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.


Director: Christian Petzold
Cast: Benno Fürmann, Nina Hoss, Hilmi Sözer, André M. Hennicke
Rated: NR
Studio: Cinema Guild
Year: 2008
US Release Date: 2009-05-15 (Limited)
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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.