For most of us, eastern Germany remains something of a mystery. That is one of the interesting aspects of Christian Petzold's recent filmmaking: he takes us into this unknown land. In Yella he moved relentlessly between east and west, contrasting the brutal capitalism of the west with the bucolic, but also violent, east. In Jerichow, he moves entirely into the east. Here it is the wooded coastal territory of northeastern Germany - nearly devoid of human beings. And once again we have a plot that is inspired by classic American cinema: whereas Yella was based on the 1960's cult horror classic Carnival of the Souls, Jerichow is a reprise of the film noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
But the love triangle in Jerichow is the least interesting (and least convincing) aspect of Jerichow. What is compelling here is rather the mood and the underlying sociology of a economically ruined region. Thomas (Benno Fürmann) is a taciturn veteran of the Afghanistan mission who was dishonorably discharged from the Bundeswehr. He returns to Jerichow in the east to reclaim the home of his dead mother and in the process gets into deep water with some local loan sharks. His path crosses that of Laura (Nina Hoss - to my mind, the best film actress in Germany) who has married a Turkish-German entrepreneur because of her personal debts. Going deep into debt- legitimately or not - seems the only way to survive in this hostile land. The only success story here is Laura's husband Ali (Hilmi Sözer). an entrepreneur who has built up a chain of snack bars. Ali's employees are all immigrants - Vietnamese or Turkish.
As in Yella, Petzold excels at showing the nuts and bolts of running a business enterprise - the underbelly of capitalism seems to fascinate him. Ali - the "foreigner" despite growing up in Germany - is a success, whereas the "Germans" in the film are all abject failures. Still, Alis despairs: his employees are robbing him blind, he is insanely jealous of his wife, whom he admits he had to "buy". And now his beautiful wife and his driver (Thomas) are conspiring to kill him.
Of the three protagonists in the film, Nina Hoss's character is disappointingly circumscribed and she doesn't have the same opportunity as she did in Yella to display her impressive range as an actress. It is the Hilmi Sözer character who carries the film. He is truly a tragic figure and one can sense that Petzold sees in him a tragedy for his nation. For Ali is representative of the millions of immigrants in Germany who live uneasily between cultures. They bring vitality into a dead landscape, but in the end are despised as outsiders. They must be eliminated.
Christian Petzold is the most talented filmaker of the complex realities of post-Wende Germany.