Jerichow (2008)

Directed by Christian Petzold

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Jerichow is a film about three people who are absolutely stuck.  They are a middle-aged man, Ali (Hilmi Sözer), his younger wife Laura (Nina Hoss) and their new employee, Thomas (Benno Fürmann).  This being a Christian Petzold film there is a baseline of isolation, meaning that a certain degree of loneliness looms large over each of them.

Ali is an alcoholic with jealousy issues who later learns he might be quite sick, Laura has severe debts from which she is only saved by her loveless marriage to Ali, and we first meet Thomas at his mother’s funeral, soon after which he is knocked unconscious by the thugs to whom he owes what little money he has remaining.

Thomas meets Ali when the Ali drunkenly crashes his car into the shallows of a river.  Thomas takes the blame when the police interrogate Ali, threatening to take away his license, and endears himself to the older man.  Soon after when Ali does lose his license he asks Thomas to work for him and drive him around.

Once inside the operation it’s just these three central characters, almost as if they are the only people left on earth.  We spend time on the road, at Ali’s house swallowed up with privacy in the woods, at a quiet beach and even at an airport which looks utterly abandoned save for our protagonists.

The isolation is palpable and purgatory-like, adding that much more weight to what the characters already feel.  After Laura and Thomas develop an almost instantaneous love affair, they conspire to work Ali out of the picture.  Having signed a pre-nuptial agreement, Laura tells Thomas that should she leave him she will have less than nothing, only the significant debts which Ali currently covers.

So they are stuck.

They come up with a plan to tie up all these loose ends like you’d find in a film noir, specifically Double Indemnity, but Jerichow is more concerned with the moments in between plot points, the desire, fear and tenuous human connection.  This has the flavor of a film noir but remains a character study all the way through.

It’s completely fascinating.  These characters all receive some of our empathy, with none of them easy to write off as they might be in another version of this text.  They all have weighty ideas on their mind, they’re all struggling in their own way, and to simply be content seems a distant proposition for each of them.

The passion itself comes from this same desperation, all the more fiery because optimism on its own is such an uphill battle.  It’s as if to even stand a chance at survival they have to jump all in, throw their best punch right at the start.

That sense of isolation and perhaps even doom is so stark that it provides an unlikely urgency to everything that happens here.  Even as the film takes its time and gives you the sense that nothing moves in this world, not even the breeze, there’s a feeling that they are all slowly disappearing like Marty McFly and his siblings in the photo from Back to the Future.  They have to fight with everything they have just to remain tangible.

And that has more to do with Petzold’s work as a whole than just this film.  There’s an undercurrent of disconnect in his films.  Characters exist in isolation and any meaningful relationship develops after the film begins, as if they have no friends, family or lovers before the story begins.  To just reach someone is a miracle, and so once they do they hold on with everything they’ve got.

In the end, however, the world fights back and maintains a certain oppressing sense of order.  Everything falls back into place, and if it were not for the characters’ predisposition to such sorrow it might feel like it was all collapsing.  As it is they return to the starting line, bound to keep searching for the same sense of connection and intimacy though with the same likelihood of success as Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the mountain.

Up Next: Pain and Glory (2019), Transsiberian (2008), In the Tall Grass (2019)

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