rom the coast of the Baltic sea – from above the surface of the water, from above the surface of where the waves crash, from the comfortable position of the coast visitor – for the summer-vacationer ice-cream eater, the grand majority of the sea’s inhabiting species is not visible. The sea with its crashing waves appears as an entity – a harmoniously moving, monumental water-and sand landscape stretching to the horizon. However, during summer, it is not uncommon to see it – the Baltic sea – glowing at night. And that is when some of its usually to the coast-visitor’s-sight-hidden species, make themselves visible. That is when some of the Baltic sea’s living species produce – and thus become – light: a phenomena called Bioluminescence.
Leon and Felix spend their summer on the Baltic sea close to Ahrenshoop. There, they get to know Nadja, whom they share the summer house with, and Devid, an acquaintance of Nadja who at night sneaks in and out of the house. Leon – the central character of the film – is an emerging writer who plans to use his summer time to work on his second novel. Felix is an aspiring visual artist aiming to finish his portfolio to apply for art school. Both are in the process of becoming creatives, relying on their hope for inspiration to complete their task and advance in their respective “careers”. However, they have quite opposite ways to deal with these expectations. As spectators, our first encounter with Felix and Leon sets an optimal condition for them to reveal some of their defining personality traits: on their way to the summer house, the car they are traveling with breaks down and they have no other choice but to reach their destination by walking, either by following the road or by a shortcut through the forest. Carrying their heavy luggages on their shoulders, they seemingly confidently – but obviously hesitantly – take the path of the forest. The film thus starts with them being lost, which is a recurrent motif in Petzold’s work.
The forest as a space lacking obvious landmarks – a space in which one could get stuck, lost, attacked by boars; a space of potential danger – prompts a situation that intensifies the way these friends react to their position of vulnerability. Them being lost in the forest enables a caricatural portrayal of their respective characters: whereas Felix remains lighthearted and optimistic by pretending to know where they’re going, Leon quickly shows his cynical and worried side. His worriedness however lies in accordance with his insecurities as much as with his imagination-filled world. The dangers of the forest, like those of the sea, largely lie in the invisible, in the unknown, especially for someone who – like Leon – is obviously used to urban settings. In the forest, the cracking of the tree-branches, the stamping of the leaves, any perceived or imagined shadow, could be the sign of a hiding psychopath or a hunting sharp-toothed beast. The forest is where Rotkäpchen gets tricked by a bad-intentioned wolf, the forest is where Hansel and Grätchen get lost to be found by a child-eating witch, the forest is where most western-folklore-bred children learn never to go inside after nightfall.
In that introductory scene, Leon is left in there with the luggages so that Felix can preemptively check if they’re on the right path, by running to the expected house location without the slowing weight of their belongings. The night starts falling, branches crack, roaming animals can be seen, propellers can be heard; Leon looks up at the sky: a helicopter passes by, an early announcement of the real danger to which the characters will later on be exposed, the real danger inside the forest: the fire. But for now, Leon is scared of being left alone in the woods falling under darkness, Leon is stuck in there, he is scared and that is not something he will be easily willing to admit throughout the unfolding narrative of the film. In fact, despite being scared, Leon is proud, and wants to be seen by others as hard working, ambitious, determined and ready to overcome his deep insecurities about his capacities as a writer. The sound of the propellers, their flying presence above the forest, their announcement of the real danger, remains a hint – a background detail to that main character’s self-obsession. The dangers of the forest, like those of the sea, lie in the invisible, or in what one denies to perceive.
Once they have reached their destination, Felix sinks deeper into the role of the easy-going mate, proning self-indulgence and aiming to make the best out of his summer vacations, meanwhile Leon continues to present himself as rather frustrated and tense. I came here to work, he keeps on reminding his friend. I came here to work, he keeps on trying to convince himself. Work will be his excuse not to accompany Felix to the beach, not to help him repair the roof of the house, not to cook – basically, not to share his time and be a decent friend. But work is something he will struggle with. He will pretend to work while others are having fun all the while constantly being distracted, unmotivated, unproductive (on his own terms). What he seems to need, is not merely to work, but to feel the desire for it; to desire in short.
