Jerichow is the fourth collaboration between director Christian Petzold and actor Nina Hoss – both names a guarantee of at least a degree of excellence. But before we get there – just quickly skimming through Petzold’s entries on the IMDB (research!) to see which films actually comprise the somewhat disputed “ghost trilogy” (Petzold and Hoss’s first three collaborations), I noticed that someone has added notes to a number of Petzold’s films, under the Trivia section. How closely one film resembles Hitchcock’s Vertigo, another Claude Chabrol’s Que la Bête Meure, yet another Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty, and so on. And how in all of these cases there is no reference back to the original work.
According to this source, Jerichow is a reworking of The Postman Always Rings Twice. A wife and her drifter lover decide to murder the husband in the 1946 movie based on James M Cain’s novel. And there’s no doubting that similar events do actually occur in Jerichow. Flat broke dishonourably discharged Afghanistan veteran Thomas (Benno Fürmann) is given a job by Ali (Hilmi Sözer), the doughy Turkish owner of a fast-food chain and thanks the man who has rescued him and is fast turning him into his business partner by boffing his hot wife, Laura (Nina Hoss).
In Postman, getting rid of the husband is what the story is about, which isn’t quite the case here. And in Postman, the husband kind of deserves it. In Jerichow, Ali is the surprise at the centre of the story, a beta male so aware of his own shortcomings that he’s almost unnaturally alive to the idea that his wife is going to bang the next half-OK male she can get her hands on.
The casting is perfect – Fürmann looks like a guy out of the army, is a commanding presence in that sullen and withdrawn way, and looks like he can handle himself in a fight when one breaks out, which it does. Hoss is brilliant as psychologically fragile women, and Laura really is all over the place. But in spite of Laura being a terrible baggage, Hoss makes us sympathise with her by emphasising her turmoil. It’s written all over her face. Toughest role of all falls to Hilmi Sözer as the “Gastarbeiter” Turk Ali, prosperous but lacking confidence, a weak man who knows he is and struggles not to be – a hero, at some level. The only one you’ll find in this film, at any rate.
It’s the expert way that Petzold works these three characters up and down in our sympathies that gives the film its claim on the attention. At one particular point we start to sympathise with Thomas as if he were the wronged man, the cuckold, when it’s Ali who’s actually getting poorly treated.
However, let’s not get too far up that road. “Doubling” – a Petzold trope (see Phoenix if you want the best example) – gets no more than a toehold here. Really, Jerichow is a tightly constructed thriller told in a straightforward way, at pace, with human frailty, self-knowledge and the yearning for perfectibility at its core.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020