Jerichow is such a fine example of modern German cinema. There’s a unity with a lot of the other films I’ve seen recently (two come to mind – Revanche, a flat out masterpiece, and The Good Neighbor, which I caught at the Shanghai International Film Festival a few months back). There’s aesthetic unity, thematic unity, and character unity. These aren’t politically motivated films, but they do represent a very specific type of character, where the lead in Christian Petzold’s Jerichow, Thomas (played by Benno Furrman), has much in common with the leads of the aforementioned contemporaries.
Jerichow’s plot is surface-level simple. Thomas is a war veteran. He’s hard on his luck and the film begins with his mother’s funeral. In need of cash Thomas happens upon Ali (Hilmi Sozer), an oft-drunk owner of a chain of snack bars. When Ali loses his license he hires Thomas to be his driver. Ali’s wife is Laura (Nina Hoss), an attractive German woman who, perhaps out of revenge on her abusive husband or plain animalistic attraction, takes up an affair with Thomas.
To say Jerichow is devoid of politics would be a mistake. It’s set in Germany. Ali is Turkish. He bemoans his position as an outsider. The other two are German nationals. In the first two acts Thomas is presented as the sympathetic hero, Laura as the sympathetic woman in trouble. The third act is a remarkable shift in everything: tension, sympathies, perspective. It’s really perfectly done. And here’s how:
After Thomas and Laura’s attraction has been firmly established Ali announces he’ll go on a business trip. Just before that he follows Laura, with Thomas on his heels, to a beverage distributor, where he breaks in, finds her speaking with a man, and hits her brutally. After this scene there’s a hard cut to a shot of Laura crying and driving her jeep. The camera is placed in the passenger seat looking slightly up at her. Laura is very tall, so this shot could easily be the POV of the passenger – whether Thomas or Ali. I thought it was. When it turns out not to be it marks the turning point of the film. Up to that point it’s been Thomas and Ali’s film. This one shot, following a critical scene and preceding Ali’s absence, is a visual cue that we are now shifting to Thomas and Laura’s film. One shot makes her more of a protagonist. That’s the perspective shift.
There’s also the tension shift. Another very unique thing about Jerichow is how it takes on the plot points of a classic American film noir. Think of Double Indemnity. There’s the femme fatale (Laura here, Barbara Stanwyck in the Wilder film), the drifter (Thomas and Fred MacMurry), and the investigator/husband (Ali and Edward G. Robinson/Tom Powers). But Jerichow doesn’t take on these characteristics until its third act! Up until that point there’s tension, but it’s more like an extended opening of The Postman Always Rings Twice than full on hard-boiled double-cross. Suddenly, when Ali leaves, Thomas and Laura cook up a scheme and all of a sudden the source of tension shifts from “will Ali find out,” to “how will we get rid of Ali”? This shift happens in other films, but it’s notable here in where it occurs – so late in the picture, and concurrent with the perspective shift.
Lastly, there’s the sympathies shift, which goes hand-in-hand with the racial motivations I mentioned above. Because we shift to a more Laura-centric film, and because Ali is absent, and because we’re suddenly in the midst of a thriller, we slowly begin to feel for the only person that is no longer on-screen. His absence actually makes him a stronger character in that we don’t hear and see his whispered cabals. The final ten minutes of the film – which are white-knuckle tense and absolutely beautiful – speak even more to this idea. Ali drops some heartbreaking news. Our stomachs drop. Laura’s does too. Thomas is left a bit in the lurch. Ali, the abusive, drunk, is suddenly the pathetic, but not hated cuckold. And the very final shot…so haunting, so full of regret. It’s fantastic. You could make a case for Ali’s “outsider-ness” having much to do with his final outcome; for Laura and Thomas’ one-sided, blind victory having much to do with their commonalities.
So…aside from these shifts there are a few specific moments worth mentioning in here:
One reminds me of the (oddly enough) Turkish film Three Monkeys, and also of Revanche. Thomas is watching Laura and Ali at night. He’s in the woods by their house. They’re in their kitchen. They hear a noise and come outside. Laura knows it’s Thomas. Ali, flashlight in hand goes off a distance from her. Petzold cuts back to Laura in full shot. She slowly backs up, hands down at her sides, still facing camera. Suddenly, out of absolute darkness behind her, Thomas emerges. He grabs her hands and kisses her neck. Ali hears something and swings the flashlight back to her. Just before the light reaches them, Thomas recedes back into the darkness, ghost-like. Now that I’m typing this it’s also very similar to the first murder in Perfume: The Story of Murderer. The moment is not only extremely beautiful to watch, it’s also very sensual, mysterious, and emblematic of the hidden, almost-caught nature of their relationship. Though I did wonder one thing: why not cut to a close-up? It’s such a gorgeous moment that I felt a cut-in would have emphasized it just the right amount.
If you don’t know the plot for Revanche it deals with a love triangle of sorts, has similar voyeuristic tendencies as Jerichow, and the emotions are usually muted with a few loud, fiery exceptions. The same is true, for the most part, of The Good Neighbor, though it’s clearly the far inferior film of the three. There’s a strong undercurrent of angsty inevitability in all three films. And all three certainly end on a note of intense regret. The colors feature deep blacks, greens and browns, with surprising splashes of color (usually via Laura in this film). We often have a character who is overwhelmingly taciturn (or in the case of The Good Neighbor, gradually more and more so), and the plotting eventually moves from relationship drama to thriller mechanics (or vice versa, which is more or less the case of Revanche). I’ll be trying to watch more that fit into the category of modern German cinema to see if I just found serendipitous harmony with these three, or if there’s something to it all.