Jerichow (Germany 2008)

Laura (Nina Hoss) with Ali (Hilmi Sözer)

Christian Petzold’s new film Undine is due for release in the UK in the next few weeks. In the meantime, MUBI have announced a Petzold season and the first title that has popped up is this film from 2008. I actually bought the DVD of this title from Germany a few years ago but, as is often the case, I didn’t have time to watch it when it arrived so this was a real treat with the knowledge that whatever happened I could finish it this time round. We are big Petzold fans on this blog and possibly even bigger Nina Hoss fans. She stars in this alongside Benno Fürmann who I remember from an early Thomas Tykwer film The Princess and the Warrior (Germany 2000).

Thomas (Benno Fürmann) contemplates a bitemark on his hand made by Laura

In Jerichow Fürmann is Thomas, who has recently left the Germany army with a dishonourable discharge after a stint in Afghanistan. He has returned to his mother’s house in Jerichow, a scattered community along the Eastern bank of the River Elbe in the East of Germany. His mother has just died and after an altercation with a gangster acquaintance he finds himself penniless. But soon he gets a job with Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a retail entrepreneur who runs a chain of local snack bars and, having lost his licence, needs a driver. Nina Hoss plays his wife Laura. Thomas quickly spots that Laura is abused and eager for a new man. At this point, most critics make a reference to James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice first published in 1934 and filmed at least four times in direct adaptations.

There is a lot of spying on other characters in the film . . .

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I find the few online reviews rather baffling. Christian Petzold had already emerged as one of the first of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ to get wider recognition outside Germany and this film played in competition at Venice in 2008. Petzold had already achieved a profile outside Germany with Yella (2007) which also starred Nina Hoss and explored capitalism in the new Germany (i.e. from the perspective of East Germans). Prior to that Nina Hoss and Benno Fürmann had been paired in Petzold’s Wolfsburg (2003) which I haven’t managed to find yet.

Ali and Laura together

Part of the problem for critics, especially in North America I think, is the temptation to make the James M. Cain inspiration more important than it is. The context for the triangular relationship is not the Great Depression of the 1930s but East Germany less than 20 years after re-unification. In addition, Ali is an important character as a Turkish entrepreneur whose chain of snack bars includes some run by other migrants. Ali is a complex character. Some readings suggest he is named in reference to the character in Fassbinder’s film Fear Eats the Soul (1974) but that film takes place in the early 1970s in West Germany, in a period when Turks in Germany were just beginning to think about what would happen after the Gastarbeiter scheme ended in 1973. (And Fassbinder’s Ali is Moroccan, not Turkish). Perhaps Ali had been brought to West Germany as a child in 1973/4? Though Petzold gives us some background to Ali’s plans (to return to Turkey, buying a house in the Taurus Mountains), he doesn’t develop this as Turkish-German directors such as Fatih Akin might do. (I note from a Senses of Cinema essay on Petzold that he deliberately attempted to respond to the Gastarbeiter films in Jerichow – but I don’t know which films these might be.) The focus in Jerichow is on the economic impact of reunification on East Germany. The location of Jerichow is significant in that the Elbe was earlier part of the border between West and East Germany. (The filming was actually carried out in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern nearer the Baltic Sea coast.)

The beach is a key location. Ali is attempting a Greek dance.

Jerichow offers an almost procedural study of the snackbar business. Ali soon susses out that Thomas has the intelligence and the skills (including hand to hand fighting) to quickly learn the business and take over while Ali briefly visits Turkey. Ali explains that many of the operators of the snack bars attempt to pocket small amounts of money which over time can mean that he loses a substantial sum. On occasions Ali terminates their contracts and gets someone else to take over. Ali then takes Thomas to a supplier where they spy on Laura. Is she also ‘on the take’ or is she having an affair? I don’t want to spoil more of the plot but it is important to note that Laura’s marriage to Ali is about money and at one point she rejects Thomas with the cry that nothing is about love, it’s all about money. We get only a little background on Laura and nothing about Thomas apart from the intimation that he had an East German childhood. Ali presumably grew up in West Germany and I’m not sure about Laura. Would the German audience notice things I’ve missed?

Several reviews suggest that Laura and Thomas have a very cold relationship. It’s complicated because their sexual attraction is obvious but Laura must be affected by Ali’s abuse. At one point Ali pushes the two of them together to dance, almost as if he is showing off Laura to Thomas. Rather than the film noir about a doomed man who would be the Thomas character in the earlier adaptations, Petzold’s film is a character-driven acting tour de force in which money underpins the lives of all three characters. The ending of the narrative moves further away from the Cain novel. It makes more sense to view the film alongside Yella than to think about it as an adaptation. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more interest in the UK in looking at Petzold’s output since his first fiction feature in 2000. Nine films in 20 years would make a good season and Nina Hoss appears in five. She is also due more exposure. I should also add that Jerichow features several important collaborators who have been with Petzold on many of his features including cinematographer Hans Fromm, editor Bettina Böhler and music composer Stefan Will. There is more to say about this film and I hope to return to it at some point.

2 comments

  1. Matt

    I’d assumed Laura was an Ossie, but she makes far more sense as a Wessie. Wow. Now I must watch it again! The review for Jerichow mentioned it was based on The Postman Always Rings Twice, but I quickly realized that similarity was only surface, the respective Leitmotifs and characters’ dilemmas not at all aligned.

    Jerichow and Yella are both full of allegory and definitely form two sides of a coin. The latter explores choosing between leaping into the freedom of capitalism with its jolting greed and amorality vs. getting dragged back into the familiar but abusive collectivism, as represented by the stalking ex-boyfriend. These themes are also explored in Barbara, albeit in a more straightforward way, and the Russian film, The Return, even more allegorical.

    Despite its many terrible, oppressive aspects, in the DDR existed a positive ethos of community and of being a good fellow citizen. There was comfort in knowing that if you followed the rules and put in the work, a marginally positive outcome was assured. East Germans struggled mightily to adapt to Western economics and culture, with its risks and individualism.

    Some were more prepared than others. Of my former in-laws, the surgeon’s reality shared many aspects with Barbara’s. Devoted to helping others, he still griped about limited equipment and supplies. He also was well aware his salary was minuscule compared to the West. Too intelligent to swallow the Party line, he was smart enough not to rock the boat. His resistance was in free thought, not free action.

    The locomotive factory foreman’s experience in ways paralleled Thomas’ and Yella’s arc. Before the Wall fell, he yearned for just a bit more freedom: ‘I’d like to visit France or see Amerika — I’m tired of camping in Hungary every Summer.’ He earned as much as his son-in-law, the surgeon, but wanted more and better consumer goods to spend it on. But after unification, struggling to adapt to the new business model, he once boozily declared, ‘I want the Wall back, and higher!’

    It’s hard to describe this in words, much less in a blog comment. Suffice it to say that Petzold has captured it all to perfection, with nuance, empathy, and profundity.

    Liked by 1 person

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