Grillpoint and The State I’m In: The Berlin School and Realism in Cinema


The emergence of the Berlin School filmmaking in the early 2000s signalled a shift away from the internationally and financially successful heritage films of the recently united Germany and towards a new type of art house cinema. Andreas Dresen’s Halbe Treppe (Grillpoint) and Christian Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In) are two films with different approaches to the ‘relocation of the real’ in terms of style, narrative and cinematic intent. This essay will examine these differing approaches to realism within the two texts, to what extent they both adhere to the Berlin School movement, and finally whether they are successful in delivering this ‘relocation of the real’.

The different approaches to the relocation of the real within Halbe Treppe and Die innere Sicherheit can be found in the style of both films. While both fall under the overarching category of the ‘Berlin School’, only Dresen’s Halbe Treppe appears to adhere to the Dogme 95 movement, established in Denmark in the 1990s. Created by fellow filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, Dogme 95 strove to simplify film production and therefore film style through the creation of the Vow of Chastity in order to produce cinema that ‘[forces] the truth out of … characters and settings’ (MacKenzie, 2014: p.307) This attempt to force the truth from characters and settings is a new form of realism, one that Dresen tries to emulate in Halbe Treppe. The points set out in Dogme 95’s Vow of Chastity include ‘Shooting on location. Props and sets must not be brought in… Special lighting is not acceptable’ (Abel, 2013: p.25) as well as calling for the use of handheld cameras only. Dresen’s use of handheld camera throughout the film helps to negotiate the claustrophobic interiors of the characters’ flats. During the scene in which Ellen (Steffi Kühnert) is on the phone to Chris (Thorsten Merten) to arrange a date, the handheld camera positions the audience as voyeurs in a secret conversation, as Dresen frames Ellen in a mid-shot, only showing her from the shoulders upwards. The use of a shallow depth of field blurs the outlines of the shelves, obscuring the figure of Ellen as the handheld camera moves between the shelves. Here, the use of the handheld camera contributes to the sense of realism as the lack of conventional framing, as well as Dogme 95’s restriction of the manipulation of settings, presents the scene as a secretive moment where the camera is intrusive. This highlights how by adhering to some of Dogme 95’s vows, Dresen is able to present Halbe Treppe as a new type of realist cinema. Another factor that contributed to the presentation of realism in Halbe Treppe was the context of the film’s production. With the majorty of the scenes improvised, the cast and crew also lived together for three months in Frankfurt (Oder) to reproduce this sense of claustrophobic realism found in the film. Axel Prahl (Uwe) and Gabriela Maria Schmeide (Katrin) also gained experience in their character’s jobs as a food stall owner and border control respectively. It is these immersive experiences undertaken by the cast and crew, along with the adherence to the rules of the Dogme 95 movement that contributes to the overall realism of the film.


On the other hand, Christian Petzold’s approach to the reproduction of realism in Die innere Sicherheit is seen to be more closely aligned with that of the Berlin School filmmaking movement. Abel states that the films associated with the Berlin School ‘unmistakeably take place in a specific time and place’, (Abel, 2013: p.25) the present day unified Germany. While the films of the Berlin School attempt to display a new realism in contemporary Germany, their ‘poetic texture’ – the stillness, slow-paced narrative and lack of action – forces the audience to focus on the ‘extraordinary qualities’ (Abel, 2013: p.25) of the characters. It is this simplicity in the filmmaking that presents a new type of realism in Die innere Sicherheit – rather than distracting the audience with elaborate cinematography Petzold instead focuses on Jeanne’s (Julia Hummer) experience of her enforced estrangement from her home country. Through the use of the medium close up and static camera Petzold does not adhere to the continuity editing that was typical of mainstream cinema, especially in German heritage films, but instead constantly reminds the audience that they are watching a film. During the scene in which Jeanne sneaks out the flat in Portugal to meet Heinrich, the first shot of her face is obscured by the foregrounded door frame, while the use of realist lighting casts her face in shadow. The sense of stillness in film that contributed to the Berlin School’s new depiction of realism is also present within this scene through Petzold’s use of the static camera as Jeanne’s escape, which could be presented as a daring act of rebellion, is simply observed from medium shot. This use of cinematography instead presents this action from a cool, voyeuristic shot which robs the moment of any potential excitement or drama. It is this cinematography that highlights the difference between the realism of the Dogme 95 movement and the Berlin School movement.

