“She’s translating menus now too”
With his theatrical debut Die innere Sicherheit [The State I Am In], German writer/director Christian Petzold proves his most recent pair of Barbara and Phoenix were born from a mind that had always been ready to tell stories of personal emotional strife within complex circumstances. The way in which he presents them have always been unlike anything you see in Hollywood too, their dissemination of information meticulously planned for maximum impact both in terms of the audience watching and his characters onscreen. We know from the start that Jeanne (Julia Hummer) holds a secret, her paranoia and nerves expressing more than mere shyness when talking to a boy at the beach (Bilge Bingul‘s Heinrich). And while we eventually understand its impact, we never quite learn its origins.
What we infer is this: Hans (Richy Müller) and Clara (Barbara Auer) are fugitives from the law. They’re hiding out in Portugal in the hopes of earning a long-fought escape to Brazil. Something happens to put a wrench in these plans, however. The money and documents they thought they secured are now gone and the men on the outside who are sympathetic to their left-wing terrorist cause are unable to provide the same type of assistance they once did. It’s been over fifteen years since they could last show their faces in public without risk of capture. We don’t know exactly what event rendered their lives forfeit, only that they’re responsible for Jeanne’s lack of one. They knew what living underground would mean and conceived a child anyway.
As Petzold and his teacher/writing partner Harun Farocki describe it, Jeanne is both why Clara and Hans continue fighting and the ticking time bomb they know could be their ruin. For fifteen years things were okay—less than ideal, but still okay. They had resources, hope, and routine. As Jeanne grew older they became her friends and teachers, the sole constants in an otherwise ever-changing existence. Fate is what forces their dream to fall apart right when Jeanne discovers she’s had enough. This teenager cannot stand living in the shadows anymore. She cannot watch as life passes her by without ever experiencing a true childhood of fun. She wants to date Heinrich, dress fashionably, and listen to contemporary music. Jeanne wants to trust someone besides Mom and Dad.
It’s such a simple, human conceit. What does a teen that’s never experienced life do when the opportunity presents itself? How does adolescent rebellion manifest when her confidants are her jailers, her equals also her superiors? It’s an impossible position she didn’t choose. And even if a choice was presented where she could feasibly escape the fugitive life her parents earned—could she leave them behind? We don’t even know how much Jeanne is aware of Hans and Clara’s past to make a decision about whether or not to turn them in herself. Whenever they’re about to engage in violence, she must leave the room. Only when they’re desperate enough to seek old accomplices is Jeanne revealed. Only when they’re out of options do they let her help.
Petzold holds an air of uncertainty over the proceedings from start to finish so that we’re always off-balance and on our toes. Every person that engages her could be an enemy agent. Maybe Heinrich is a plant. Maybe the owner of a beachside restaurant asking for help translating his menu is a spy. Or maybe they’re both opportunists who recognized Hans and Clara and know they probably have a stash of money and/or weapons to steal. Every instance of police arriving has us frozen in anticipation, each narrow escape seeming easier than the last. We begin to question what organization is looking for them if any and whether or not the notion that the walls are closing in is a figment of their imaginations. Perhaps they’ve been forgotten.
But that’s not a chance you can simply take on faith. Precautions must be met and drastic measures taken. They’ve reached a threshold of no return where a return to Germany to reacquire the means for freedom could potentially be their downfall. Hans and Clara need to rethink their approach with Jeanne so as not to alienate her and Jeanne must reconcile selfish desires with a mission she doesn’t fully understand. They are grooming her to be intelligent, self-sufficient, and skeptical of the world—traits that have started to own her more than exist as tools for survival. A party of two no longer dictates their underground lifestyle; Jeanne has inevitably wrestled away some control. They need her compliance and understanding while she craves independence.
So it’s a relationship drama pitting parents against child that transforms into a high stakes thriller with mysterious consequences. New players enter and exit regardless of their intent. Moments spelling disaster arrive and dissolve as quickly as it takes to think the worst despite nothing actually happening. Huge events involving crime become easily managed while innocent advances towards love become pregnant with expectation and danger. Petzold shows us that normalcy can be our downfall, trust and honesty as much a crutch as lies and subterfuge. If you can’t be transparent with each other, how can you expect transparency back? And when is paranoia just paranoia and when is it true? To live so isolated is no life at all. Clara and Hans have each other, Jeanne only herself.
The State I Am In is an expertly written look at simple familial dynamics warped through a prism of unfathomable pressure. Hans and Clara can’t blame Jeanne for rebelling and yet they can’t survive if she does. Jeanne can’t blame them for growing closer after fighting and anger had consumed them, but she needs that in her life too. Auer and Müller wonderfully traverse the push and pull of their pragmatically calculated existence and the uncontrollable spontaneity of raising a daughter. They are hard on themselves, quick to anger, and quicker to apologize. Their love and protection become the things that push Jeanne away, their attempts to repair the distance and include her in maneuvers she’s not ready to perform the thing that may get them killed.
Yet no mater how good they are at breathing life into this volatile environment, Hummer’s Jeanne is the one at its center. They’ve loaded the gun, but it’s her finger on the trigger. So we witness age and maturity at war, seemingly innocuous mistakes of inexperience fighting against life or death circumstances born from a world she’s never been afforded the luxury of trusting. Rather than terrorism, justice, or karma, this film’s about the consequences of youth. It’s about Jeanne living a teenager’s life of stumbles, falls, and lessons learned. The difference is that those missteps don’t result in being grounded or earning detention. No, the tiniest of errors here means utter destruction. For fifteen years Jeanne’s life was in her parents hands. Now theirs are in hers.