by Jeff Meyers
Or The Postman Always Rings Zweimal.
Transplanting James M. Cain's bleak Depression-era tale of betrayal to impoverished northeast Germany, director Christian Petzold's slow burn neo-noir is less a Teutonic exercise in genre thrills and more a grim character piece that subtly examines the desperate emotional toll of economic hardship.
Thomas (Benno Fürmann) has returned from Afghanistan, dishonorably discharged and broke. Inheriting his dilapidated childhood home from his recently deceased mother, he turns a small act of kindness into a much-needed job after helping Ali (Hilmi Sozer), a Turkish immigrant and self-made businessman. Unfortunately, Ali's sexy wife, Laura (Nina Hoss), proves too tempting a prize for Thomas to ignore, sending the three into a death spiral of lust and deceit.
Petzold's film is artfully detached and deliberately paced, ratcheting up the passion while subtly examining the cultural and economic differences that doom its characters. Laura pointedly states: "You can't love if you don't have money." And Jerichow's alienating landscape echoes that point over and over; setting most of the film's action in the dull glare of daylight. Petzold wants it clear that there's no place for any of his characters to hide their secrets or motivations. Even the night offers the would-be lovers no real opportunity to sate their growing hunger. A brilliantly haunting shot of Thomas emerging from the shadows to grope Laura as Ali stumbles about in their darkened yard is both fleeting and unsatisfying.
Loyalty frays, lust mounts and Jerichow's muted sense of storytelling purposely thwarts our desire to root for any of its characters. Thomas is as unreadable as he is hunky. Neither he nor Laura share anything deeper than desperation and desire. Similarly, Petzold toys with our feelings about the cuckolded Ali, depicting him as a jealously paranoid but occasionally softhearted brute whose ability to smell duplicity is too acute for his own good. Yes, everyone is trying to screw him, but Ali is as far from an innocent victim as you can get.
In the end, Petzold's moral ambivalence drives Jerichow to its unsettling but ironic dénouement, suggesting that, when it comes to the human condition, trust and generosity are simply no match for greed. It's a tragically fatalistic view of society that would resonate more deeply if we cared for any of its characters.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, July 24-25, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 26. It also shows on Friday and Saturday, July 31-Aug. 1, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 2. Call 313-833-3237 for info.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.