DREILEBEN – Introduction by Jordi Wijnalda, Columbia University School of the Arts

DREILEBEN - Introduction by Jordi Wijnalda, Columbia University School of the Arts

“August 17th, 2006. 2.35pm.

Dear Dominik, dear Christian,

What interests me in cinema is the seduction to pay attention (…)
The camera’s eye turns the familiar world into an alien place that one sees with a clarity never before experienced, for once uninvolved.
The camera doesn’t take sides: people and things are treated equally, the human being is viewed like an animal, a house, a cloud (…)
One wants to understand, to read, but one knows one will remain alien and, thus, oneself.
(…) I see a realistic aspect in this: the human being as opaque surface is an everyday experience. We can’t know what the other person is thinking. (…)
We drown in false life and strained superficiality.”
“Fifty minutes later:
P.S. Yes, Dominik: a lack of humor. And also of lived life. Characters who have a body, a tongue, and a dick. And as far as I’m concerned, there is also a lack of shooting from the hip. (…) Speaking very generally, what I miss in German cinema, across all the camps and perhaps even in current films, is understanding of human nature, directors who are able, from the topography of actions, glances, and gestures, to grow a character who speaks his own language (…) and who in the end is not only credible, but also surprises with his abysses, individuality, and wit. (…)
One way or another, this is the horizon I want to ride toward. To make a film like Young Mr. Lincoln…

– Christoph”


What I just shared with you is part of the lengthy email correspondence between Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhäusler, the two of whom are stalwarts of the Berlin School: the most critically acclaimed entity or movement within contemporary German cinema. In many ways, the Berlin School resembles the French New Wave: a group of former and current film critics and scholars embarks on a cinematic discourse about the current state of their country’s cinema. Every film they make is an addition to the ongoing debate about the future of filmmaking, and an expression of personal theories and philosophies. Yet, gradually, this freeform pinball game between filmmakers is being pigeonholed by critics and audiences into a tangible and easy-to-define “style”; the Berlin School being defined by its “observational, cool minimalistic” style. What was supposed to expand narrative possibilities only ended up “narrowing the gaze”, according to Dominik Graf.

Graf, born in 1952 and a respected figure in German TV, is the eldest of this trio, and predates the emergence of the actual Berlin Film and Television Academy (DFFB). Petzold, born in 1960, is often seen as one of the Berlin School’s pioneers and a DFFB student. Hochhäusler, born in 1972, has made his mark through founding the important German film magazine Revolver.

The mutual concerns and sharp disagreements that came to the fore during this trio’s email correspondence in 2006 resulted in Dreileben, a trilogy of feature films that would take the same setting: a small town in Thüringen, the heavily forested and almost mythical “green heart” of former East-Germany, so radically different in its development over the past fifty years than the western part of the country, almost frozen in its transition somehow. The films further share a plot comprised of an escaped sex offender and killer. Funded by German television – a recipe for artistic blossoming, if I may remind you of TV-funded productions like Carlos, La meglio gioventù and, the Red Riding trilogy – it allowed the three directors to give their two cents on the state of German cinema while also negotiating each other’s positions in that very cinematic landscape. The three films are wildly different in style and approach, challenging in form and content, and an altogether riveting display of filmmakers who try to get something off their chests.

Not too long ago I had the pleasure of living in the south of Germany for two months while working on a short film. I am originally from the Netherlands, and people often think that there is some sort of “Nordic wash” that includes my home country, Germany, Denmark, and any other neighboring country that has tall blond people and endlessly grey winters. What I experienced was something else than the world I grew up in: the mountain air is crispier but the skies are darker; the light creates deep shades of grey, green, brown and white; certain places are caught in some sort of timelessness; and the people use their language in such a precise and effective way that it would be unnerving to most jabbering Dutchmen.

This is the world in which you, ladies and gentlemen, will be immersed for the next four-and-a-half hours. I encourage you to watch all three parts, since the overall effect will be so much more than just the sum of their elements. Amidst these three very idiosyncratic filmmaker perspectives, you will find, I think, something very relevant and truthful about one of the most complex cultures in modern-day Europe. Thank you very much, and enjoy Dreileben.

— Jordi Wijnalda
Columbia University School of the Arts, Film


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