Credit: Schramm Film/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
by Ryan Swen Featured Film Retrospective

The State I Am In | Christian Petzold

May 31, 2021

The State I Am In, Christian Petzold’s theatrical feature debut, begins with a song. Opening on a profile shot of its central character, Jeanne (Julia Hummer), as she buys a drink at a beach café, goes to a jukebox to put on Tim Hardin’s “How Can We Hang on to a Dream,” and sits down at a table, it sets an oneiric, almost romantic tone that the film purposefully pushes against and counteracts. Jeanne’s parents, Hans (Richy Müller) and Clara (Barbara Auer), live in a constate state of fear: it is slowly revealed over the course of the film that they have been in hiding for decades as ex-members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, existing almost as ghosts after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the onset of the film, their aim is escape, assuming new identities and living in Portugal, but they are constantly pursued by the nebulous forces of the government, composed seemingly equally of military forces and spies.

But Petzold chooses not to foreground any of these specifics, instead lasering in on both a languid dread and, even more curiously, the resistance of Jeanne, now 15 years old, to the cloak-no-dagger approach at play here. Though she is learning Portuguese and largely obeying her parents’ commands, she longs to smoke, to listen to music, to flirt with boys. So even as they are driven into sudden chaos, losing their stockpiled money and forced to retreat to Germany without residence or reasonable funds, Jeanne continually acts out, sneaking out of the house and developing a burgeoning romance with Heinrich (Bilge Bingül). The State I Am In takes this fundamental impasse between ways of living as its subject, first in a quasi-road movie setting, as the family slowly travels back to their home country, and then in a fugue state of suspicion as they hole up in an abandoned villa, a rather swanky house with security timer lights and heated floors.

This turn, a little more than a third into the film, crucially doesn’t alter the prevailing atmosphere that the film operates under, and indeed intensifies it in a way. The sporadic interactions typical of the road movie that dotted the first section of the film maintain their frequency but become even stranger and more inexplicable: In perhaps the oddest scene, Jeanne is smoking outside of a school when a student randomly asks if she is going to see the film; she says yes, and sits in on a classroom screening of Alain Resnais’s legendary Holocaust documentary short Night and Fog, before being berated by the teacher and running off. Leaving aside the supreme strangeness of seeing those familiar images of overgrown concentration camps while hearing a German-dubbed voiceover, it acts as a crucial moment in which the film announces its characters’ disengagement with politics, and indeed with the prevailing culture: the students, and Jeanne especially, seem largely unfazed by the film. Signs of this disconnected sense of history can be found elsewhere as well: the parents’ hidden caches are largely filled with outdated Deutsche Marks dismissed as “history lessons,” and, on a more personal note, questions surrounding Jeanne’s parentage are momentarily brought up, only to be summarily dismissed.

With this refusal to dwell on histories personal or political, Petzold understands that the only state that matters to his characters is their present and their need to survive. Of course, survival does different things to people. For Hans, it is a split-second, moment-to-moment experience; in the film’s single most electrifying scene, the odd confluence of cars at a traffic light suggests to him impending arrest or death, and he must decide how to proceed. For Clara, it means careful planning, hoping against hope that an old associate can scrape enough cash together to facilitate an exit. But for Jeanne, it means something greater, something rooted in a perhaps ill-advised (given the circumstances) sense of youthfulness and love that emerges as an almost uncontrollable force. Petzold crucially chooses to not condemn any of his characters — facilitated by a certain facelessness to his political forces — but instead takes their whims and needs as essential structural through lines. The State I Am In’s anxieties are as much a byproduct of modern living in an uncertain time as they are the result of terrorist activities in distant memory, and Petzold makes it clear that crucial misjudgments and misplaced trust don’t have to be connected to the surveillance state to cause everything to come crashing down.

Part of Christian Petzold: In the Cut.