July 17, 2009

Jerichow

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ***

Jerichow, Christian Petzold's follow-up to his acclaimed Yella is loosely inspired by James M Cain's  Depression-era crime novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (and subsequent films), but rather than go full noir, it becomes a more nuanced -- but no less intense or menacing -- romantic triangle story. Set in Northern Germany -- the titular town where the film is set is about 50km west of Berlin and was formerly part of East Germany -- the film has the added subtext of modern-day Germany's struggles with multiculturalism and socio-economic desperation.

Benno Furmann (The Princess and the Warrior), who bears a passing if a bit disconcerting resemblance to Dwayne The Rock Johnson, plays Thomas, a drifter who was dishonorably discharged from the German forces in Afghanistan and returns to live in his recently deceased mother's home. As we learn in a beautifully filmed opening sequence, Thomas also owes a fair amount of money to a gangster. When he bails out Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a Turkish-German businessman with a bit of a drinking problem, Ali offers Thomas a job as his driver (and unofficial bodyguard, as it turns out). But the third point in this triangle is Ali's abused wife Laura (Nina Hoss), and when she and Thomas find each other mutually appealing, well, trouble brews. The tension also comes from within the characters, as in how Thomas instantly becomes loyal to his boss while also finding himself just as quickly tempted to betray him.

Ali may be arrogant and paranoid (though not without reason), a drunkard and occasionally prone to violent outbursts -- but he's hard not to feel sympathy for, and in most ways more interesting than primary characters Thomas and Laura. That's one of the actor Sözer's and the script's greatest strengths, making a character who has been unforgivably abusive to his wife still ultimately sympathetic. [Interesting aside: in Cain's "Postman" novel, the husband, Nick Papadakis, is Greek (and nicknamed same), but in the 1946 film adaptation he became Nick Smith, played by the decidedly not Greek Cecil Kellaway.] Hoss's Laura (the name surely a nod to the film noir classic) is certainly a more down-to-earth, realistically weary but still sexy creation than was Lana Turner's Cora in the original film -- Turner was memorable but always struck me as a bit too glamorously sexy for that role.

Petzold keeps the story fairly simple, with just enough unpredictability that one remains drawn to it, to see how things resolve. And without giving too much away Jerichow offers the most breathtaking, sharp and shocking ending since perhaps Erick Zonca's Dreamlife of Angels.

That said there are times -- such as a moment where Thomas stalks Laura in the darkness outside her house -- where the film veers toward the silly. But the cold detachedness of the film keeps it from getting too melodramatic, and Hans Fromm's terrifically sharp but moody cinematography also captures the picturesque but soulless landscape these three troubled people find themselves stuck in.

Though it explores some of the same territory (and both featured lead actress Hoss), Jerichow is not the masterfully complex work that Yella* was, but it's very tightly constructed and made, showing in some ways Peltzold's maturity as a filmmaker. It does nothing to erase my perception that Peltzold is one of the world's up-and-coming directors. 

*Note: Yella is unfortunately in DVD limbo here in the US due to New Yorker Video's folding.

Jerichow opens in San Francisco Friday, July 17 and in selected theaters nationwide.



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Posted by cphillips at July 17, 2009 12:39 AM
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