Another difference in both films’ approaches to the ‘relocation of the real’ is how they approach the narrative structure. In Die innere Sicherheit Petzold and screenwriter Harun Farocki use of elliptical narrative is arguably one of the elements that contributes to the new sense of realism, rather than just a device that increases the sense of mystery throughout the film. The film is repeatedly presented from Jeanne’s point of view – for example, rather than showing the final, botched bank robbery, Petzold instead choses to focus on Jeanne waiting in the car and her confrontation with Heinrich. Therefore, this use of a narrative that is unclear and often without explanation is simply another way for the director to present the new type of realism of the Berlin School. As the film is from Jeanne’s point of view, a member of the central group of the film – the family – the lack of exposition is justified. Within the world of the film it is clear that Jeanne would be aware of the limited information of her parents’ past and future plans and rather than catering to the needs of the audience in terms of storyline, Petzold is able to ignore exposition in favour of creating an uncertainty around the family and their motives. In his article on history and identity in Die innere Sicherheit Eric Scheufler states that rather than this new presentation of realism, the refusal of the film to address the past is tied to Jeanne’s role as a ‘representative of the next generation’. (Scheufle, 2011: p.104-105) He cites the scene in where the family discuss their issues with Achim, a former ally, as an example stating that it is ‘significant that at this point both Jeanne and the camera leave the room’ (Scheufle, 2011: p.104-105) when the discussion turns to a possible escape to the Middle East. However, rather than reinforcing the idea of a past that cannot be explained or confronted by the new generation, this scene instead highlights how the ‘relocation of the real’ is found in the lack of information. The scene that Scheufler describes is immediately juxtaposed with a close up shot of Jeanne sitting on the stairs, her slumped posture and bored facial expression highlighting that it is simply boredom, possibly from hearing the same story and issues repeated by her parents, that drives her decision to leave the room. The new, Berlin School approach to realism is highlighted through Petzold’s use of an elliptical narrative, as the film from the perspective of an individual with close, lifelong ties to the central group of the film, rejects the need for the constant exposition required to fully inform the audience.

the state i'm in film

On the other hand, Halbe Treppe follows a more conventional narrative pattern, with a set of clear, ongoing issues that are repeatedly addressed throughout the film. While this use of narrative maybe associated with more mainstream cinema, Dresen manages to incorporate it into the overall sense of realism in the film. The most obvious example of this is the reoccurring motif of Uwe and Ellen’s kitchen redecoration which acts as a symbol of their detoriating marriage. Originally mentioned on the first ‘day’ depicted in the film, Ellen reminds her reluctant husband of their plan to visit the shop in the middle of the work day, but the most significant moment it reoccurs is during the escape of the family bird, Hans Peter. In response to Uwe’s furious question as to why she left the balcony doors open, Ellen replies that the extractor fan in the kitchen is not good enough. This reasoning causes Uwe to exclaim that she has ‘made it his fault’. In both these examples the motif of the kitchen highlights the issues that they both have with their marriage, contributing to the clear narrative structure of the film but without compromising the realism of the film. As Halbe Treppe depicts the intimate personal lives of the four protagonists, it is realistic that mundane issues such as kitchen decoration would reoccur throughout while still managing to act as a symbolic representation of a failed marriage. This symbolic nature of the kitchen is reinforced in the final act of the film in which Uwe expects the brand new kitchen to immediately win Ellen back. Their differing expectations and desires that are placed on the kitchen are highlighted, ultimately displaying the incompatibility between that leads to the breakdown of the marriage. It is clear that despite both films approach the narratives in vastly different ways, they are both able to preserve their individual sense of realism.

