Jerichow isn’t really an adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, at least not any more than Transit is an adaptation of Casablanca or Undine an adaptation of The Little Mermaid. Christian Petzold doesn’t translate familiar stories to the screen so much as he climbs deep inside of them and digs out their hearts, smuggling crime melodrama into the quiet rhythms and forms of 21st century arthouse style. He strips the source material of all its baggage: James M. Cain’s brutal noir language; the Hollywood glamour of Lana Turner and James Garfield’s iconic performances in the 1946 Tay Garnett adaptation; the perverse suspense of the “will they get away with it?” thriller mystery. What’s left are a lot of questions and a few diamond-hard truths: that in our world, people are money and money is people; that love — of country, of home, of family, of another person — is for suckers; and that the evil that you put into the world will find you in the end.
Benno Fürmann plays the down-on-his-luck vet who gets a job working for Hilmi Sözer’s snack bar impresario and his wife, played by Nina Hoss. She doesn’t particularly like him, but she owes a lot of money and being married to him is the only way she can avoid paying off her debts. Slowly, wordlessly, Hoss and Fürmann begin an affair, furtive snatches of making out when Sözer is just out of view, leading to the inevitable implied question: will you kill my husband for me? Hoss is a better fit for the part of Cain’s femme fatale, her beauty more run down and exhausted than Turner’s. Fürmann plays the hero (if you can call him that) as a blank-slate everyman; there are hints of past mistakes, but he’s more sentimental than the character in Cain’s novel, driven by what might be genuine feelings for Hoss, rather than pure self-immolating lust. Sözer’s performance is the most energetic of the trio, grafting a diabolical and cruel edge to a character who in the novel is more gross and pathetic than truly evil. None of them are good people, but Petzold leaves open the question of just how evil Hoss truly is. We see her only as the men do: from the outside, from a distance. Is she really in love with Fürmann or merely using him? Importantly, we’ll never know.
Petzold builds the drama slowly, bit by bit, emphasizing Sözer’s cleverness and paranoia and Fürmann’s calm intelligence, more than the passion of the illicit affair. It’s only in the final third that the familiar story clicks into place and the two lovers hatch their murder plot., but Petzold pulls a final twist: there is to be no murder after all, though there is a death. Whether our two lovers get blamed for it anyway is left hanging in the wake of a sharp cut to black. Will they be punished for a crime they didn’t commit, will they get away with it and live happily ever after, or will they escape legal difficulties only to be tortured by the memory that their infidelity led to a man’s doom? How you answer probably says a lot about nothing less than your understanding of the moral framework of the universe.
Part of Christian Petzold: In the Cut.