Saturday, February 6, 2010


Is there life in the old dog yet? The Cain-ine in this case is that old chestnut, The Postman Always Rings Twice, freely and openly adapted to a post-unification German setting by writer-director Christian Petzold, who is interested in author James M. Cain more as a social realist than as a noir stylist. The original is the story of a drifter's affair with a diner owner's wife and their conspiracy to kill the husband. In Petzold's version the protagonist isn't a drifter, but he is adrift. Thomas (Benno Furmann) is a dishonorably-discharged Afghan War veteran who we meet at his mother's funeral. He's inherited her house in the title town, but all his ready cash ends up in the hands of an angry ex-business partner. To keep himself fed and fund the rehab of the house, he has to take petty seasonal jobs like cucumber picking until he has a random encounter with a drunk driver, Ali Ozman. Thomas agrees to drive him home and tell the police he was driving when the car ditched earlier, thus saving Ali's driver's license. Later, when another incident gets his license revoked, Ali hires Thomas as his chauffeur.

Benno Furmann as Thomas

Ali is a Turko-German who runs a chain of snack bars. Thomas has to take him on his regular run of deliveries and collections, which sometimes get rough when Ali thinks someone is trying to cheat him. Fortunately, Thomas's military martial-arts skills come in handy in a pinch. Ali has a German wife, Laura, who handles purchases from wholesalers. Celebrating Thomas's early success, Ali drunkenly and innocently presses Thomas and Laura together, wanting to see how Germans dance. This beautifully filmed scene is one of Petzold's direct homages to Cain; in Postman the husband is Greek-American, while in Jerichow Thomas tells Ali he dances like a Greek. How the hell do you know how a Greek dances, Ali asks. Answer: Zorba!

It's not until the last act of the movie that Thomas and Laura, lovers by then, think of bumping Ali off. Before that, we see Ali playing Thomas's mentor, quizzing him on how to save fuel on delivery runs, what's the best location for a new snack bar, etc. We see that Ali is suspicious of his shop managers but also soft-hearted. We note ironically that Ali doesn't seem to suspect Thomas of cuckolding him but suspects Laura of cheating with a wholesaler, tracking her to the man's office and slapping her around until the man attacks him. Once again, Thomas saves Ali from danger.

Despite everything, Ali and Laura share some kind of affection and he hopes to bring her to the old country to stay someday, while she feels a debt of gratitude, at least, for his efforts to help her during a rough patch in her life. It doesn't stop her from embezzling from him, but it's there, just as there's an irresistible attraction between her and Thomas. That attraction ultimately drives them to plan Ali's demise, but when he returns from a trip with surprising news, it throws Laura's plans, at least, into dramatic confusion....

Nina Hoss as Laura Ozman

The transplant works. Petzold brings a sensitive social consciousness to the story and its setting, finding in a depleted east Germany an analogue for Cain's Depression America. Petzold sees himself and Cain as fellow critics of capitalist society, interpreting the Postman archetype as a parable of lovers unable to act purely on their passions because of their need or obsession with money. The lovers could just leave the old husband, after all, but because they need his money they have to try to kill him. The tragic irony Petzold adds to the situation is a twist that would render the lovers' conspiracy unnecessary if they hadn't already set it into motion. It makes you look back over the whole story and see how, with different emphasis, it could be told as the poignant tale of a devoted man making plans for his wife's future and putting it in the hands of a good man. But society makes such a reading, which may be how Ali sees his own story, a sad illusion.

Petzold fills his picture with the petty details of small-time German life, from the pervasive immigrant presence to the low-level fast food business. Those everyday elements of a foreign culture make Jerichow even more attractive to me.

This is the first Petzold film I've seen (I have an earlier effort, The State I Am In, on loan from the library to watch later this weekend) and I'm impressed by the clarity of his vision. There's nothing generically noirish about his bright outdoor locations, but his commitment to social realism keeps Jerichow in close kinship with the noir tradition. Benno Furmann, whom I haven't seen before (some Americans saw him in Speed Racer!) is the image of a troubled, world-weary neo-noir tough guy. This performance should get him more work abroad. Nina Hoss and Hilmi Sozer also made strong impressions on me, though Furmann should be the breakout international star of this film. But the main credit belongs to Petzold. Although I'm starting to watch his career work in reverse order, Jerichow makes me eager to see his earlier films, starting immediately.

CinemaGuild, the film's DVD distributor, has uploaded a Jerichow trailer to YouTube.


Shubhajit said...

Great writeup!!!

You've hit the nail right on its head when you states that Petzold was "interested in author James M. Cain more as a social realist than as a noir stylist." That sort of perfectly captures this sort of revisionist neo-noir movie.

That said, the movie isn't without its flaws, and for me, it stopped short of being what could have been an utterly brilliant piece of work. But it worked allright. And yes, the movie's addictive fatalism aside, performance by the guy who played the Turkish husband's role was really amazing.

Samuel Wilson said...

Shubhajit: Thanks for writing. From what I've seen of Petzold so far, he could well be accused of being a manipulative director. He seems tempted to throw in one too many melodramatic twists into stories that were working perfectly fine but wouldn't necessarily end without the added plot contrivance. Still, he's clearly someone to keep watching.