The post-historical malaise of Maastricht minimalism
The State I am In — Christian Petzold (2000)
I spent a lot of time in cars this past week. Driving this way and that. A few traffic jams, a few cups of lukewarm coffee in motorway service stations. Looking backwards, this all feels like a kind of lazy field research for this week’s film. But I’m home now.
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— Laybys; the blank boxes of business hotels; windows that look out onto motorways and service stations; the scrubland that sprawls beyond the edges of cities. These are places that have been generated by history, just as they have been forgotten by history, or made absent from it. Fukuyama sipping frothy coffee by a petrol pump. The monotonous drone of passing cars.
— This is what grabs me most about Christian Petzold, he of the so-called Berlin School: of his confrontation with the sprawl of modern European history after history has been absconded from it. Really, this is a cinema of reckoning; where history is obscured yet desperately leaps about and tries to flag us down. As Petzold himself put it (I’ll be quoting him a few times in this piece): “the phantoms of our present life are in the past”. Enjambed.
— The State I am In (2000) is probably a very amusing play on words (the emotional ‘state’ conflated with the juridical one). The film’s German title carries an equivalent ambivalence, Die Innere Sicherheit - “internal security”; i.e., the inside and the outside. Now, that same minimalism (always already a fabrication) has imploded. Petzold has documented its decline. Talking in Extra, Extra, he singled out Berlin’s gaudy redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz - an architecturally heinous place whose enormous, emotionless buildings (supporting vast logos to international brands) contain very little in the way of lived life. It is a place that you hurry through, fleetingly. Perhaps you stop for a bottle of carbonated water (semigas), to buy a hotdog, watch a movie (for this you must descend underground). It is as monotonous as it is hellish. I think this is a fitting metaphor for Petzold’s cinema.
— Back, a little. I am going to define this (Petzold’s torpor of terrain) as Maastricht minimalism; describing the juridical, post-historical landscapes (emotional and material) that sprawl across the heartlands of Europe, and whose edges are frayed by presences that threaten and nullify them (e.g., conflict in Ukraine, Brexit, the migrant crisis, Etc). A space that is undifferentiated, yet also subject to all manner of intangible/invisible structures (like trade agreements and capital flows) that connect it to places other than where you’re standing. These landscapes are formal (court buildings, glass-fronted university departments, malls, business HQs) and informal (the ‘terrain vague’ of building sites, leftover slots of grassland, pathways along motorways, construction hoardings [and what they obscure]). This Maastricht minimalism is a kind of counterpoint to Auge’s non-place, in so far as Auge’s definition (of soulless airports, Etc) was founded primarily on the clutched pearls of bourgeois distaste, and by a refusal to admit that the non-place is inhabited and can be thickly described. Auge refused to admit that the non-place is a syndrome, and that its persistence is utterly under threat - a site of negotiation and uncertainty. He simply disliked waiting for flights.
— The State I am In is a journey inwards, all of it taking place on the surface of such ambiguous locales; from the coast of Portugal to somewhere in the ordinary heart of Germany. These same landscapes recur in the work of Michael Hanneke and (to a lesser extent) Alexander Kluge. International modernism meets gas-station bottled water, each sip - wherever you drink it - tasting the same as the last. They are places of transit, of what Petzold describes as “transit rooms” - his obsession with hotels and the interiors of cars and motorway service stations.
— Fabula, quickly. Petzold’s film concerns a family and their difficult return (or: ingression) to their German homeland. The parents (Clara and Hans) have spent fifteen years on the run. Their crimes are unspecified, but we know that they are former members of a left-wing terrorist organisation (read: the Red Army Faction, or RAF). This is left dilute in the final cut of the film, though an earlier draft (both were written by Harun Farocki) concreted their allegiance and history. It’s good for the film that this specificity was excised. We’ll see why. Tricked and robbed of their hidden cash, the family (with fifteen year old daughter Jeanne in tow) must make their return in order to secure safe passage out of the country. Inwards/outwards. Glances radiate away from the edges of the camera, or else they pour—directly and unblinkingly—straight into the aperture of the lens.