state i'm in

It is these differing approaches to the ‘relocation of the real’ in Halbe Treppe and Die innere Sicherheit that are arguably complicated by both films’ depiction of realistic events. Instead of reinforcing the various aspects of realism, as the narrative structures and cinematography achieve, these separate issues compromise the depiction of realism in both films. In Dresen’s Halbe Treppe this complication is the various ‘vox-pops’, or scenes in which the characters break the fourth wall and talk in response to a direct, but unheard question from behind the camera. Mueller argues that this ‘disrupts the viewer’s alignment with the flow of the narrative’ (Mueller, 2006: p.124) in relation to the issues of identity in the film, but the insertion of the interviews not only confuses the narrative flow of the film but also the realism that Dresen has created through the cinematography and narrative. Arguably these scenes could be seen as furthering the realism that Halbe Treppe depicts, as the lines between character and actor become blurred as the characters are given room outside the narrative to explore and explain their lives, such as Katrin’s reflection on her career choices. However, the use of interviews, a classical documentary device, could be seen to complicate the film’s relationship between truth and fiction. While Dresen only uses this one device from the documentary genre, rejecting other such as the ‘voice-of-God narration [or] analytical argument’, (Aufderheide, 2007: p.32) this inclusion complicates the overall genre of the film. While clearly not a documentary film, the use of the fourth wall break is conflicted with Dresen’s creation of a Dogme 95 style realism within the fiction film.

In Die innere Sicherheit it is not the form that complicates the depiction of realism within the film, but instead the presentation of memory and imagination. This is most obvious in the scene in which Heinrich describes his ‘home’ to an interested Jeanne on the beach in Portugal. As he begins to talk, the scene fades from the dark beach to the woods where the two characters make their way towards the house. As previously established in this essay, the film is told from Jeanne’s perspective, so this scene is not a depiction of Heinrich’s personal memory of the house but rather Jeanne’s imagination. Petzold’s use of the non-diegetic sound of crashing waves, used to provide a sense of continuity with the previous scene, along with the non-diegetic voiceover reinforces that this scene of the two teenagers exploring the house is a depiction of Jeanne’s imagination. However, this scene is immediately complicated when Jeanne, Hans and Clara reach this mystery house when they re-enter Germany. The house is the same one in which Jeanne imagined herself and Heinrich exploring in the aforementioned scene, with the only differences found in the props and decoration which are used to show the house’s abandonment. Petzold does not choose to explain this, and Jeanne shows no surprise at the identical nature of the house to the one in the house, but instead immediately and confidently makes her way to the bedroom she ‘visited’ previously. While the rest of the film’s elliptical and unclear narrative can be explained within the Berlin School realism created by Petzold, this almost psychic imagination of the house cannot, compromising the realism established throughout the rest of the film. Therefore it is clear that while both films strive to work within their separate ‘realist’ natures, they both contain elements that confuse this realism that is not explained within the texts.

Die innere Sicherheit and Halbe Treppe both contribute to the ‘relocation of the real’ found in early 2000s German cinema, albeit in different ways. Through the conventions of the Berlin School that Petzold uses to create the isolation and stillness of Jeanne and her family, and the manipulation of the Dogme 95 movement that Dresen uses to create the different realism in Halbe Treppe, both films highlight the different movements of realism that were emerging. Both films also manipulate the narratives, both conventional and elliptical in order to contribute to the different forms of realism found in each film, but these two forms of realism are compromised through various issues, such as Halbe Treppe’s use of the ‘vox-pop’ interview and Die innere Sicherheit’s depiction of imagination. These films reinforce the idea that both Dresen’s filmmaking and the Berlin School movement are most engaging through their use of sophisticated means in which to depict two different forms of realism in contemporary German cinema.



Abel, Marco, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2013)

Aufderheide, Patricia, Documentary Film. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007)

MacKenzie, Scott, Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology (Berkley: University of California Press, 2014)

Mueller, Gabriele, ‘Welcome to Reality: Constructions of German Identity and in Lichter (Schmid, 2003) and Halbe Treppe (Dresen, 2002), New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, 4:2 (2006) 117-127

Scheufler, Eric, ‘The Ghosts of Autumn Past: History, Memory and Identity in Christian Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit’, Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, 47:1 (2011) 103-120


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