Film Watch: Before shooting began you had extensive reading rehearsal with all the actors. How does that work?
Christian Petzold: Basically the first part of the rehearsal in Berlin served to stir our collective memory. What did East Germany sound like? What did it smell like? That’s the sort of thing we talked about. I think we only read the script once and then we just remembered, reflected and watched movies.
I was concerned with several questions: Who is telling the story of the film? Where is this person positioned? Is this person removed from the plot looking onto it from above like a surveillance camera, or is he standing right in the middle of it amongst the people? Is this person part of the system that exists between people?
Watch: Can you tell me about the locations?
Petzold: I felt it was important that the hospital in the film was a real hospital that was accurately furnished in a 1980 look down to the last fine detail. When we saw it we were somewhat shocked at how different hospitals are today with their high flexibility and their outsourcing. We met regularly to talk about the day in the staff break room that the nurses in the film hang out in to smoke, listen to the radio and read the newspaper. ... It was like doctors and nurses planning the day’s schedule: “First we run the drainage procedure, and then comes Nina’s long monologue.”
I think it is absolutely important for everything to be correct. Otherwise you end up doing all kinds of nonsense. We had this scene where we had X-ray images of a skull fracture and a knee dislocation. And the actors were medically very well prepared; they’d taken courses. So here they are standing in front of the X-ray screen and all of sudden they break out into a fit of laughter, the way I used to crack up laughing in church when I was younger every time the word whore came up in the Bible.
Watch: Do the characters hold some kind of a secret for you as the writer and director?
Petzold: Every day of shooting was a complete surprise for me. Having a clearly defined picture of a character is important because it provides a foundation. When you have a figure that already holds depth and mystery within it, then you’ve got something you can start working with. There’s the scene in the corridor where Barbara drops the coffee cup. I had a clear picture of how that should go: Something falls. They both kneel down to pick up the pieces. He says: “Now, why don’t you go lay down.” And she says: “No! I don’t need to.” Even though she’s on her last legs.
I didn’t quite know how to resolve the scene. But then during the rehearsals something happened, something you just can’t plan: he simply puts his hand on her. It’s as if this surge of warmth starts flowing through her and in that moment Barbara feels protected and tired. This is something I could never have imagined beforehand.
Watch: You shot the film to a large extent chronologically? But you deliberately took one scene out of the chronology.
Petzold: There is often a very important scene that takes place at the end of a film and in our case it was a kiss between Barbara and Andre.... I didn’t have a clear picture for this kiss. But it had to be there, at that specific point. And if you keep it in the chronology and shoot it at the end, then all you talk about for the last ten days is this stupid kiss. So there are two reasons I wanted to take a scene like that out of the chronology: Firstly, if you shoot it as early as the eighth day, then you carry the kiss within you for the remaining days and you know as an actor what you’re heading towards. And secondly, if it doesn’t work out, you can do it again.
Watch: Barbara is a period piece, with a historically driven plot. The writer, set designer and actors all do research. Is there a point where you just have to stop?
Petzold: The research must be precise and accurate. It must be filled with narrative. You can’t just use basic items to fill up the scenery. The objects have to carry meaning and significance. But then again, you also have to be able to let them go.
The night at Nikolaiplatz on the way to the Interhotel was quite an expensive scene, because it required an old East German tram to drive by, not to mention all the roads we had to block, and all the antennas and advertising we had to pull down. It took ages but we got a shot of the tram driving by though the picture. But then Bettina Böhler, the editor, cut it in such a way that the tram only appears for two seconds in the scene. A strange effect, but it works because it makes East Germany appear more authentic, more real.
Watch: Is there a particular pressure in making a film about a time that is not so distant and still very charged with emotions, opinions and images?
Petzold: (In East Germany) there was a great deal of mistrust everywhere, not only because you felt the government is everywhere, but also because there was a kind of barter economy: “If I give him something, I will get something in return.” I thought that’s what the film should focus on. How does power infect love? That’s the situation when these two people meet. Everything that is attractive about Andre automatically has a second meaning, namely: “I will open up your heart and soul and read you, and then I’ll know everything about you.” That’s what I wanted the film to explore and not some Honecker pictures on the wall. We only have one single sign with a motto on it in the film: “Optimism leads us into the future.” I liked it because it was so old and faded. It was as if East Germany in 1980 no longer believed in itself.
Germany, 2012, 105m
Director: Christian Petzold
Writer: Petzold and Harun Farocki
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld and Rainer Bock