"Jerichow": Tense Drama about the Value of Feelings By Michael Ranze

in 65th Venice International Film Festival

by Michael Ranze

The only German film in the competition was Jerichow, directed by Christian Petzold, who is seen as the spiritus rector of the German New Wave (as French film critics called it a few years ago), better known as the “Berliner Schule” (School of Berlin) which is a synonym for earnest and pretentious story telling. On the surface Jerichow is a love triangle with a thriller-touch. Or, to be exact: a deliberate homage to James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and its several film versions: Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1942), Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Bob Rafelson’s remake of 1981.

Jerichow is the name of a small town (2,200 inhabitants) in the east of Germany, a very impoverished area near the Baltic Sea. Few people live there, as it’s difficult to find a job. The landscape with its dark forests, flat countryside and the dangerous cliffs also play an important role in Jerichow. From the beginning of the film we know that the protagonists are victims of the circumstances, of the surroundings they live in. A theme which is also evident in the film predecessors by Visconti and Garnett.

The film tells the story of Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a Turkish immigrant who leases and supplies 45 takeaways in the local area of Jerichow. He does what Petzold calls “home-building” in the press kit. Finding a home is essential for Ali because he is living between two countries, Turkey and Germany, and belongs to neither of them. At one time he is thinking of buying a house in Turkey but we know that he will never do that. Ali is the most ambivalent character of the film. He beats his wife and drinks too much, he is jealous and suspicious, but on the other hand he can be very generous and vivacious, not to mention his ability to build and maintain a friendship. Laura (Nina Hoss), his attractive, but cool and always a little sullen wife, has only married him for the money because she has lot of debts. A very fragile arrangement which is suddenly endangered by Thomas (Benno Fürmann), a former soldier who has been dishonorably discharged from the army stationed in Afghanistan, a background which Petzold doesn’t bother to explore further, a minor flaw of the film. Thomas starts to work for Ali as a driver, they even start to develop a kind of friendship. From now on Petzold observes their daily working routine, almost with a documentary touch: loading the car with food, driving (the films spends a lot of time in the front seats of the car), negotiating with the takeaway-owners, returning, cleaning the car. But then Laura and the young man become more and more attracted to each other. And they come up with a fatal plan.

The main theme of Jerichow is money. Money is stolen or hidden (in one scene with a reference to Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men), shown off or owed. Money is always a reason to betray someone. Even worse: For Laura money means freedom. “You can’t love if you don’t have money”, she says at one time. What an unsentimental, depressing thought! Guilt, jealousy, obsession and the native country — Petzolds new film suffers a bit from the weight of its many different themes. But the actors, especially Benno Fürmann, do a fine job. A tense drama about the value of feelings.