Leon is in search of something and in the meantime he’s lost – not in the forest but in himself; inside his despondent mind that transforms any information coming from the outside into an endless echo tying back to his insecure persona. Is his book really his priority or is that pursuit for approval and success masking a more fundamental quest? How can he ensure himself a place within this cultural microcosm? What place does he belong to? In his book The counter-cinema of the Berlin School (2013), Marco Abel explains how that something can be identified as a “Platz that at sometime in the future might belong to them, or to which they might belong1 Abel, Marco, The counter-cinema of the Berlin school, Camden House, Rochester New York, 2013, p.70” – a “Platz” in German society.
In fact, Leon is not merely to be seen as a character whose self is at the center of the film; Leon, together with Felix, Nadja and Devid are Germany’s post-unification children and if they are trying to position themselves somewhere, it is on the spectrum of what defines this state – or of what this state is trying to define itself upon – at its contemporary stage. Despite the post-unification disintegration of the eastern political and economical system into the one of the west, the cultural difference between East and West Germany endures to this day and that is noticeable – among others – in how common it is for westerners to define themselves in differentiation to easterners, or vice versa.
Leon is one of these westerners who takes every opportunity to utter his self-proclaimed intellectual superiority as opposed to the easterners’ – inhabitants of Ahrenshoop. His arrogance is apparent when he’s looking for accommodation for his editor, Helmut, who is planning to spend a night in this eastern coastal village. A simple yet decisive task for Leon. Helmut is not only an editor, he is the embodiment of Leon’s hope to succeed, he beholds the power of revealing Leon’s voice to the literary scene. Helmut in Ahrenshoop represents for Leon a clash between what he respects and what he despises; it is an encounter between the milieu he wants to belong to and the one he feels superior to and as a consequence to that, it seems important for Leon to unashamedly express this cultural split to Helmut.
As such, when visiting a local hotel, a staff member happily shows him a charming room facing the sea, perfect for a writer, she says; Uwe Johnson stayed here, she proudly adds. In an effort of complicity with Helmut, Leon snobbishly transmits this information to him in a phone call, without hesitating to make fun of that woman’s accent. In the same fashion, he directly brands Nadja as “the Russian girl” when hearing about her before having even met her. His first encounter with Devid, the easterner lifeguard, also sets a situation for him to express his contempt. Do you need a specific formation to become a lifeguard? he mockingly asks. In short, Leon showcasts the typical traits of a frustrated person who lifts himself up by degrading others, and doing so by judging people upon their professions seems to be his favorite way. Because from his perspective, work is primordial, but again, what he actually seems to need is not to work, but to desire.
It takes some days before Leon and Felix have the chance to meet Nadja – the girl staying in the other room – in person. Nadja, like the forest, is first introduced by traces she leaves, noises she makes. Dirty dishes and loud orgasms. Together with Leon and Felix, we are brought to imagine who that third person staying in the house is. The one whose nightly pleasures prevent Leon from sleeping, and thus, as he complains, prevent him from the adequate condition for him to focus on his work. When she visually appears on the screen for the first time, we see her through Leon’s gaze who spies on her through the window while she is hanging out the laundry in the garden. The forest is in the background. She is wearing a red dress. Leon is undoubtedly in awe. Did Nadja become his object of desire?
In that revelatory scene, Nadja appears as a delicate, maternal-like figure completing a domestic task: the opposite of what Leon had imagined. Before physically appearing on the screen, Nadja’s orgasms, dirty dishes and underwear contributed to shape Leon’s (and our) assumption of that person being careless and messy. Having her shown doing the laundry disrupts that first impression; she’s a chaotic person collecting her mess, perhaps she’s not so disorganized afterall. However, this image of her appearing to be the opposite of what she had been at first, lies in continuity with the image that Leon is building of her in his head. Her actions continue to shape his imagination, she is the distraction from his work as much as the vector of a continuous observation from his part.
