‘Undine’ Director Christian Petzold’s 7 Tips for a Successful Career

Few auteurs today have as consistent a track record as German director Christian Petzold, whose enviable output is on display on Mubi this month, hooked to the national release on over 50 screens of his ninth feature, “Undine” .

On a recent IndieWire Zoom from his book-filled office apartment in Berlin, where Petzold completed two pandemic scripts and went on a movie-watching spree as he recovered from COVID-19, he shared some views about how to make entertaining and provocative movies without being boring.

I must say I was not the first one they sent the script to — so bad! A bad script from Hollywood has a period European story; they need European money, therefore they’re calling a European author like me.

In Petzold’s fifth collaboration with luminous actress Nina Hoss, she plays an intrepid East Berlin doctor sent to the boonies in 1980 as punishment for wanting to leave the country.

“All the pictures we can see in West Germany,” said Petzold, “are black, white, and grey, like Communism; it’s all like Richard Burton in ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.’ Each year we have to do holidays.

As Petzold manipulates mystery and tension, withholding information from the audience until the right time, he is always thinking about the master of suspense.

I said to him, ‘Let’s tell the same story from the perspective of the created women.’ For example, in ‘Vertigo’ the whole time you can see Kim Novak through the eyes of James Stewart; when he’s going with her to the Catholic church with the tower, in one moment you see the world out of the car, running through the forest, from her perspective.

This is, for me, cinema, to try and live in another identity, to pretend to be a good man, or a family, or a father, or a lover.” After Farocki’s death in 2014, Petzold went on without him.

“Had I exchanged my muse as one is getting to be 45 years old with a fresh new one?” said Petzold.

I’m thinking of Paula and Franz together as a couple I have to find my relation to.

“We’re still a good match,” Hoss told IndieWire a few months ago before the release of the Swiss Oscar entry “My Little Sister.” “We’re making a pause after ‘Phoenix.’ We needed to let some air in.

“When the naked Undine is coming into the wedding suite,” said Petzold, “where he is lying with his wife, she’s naked in a bubble of water.

“If you leave,” she says, “you have to die.” That’s what Undine follows her into a bar where an aquarium shatters and throws them onto the floor.

“Undine” is set in Petzold’s home of Berlin, which he has watched transform over the years from a student hangout with low rents and a thriving art scene to an expanding metropolis.

“We had the possibility to make it cheaper if we can do many things more in the computer and CGI,” said Petzold.

For me, looking at big flat screens at home is like him at the bar, very lonely as he recreates the cinema at home on the big screen with a big sound system.

They’re in a dangerous situation where there will be fires in the forest and so I’ve written a script about the fire of desire in their hearts and the desire in the forests out of control.

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