The low-simmering German potboiler Jerichow is a reworking of James M. Cain’s oft-filmed The Postman Always Rings Twice, and that’s obvious from the start: There’s a wandering rogue (Benno Fürmann), his clueless employer (Hilmi Sözer), his smokin’ wife (Nina Hoss), sweaty adultery and a murder scheme. But given that Jerichow diverges from its inspiration at a crucial point, it’s clear writer-
director Christian Petzold (Yella) seeks to use a familiar tale so as to subvert it.
Far from a John Garfield-in-the-1946-Tay-Garnett-version, Fürmann is a taciturn, bullet-headed badass with some martial arts prowess—think: an even-quieter, humorless Jason Statham—introduced at his mother’s funeral soon after being dishonorably discharged from the military. Smacked about and left for dead by debt-collecting ruffians, he finds little work besides serving as driver for Sözer, a dumpy, hard-drinking owner of roadside snack bars. More important, Sözer owns the disproportionately hotcha Hoss, a fatale with a past and a deep-seated hatred for the man who paid off her significant debts in exchange for a lifetime of marriage.
It’s not long before Fürmann and Hoss are pawing at each other behind Sözer’s back, but rather than the bump-’n’-grind theatrics Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange performed in the Bob Rafelson-David Mamet Postman, Jerichow’s lovers are far more reserved. When Fürmann first plants his lips on Hoss, her reaction is violent disgust, and their passions never remotely approach roiling.
Sex isn’t what drives Jerichow’s neo-noir characters. Rather, Petzold is interested in class and money, stressing the Depression, during which Cain wrote his terse page-turner. Money, and lack thereof, is the primary drive of every character, none of whom have much. Sözer, a Turkish immigrant, sends money home to relatives, while the autonomy-seeking Hoss announces, “You can’t love if you don’t have money.”
Like Fürmann, Hoss is a far cry from fatales like Lange and Lana Turner; she’s tough, grounded, angry but at times surprisingly sensitive. Petzold allows each character to blossom into three dimensions even as his story is told with a Cain-like efficiency. (The length: a succinct 93 minutes.) He directs with an unaffected calm that’s not artfully distant though still not juiceless.
Still, even making cliches human is a bit of a cliche, and Jerichow is well-executed but a touch too self-satisfied. Petzold is a talent to watch, but he’s yet to develop a shtick that’s truly surprising. B