When he sees her for the first time, Leon stops his action in favor of this moment of sneaky inspection. The window as an opening to the outside – a predisposedly framed visual bridge between interior and exterior – is a perfect asset for this moment to occur. Windows do not only let light in, they are also meant to offer a view one can contemplate. Leon’s contemplation is thus legitimate: he’s only watching through the window. Only that here he takes the necessary precaution not to be seen in return; it is clear that it is a contemplation of erotical nature, an “erotic contemplation2Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” (2975) in Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, p.837”, a musing, common to normative narratives, a moment of a male’s fantasy projection onto a female3ibid. Nadja is a cause for tormented desire, simultaneously rejected and wanted, she captivates the spectators with her sensual presence. Nevertheless, she is also a well spoken, highly educated woman who impresses with her words, like Undine in Petzold’s previous film – as observed by Joy Castro, while women in Petzoldt’s work “serve as standard-enough beauty objects, shot in ways that emphasize their attractiveness and sexuality, they also rule the screen as three-dimensional, thinking beings with complex, rational, and resistant logics4Castro, Joy, “A place without parents”: queer and maternal desire in the films of Christian Petzold, Senses of cinema, 2017”.
Still, we get to learn about her at the same pace as Leon does, in slow crescendo ; the information we get from her is the same that he does. Only when she reveals – in Leon’s presence – that she is a scholar specialized in Heinrich Heine’s poetry, do we learn this as spectators too. We are thus mostly dependent on Leon’s choices to make the effort, or not, to get to know her and in the method he uses in that process; a rather clumsy one. We get to know her through the observations and behavior of a frightened person whose words and actions do not always coincide with her deeper intentions. Paradoxically, Nadja’s presence guides Leon’s actions: it is also through Nadja that Leon gets to know himself, and that we get to know him.
Indeed, although as spectators we discover Nadja together with Leon, we do not only see Nadja (plus Devid and Felix) from the outside, but also himself. And as we have seen, the accumulation of Leon’s actions, reactions and comments, inform us that rather than despising the others, he envies them. In fact, these three characters who occupy the same space as him – the summer house in the forest near the ocean – do not submit to the same logic of oppressing self-control under one of late capitalism’s key behavioral expectations from its encapsulated individuals: to always be productive. They’re not “selling their soul” to their careeristic needs; they’re just living their summer vocation, and as simple as it sounds, it is, for people with Leon’s mindset, hardly conceivable.
The house where they are staying belongs to Felix’s family. It has two bedrooms, a shared space, a big garden. Its inside is arranged with utilitarian furniture; its simple and rather impersonal decoration suggests it to be for passing-by guests, as it is common for houses by the beach – so-called summer-houses. A house which most of the year is inhabited logically comes with its traces of neglect. An evidence for this one not being taken care of outside of high peak seasons, is the hole on the roof of the veranda. This house is almost like a ghost-house, or in Marc Augé’s terms, a “non-place” : it’s a space devoid of clear marks of “identity, relations and of history5Augé, Marc, Non-places, introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, Verso books, 1995, p.52”. However, as soon as Felix notices the hole on the veranda-roof, he feels the responsibility to fix it and asks for Leon’s help (who’ll use work as an excuse not to offer it).
The fact that Felix insists on fixing the house shows that he cares about this space; it implies that he feels the underlying need to turn this non-place into a place. Marco Abel points out how non-places build up the setting for many of Petzold’s films, as they ”make up the heart of late-capitalist Germany6Abel, Marco p.100-101”. Contemporary Germany, with its history of division and reunification as well as with its flux of migration has many of its inhabitants placed under a necessity of constructing their identities in these spaces rather than having, at their disposal, spaces they can identify with and construct their identity upon. In other words, within this non-place-filled territory, Petzold’s characters are trying to build up places they feel like belonging to, places inside and around which they can build and narrate their own history; they’re trying to build up a Heimat. Not in its nationalistic sense, but as a place you can and want to be in without having to legitimize yourself.
