In the German film noir Jerichow, leggy Nina Hoss plays an unhappily married blonde named Laura, and it’s no coincidence that she shares a name with the classic detective movie Laura from 1944. Filmmaker Christian Petzold uses Jerichow to revisit classic film noir themes, notably the violent intersection of physical desire and financial need. Jerichow sets up a romantic triangle with viciously sharp angles, but never generates much suspense.
The film intriguingly introduces its taciturn antihero, Thomas (Benno Fürmann), who wants to renovate his recently deceased mother’s house and owes money to a loan shark. The audience must piece together his backstory. He provides the barest hints about his background as an Afghan war vet, and explores a bleak new life of government assistance and day labor in German farm country. Thomas plays the good samaritan when his rich, drunken neighbor Ali Özkan (Hilmi Sözer) drives off the road. Owner of 45 area snack bars, Ali hires Thomas to be his new driver and right-hand man. Thomas quickly notices the run-down beauty of Ali’s wife Laura. He also notices that Ali has a brutal temper and frequently spies on Laura.
With so many shared resentments and such otherwise empty lives, it’s no surprise Thomas and Laura become illicitly attracted to each other. The temptations of forbidden love and its consummation have fueled some of the most smoldering films ever made, including The Postman Always Rings Twice and Zhang Yimou’s Ju Duo, which share similar three-way plots. In Jerichow, Petzold maintains such a detached perspective on the characters, and the actors hold so much in reserve, the audience barely invests in Thomas' and Laura’s fates. Paradoxically, they become less complicated and compelling as the film goes along.
As an abusive drunk, Ali hardly proves sympathetic, but Sözer’s emotionally transparent performance ensures the character holds our interest more than the secret lovers. We gather that Ali, a Turkish immigrant in Germany, drives himself as hard as the people around him and suspect he’s well aware that he has little to show for his material success. Jerichow is the name of a coastal region of Eastern Europe, and the setting and Ali’s character provide some of the film’s subtext. After the fall of Communism, immigrants like Ali come in to provide the capitalism.
Like the recent Austrian crime drama Revanche, Jerichow places a tale of adultery and potential bloodshed amid sunlit farmland and sheltering forests. Jerichow, however, never builds enough tension to fill the empty, open spaces.