A tightly constructed “dramatic thriller” in which the tension comes as much from what the characters are thinking as from what they end up doing, “Jerichow” again confirms writer-helmer Christian Petzold (“Yella,” “The State I Am In”) as a world-class talent who remains underappreciated beyond Germany. Incisively crafted, “Postman Always Rings Twice”-like tale of a brutish husband, a beautful bored wife and a handsome stranger is too small to make any big B.O. walls come tumbling down. But the pic looks set for an honorable fest life, with some upscale niche distribution a possibility.
From the opening Steadicam shot, following the back of the main character, Thomas (Benno Fuermann), at a funeral, it’s clear for those who know the director’s work that the pic could only have been made by Petzold. Hans Fromm’s rich (but not ripe) lensing of the east German countryside, and the way in which the camera plunges the viewer straight into the psychological heart of the action, are instant trademarks as the film steers the viewer through a no-flab 91 minutes with absolute precision.
A dishonorably discharged Afghanistan vet, Thomas has come home for his mom’s funeral in the tiny town of Jerichow, west of Berlin. (The area is essentially the same as in “Yella” — a beautiful but economically depressed region by the River Elbe, near Wittenberge.) Powerful opening reel, with sudden outbursts of anger and unexpected violence as Thomas is held accountable for his mom’s debts, sets the film’s edgy tone.
While the penniless Thomas stays on at the vacant family house, a serendipitous event alters his whole life. Ali Ozkan (Hilmi Sozer), the Turkish-German owner of 45 takeout joints in the area, crashes his car while drunk, and when his driver’s license is suspended, he offers Thomas a job as his driver.
As soon as Ali’s blonde German wife, Laura (Nina Hoss, “Yella”), appears on the horizon, one doesn’t need to be a student of James M. Cain or Luchino Visconti to know where things are headed. Even though she’s initially distant, willowy Laura is soon canoodling with hunky Thomas behind Ali’s back. And when Ali says he’s going off to Turkey for a few days, the seeds are sown for dark deeds.
“Jerichow” is the second film this year, following Vasilis Douvlis’ “The Homecoming,” to riff on “Postman” in interesting ways. In “Jerichow,” Petzold creates his own typical atmosphere of not knowing what is coming next, keeping the audience on tenterhooks over exactly how much each character knows about or cares for the other two.
The film creates some initial unease by making Ali the boss and Thomas his penurious employee, reversing the usual German-Turkish relationships in Teuton movies. But how much Ali knows about the Thomas-Laura relationship, and whether he is deliberately setting them up, are two of several questions left hanging for much of the picture.
Performance by Sozer (like Hoss and Fuermann, a Petzold regular) is the binding element in the drama, making Ali a character who’s only half-unsympathetic. (One beautifully written line near the end sums up his feelings.) Hoss is perhaps least likable as the abused but still resourceful wife; Fuermann plays the blankest, and perhaps the weakest-written character of the three.
Though it lacks the emotional complexity and mystical edge of “Yella,” “Jerichow,” with its clean dramatic arc, is overall better shaped. The sudden ending says everything about the characters’ futures — as the viewer has, in effect, been given strong hints about it already.
The regular tech crew ensures a smooth package, while Fromm creates a kind of deserted rural paradise out of the summery, northeast German locations.