Everyone here cheats on me.
—Ali (Hilmi Sözer)
Ali Ozkan (Hilmi Sözer) is a miserable drunk who beats his wife. First spotted in Jerichow as he lumbers from his car, having driven it off a riverside road into the water, Ali plops to the ground and waits. Coming up behind him, grocery sacks in hand, Thomas (Benno Fürmann) is perplexed by Ali’s apparent passivity. Persuaded to help out, Thomas sets up a line to haul the car out and then climbs into the driver’s seat, espying a pile of cash on the passenger’s side just as a cop arrives on the scene. When the officer suggests that Mr. Ozkan take a breath test, he agrees, but also denies he was driving the vehicle. “Who was driving?” asks the cop. Thomas says he was and the cop shakes his head, unconvinced.
It’s the beginning of something more complicated than a friendship for Thomas and Ali. The older man, who boasts that he runs some 45 snack shops in the titular East German province, seems a standard issue small-time bully, just as Thomas looks to be a more or less regular ex-con. Hard-bodied and skilled in martial arts and weaponry (he’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan), he’s had experience as well as a gangster and target of an angry boss: the film opens as he’s leaving his dear mother’s funeral, whereupon he’s accosted by a nasty-faced guy who wants the money he’s owed.
This sequence ends much as you’d expect: Thomas suffers some swiftly delivered abuse, waking bloodied and aching in his mother’s backyard, a deer grazing nearby. The brief peace of this image is nearly eerie, and Thomas harbors no illusions. Knowing he’ll need to make some money somehow, he heads on over to the employment office, where the clerk looks at him skeptically. Didn’t he receive a discharge bonus when he left the military, she asks. “I got a dishonorable discharge,” answers Thomas.
That we don’t learn the exact reason for Thomas’ release is to Jerichow‘s credit. (And frankly, even if he did offer an explanation of what happened, you wouldn’t necessarily believe him.) With a plot inspired by The Postman Always Rings Twice and a terrific tension between precise visual compositions and crude emotions, Christian Petzold’s movie never quite resolves its storyline or anyone’s motives. Thomas and Ali are both reckless, unseemly men, arrogant as well as pissed off. They are, in some way, an apt pairing, each appreciating in the other what he doesn’t have. When Thomas spends a day on the job the clerk finds for him—picking cucumbers, surrounded by equally miserable laborers, filthy and exhausted—he is determined to find another way. As it happens, Ali, a Turkish immigrant, is busted one time too many for drunk driving and so loses his license. In need of someone to take him on his daily rounds of the snack shops, making deliveries and picking up payments, Ali convinces his new buddy to get paid.
Their first few outings suggest these guys are made for each other. When Ali “tests” Thomas with a basic resources management question, he almost immediately apologizes (“I was just acting bossy,” he says). A few minutes later, when Ali gets “bossy” with one of his worker, slapping him for cheating, Thomas steps in without thinking to protect him from a second guy with a knife. Ali’s impressed with his aptitude for violence (“Were you in the army?”) and Thomas, for his part, seems willing to let the older, sometimes confused, always out of place man admire him.
As much as the men seem fated to partner, they are, of course, essentially split by one thing, namely, Ali’s wife Laura (Nina Hoss). Though she serves a conventional noiry purpose—the femme fatale who will encourage one man to turn on the other—she’s actually introduced apart from both men, driving alone, listening to Nülifer’s outrageously impassioned “Karar Verdim” on her radio. Her face set and her frame tight, Laura is plainly itching for options. She looks on Thomas with a mild class disdain mixed with plain sexual interest, even as Ali repeatedly puts them together, most spectacularly when he gets to drinking during a beach picnic, then pushes their bodies together. The set-up is more than a little charged, however, as the young couple is no sooner kissing one another than Ali has slipped off a cliff above them, having made his way to a vantage point they didn’t anticipate.
Ali’s seeming direction of their affair is something of a twist on the James M. Cain novel and the films by Tay Garnett (1946) and Bob Rafelson (1981). Though they sneak around in shadows, in hallways and garages, Ali makes sure Thomas knows he knows what’s going on. “Why shouldn’t you look?” he asks regarding Laura’s rude beauty. “I was watching you this morning.” None of this bothers Thomas much, whose ambiguity and carelessness are barely covered over by his tough guy affect. He’s a soldier first, preferring to act without reflection. Laura likes that in him, likes manipulating him into helping her get at her abusive husband’s money. It’s unclear whether Thomas cares whether she’s part of the prize to be taken at the end of their scheme.
Though the nuances of desire and rebuke between Laura and Thomas are fascinating, it is Ali who becomes Jerichow‘s most compelling figure, an emblem of raced, classed, and national conflicts. “I live in a country that doesn’t want me with a woman that I bought,” he laments to his blond white German wife, who doesn’t deny his description but only weeps as he offers it. Whether she’s caught up in his tragedy or her own is unclear. No one here seems quite capable of feeling empathy or pity for anyone else. They’re all too wrapped up in their own unfinished stories, the horizons they can’t see, and the romances they can’t articulate.