Like a new interpretation of an old song, Christian Petzold's Jerichow twists a familiar tune and entrances with surprising variations. The setup recollects The Postman Always Rings Twice and Ossessione, but Petzold translates it to modern times and modifies the story's structure and essence into something fresh that's consistently compelling and suspenseful. He creates three main characters who are both mysterious and vivid, and slowly moves them toward a devastating finale.
The film's anti-hero, Thomas (Benno Fürmann) isn't a drifter, but a man cornered in the German town where grew up, imprisoned by debts and roots. The excellent opening sequence finds his mother's funeral interrupted by an angry friend and/or money-lender who seeks to confirm that Thomas has no funds with which to renovate his childhood home or begin a new life. Thomas is the quiet sort, one who, for most of the film, seems resigned to go wherever life takes him.
He soon finds himself working for Ali (Hilmi Sözer), an alcoholic Turkish businessman who runs a series of snack stands. He has driven his car off the road enough times that he now needs Thomas to drive for him. Ali enjoys being a big shot, and enjoys calling attention to Thomas's interest in his wife, Laura (Nina Hoss). But inevitably Thomas and Laura's interest will evolve into something deeper.
The film reveals Thomas to be a dishonorably discharged veteran, but not the reason behind his dismissal. It follows the same guideline for each of the characters, laying out the necessary information, yet staying extremely economical on character background. We know these characters through their words and actions, not through any monumental events from the past.
And the details of character behavior is equally curious. We see Thomas go into an almost reflexive bodyguard mode in one scene, yet in another, viewed from a distance, he appears to intervene only to cover his ass. His decision at that latter moment has even more weight when Laura asks him about it later in the film. Far from serving as a simple, cartoonish drunk, Ali emerges as the film's most fascinating character. Despite his success, he lacks a connection to both the country where he lives and the country he's from, as well as the woman to whom he's married. His success, built around selling junk food, is a hollow one, and deep down, beneath the jolly disposition and swigs of vodka, he knows it.
Writer/director Petzold has a keen eye for striking visuals that accentuate the tension of his scenarios. He understands not only each character's relation to one another, but how to demonstrate it, often revealing more in one shot than many filmmakers do in 10. The simple matter of someone entering or leaving the frame alters the dynamics so dramatically that it's hard to ignore the impact these people have on each other's lives.
In one scene, Ali orders Thomas and Laura to dance on the beach after he perceives that the sober killjoys aren't having as much fun as he is. While they dance in the foreground, he slowly stumbles his way to the background and erases himself from the composition while passion ignites between the two dancers. It is a passion between two characters who have known too long that things such as passion shouldn't get in the way of the practical. Perhaps they've known too long, and that's why they're so willing to lead and follow each other down less-traveled paths.
Cinema Guild's DVD presents Jerichow in a slightly letter-boxed 16x9 anamorphic transfer that preserves its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The source material has the occasional scratch or dirt spec on it, but is reproduced with nice detail and its grain patterns preserved (although the format's compression prevents a perfect reproduction).
The film's muted palette and brown tones convey the tacit nature of its characters. Skin tones appear natural and colors that are supposed to stand out, such as those of bright-red lipstick and inviting greenery, do so with verve.
The disc includes all you need and nothing more in the audio department--the original German Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track and optional English subtitles. The sound design is quite effective, letting the audience sink into the ambient environments. The music and dialogue both sound clear and natural.
The 25-minute making-of documentary contains interviews with Petzold, Fürmann and Hoss, intercut with some of the film's best scenes. Petzold is very articulate in his explanation of how he wrote the characters and the underlying points he wanted to make. It's also to his credit that, while he may have had certain political philosophies in mind while writing the story, the film doesn't feel in the least bit didactic.
The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer and trailers of other Christian Petzold Films, including Yella, Ghosts and The State I am In. While the picture quality varies, it's pretty ugly on each film. But the trailers themselves are all intriguing and artfully edited.
An excellent study of three elusive characters, Jerichow breathes new life into a familiar setup. Petzold is one of the most interesting filmmakers in Germany right now, and his films deserve a wider audience in the United States. Cinema Guild has done well to get the film out in a respectable disc. I don't imagine a better one will be released stateside any time soon.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.