— Petzold’s camera is an instrument of surveillance. His world is grey and undifferentiated, consisting of tightly-shot interiors (with masses of sterile lighting), elephant-grey stretches of autobahn, chrome-glass service stations, and ‘anywhere’ malls. Other figures (suited, drab) have the consistency of chewed gum. As the temperature falls, Hans buys an ugly, cheap jumper (yellow) for Jeanne from a service station. This remains one of the few sprouts of colour that lightens the film’s otherwise sober tones. Its shammy cheapness only accentuates the surrounding blankness. Parked alongside the edge of a river, the border of Germany, Jeanne glances up at the thick folds of the German flag. Her homeland is a mystery to her. After all, this is presumably the first time she’s visited it. Nothing else signifies that this is Germany. Signs are international (gas stations, brands of water). Here is a landscape without specificity.
— Hans leads Clara and Jeanne on a tense expedition in search of money or salvation, which - for them - are in fact the same thing. Beneath the belly of a grim underpass, he excavates a metal box soiled with rust and earth - it contains mostly useless pre-reunification Marks. “This is a history lesson,” he bitterly remarks. There are a handful of dollars.
— What else? A copy of Moby Dick is used throughout the film, in various functions. It is translated (by Jeanne, as part of her on-the-run homework). It is used to signal to former comrade Klaus that the coast is clear for a meeting (Klaus is eventually captured by the police in a sudden, explosive eruption of force). This barely needs unpacking - Moby Dick’s white whale. Freedom, pursuit, the epic tradition. Everything that The State I am In both is and is not.
— When we glimpse those things that should be beautiful, Petzold manages to dilute and un-desire them. The beaches of Portugal seem only windswept and drab. Luxurious hotel lobbies seem clinical and stilted. A passive middle distance is maintained, unblinkingly observant, evacuated of compassion.
— Pasts are left undeclared, lied about, obscured. The State I am In contains within it a coming-of-age story, Jeanne’s. She falls in love with a surfer boy in Portugal. He tells her about the expensive, modernist home he cannot return to (his mother, he says, killed herself there, and her father has left it to ruin). We later discover that this is a lie; really, he lives in a kind of orphanage, never having known his parents. But the abandoned house does exist, next door - an object of distrust and longing. Running out of money, Jeanne leads her parents to this mausoleum of a place. They inhabit it like ghosts, its true ownership forever obscured. This is not the first lie that is told. Jeanne lies about her own parents. Many things are left unmoored. E.g., Jeanne’s father. It is probably not Hans. When they meet Klaus, a former comrade, he sharply observes that Jeanne “looks nothing like” Hans. Later, Jeanne asks Clara, her mother, whether Klaus is her father. “No”. Nothing more is said.
— History sort of sneaks in, troubling the edges of the film. Jeanne’s romance with her surfer-boy signals her possible entrance ‘back’ into the ordinary world (CDs, fast fashion, Etc). These things are not, of course, decorous or beautiful. Dieb works in a mall, flipping burgers. While rooted in the world (unlike Jeanne the transitory ghost), he has little more substance than her. It almost makes the family’s ‘freedom’ desirable, if it were not for the reeking stench of betrayal and death that pursues them.
— Auge says that “nonplaces create solitary contractuality”. His non-place is a sterile bubble, forever arching toward thoughtless multiplication. Petzold’s Maastricht minimalism (in contrast) is the product of unease and threat. The centre cannot hold. History always threatens to erupt and overspill the lie of its boundaries. They represent different moments in the post-historical conundrum, Auge anticipating a kind of cultural grisaille that—for Petzold—was already punctured and taking water. It’s why the explosive final car crash (and the sudden bloom of sunlight that accompanies it) signals not so much an end as a beginning. Jeanne (alive) blinks against the light. Her parents are presumed dead, folded into the vehicle that had moments ago carried them (very Ballardian). She has been ejected from the machinery of the terrain vague, a being for whom the future is now possible. History has not yet asserted itself, though there has been a reckoning of sorts. History is a flash of obliterating light.
— There is a bank robbery (a flash of excitement). It goes badly, Clara shooting a security guard as they make their escape. We witness this on a slab of grainy CCTV footage - another element of distance and removal. It doesn’t mean that Petzold is wary of intimacy and portraiture. Jeanne’s face is frequently shown closely and patiently (in tight frame), though it’s almost impossible to discern the nature of her thoughts. The inner world (the depthy interior) remains beyond the domain of such things as cameras and lenses. Surveillance can only surveil the surface.
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