JERICHOW 3 1/2 stars
Starring: Benno Furmann, Nina Hoss, Hilmi Sozer
Directed and written by: Christian Petzold
Parental advisory: 14A, sexual situations, not suitable for children
(In German with English subtitles)
Playing at: Mayfair Theatre tonight through to Sunday and Tuesday.
Christian Petzold’s reworking of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is set, like the original, in the dusty heat of economic collapse: not the California roadside of the Depression, but a hopeless section of northern Germany where wide beaches and sand cliffs play against the mood of claustrophobia and desperation. The sexy drifter is now a former German soldier and the Greek café owner has become a Turkish entrepreneur, but it’s still the same old story — a fight for love and money.
Petzold spins his tale in 90 minutes: a spare and inevitable tragedy, with no music except the drone of the radio, that begins and ends with death. We meet Thomas (Benno Furmann) at his mother’s funeral. He’s picked up by two men to whom he owes money — money is at the centre of every scene in the film — and they are determined to get it, although he has nothing but his mother’s old house. Thomas is a shadowy mystery, but we like him because he’s quiet.
On the way home from a grocery store, he meets Ali (Hilmi Sozer), a businessman who owns 45 snack bars and who drives from place to place, delivering supplies, picking up money, checking on who’s cheating him. Ali is not the amiable drunkard of the original: he’s more of a suspicious, cantankerous, jealous drunkard, and when he loses his driver’s licence, he hires Thomas to drive for him.
And that’s how Thomas meets Laura (Nina Hoss), Ali’s sexy blond wife who is, in the manner of sexy blond wives of the movies, trapped in a marriage that’s not so much loveless as doomed. She’s a cleaned-up floozy, and later, when Ali comes to appreciate the scope of his predicament, he will say, “I live in a country that doesn’t want me, with a woman that I bought.”
The attraction between Thomas and Laura is almost immediate, fuelled by booze — Ali’s, in fact.
“Laura is a pretty woman,” he tells Thomas. “Why shouldn’t you look?” He brings Thomas to a beach party and encourages him to dance with his wife while he goes off to pass out somewhere. When Thomas goes to find him, Ali is drunkenly slipping off the edge of a cliff, and there’s a moment when Thomas hesitates: you wonder if he’ll save the husband, and you wonder how long it will take before he decides not to.
The heat of the passion between Thomas and Laura comes quickly; there’s a scene where Ali and Laura go outside to investigate a noise in the woods and Laura backs up into the darkness and the man she knows is waiting there, a terrible chance to take for a quick embrace. But the passion is seen only in passing. This isn’t a film about sexual heat as much as it is about economic desperation.
Jerichow (the name of a German town) has such a dark propulsion that only later do you realize what we’ve been shown about this society, with its ugly, unadorned roadsides and featureless homes. The lack of money changes things; cheating on the boss and cheating on the husband come to mean the same thing. “You can’t love if you don’t have money,” says Laura.
A lover’s triangle like this needs archetypes to engage us, but Jerichow gives them an unfamiliar subtlety: Laura is a femme fatale, but a hesitant one; Thomas is the handsome lug (Furmann has a familiar look: you see bits of Woody Harrelson and Dwayne Johnson), but he has a good heart; and Ali is a tragic figure not just because he is a betrayed husband, but because he is part of a larger betrayal: economic, cultural and medical. In the stripped-down drama of Jerichow, the postman rings only once.