coronavirus pandemic broke out. After presenting his 2020 film “Undine” in Paris, Mr. Petzold and Paula Beer, the film’s lead (she also stars in “Afire”) came down with Covid-19.

“I was in bed for four weeks with this dystopian project in front of me, and I thought: When I get out of here, I don’t want anything more to do with dystopias,” Mr. Petzold said in an interview.

While convalescing in Berlin, he binge-watched films by the French New Wave director Éric Rohmer and read stories by Anton Chekhov. In that first pandemic spring, Mr. Petzold’s thoughts turned to summer and to summer films, a genre that, according to him, has not properly existed in Germany since “People on Sunday” (1930).

“It’s a film about a day in summer, about young people, about Wannsee, about a weekend,” he said of the slice-of-life film, a key late work of Weimar cinema. “And then I thought about the aftermath, National Socialism, which destroyed everything: the German summers, the German youth, the German bodies, the poetry.

“These are films that capture a feeling of being on a threshold,” he said, referring to works like Mr. Rohmer’s “La Collectionneuse” and “Pauline at the Beach,” which are clear touchstones for “Afire” in both content and tone.

“There’s just two months, and after that you’re an adult. And in those two months there are slights, injuries, love, loss, loyalties, disappointments. And afterward, when you’re an adult, you remember that one summer when you perhaps missed out on life or first took advantage of life,” he continued, enumerating several of the themes that made their way into “Afire.”

Along with French cinema and Russian literature, Mr. Petzold also drew inspiration from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in particular the play’s setting. William Shakespeare’s depiction of the woods as a place of enlightenment and enchantment resonated with the filmmaker and his own cultural background.

“The forest in Germany is a place where you go when you have problems in order to find yourself again,” Mr. Petzold said. “That’s true of right-wing philosophers like [Martin] Heidegger, but it’s also true of German Romanticism.”

In the summer of 2020, as Mr. Petzold began developing “Afire,” those woods were very much on his mind, for an entirely different reason. “Those forests were burning, the forests that actually contain the German stories, the tales of the Brothers Grimm and so on,” Mr. Petzold said.

Mr. Petzold wrote the screenplay for “Afire” with specific actors in mind: Thomas Schubert as the struggling young novelist Leon and Ms. Beer as his housemate Nadja. The film is a third collaboration for the actress and director after “Undine” and “Transit.”

“Talking to him you feel how much he loves literature and stories,” Ms. Beer said, adding that “after reading the script together we will watch movies and he will talk about books that refer to our work.”

The 28-year-old actress, who answered questions via email while serving on a jury at Cannes, said Mr. Petzold created a “very inspiring working atmosphere” on set.

“Christian tells us his ideas about the scene, maybe other things that he was thinking of that fit to the atmosphere and situation,” she said, adding, “Every thought or idea is welcome.”

Anton Kaiser, of Schramm Film, the Berlin-based production company behind “Afire” and 12 of Mr. Petzold’s previous films, said Mr. Petzold likes to shoot in the summer and edit in the fall, which means that his films tend to be ready in time for the Berlin festival, which is held in February.

“Each film of Petzold’s is recognizable, but each new film is also a step forward,” Carlo Chatrian, the Berlin festival’s artistic director, said in a phone interview.

“They are cerebral, but they are not heavy, especially the last two,” he added, referring to “Afire” and “Undine,” both of which he programmed at the festival, as films with a note of humor that is new for the director.

“I’m happy, on one hand, to be able to support Christian Petzold as an auteur and as an artist,” Mr. Chatrian said. “At the same time, I’m happy when his films can travel, because I think it’s a pity that he is not enough known outside Germany.”

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