17 June 2009


Written & Directed by: Christian Petzold
Full credits from IMDb

Is James M. Cain’s 1934 bodice-ripper The Postman Always Rings Twice a novel rooted in steamy sex or in social conditions? Well, it depends on whom you ask; solicit an American’s opinion and you’re sure to hear that it’s about the sex. The hot, violent sex. Both Hollywood adaptations—Tay Garnett’s 1941 noir classic and Bob Rafelson’s less classic 1981 remake—are more focused on leggy blondes than on the worlds those bombshells inhabit; the post-production-code remake is especially known for its Nicholson on Lange lovemaking.

Luchino Visconti’s unauthorized 1941 adaptation Ossessione, recognized by many historians as the first Italian neo-realist film (a genre known for the authenticity of its cultural documentation), is sweltering in its own way, too, but clearly boasts a searing social component; it’s hard to separate the characters from the dusty rural poverty that they inhabit. Christian Petzold’s latest is a loose, unofficial adaptation of the same story, borrowing Cain’s love triangle—and, broadly, his characters—while relocating it to aughties Germany. And while the movie has a sexy fair-haired woman and some rough hallway-floor fucking (which leaves a bite mark on the hand the man had used as a gag), it’s less sultry than it is socio-economical.

Generally, Petzold keeps his camera a safe distance from the characters; his is a cool and observational style. Violent as some of the sex may be, it isn’t exactly hot. The director uses his screen-time to construct slowly a minimalist portrait of his homeland in crisis, expressed through three representative, microcosmic characters. Benno Fürmann, whose shelf-like brow strangely evokes Dwayne Johnson, stars as an Afghan War vet in the former East Germany who gets a job—and good jobs are hard to come by, as we see him early on slung over a machine, harvesting cucumbers—with a snack stand magnate (Hilmi Sözer); he’s a hirsute Greek who dances like Zorba and runs his business with his wife, a young and attractive girl (Nina Hoss) who’s obviously, aesthetically anyway, too good for him. She and Fürmann begin an affair and then plot to kill off her husband—a tricky proposition, as he’s the one paying down her enormous debt.

The earliest dialogue in Jerichow is about debts owed, and subsequently every scene involves money in some way, whether through dialogue or transaction. Times are tough, and every franchisee is looking for something extra, for a way to cheat the boss. Petzold paints a cynical view of a recessionary Germany, where capitalism has made a crook of everyone, not just financially but sexually, too. The film is rife with mentions of prison terms, dishonorable discharges, debt and depression, with depictions of unemployment, shitty odd jobs, betrayal, and immigrants. “I live in a country that doesn’t want me,” Sözer laments, “with a woman I bought.” (He’s an unusually complex cuckold.) A marriage is born of financial necessity; a love triangle is informed by money problems. Hoss outlines the theme when, late in the picture, she announces, “you can’t love if you don’t have money.” Welcome to Great-Recession cinema, now with less eroticism. Grade: B

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