During this portrayed summer, the house Felix is willing to fix – the house Felix is willing to turn into a place – is a temporary home to four people (including Devid as he spends most of his time there) from different backgrounds. Although the four of them are Germans, they represent various scopes of what it means to be German. Leon is a straight westerner with big ambitions who expresses a deep interest in German literature. Felix is a queer, dark skinned visual artist with a love for the sea. Devid is a queer Lifeguard who grew up in East-Germany. Nadja is a lively young woman and a PhD-holding seasonal ice cream-seller. The summer house is a place for these different people to share, it procures them a space in which to grow as individuals. In this house, Felix and Devid start an affair; in this house Leon will grow a deeper interest in Nadja than for his book; in this house Nadja seems to be the positive cause for all these happenings. In a way, by wanting to fix the house, Felix tries to preserve, or build up, an utopian Heimat. But the house is in the forest, and the forest is on fire.
One morning, Leon finally leaves the house and accepts to go to the beach with Felix. At the beach, people are sunbathing, swimming, playing games. Felix joins Devid on the lifeguard chair, not guarding any lives but upgrading his own by flirting and initiating a summer romance. The beach in summer is a common space for people to relax. By accepting to go to the beach, Leon accepts to be in such an environment, Leon accepts to be amongst these people. What he does not accept is to relax himself. He keeps a distance with the rest of the visitors by being dressed all in black, long pants and long-sleeved shirt ; the classic “intellectual outfit”, he’s standing in contrast with the bright colors of the sky, sea and sand. And of course, he continues to nourish his intellect – no time to waste! Meanwhile the waves swash and backwash on the shore, his eyes stroll, or pretend to stroll, along the verses of his book. Romanzero, a collection of poetry by Heinrich Heine.
Heinrich Heine. A pillar figure of German literature. An inspiration for Leon. Respectful towards traditions and innovative at the same time. Active in a period of important social change in Germany – one embroiled by the process of industrialization and urbanization, an era during which Napoleon was spreading his imperialistic ambitions. Heine was part of a generation of intellectuals whose values was standing in-between “a glorified vision of the past and a radical break with traditions7 Cook, Roger, A companion to the works of Heinrich Heine, p.1” and is known to have been respectively one of the last romantics and one of those overcoming romanticism. Within that state of limbo, he manifested a constant struggle for emancipation8Ibid, p.4. A struggle Leon is facing too. But unlike Heine, Leon strives to emancipate from self-destructive work ethics, not from romanticism.
Romanzero is Heine’s last collection of poetry, his concluding literary signature. Albeit being embedded with Romantic themes, these are inserted in a larger historical context instead of being tied back to the romantic self9 Ibid, p.3. At the approach of his death, Heine seems to have experienced a sort of detachment from his personal desires to get closer to a deeper understanding of what surpasses the ego. The volume is divided into three parts: Historien (Tales), Lamentationen (Lamentations) and Hebräische Melodien (Hebrew Melodies). The 15th poem of the first part – The Asra – addresses the story of a seemingly impossible love story : the one between a slave and the Sultan’s daughter.
Täglich ging die wunderschöne
Sultanstochter auf und nieder
Um die Abendzeit am Springbrunn,
Wo die weißen Wasser plätschern.
Täglich stand der junge Sklave
Um die Abendzeit am Springbrunn,
Wo die weißen Wasser plätschern;
Täglich ward er bleich und bleicher.
Eines Abends trat die Fürstin
Auf ihn zu mit raschen Worten:
Deinen Namen will ich wissen,
Deine Heimath, deine Sippschaft!
