June 2, 2009


Ah, the love triangle. Perhaps the most cinematic of storytelling devices, it can be effortlessly visualized in combative group shots, a trio of conflicting motives expressed in daggered glances and dewy-eyed stares. The most venerable of these tales is told in James Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). First adapted by Pierre Chenal with the little known  Le Dernier Tournant (1939), it was then transplanted to fascist Italy in one of the earliest neorealist films (without authorization) in Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione(1943) , until it was buffed clean by Lana Turner and director Tay Garnett in 1946. It was given an explicitly sexual, neo-noir makeover by Bob Rafelson in 1981, and with that the murderous adultery had seemed to run its course. But the much buzzed about German auteur, Christian Petzold, has taken a stab at the material with the mournful and spare Jerichow.

Petzold is classed with the Berlin School of filmmaking, a movement associated with three directors (Petzold, Angela Schanelec, and Thomas Arslan) who “graduated in the early 1990s from the Berlin Film and Television Academy (dffb), and were taught by avant-garde and documentary filmmakers Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky.”  A loose grouping of similar-minded filmmakers have also been folded into the group (Valeska Grisebach among them), which was coined by German film critic Rüdiger Suchsland. The group, as Marco Abel has stated, pursue an “esthetics of reduction” that is on full display in Jerichow. The filmmakers prefer to show instead of tell in their rigorously understated stories. Petzold focuses on the first half of Postman’s story, that is, the planning and attempt to murder a pretty young housewife’s husband. The duplicitous courtroom drama, which takes up the rest of the book, is eliminated, and the tragic ending is refigured to emphasize the lovers’ moral hell. It’s instructive to compare it to the Hollywood version, which hews closer to the letter (if not the spirit) of Cain’s original.

The template is the same for both: a middle-aged drifter finds a job with an aging businessman and his dissatisfied wife. Petzold tweaks this setup to engage with his time and place: instead of working at a roadside diner, the drifter (Thomas – Benno Furmann) works for a döner chain. His employer is a boozy Turk named Ali (Hilmi Sözer) who has violent side. The ’46 version figures the husband as a more lovable, passive drunk (Cecil Kellaway), and is completely absent of the ethnic tension that rumbles underneath Jerichow. Thomas has just been dishonorably discharged from the army, and falls in with Ali by accident, a striving immigrant who has started a thriving chain of snack bars around the town of Jerichow. The traditional power structure has been flipped, but Petzold leaves this unspoken, buzzing silently underneath the doomed romance (according to a recent study, the Turks are the least integrated immigrant group in Germany, despite being the second largest in number). And instead of the spoiled pretty girl of Lana Turner’s Cora Smith, Nina Hoss’s Laura is an exhausted, weathered survivor. Deep in debt and rescued by Ali, her middle-class existence is both prison and salvation.

Aside from Jerichow‘s narrative elisions, the biggest divergence from the ’46 version is stylistic. It is interesting to see how much the equipment defines style – as Garnett’s Academy ratio image necessitates cramped, frontal groupings, while Petzold’s 1.85 widescreen frame lends his triangles to form deep into the frame. The beach scenes are pivotal. Soon after they first meet, Ali invites Thomas for a picnic on the beach with his wife Laura (Nina Hoss). Ali tipsily traipses to the edge of a cliff, slips, and hangs on for dear life. Petzold had already established Laura’s POV on Thomas standing on top of the overhang, and now he machine-guns a quick shot-countershot between the two – before their attraction has been consummated. This sequence, both in its choreography and editing, will be repeated at the end of the film, which subtly underscores the psychological changes that occurred between the two bookend sequences – the look that led to Thomas hoisting Ali to solid ground, later takes place during their clumsy murder attempt. The landscape remains the same, but the psychological landscape is riddled with guilt.

Hollywood’s Postman buzzed on Lana Turner’s glamor and little else. Tay Garnett didn’t have much of a visual sense, but it’s a tribute to the studio system that this rather uninspired piece of noir still contains multifarious pleasures, not the least of which is Lana Turner’s purring presence and Hume Cronyn’s wonderfully oily defense attorney. But it is not nearly as complete a work as Petzold’s Jerichow, which has the visual patterning to match it’s narrative – the value of the Garnett is only at the edges, while Petzold cooly burns as a  story-image-acting whole.