“You can’t love if you don’t have money”
The titular town of Jerichow as shown onscreen by writer/director Christian Petzold is hardly one of paradise yet still very much of “home.” It’s where dishonorably discharged ex-Army man Thomas (Benno Fürmann) runs to without a word to his employer (in part due to stealing a few bucks), his mother’s death sparking the return while her empty house provides a reason to stay. And it’s where Turkish immigrant Ali (Hilmi Sözer) has set-up shop with wife Laura (Nina Hoss), their snack shack enterprise keeping them solvent and comfortable even if their relationship is obviously strained. To us this German locale is empty bus stops and woodland forests, a quiet ghost town allowing the demons haunting all three to remain permanent residents just below their stoic façades.
They collide by chance, Ali’s drunkard driving off the road close enough for Thomas to rush to help. The incident proves the latter’s mettle and the former doesn’t forget when losing his license after falling prey to the drink again. So Ali hires Thomas as his driver, taking his truck of food supplies to unload at each snack counter while he deals with the previous day’s financials. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship since Ali has always found it difficult to hire people he can trust and Thomas is in dire straits as far as salary goes. The former military man reveals his battle skills to disarm an aggressive employee, earning his new boss’ respect. That said, however, he and Laura eventually spark an affair under Ali’s nose anyway.
This is the film’s dramatic center because their love triangle can only form from each having secrets. There’s a reason Laura is unhappy and willing to stray. There’s a reason Ali has taken to the bottle to wallow in self-pity and numb his pain with inebriated dance. And there’s definitely reason for Thomas to play both sides, his desire for love and security warring within. They’ve been deliberately thrown together to ratchet up the potential for explosion, their close proximity allowing us to notice Ali’s paranoia, Laura’s brazenness, and Thomas’ brooding dislike of being underestimated or used. Admitting the script was loosely based on James M. Cain‘s The Postman Always Rings Twice may give away some surprises, but I’d argue there are few if you look close enough.
It’s a testament to Petzold (and surely Cain) that this is true. We’re given the details necessary to accept motivations and actions even if we’re also given some others to successfully shield the truth. The filmmaker plays on our human nature and desire for melodrama and suspense. Petzold knows that our instincts are to crave a massive confrontation between them and so we pay special attention to weaknesses positioning just such a climactic finale. Yes it can come across as silly, but that’s kind of the point. We can laugh at how Thomas and Laura’s sexual trysts are interrupted by Ali’s drunken calls from the next room. And we laugh at how Thomas seizes up every time Ali has him follow his wife to see if she’s cheating.
These broad strokes are meant to push us to the edge of our seats in expectation of either an over-the-top scheme to dispatch of Ali or an emotionally charged fit of violent rage that could leave Ali above the dead bodies of those who wronged him. We revel in Thomas sneaking through the woods to see Laura—his shadowy embrace of her mere feet from her husband a means to presume there will be a slip up soon rather than a display to provide heightened sexuality. In all honesty, all the sex and romance involved is for this purpose. It makes us pause to wonder if someone is around the corner watching. It has us interested in what we can’t see more than what we can.
We watch love triangles to see the ramifications of their deceit and therefore anticipate any potential result. The notion Ali will be gone for a few days allows an exploration period for Thomas and Laura’s relationship but his deception as far as where he’s going reveals an avenue for us to believe the end is nigh. Our heads are on a swivel just as Laura takes extreme measures to prevent neighbors in a similar position from seeing where she goes and what she does. We’ve watched Ali sneaking around corners for half the film and expect to find him in the background now too. So when the climax arrives and the truth reaches its breaking point, Petzold is faced with the dilemma of supplying straightforwardness or dramatic license.
If you’ve ever seen his films, you know he chooses the latter. This is a welcome result too because Jerichow is perhaps the director’s most conventional work as far as intention and trajectory. It’s no less great or effective, but there’s a distinct feeling that the type of uncertainty in assuming possibilities held during the past was gone. This tale could only end one of maybe three or four ways so the suspense lies in how that result unfolds. Petzold is a master at throwing curveballs even in this situation so the act we expect becomes less important than the emotional release of those engaged within. He anticipates his characters’ expectations along with ours so that they can be walked to their own edge of sanity.
It culminates in a stirringly abrupt ending wherein feelings of love and emboldened power must be examined deeper than surfaces allow. What occurs causes us to question the definition of love and whether or not the warped situations presented don’t possess a level of compassion and empathy beneath them after all. Normally we’re supposed to root for the new couplet, the hero excising an victim of abuse (psychologically, physically, or both) from a figure of checkered morality. That isn’t the case here. Ali is in no way innocent or good in the traditional sense of the words, but Thomas and Laura are hardly any better. They’re all simultaneously sympathetic and selfish to the point where any victory for those who survive becomes forever tainted by guilt and regret.