The New York Times recently crowned a leader of the German New Wave: Christian Petzold, director of Jerichow. He knows how to play the part, mixing an intellectual air, an independent aesthetic, and a concern for current socioeconomic issues. It’s enough to make a film critic drool.
But Petzold's hailing as an antidote to contemporary German cinema raises the question of whether contemporary German cinema needs an antidote. While films like Downfall and The Lives of Others may be concerned with the country’s dark past, humanity is their real subject. Both are sincere inquiries into the depth of human nature, often at its most brutal. That level of maturity is timeless.
Jerichow lacks such curiosity. Combining the melodrama of The Postman Always Rings Twice (which Petzold cites as an influence) with the desolate seriousness of an independent feature, it delivers the satisfaction of neither. The director could have combined the action of a film noir with the emotional depth of a character study. Instead, he gives us the action of a character study and the emotional depth of a film noir.
Set in the impoverished county from which the movie gets its name, Thomas (Benno Fürmann), a young veteran, finds himself broke. A chance encounter with Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a Turkish immigrant who owns a number of local fast-food joints, earns Thomas a delivery job and, later, the acquaintance of Ali's wife, Laura (Nina Hoss). Before you can say “love triangle,” the two Germans are shacking up.
For all its familiarity, this first act is grounded by its sense of realism. Ali is a paranoid, abusive alcoholic, but he’s no villain. Sözer grants him an air of isolated nobility, making him a sort of Daniel Plainview of food service. The setting is no existential desert — it’s just boring. It looks like one large expanse of road, dotted by snack shops. The affair is just as drab. Thomas and Laura seem to go through the motions out of a sense of obligation.
Shrouded in stoicism, these personalities keep the audience wanting more. It’s the Chekhov’s gun of the character study: A mysterious figure introduced in the first act will have his or her true nature exposed by the end. By keeping his characters concealed, Petzold’s builds our anxiety -- not to mention our expectations that we’ll finally learn who these people are.
Then the bottom falls out, as the narrative delves into film noir tropes that feel completely inconsistent with the world and characters Petzold has created. Thomas and Laura’s leaps in logic seem two-dimensional. Instead of revealing character, their choices seem solely to serve the pre-established plot. Thomas’ declarations of love are incongruous with everything we’ve seen. Laura is revealed as a thinly veiled femme fatale, without the charisma or wit.
A film is only as good as its ending, and after stacking one melodrama on top of another, the film climaxes with a laughable dramatic event. And when I say "laughable," I don't just mean it figuratively: Someone watching with me actually laughed at it. Me? I just threw my hands in the air in defeat.
Petzold is clearly an intelligent and skilled filmmaker, but he seems to lack faith in his own art form’s ability to enlighten, to show us that spark of humanity. The character study comes with a promise — that there is a character worth studying. He may accuse other filmmakers of looking backwards, but until Petzold delves deeper into his own characters, he’ll have trouble forging a way forward.