Following his breakthrough film, The State I Am In, Christian Petzold returned to smaller-scale television production for his next project, 2001’s Something to Remind Me. Jaimey Fisher offers some pertinent details on the history of German television’s relationship with its national cinema, which is largely symbiotic rather than antagonistic: due in part to the, as Fisher writes, “modest size of the German theatrical market and limited export potential for even its most popular films, artistically ambitious works invariably require subsidy support… and this has been funneled to a large degree through television.” For his part, Petzold has stated that he conceived of his television movies in the same way as his theatrical films, seeing no difference between the two forms in terms of his working methods, as long as he was granted a sufficient budget and shooting schedule (an inexpensive expenditure in Petzold’s case). In fact, Petzold felt less “pressure” in his TV productions, and indeed considered them more amenable to experimentation. But beyond the genesis of its production history, Something to Remind Me is, of course, hugely significant to Petzold’s oeuvre as it marked the first collaboration between the director and Nina Hoss, who would become something of a muse and certainly his most frequent collaborator (besides Harun Farocki) for the next decade and a half.
After studying acting at Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin, Hoss was “discovered” by Bernd Eichinger, who Fisher describes as Germany’s most important producer since the 1970s. Turning to more commercially-minded cinema in the 1990s, Eichinger was determined to make Hoss a star; he cast her in a remake of a heralded classic film, then manufactured opportunities for her to be featured in magazine photo spreads and on TV talk shows, which he could then in turn use to publicize his film’s marketing campaign. Petzold, in need of a female lead for his own film, cast Hoss based on one of these talk show appearances. The film’s producers, well aware of her then commercial profile, were happy to acquiesce. It was a serendipitous encounter, and Hoss makes quite an impression in her first role for Petzold. Here she plays Leyla, a seemingly quiet, tantalizingly mysterious woman who works at a phone bank and makes the acquaintance of criminal defense lawyer Thomas (André Hennicke) at the local public swimming pool. He quickly becomes smitten, and after several attempts, finally gets her to agree to dinner. She arrives late, but things otherwise go well, and she agrees to go back to his apartment. Before things can turn amorous, Leyla falls asleep on Thomas’s couch; he takes a photo of her as she sleeps, but otherwise doesn’t disturb her. When he awakes the next morning, she’s gone, along with his laptop. Here, then, Petzold bifurcates the narrative, as Leyla travels to a small industrial town, rents a large living space, and takes a job serving manual laborers at a factory. Back in the city, Thomas becomes obsessed with finding Leyla, retracing the steps of their only night together and carrying around the photo he snapped like a totem. While working her cafeteria job, Leyla encounters Blum (Sven Pippig), one of Thomas’s clients and a parolee in a work-release program who’s employed at the factory. Meanwhile, Thomas manages to track down Leyla’s old apartment and finds a box of junk she left behind, including a self-help book that details the steps Leyla followed on their first date. It’s here, at roughly the film’s halfway point, that Petzold reveals that Leyla has stage-managed her every encounter with Thomas and, after absconding with his laptop, has very purposefully come to the same place as Blum. She slowly but surely manipulates the slow-witted Blum into a tentative relationship, much as she did with Thomas, although her motives remain unclear until the film’s climax.
It’s a complicated narrative web, but Petzold makes it look effortless as he shifts focus from Thomas to Leyla to Blum, and even makes room for colorful peripheral characters like Thomas’s loutish brother, one of Leyla’s coworkers, and other inhabitants of Blum’s halfway house. While Petzold reveals everything in due time, he’s not particularly interested in twists or surprising reversals. To be clear, the film functions as a top-notch thriller, but there’s a steady undercurrent present about internalized emotions playing out over placid, sanitized surfaces. Petzold has an uncanny ability to zero in on only the most important part of any given scene, advancing plot and key characterizations while also careful to always show his characters navigating the world as a series of obstacles. His preferred style of shooting — minimal camera movement, lots of medium and long shots that emphasize the place of the human body in a clearly demarcated space, multiple setups in lieu of standard shot-counter-shot — is all already firmly in place here. In keeping with many of Petzold’s favorite themes, and borrowed from the classic noirs that he studies, Leyla is both victim and perpetrator, haunted by her past while moving through the world with single-minded purpose. Echoes of Vertigo abound, as Thomas falls in love not with a real person but a specter, a carefully constructed idea of a person. Scenes of him following Leyla before their dinner date and after her sudden departure purposefully mirror Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie as he travels through San Francisco in the Hitchcock film, while Hoss’s blonde hair is a clear evocation of Kim Novak’s Madeleine (curiously, Hoss is a brunette in her next film with Petzold, 2003’s Wolfsburg, another film that echoes the way Vertigo ruptures Novak’s Madeleine/Judy character). Petzold’s vision of modern Germany is all emptied-out, impersonal spaces, a series of roads to nowhere, and tentative, halting grasps at human connection. Inverting the grand tragedy of Vertigo, Petzold at least suggests the possibility of a hopeful ending, where Thomas and Leyla might conceivably forge a real relationship. But, of course, the film ends, and we’ll never know for sure. Welcome to limbo.
Part of Christian Petzold: In the Cut.