Thing about a past is the more of one you’ve got the less you need to talk about it. Thus Jerichow begins with tight-lipped Thomas (Benno Fürmann) leaving a funeral in the company of two men, who take him to an old country house. The deceased, we soon learn, is Thomas’ mother, the house his inheritance. The men, we gather, are old pals who probably won’t be pals much longer. Thomas owes them money and payment’s long overdue. The pals take Thomas’ savings and leave him sapped and abandoned in his own yard. He takes a long nap, woken by nuzzling fawn the next morning. We learn he was a soldier in Afghanistan, now dishonourably discharged. He’s broke, his prospects decidedly narrow. He takes a job harvesting cucumbers.
Until something a little better comes along. By chance, Thomas meets Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a supplier to a number of snack bars in the region. He seems to have a solid business, impressive capital, a significant drinking problem, and a much younger, pretty blonde wife named Laura (Nina Hoss). Thomas helps Ali out of a jam and is rewarded with a job as Ali’s driver. Despite Thomas’ reticence, the men develop a certain masculine camaraderie. It’s a little one-sided, but Ali needs a friend he can trust because he sure can’t seem to trust his wife. Ali’s consumed by jealousy, yet, strangely, he also seems to almost encourage Thomas’ attraction to Laura, who’s even less voluble than Thomas. The three spend more and more time together. Ali drinks far too much. We wait, wondering how long it will take for lust to sprout fangs.
The only other film I’ve seen from German writer/director Christian Petzold is his 2007 feature Yella, which shares interesting similarities with Jerichow: an uneasy relationship between automobiles and water; an unexpected business opportunity on offer with a minimum of questions asked; a steady narrative progression built upon just the right number of expository clues to keep us intrigued; and Hoss, whose striking beauty is odd enough to encourage our interest and whose mere gaze feels at once vulnerable and guarded. The most distinguishing trait these films share however is extra-filmic. Other than the fact that it’s a personal favourite film of mine, I won’t tell you what the source material is for Yella here, since there’s a great pleasure to be found in recognizing it yourself, and anyway if you really want to know you can find out easily enough elsewhere. But I will tell you that the inspiration behind Jerichow is one of the great hard-boiled crime novels of the 20th century, one that’s been explicitly adapted into two Hollywood movies and surreptitiously drawn upon by many, many more.
Jerichow takes as its blueprint James M. Cain’s enduring and infinitely malleable 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, shaking it to life by focusing on different aspects of it than previous incarnations. The doomed scheme undertaken by the lovers out of desire and a healthy dose of greed occurs far later in the proceedings. There’s less time spent generating the sexual connection between Thomas and Laura—whose name even rhymes with Cain’s Cora—and more spent nurturing the peculiar pathos of Ali, who’s outsider status as a dark-skinned, rather unsavoury immigrant matches that of Cain’s Greek truck stop proprietor. Thus Petzold imbues Jerichow with a subtle commentary on modern German multiculturalism, making Ali seem destined to always be regarded an Other, a lonely man far from his homeland with a wife he essentially purchased—Laura, like Thomas, has a shady past that we’ll learn just enough about to help us understand what she’s willing to do to escape it. In an especially sly nod to Cain’s text, the first explosion of physicality between Thomas and Laura is so intense as to draw blood. Yet in one of numerous twists on Cain’s text, Petzold swaps which gender fissures the flesh of the other.
Petzold has crafted here a satisfying neo-noir, mining a seminal proto-noir narrative for his set-up while rigorously exploring the alternate routes it might take. His cool, unobtrusive style avoids expressionistic flourish and is not invested in any noir or neo-noir traditions. It seems to arise from an individual worldview and an affection for genre only exceeded by an investment in finding variations that speak to a new audience. Where it all ends is clever and unexpected, though it’s so terse it may leave some hungry for a denouement on par with Cain’s gritty end of the line. For others, the final scene might just feel like the perfect cliff to drop off of, a vertiginous plunge into the abyss that may itself inspire yet further ventures into this fecund territory of sordidness and longing.