Christian Petzold’s 2008 directorial venture, Jerichow, is, in terms of genre, a most elliptical film. For the most part of its runtime, it’s a drama, and that is essentially a categorisation borne out of a lack of traits that would make it fit the mould of another genre. At ninety minutes, it is a short movie yet makes the audience feel its runtime. Despite these issues with its plotting and pacing, it’s a movie that most gleefully misguides the audience and slyly foreshadows its intentions, in the process of which it becomes a delightfully dark thriller by the time the final act gets going.
The protagonist is Thomas, an Afghan war veteran who returns to his hometown of Jerichow in eastern Germany after his mother’s demise. He is rather aloof and, like the movie’s own refusal to provide any information, extremely economical with his words. He soon comes across Ali, a Turkish-German businessman and lands a lucrative delivery job with him. When Ali’s attractive wife Laura enters the picture, a love triangle of lust and deception begins.
The setup makes the film sound dramatic, but it isn’t, not in the least. Instead, what Petzold presents is a series of misleading elements that keep throwing the audience off-guard. Intentionally.
When the movie begins, Thomas is seen exiting the cemetery after his mother’s burial with a stranger waiting outside in a sinister fashion. They drive up to Thomas’s home where the stranger, in all possibility an old friend, asks to be paid back. When Thomas refuses on the grounds that he has no money, but will soon, the stranger is infuriated. He soon finds money hidden away in a treehouse in Thomas’s garden and takes it, leaving him with a heavy blow on his back after hugging him. The attitude of this friend, the fact that he arrives with a bodyguard who is armed and insistent on collecting his debt and then leaves Thomas injured and unconscious, makes the film start out like a potential mob or revenge story. That is not the case at all since this scene effectively has no relation with the plot at hand. Instead, the pecuniary aspect of relationships that would come to dominate the plot later is outlined here. It is a parallel that is easy to overlook and a commendable part of its writing.
Thomas, on his way home from his job as a cucumber harvester, sees Ali’s car crash nearby, and in helping him out, notices a large amount of bundled cash wrapped suspiciously in plastic bags on the passenger seat. They are strangers at this point and yet Thomas, hoping for a payday from this dubious individual, lies to the police to save him. While we expect him to be engaged in some illegal activity, instead it turns out that Ali is the straightest among all the characters in the film and this gloomy, misleading introduction is the establishment of his fatalism at hand.
While partying with Thomas and his wife after the former lands a job with him, Ali drunkenly goes up to a cliff and looks down, possibly to commit suicide. It’s a moment that can trick the audience into thinking that Ali noticed Thomas and Laura kissing on the beach or that he is willing to kill himself because he doubts his wife’s fidelity, or maybe is just distressed at the hostility in his surroundings as a minority. It instead foreshadows the mystery of the final act.
Another little moment, which doesn’t exactly qualify as misguidance but is still interesting enough and fits this recurring pattern, is when Ali catches Laura red-handed, intimately engaged with a client of his. We aren’t shown what they were up to but he is furious and when asked to explain herself later, she reveals that she was cheating on Ali financially, not romantically, with a scheme involving the client. The sum she had saved from this endeavour, a seemingly paltry amount given Ali’s wealth, makes it seem like she is kept in deprivation. While that is never clarified, we later on find out why Laura would resort to such a desperate move, which is in complete opposition to what we might have expected of her.
In what is possibly the film’s most deft series of misguidances, we see Ali tell Thomas that he is leaving for Turkey to finalise the purchase of some land so that he and Laura can emigrate. Ali goes to the airport on the planned date but after Thomas drops him off, he secretly leaves the airport and gets into a taxi. At this point, Thomas and Laura’s pent-up passion is at such a boiling point that them getting caught seems like a clear possibility. As the two of them keep meeting each other and plan an exit from their present lives, Petzold shoots a number of extreme long shots of the two of them to create this sense of them being watched, separately and together. While we never see Ali, this shot choice is convincing enough that he is still in Jerichow and keeping a watch on them. The necessity of Ali’s observation, as we are made to believe, keeps rising as Thomas and Laura start to conspire something that takes our sympathy for them away very quickly. After Ali returns from Turkey, his joyless mood that seems to conceal some information is convincing of his knowledge. Instead, it is Petzold playing with our expectations again as both the long shots and Ali’s mood are effectively McGuffins.
Jerichow is a slow film and for the large part rather unconvincing with its characterisation. It’s a thriller that does not let the audience know that it is so till a significant amount of time has passed, with a romance that is extremely unconvincing. It has a lead character whose stoic demeanour is perhaps its most persistent ruse, since it never betrays to us the extent of the passion he is capable of. And yet, the method with which it takes its false alarms and creates a believable story, where the said ruses do not seem theatrical or pointless, is a clear indication of its directorial finesse. So if one focuses on this aspect of the film’s constitution, that of its red herrings, which it uses in a most adept fashion to create suspense and build up to an unpredictable finale, as opposed to the plot or characters or style, it can certainly be a very rewarding watch.
Jerichow is currently available to watch on MUBI.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.