By Elbert Ventura
Dir. Christian Petzold, Germany, The Cinema Guild
[Note: The following review contains spoilers.]
Christian Petzold’s Jerichow plays like a modern riff on The Postman Always Rings Twice, with a globalized European spin. Opening with a funeral and ending with a suicide, the movie is a grim chamber piece that takes on hoary themes—love, money, betrayal—against the backdrop of a borderless West. The cuckold at its center is a Turkish entrepreneur in the middle of East German nowhere. Immigrants dot the conspicuously depopulated landscape. Depression prevails, both economically and emotionally. As if in counterpoint, a harsh, clean light falls on the town from which the movie draws its title—all the better to expose the acts of concealment and secrecy that propel the melodrama.
Ex-soldier Thomas (Benno Furmann) has just returned to Jerichow for his mother’s funeral after a dishonorable discharge from fighting in Afghanistan, and he hopes to renovate her house with some money saved up—a plan that goes up in smoke when a mobster friend collects an old debt and leaves him bruised to boot. Thomas gets a job as a cucumber picker, but that episode—and the peek into the German underclass it brings—is brief. On his way home one day, he comes upon a drunk driver whose Range Rover has veered from the road. Thomas helps the man, Ali (Hilmi Sozer), gets his car out of the ditch, and takes him home, an act of kindness that leads Ali to hire him as his chauffeur after his license is suspended.
An imperious striver insecure in his own skin, Ali turns out to be a prosperous businessman who runs food stands throughout the region. His days are spent going from one spot to the next, restocking the pantries and checking on his employees’ accounting. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that Ali is a paranoid mess, obsessed with sniffing out cheating employees. “Everyone here cheats on me,” he complains to Thomas, in a bit of foreshadowing that all but slaps you upside the head. Indeed, it’s his unhappy wife, Laura (Nina Hoss), who is the prime subject of his suspicions. One of Thomas’s first assignments is to drive Ali to check up on Laura’s whereabouts. Later, Thomas administers a beating to a business partner whom Ali is convinced is having an affair with Laura.
Jerichow plants the seeds of its narrative efficiently. Within days of being hired, Thomas is asked by Ali to join him and his wife for an outing. A phenomenally awkward beach picnic follows at which a wasted Ali forces the two to dance—his insistence bordering on self-destructive or nonsensical. Sure enough, the dance leads to a kiss while Ali isn’t looking, and the tragedy is set on its inexorable path. Petzold deftly depicts the clandestine: Thomas and Laura’s relationship is defined by stolen moments in dark hallways and shadow cover. Shots from spying perspectives and telling behavioral character details suggest a world under constant surveillance. (“I’ve been watching you,” Ali tells Thomas early on).
Packed with incident in a brisk 88 minutes, Jerichow is nothing if not economical, even mechanical. Petzold’s austere style seems a visual correlative of the existential malaise that afflicts its characters, all of them unhappily going through the motions in roles already carved out for them by the universe—to make money, to have a home, to survive. If anything, the film might be too streamlined, leaving out the connective tissue that would help earn our emotional identification. As if hurrying to get to the point, Petzold contrives to make Thomas Ali’s trusted aide-de-camp in record time, especially unlikely for a leery Turkish man who feels unwanted in his adopted homeland. When Laura pushes away Thomas as he makes his first move, she mutters, “Some friend you are”—a strange charge considering that Thomas and Ali met just days earlier. Later, Laura stays the night at Thomas’s desolate house when Ali is away and worries aloud that the neighbors might see them, to which we can only respond, “What neighbors?” Petzold conveys the loneliness of life in a provincial backwater, but the absence of a community—fractured or otherwise—keeps his critique of a prying world and an inhospitable Germany at an implausible remove.
The disregard for believability extends to the guessing games Petzold has us play. If Thomas is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get blank, Ali is portrayed as a man with hidden motives. Why, if he’s such a jealous husband, does he seem to encourage Thomas’s attraction to Laura, even forcing the reluctant pair to slow dance? Is it an intentional attempt to bring the two together so he can rid himself of a burdensome marriage? When he fakes a trip to Turkey—he’s shown getting in a cab after being dropped off at the airport by Thomas—is he doing so as part of a plot to catch the lovers? But such guessing is all for naught, and even seems intended by Petzold as a rebuke to the audience. A final twist involving Ali is designed to elicit guilt—in Thomas and Laura, and in the viewer by extension—but Petzold has so rigged the game that it fails to resonate. He seems to want us to ponder why we think so little of Ali, without asking whether his own manipulations have something to do with it.
For such a reticent movie, Jerichow has a penchant to tell, not show, during key moments. Lamenting their doomed, loveless affair, Laura tells Thomas, “You can’t love if you don’t have money.” Later, Ali, in a fit of despair, cries, “I live in a country that doesn’t want me.” But it’s a state of statelessness that’s claimed rather than depicted. Drawing Ali as a ruthless boss, wife-slapping husband, calculating hustler, and self-absorbed know-it-all, Petzold then asks us to believe his transformation into the tragic Other stranded in the lonesome West, an outsider exploited by two Germans—one of them a soldier back from the East to boot. Hailed on the festival circuit, Jerichow is never persuasive as a movie, but certainly has enough material for someone’s postcolonial studies dissertation.