Retooled noir with less pulp than its original source, Christian Petzold's Jerichow wryly riffs on The Postman Always Rings Twice for late-capitalist Deutschland. Mostly cool where James M. Cain's 1934 novel and the 1946 and 1981 film versions run hot, Jerichow is interested less in the frictions of bodies rubbing up against each other than in the static of class and cultural tensions as wads of euros exchange hands. As in Petzold's previous movie, Yella, which focuses on protagonists a few rungs higher on the socioeconomic scale, the dehumanizing qualities of commerce drive the narrative. But where the earlier film lost some of its punch to a cheap plot contrivance, the tight twists and turns of Jerichow suggest that Petzold has become a far more robust storyteller.
Dishonorably discharged after serving in Afghanistan, tight-lipped tough guy Thomas (Benno Fürmann) is first seen leaving his mother's funeral, then returning to her home, where he's roughed up by some debt-collecting baddies. The only work available to the strapping ex-soldier is cucumber harvesting — though his job prospects quickly change after meeting Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a boozy, doughy Turkish immigrant who owns several roadside snack bars, dutifully assisted by his foxy, reserved wife, Laura (Petzold regular Nina Hoss). Ali hires Thomas as a driver, taking such a liking to the roughneck that he asks him to be the third wheel at a seaside picnic. As Ali walks off in a drunken stupor, Laura and Thomas kiss, unleashing the lust that will fuel their betrayal of the violently jealous, sickly junk-food magnate — who has a few schemes of his own.
Cain's novel, set in Depression-era America, finds a fitting update in the impoverished titular town of northeastern Germany. As he did with the soulless hotel rooms and office buildings in Yella, cinematographer Hans Fromm magnificently captures the desolate highways dotted with miserable-looking snack shacks and the warehouses that supply Ali's chain with greasy, empty calories.
And, as in Cain's work, love has a price in Jerichow: "You can't love if you don't have money," Laura, who once served two years in jail, tells Thomas, explaining that she married Ali because he offered to pay back her enormous debts — on the condition that she never leave him. Unlike Lana Turner's va-va-voom cheesecake in Tay Garnett's '46 Postman, Hoss is a harder, leaner, cowboy-booted femme and not quite as fatale, part of Petzold's spartan take on the noir nugget. Hoss's adulterous scenes with Fürmann may peak with the drawing of blood (in a gender inversion of a similar scene in Cain's book), but most of the libidinal- and id-driven urges are stoked by cash, or at least the hope of financial independence.
As the obtuse angle in the love triangle, Ali, who tells Thomas that he was two when his family left Turkey, starts out pitiful before becoming contemptible and, finally, human, his tentative swagger constantly undermined by his outsider status. That Ali — who spies on his wife and knocks her around, and plays the occasional power-tripping mind game with Thomas — ends up earning some of our sympathy is a testament to both Petzold's smart script and Sözer's deeply nuanced performance, a trait shared by his two castmates.
"I live in a country that doesn't want me with a woman that I bought," the Turk says, the admission of a broken, pathetic man all too aware of the worthlessness of his riches. Though their blood may be true-blue Teuton, Laura and Thomas are devoid of even Ali's most basic level of self-understanding, further blinded by their own malevolent plotting. Jerichow forgoes the prolonged double-crosses of The Postman Always Rings Twice, its simpler ending made all the more powerful — and a little heartbreaking.