Thursday, 18 June 2009

Jerichow - Edinburgh International Film Festival review

First things first: I must confess to being a fan of Christian Petzold’s work, such that the semi-annual appearance of his latest film usually represents one of the highlights of the EIFF for me.

For the uninitiated, the German director specialises in well-crafted, slow-burn thrillers. They demand a higher degree of viewer involvement than most comparable Hollywood product, but are not as hermetic as those of, say, Michael Haneke.

Petzold’s clinical, restrained mise-en-scene, all the better to accentuate the moments of sudden violence, does recall Michael Haneke somewhat. But there also is no question that Petzold is his own film-maker. This is particularly signalled by that issues around German identity that Fateh Akin would foreground here being a bit more subtextual.

The title refers to the location in North-Eastern Germany, near Rostock on the Baltic Sea coast, where the action, centring round a triangle of characters, takes place.

The first, Thomas, is an ex-soldier. He’s someone we can infer grew up in the DDR and to whom life has not been particularly kind. He was dishonourably discharged from the army after serving in Afghanistan – a stain on his character that’s deliberately left underexplored. After failing to keep his savings from a creditor now has no money with which to do up the family home, now his after the death of his mother.

The second, Ali, is a Turkish-German businessman. He came to the BDR when he was two years old and has established a chain of 45 fast food places in the area. Perhaps through the pressures of his job – his employees, many of them fellow migrants, cannot be trusted – he has a tendency to drink too much.

A chance encounter when Ali, drunk again, drives his Range Rover into a ditch, leads to Thomas being hired by Ali as his driver and, after the ex-soldier demonstrates that knows how to handle himself and when to keep quiet, general trusted right-hand.

It would be a perfect relationship but for the third point in the triangle, Ali’s wife Laura. Theirs is a curious relationship. She’s younger and considerably more attractive than Ali, yet she works hard for his business rather than taking things easy in the trophy wife manner that might be expected. She’s also, of course, a ‘true’ German like Thomas.

One day the three of them head to the coast for a picnic, during which the drunken Ali encourages Thomas and Laura to dance together. Ali then goes up a cliff, which collapses beneath him. After a highly significant moment of hesitation and exchange of reaction shots between Thomas and Laura, Thomas rushes to Ali’s aid and hauls him back to safety.

As Thomas and Laura embark on an affair under the always suspicious Ali’s nose, they begin to hatch a murderous scheme…

At this point it becomes clear, if the viewer had not realised it earlier, that Jerichow is a interpretation of James M. Cain’s oft-filmed novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Crucially, however, Petzold again makes some interventions of his own, as we begin to wonder whether it is not so much that the postman always rings twice as that sometimes he doesn’t ring at all or perhaps only once – and even then, maybe not in the manner anticipated…

Another of Petzold’s strengths is his ability to draw the best from his actors. Jerichow proves no exception, with Benno Fürmann, Nina Hoss and Hilmi Sözer delivering nuanced, credible performances and playing off one another well.

Technically the film is accomplished, with good cinematography and sound design in particular.

In sum, strongly recommended.

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