Credit: Goethe-Institu
by Lawrence Garcia Featured Film Retrospective

Dreileben—Beats Being Dead | Christian Petzold

June 2, 2021

Each installment of the Dreileben trilogy — directed by Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhäusler, respectively — tells what the filmmakers have described as a “horizontal” story. Taken together, of course, the matter is quite different, and the resulting triptych has been described as a kind of experiment in vertical “stacking,” with every entry destabilizing both the temporal and generic bases of the others.

In a sense, though, this is how Petzold has always worked: He sets up a synchronic situation, giving his characters very immediate, recognizable goals and drives — love, money, shelter, safety — then opens up for the viewer a kind of vertical axis (typically some combination of historical time and genre awareness) along which his orchestrations tend to operate. His lesser films emphasize the conceptual workings of the latter at the expense of basic interest and engagement in the former — though there are also cases like Transit (2018), whose audacious conceit transforms the structure entirely. But more than any of his recent films, it is arguably Dreileben—Beats Being Dead that best manages the balance between horizontal and vertical, offering a bracing amalgam of psychological acuity and metaphorical heft.

The set-up, as always, is simple enough: Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), an upper-class med student interning at a country hospital, enters into a tentative romance with Ana (Luna Zimic Mijovic), a Bosnian émigré working as a chambermaid at the local motel. Eventually, their relationship is threatened by Sarah (Vijessna Ferkic), the well-off daughter of Johannes’ boss, with whom he shares a certain history. The class disparity of the love triangle — a stock element of Petzold’s noir antecedents — has obvious significance throughout the film. For a while, though, he keeps even the basic scenario somewhat obscure. The film’s murky opening shot, accompanied by a dissonant note, is supremely destabilizing, and the feeling of off-kilter dread it establishes only intensifies as the film unfolds. Petzold parcels out narrative information so sparingly that it’s not initially clear how Johannes, Sarah, and the hospital’s head doctor (Sarah’s father) are related, so the possibilities percolate (or rather fester) in the mind, with each subsequent interaction only deepening the mystery. Add to this a number of threatening point-of-view shots, as well as the backdrop (shared by the other Dreileben films) of an escaped criminal, and the “horizontal” scenario is one of the most immediately gripping of Petzold’s oeuvre. One might even begin to wonder what exactly the film’s “vertical” portion comprises.

Reportedly, Petzold took the Undine myth as his inspiration — not for the last time, evidently. Unlike his latest, though, Beats Being Dead includes no overt supernatural flourishes. Rather, it distills its fairy-tale source into a few key images and moments: the magnificently creepy shot of a naked patient sobbing in a corner of the hospital; a scene of Johannes lounging nude by a lake, set against almost unreal greenery; a tender, swooning dance set to Julie London’s “Cry Me a River.” Indeed, the Undine myth practically recedes in the face of the film’s stark subtitle, which, like the specter of violence that haunts the proceedings (culminating in a truly superb jump-scare), gives the entire affair a kind of fatalism. Here, it isn’t death, but stasis and recurrence that frightens — not the vertigo of time, but the threat of a flat, infinite expanse where there is no such thing as history at all. The film’s final car ride rhymes, perhaps a touch too neatly, with the earlier dance scene. But it ends, appropriately enough, with an open door on an open highway — an image of horizontal necessity, a world enough without time.

Part of Christian Petzold: In the Cut.