Written and Directed by Christian Petzold
Produced by Florian Koerner Von Gustorf and Michael Weber
Distributed by The Match Factory
“Berlin School” movies typically portray contemporary everyday life and pay keen attention to precise framing; they use extra-diegetic music and sound intermittently, and their austere mise-en-scènes inspire the audience’s reflection. Such an auteur aestheticism sparked the interest of movie buffs in Germany and abroad. French film critics from Cahiers du Cinema to Le Monde were especially enthusiastically about the Berlin School films, since they reminded them to some of the early works by Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol. Tellingly, French film journalists called the Berlin School “Nouvelle Vague Allemande.”
Christian Petzold, the most celebrated member of the Berlin School, is the also the writer and director of the neo-noir Jerichow (2009), which was made—as he cheerfully states, “in the cemetery of genre cinema.” Considering that film scholar Marco Abel recently called him “the most important German [End Page 71] director of the post-wall era,” Petzold’s penchant for popular pulp may come as a little surprise. As we will see, Jerichow harbors more depth than genre conventions typically ask for.
The film portrays Laura, an attractive woman who is married to an older Turkish immigrant named Ali. Their marriage is less than perfect because Ali, owner of a large stable of fast food restaurants in an East German hamlet, is an alcoholic and occasional wife-beater. Early on in the story, Ali hires Thomas, a stranded Afghanistan War veteran, who eventually begins a love affair with Laura. As the movie unfolds, we find out about Laura’s previous criminal record, and the large liabilities that her husband is paying off for her.
The multiethnic triangle of drifters coast along according to noir genre conventions, yet at the same time, Petzold walks on a tightrope in order to balance genre conventions with social critique. The precise cinematography bestows a succinct critique of late capitalism or “post-Fordian” consumer society. As repeatedly stated in interviews, this expresses, for Petzold, an economic situation in which blue-collar employment has vanished, and the chances for the working class look bleaker than ever.
In Petzold’s neo-noir world there are neither dark cityscapes with wet shiny streets, nor questions asked by a taciturn detective about the suspicious members of the triangle. Nevertheless, the DVD liner notes summarize the plot of the film with the following: “In a small desolate town in northeastern Germany, a handsome ex-soldier, a Turkish businessman, and his beautiful, restless wife find themselves in a desperate love triangle in this suspenseful reworking of the classic film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice.” To be sure, Jerichow’s narrative contains all these elements; however, Petzold’s adaptation pushes the noir aspects of the film into a different territory. The writer and director seems to be more invested in the social struggle against the onslaught of a post-Wall consumer society, and in an ever-growing service industry that will eventually commodify the entire workforce. Petzold’s skillful direction conveys these rapid changes, not on the content level of a failed love story, but through formal cinematic devices. Instead of focusing on the triangle, Petzold addresses the capitalist reconfiguration of spaces and the people inhabiting them. That is to say, Petzold’s amendment to the genre transmits the transformation of East Germany. Tellingly, Marco Abel sees Petzold’s images not merely as signs, which tell a story, but as an affective force with the ability to illustrate “a world in the process of becoming actual.”
Two main critical readings of the movie have emerged since its release in 2009. One, proposed by film scholar Jamie Fisher, explores the interweaving of amorous and economic life and the coldness and paranoia that pervades it. Making use of the noir genre tool kit, the film questions transnational immigration in new and unexpected constellations. According to Fisher, Jerichow successfully inverts the common message of tolerance found in many German migrant movies from the 1970s onward, and thus probes Turkish-German...