Und der Sklave sprach: ich heiße
Mohamet, ich bin aus Yemmen,
Und mein Stamm sind jene Asra,
Welche sterben wenn sie lieben.
The slave is submitted to the sultan’s daughter’s charm. She has power over him. Not only because of that charm that attracts him to her, but also because she is the daughter of the sultan and he is the slave. Nonetheless, the power dynamic changes when she asks for his name. By doing so, she pays attention to his identity beyond his social status and shows to be, in her turn, “caught up in the play of eros10Peters, Paul, Wild Side: Heine’s Eroticism, in A companion to the works of Heinrich Heine, Eds. Roger F. Cook, Camden House, 2002, p.77-78”. The poem ends with the announcement of their correlated fates: they’re bound by death. Like those falling in love with Undine. The daughter’s sultan falling for the slave, a “revenge of love on the social order11Ibid, p.88”. The pretentious writer falling for the seasonal ice-cream seller. The comparative german literature specialist falling for the haughty writer of a novel called Club Sandwich. Asra appears to be Nadja’s favorite poem, and she’ll leave Leon agape when she’ll casually recite it by heart during lunch. She is an educated woman, he realizes the day after he rejected her invitation to accompany her to the sea at night to witness it glowing. There’s this phenomenon called Bioluminescence, she had told him before he had turned his back to go to sleep, because the day after, he had to work.
A 2017 study led out by Anniina LeTortorec, scholar from the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences in the University of Helsinki, shows that one of the constituting organisms contributing to the Baltic’s sea bioluminescence is – despite its visual appeal to the seasonal coast visitor – toxic. The dinoflagellate Alexandrium ostenfeldii produce toxins posing a potential threat to humans and ecosystems12Le Torterec, Anniina, Bioluminescence of Toxic Dinoflagellates in the Baltic Sea – From Genes to Models, Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences Department of Environmental Sciences University of Helsinki, 2017, p.6. In fact, species in the genum Alexandrium “produce a variety of different types of toxins including paralytic shellfish toxins, spirolides, gymnodimines, goniodomins and in addition allelochemicals (…) one of these toxins are responsible for shellfish poisoning syndromes and can cause human intoxication or death through contaminated shellfish or fish13Ibid, p.9”. The dangers of the sea, like those of the forest, lie in the invisible, or in the visibly beautiful, in which one easily denies to perceive the potential cause of one’s death.
The veranda roof still needs to be fixed. Felix and Nadja are standing on it. Devid and Leon are in the garden. It’s dusk time. Leon, come up here. You should see this, Nadja calls out. This time, Leon listens and joins her on the roof. It is not the luminescent sea that they witness, but the blood-red-shimmering sky. The flames, though, remain hidden by the trees in the foreground. The danger still appears on the screen as being visually pleasant. It is being conveyed by the colors it brings to the sky. It doesn’t rush, scream nor hurt. From the veranda roof, the characters remain spectators. They’re remaining in a state of contemplation. They’re not taking action towards the obvious threat. They’re passively standing on the veranda roof, but the veranda roof has a hole, and it needs to be fixed.
“Among all phenomena (fire) is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and it is apocalypse (…) It can contradict itself; thus it is one of the principles of universal explanation14 Bachelard, Gaston ,Psychoanalysis of fire, routledge & kegan paul, London, p.7”. In his book Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938), Gaston Bachelard explains his conviction about fire being “more a social reality than a natural reality15Ibid, 1964, p.10”. For him, all the imaginative inputs we associate with the chemical phenomena that fire is, create the fire as we actually know it. In other words, first we imagine, then we see. In his words, rather than “the faculty of deforming images provided by perception”, imagination “is above all the faculty of liberating us from the first images, of changing images16Kaplan, Edward, Gaston Bachelard’s Philosphy of Imagination: An Introduction, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 33 No.1, Sept 1972, p.2”.
