Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Female Gaze: Christian Petzold's "Pilotinnen" aka Drifters

Filmmaker Christian Petzold's cinema has always been a female-centric one. Portraying strong women in various modes of genre, his muse, actress Nina Hoss, has embodied women in various stages of distress with fierce resolution- revenge in "Something To Remind Me" or corporate 'chameleonism' in "Yella" or especially meal-ticket survival of the fittest-cum-emotional-smackdown in "Phoenix". Whatever the parameters, Petzold's films may not fit perfectly into the MeToo movement of total acceptance (precisely because, after all, he is still a male director parlaying these feminine narratives), but at least he tries to assuage something other than the usual point of view in a cinematic world where most male characters weigh heavily.

This predilection is obvious from the opening scene of his debut TV movie, "Pilotinnen", also known in English as "Drifters". Two sets of hands embrace each other in close-up against the wood-grain top of a restaurant table as voices (obviously lovers) make their plans to meet in a hotel in the very near future outside of Germany. Petzold then cuts to Karin (Eleonore Weisgerber) and then follows her outside, never even showing the male character whom she's established a rendezvous with. We soon learn, obliquely as Petzold loves to drip information about his characters slowly, that Karin is a traveling saleslady for a cosmetic company, virtually homeless except for the bonuses she earns on hotel rooms through her company's weekly overnight stays. She's not presented as a desperate person. On the contrary, Karin is drawn as a succinct and no-nonsense woman who understands the frivolity of her ways and has accepted things.

Her life isn't made any easier, however, when her boss (Udo Schenk) finds her sleeping in her car and decides to make her career difficult by assigning her a partner, who happens to be a much younger and attractive blonde (Nadeshda Brennicke). And she's having an affair with said boss. From there,"Drifters" establishes a very "Thelma and Louise" vibe as Karin and Sophie bond over their repressive state in both the corporate and emotional world, deciding to take matters into their own hands.

Being a TV movie, the sex and violence is especially pared down, but Petzold's flair for the subversive remains intact. Karin, endlessly smoking and prone to penetrating glances that would weaken the knees of both men and women, is the classic archetype for all of Petzold's later incarnations. She seems to be a woman who understands and knows what she wants, even if young and seemingly flighty Sophie gets the big, sweeping gesture of personal sacrifice that navigates the final act of "Drifters" into something surprising and fatalistic.

From this effort, Petzold was given the opportunity to make other TV movies- "The Sex Thief", "Cuba Libra" and the best being "Something To Remind Me". As a first feature, it's rough in certain parts and maintains the restrictive boxy format, but in ideas and larger themes taking shape in a rising auteur, it's a wonderful glimpse into the formative process of a burgeoning talent.

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