Wolfsburg

Benno Fürmann and Nina Hoss

 

Wolfsburg. The title is a bit of a joke, a reference to the city/state in Germany where Volkswagen is headquartered. The fact that there’s not a single VW in the film suggesting that either the lawyers prevailed or writer/director Christian Petzold decided he’d said enough already with his automotively flavoured title.

Because the film is about a car salesman (Benno Fürmann) out on the open road who, while fishing around for his phone on the floor of his classic NSU Ro 80, knocks a boy off his bicycle. Philipp doesn’t pull over to see if the inert figure is OK, partly because he’s in shock, partly because he’s a coward. Though by the next day he’s thought better of what he’s done and heads to the hospital, rehearsing his lines of apology/guilt/exculpation as he goes.

At the hospital, once we’ve clapped eyes on Laura (Nina Hoss), the boy’s beautiful and distraught mother, and given that this is a film with two good-looking big-name stars, the plot starts to suggest itself as if out of the air – he’s not going to blurt out his apology, instead Philipp is going to fall for Laura (Petzold does like his men being thunderstruck by love) and she’s going to fall for him, before it all comes tumbling out dreadfully in the film’s shocking climax.

Like the title, the film is a tease. Petzold knows that we know where this is going and so starts to play with our expectations, sending us first up a cul-de-sac as Laura and her workmate Vera (Astrid Meyerfeldt) do some amateur sleuthing into the possible identity of the killer – the boy has since died, having recovered only enough to blurt out a garbled reference to the car that hit him.

 

Philipp at the scene of the accident
Philipp at the scene of the crime

 

On top of that there’s some space-filling romantic business between Philipp and his vinegary, high maintenance girlfriend Katja (Antje Westermann), and Laura and her boss (Matthias Matschke), a weak man not above using his position to try and gain access to Laura’s pants.

Petzold keeps piling up the obstacles to the smooth playing out of the story, or in an attempt to hide what he’s doing if we’re being less charitable. And it works. Right up until the final few minutes we’re left wondering what Philipp is going to do first, admit his guilt or declare his love – or somehow attempt both in a moment of spectacular bungling.

Nearly all of the film’s decisive moments take place inside cars or near them – in the car showroom where Philipp works, at the scrapyards Laura visits, or just driving almost aimlessly around the Wolfsburg area. Philipp’s wooing technique consists mostly of plonking Laura in the passenger seat and then taking her somewhere. Cars, of course, thanks to the occupants’ forward-facing position, are great places for unburdening. Will he, won’t he?

This amount of tension has to go somewhere, and things do eventually resolve, in a way that feels both earned and satisfying. Still, it’s more driven by plot than character, which is another way of saying that even as it grips it doesn’t quite ring true.

A high drama with a cool surface, from the overcast Lower Saxony locations to the actors’ grey-scale performances, a very nicely executed exercise in audience manipulation.

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Jerichow

Benno Fürmann, Nina Hoss and Hilmi Sözer

 

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.

 

Nina Hoss as Laura
Which way is Laura going to go?

 

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.

 

 

Jerichow – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020