Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 03, 2009 8:34 am 
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No need to ring twice

This German director's remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice has a harsh, pared-down intensity that leaves a lasting impression. The husband is a rich Turkish-German businessman, a bottom-feeder made good whom nobody wants around. He's really quite nice--and nice to the lean, muscled vet he takes on as a helper--except that he beats his wife. Ali (Hilmi Sözer) runs a bunch of fast food road joints. Thomas (Benno Fuermann) was dishonorably discharged from service in Afghanistan, is back in his old country home and needs work.

The opening scene shows Thomas at a funeral near the town of Jerichow, west of Berlin. A parent has just died and he wants to renovate the country house and live in it. He tries to hide some money from his brother to use for that. He gets caught, and knocked out. This is where Ali comes and asks Thomas to drive for him, because he's drunk.

Alienation is a big theme here. Bonds do not exist or if they do, are born of emptiness. Remember Faye Dunnaway's line to Jack Nicolson in Chinatown? "Are you alone?" and his reply: "Isn't everyone?" These folks are shut up in their cold little 'windowless monads,' to cite a German philosopher. Such also is the cold, ugly world of Forties American noir. Petzold has neatly transposed it to 21st-century Germany. It's what we don't know about Thomas, Ali, and Ali's wife Laura (Nina Hoss) that makes them interesting to us.

Petzold tells a simple, effective, highly focused story whose action is held together by the glue of bad behavior and suspicion.

Thomas isn't exactly a drifter like the John Garfield character in the 1946 original, but he comes close. The only job he can get is tossing cucumbers into a machine at harvest time. But after the frequently drunk Ali has his driving license revoked, he calls on Thomas to help him full time as driver and co-worker for the deliveries and collections from his roadside snackbars. Laura helps with the accounting, Laura and Thomas immediately meet, and before long they're sneaking kisses and more, with dangerous boldness, almost as if Ali were blind like the cuckolded husband in Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark (which is set in Germany).

Jerichow doesn't pause for a breath and has no frills or beauty--though the photography has an elegant clarity both in depicting the landscape and painting the light around the three characters. What we get is like a good short story. The spaces become vivid--the runs through heavy rain between houses, the cliff over the water where the victim will come to grief, the space between Laura and Thomas on a bed, the space between Laura's breasts and her thin print dress.

Unlike the films of Fatih Akim, this isn't from the Turkish-German's point of view, but Ali is not a simple rotter but a man of warmth and vulnerability as well as brutishness. He has lived in Germany since he was two but he remains an outsider. There is also the quality in this theme of feeding his wife's infidelity. He beats her, he cannot satisfy her, she does not like him. But none of that shows. He sees Thomas can handle responsibility and trusts him with runs on his own. It is possible to walk back and forth between the two houses. The three have a picnic on the beach when Ali gets drunk (as usual) and dances. He's angry when Thomas alludes to Zorba--the Greek! The final scene will return to this place. Petzold also has a clever plot device by which for a long period we don't know where Ali is and he may be spying on the illicit couple. Laura, of course, has nasty secrets too.

What Petold lacks of the cultural richness of Fatih Akin or sleazy atmosphere of Gotz Spielmann, he makes up with intensity and menace. Once in a while Forties noir finds a perfect contemporary match and this is such an occasion. Petzold is clearly a director of great understated sureness and accomplishment who deserves to be well known outside his native Germany. Hans Fromm's cinematography is an essential element here, and the performances are fine.

Opened in Germany January 9, 2009, scheduled for French release in April. Shown as part of the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, New York, February-March 2009.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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