TO judge from the German films that have made their way onto the world stage in the last few years German cinema is drawn almost obsessively to the nation’s historical landmarks, of which there is clearly no shortage. Recent award-winning exports have taken on Nazis (“Downfall”), the Stasi police state (“The Lives of Others”) and the pains of reunification (“Good Bye Lenin!”).
But alongside these big movies with important themes and a capital-H notion of history, a cluster of thoughtful, low-key independent films has emerged, most from a loose network of filmmakers known as the Berlin School. The work of Christian Petzold, 49, a senior member of this quasi-movement, has a particularly charged and complicated relationship with history.
Unlike many German directors, Mr. Petzold has no interest in excavating the past. But he also realizes that making movies about his country’s uncertain present means having to contend with traces and aftermaths, and perhaps even telling a few ghost stories.
Mr. Petzold and his peers were educated in the ’80s and ’90s, dreary times for German cinema, during which most filmmakers were not only uninspired but also indifferent to the particulars of contemporary life. “We told ourselves we need to make realistic movies,” Mr. Petzold said, speaking recently by phone from his home in Berlin. “There were no movies about ’89 in Germany, no movies about the German Democratic Republic, no movies about the new bourgeoisie. It was as if German movies were not paying attention.”
Mr. Petzold’s latest film, “Jerichow,” which played at the Venice and Toronto film festivals last year and opens at Film Forum in Manhattan on Friday, is set in a depressed region in northeast Germany near the Baltic Sea. Thomas (Benno Fürmann), a former soldier, returns home from Afghanistan and takes the only job he can find, working for Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a Turkish immigrant made good who runs a chain of roadside food shacks. It’s not long before sparks are flying between Thomas and Ali’s leggy blond wife, Laura (Nina Hoss).
If the setup seems familiar, that’s because Mr. Petzold is borrowing his genre conventions from James M. Cain’s classic pulp novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” which has inspired several film adaptations, starting with Tay Garnett’s 1946 noir with Lana Turner. “Jerichow” grew out of a conversation between Mr. Petzold and his regular collaborator, the filmmaker Harun Farocki. While shooting Mr. Petzold’s previous feature, “Yella” (2007), partly set in Wittenberge, an industrial town in the east, the two men came across huge abandoned factories, and the talk turned to labor and class conflicts.
“American history is full of struggles of workers against owners, and I was asking why that isn’t reflected in American movies,” Mr. Petzold said. “Harun said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ is the American class-struggle movie. And I liked the idea that American cinema often deals with politics on the micro level.”
He could be describing the approach of his own films: compact, methodical dramas that bring a steely focus to the tensions and contradictions of a reunified Germany, as they reverberate in everyday life.
“I think like a Westerner,” said Mr. Petzold, who was born in Hilden, a town near Düsseldorf, “so the East is an interesting region for me.”
“There wasn’t the development like we had in the West,” he added. “You could find cities like they were in the ’20s, with a church and a factory and a town square. That’s where they found their lovers. In the West we would drive our cars to the malls and have popcorn and beer in the parking lot.”
But since reunification the westward migration of East Germans and the collapse of East German industry have created a landscape of what Mr. Petzold called “ghost towns,” eerily depopulated and frozen in time. The area where “Jerichow” takes place reminded him of Walker Evans photographs and reinforced a connection to the Depression-era setting of “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” But “I didn’t want to just take an American story and put it in Germany,” he said. “I wanted to find it in Germany.”
In “Jerichow” a rote love triangle is complicated on all sides by cold, hard economic truths. While writing the film Mr. Petzold found himself coming back to a single question: “What happens to love when there is no work anymore?” In an emotional moment Laura blurts out the film’s blunt thesis: “It’s impossible to love without money.”
The movie also brings in the complicating factor of race. In making one member of its central trio an immigrant, “Jerichow” recalls another shrewd remake by a German director, “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s socially conscious melodrama of forbidden love inspired by Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” (1955).
“Jerichow” uses genre devices to prod viewers into confronting their possibly unexamined prejudices. Laura and Thomas’s coupling seems predestined, and as soon as the plot wheels start turning, Ali, whom Mr. Petzold described as “an immigrant with a blond German girl, a Range Rover, a house in the forest,” is the designated outsider, not least in his own mind. “He’s more German than the others,” Mr. Petzold added, “but he’s also more estranged than the others.”
Mr. Petzold’s overriding vision of contemporary Germany as a phantom zone started to form in “The State I Am In” (2000), the first film he made for theatrical release after working in television for several years. It depicts a nuclear family haunted by the demise of the radical left, unable to shake the failed revolution’s long hangover. The parents are former anarchists on the run; their teenage daughter wants nothing more than a normal life.
The pointedly titled “Ghosts” (2005), an inverted chance-and-coincidence film in which the connections among the characters are fleeting and perhaps even imagined, transplants a Grimm fairy tale about a grieving mother into the wooded parks and alienating urban spaces of present-day Berlin.
Suffused with a sense of perpetual transit Mr. Petzold’s films often feature extended driving scenes. But instead of celebrating the romance of the open road, they use the automobile as what he called “a pressure chamber for drama.” Car crashes are pivotal in both “The State I Am In” and “Yella,” in which Mr. Petzold nudges his spectral characters into a supernatural framework lifted from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (the basis for the 1962 cult film “Carnival of Souls” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Sixth Sense”).
The titular heroine of “Yella” (played by Ms. Hoss) heads west, looking to start over. (“You read in the newspapers of the East that there are no young women anymore,” Mr. Petzold said. “The women leave first, not the men; the men are conservative.”) En route Yella’s resentful ex-husband drives them into the Elbe River, which formed part of the old border between East and West. She survives and goes on to thrive as a high-powered financier, but her progression through a series of glassy hotels and boardrooms has an ominous, dreamlike air. The late-capitalist world, the film slyly suggests, is akin to a land of the living dead.
Mr. Petzold’s films are hardly academic, but their cerebral bent reflects his educational background. After obtaining a master’s degree in German literature, he enrolled at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin, known as the country’s most intellectually rigorous film school, where he studied with Mr. Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky, both politically inclined critics and documentarians.
Mr. Petzold and his academy colleagues Thomas Arslan (“Vacation”) and Angela Schanelec (“Passing Summer”) have been unofficially installed as the founding figures of the Berlin School, the most notable development in German movies since the New German Cinema of the 1970s introduced Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders to audiences worldwide. A wave of younger filmmakers has followed, including Maria Speth (“Madonnas”), Christoph Hochhäusler (“Low Profile”) and, perhaps most promising of all, Maren Ade, whose latest film, “Everyone Else,” won prizes at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
Many Berlin School filmmakers have found critical support at home and abroad but have also faced a backlash from those in the German film industry who consider their movies too small or arty or, in some cases, apolitical. In response one of the directors, Ulrich Köhler (“Bungalow”), published a polemic titled “Why I Don’t Make Political Films” (translated into English in a recent issue of Cinema Scope magazine). “A cinema that doesn’t want to participate in the exploitation of history is not politically ignorant,” he wrote.
The brand of German cinema made with the export market and Oscar night in mind is interested mainly in “closing doors,” Mr. Petzold said. “After you see a German movie about Auschwitz, Auschwitz is gone.”French critics have called the Berlin School a “Nouvelle Vague Allemande,” a German counterpart to the rabble-rousing French New Wave. Mr. Petzold prefers to think of the revolution in more modest — and more concrete — terms. “With the Nouvelle Vague they set out to destroy what came before,” he said. “In our case we thought we just had to reinvent something.”