It’s scary, isn’t it? Nadja asks Leon. Yes, he answers. And yet, they keep on contemplating the red sky, Roter Himmel. Because for now, they’re standing on the broken roof, the four of them, and the roof needs to be fixed; that non-place still needs to become a place, a place they’re meant to come back to – if not, what would be the point of fixing it? The sky is bleeding; still, they’re imagining the danger, they’re not seeing it. The sky radiates the night in red and in such visual beauty, one easily denies the potential cause of one’s death.
It is only when Leon will fall face to face with a dying boar, suffocating, caught in the flames, that he will first see – and that we will first see – the destructive force of the fire; the real danger in the forest, what the sound of the propellers had been announcing from the beginning on, when Leon had been left alone in the woods, before he had entered the house, before he had met Nadja, before he had understood that work is not what matters the most.
Only after having witnessed death will Leon confess his love to Nadja, bluntly, stripped off his filled-with self-protective-arrogance shell. Only then, will he be able to confront the reality of his feelings. Before she will have time to answer, she will see, through the window, two policemen. It had been through the same window that she had been seen at first by Leon, only that this time, the window will serve neither at letting light come in nor at offering a view to contemplate. This time, the window will, from the outside towards the inside of the house, bring some tragic news. Felix and Devid were in the forest and they have lost their lives in its fire.
When Leon identifies Felix and Devid’s bodies at the morgue, he, beyond lifeless, mutilated bodies, sees in the disposition of their cremated corpses, a symbolic and visual resemblance to the two lovers in Pompei. Friezed in an eternal embrace. Bound to love by death. Fire can contradict itself. “There are men to whom death has given a fame that the obscurity of their lives did not seem to promise; there are peoples who owe their fame only to their defeats; there are cities that have become famous only by their destruction. Such was the fate of Pompeii17 Breton, Ernest, Pompeia décrite et dessinée, Gide & J. Baudry, Paris, 1855, p.5”.
The sea still glows at night and finally, Leon will go and contemplate it. Litten up by the bioluminescence. The toxic dinoflagellates. He’ll sit at the beach by himself and cry. After that, he’ll finally write something sincere; something meaningful. The sound of the propellers, their flying presence above the forest, is not a hint anymore; it came to the foreground to Leon’s insecurities. A shift has occurred in Leons’ reception to his environment; a shift from self-obsession to a distance from the self, a quest for “universality”. For man, the fire is “one of the principles of universal explanation18Bachelard, Gaston ,Psychoanalysis of fire, p.7”.
- 1Abel, Marco, The counter-cinema of the Berlin school, Camden House, Rochester New York, 2013, p.70
- 2Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” (2975) in Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, p.837
- 4Castro, Joy, “A place without parents”: queer and maternal desire in the films of Christian Petzold, Senses of cinema, 2017
- 5Augé, Marc, Non-places, introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, Verso books, 1995, p.52
- 6Abel, Marco p.100-101
- 7Cook, Roger, A companion to the works of Heinrich Heine, p.1
- 8Ibid, p.4
- 9Ibid, p.3
- 10Peters, Paul, Wild Side: Heine’s Eroticism, in A companion to the works of Heinrich Heine, Eds. Roger F. Cook, Camden House, 2002, p.77-78
- 11Ibid, p.88
- 12Le Torterec, Anniina, Bioluminescence of Toxic Dinoflagellates in the Baltic Sea – From Genes to Models, Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences Department of Environmental Sciences University of Helsinki, 2017, p.6
- 13Ibid, p.9
- 14Bachelard, Gaston ,Psychoanalysis of fire, routledge & kegan paul, London, p.7
- 15Ibid, 1964, p.10
- 16Kaplan, Edward, Gaston Bachelard’s Philosphy of Imagination: An Introduction, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 33 No.1, Sept 1972, p.2
- 17Breton, Ernest, Pompeia décrite et dessinée, Gide & J. Baudry, Paris, 1855, p.5
- 18Bachelard, Gaston ,Psychoanalysis of fire, p.7