Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 14, 2009

Jerichow

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

The thematic and stylistic similarities between “Jerichow”, the new film directed by German director Christian Petzold opening at the Film Forum in N.Y. tomorrow, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Three Monkeys” are striking. Both use the MacGuffin of automobile mishaps to set plots about marital infidelity into motion, and both embrace the minimalism becoming more and more pervasive as an international style—regrettably.

Jerichow is a small town in northeastern Germany, where we first meet Thomas, a dishonorably discharged soldier who had served in Afghanistan and who has come home to live in the house of his recently deceased mother. Like many East Germans, he is without a steady job and forced to seek temporary and highly menial work harvesting cucumbers.

While walking home one day from the fields, he notices a car skidding off the road and getting stuck on a river bank. The driver, a Turkish businessman named Ali, asks him for help getting the car back on the road. Since Ali has been drinking, a cause no doubt of the accident, he also pleads with Thomas to tell the cops who have just arrived that it was Thomas driving the car, not him. Sensing an opportunity, Thomas agrees to both requests. In “Three Monkeys”, the automobile accident was much more serious with a Turkish politician falling asleep at the wheel and killing a female pedestrian. He then asks his day-time driver to take the rap for him.

A day later Ali comes to Thomas’s home and informs him that the cops arrested him anyhow for drunk driving and that his license has been suspended. Impressed by Thomas’s cool-headed manner at the accident scene, he offers him a job as a driver. Ali owns a string of snack shops and needs someone to help him dropping off supplies and picking up cash receipts.

On his first day on the job, Thomas meets Laura, Ali’s beautiful German wife. The two are drawn to each other from the moment they meet. It is understandable why Laura would be open to an affair since Ali is middle-aged, overweight and homely. Thomas, by contrast, is young and handsome. We eventually learn that she had a shady past and agreed to marry Ali only after he promised to pay off a large debt she owed.

At this point, we have high expectations of the movie unfolding like “Blood Simple” with Ali the counterpart of the jealous Greek husband played by Dan Hedaya. But those expectations are not met. As was the case in “Three Monkeys”, the director flirts with noir conventions but steps back in favor of a minimalist approach that fails to fully exploit the dramatic possibilities. In both movies, the characters express themselves more through gesture and facial expression than language. Both Ceylan and Petzold are far more interested in atmospheric scenes of trees rustling in the wind or ocean waves flopping in on the beach rather than lovers and a jilted husband raising Cain with each other.

It is difficult to say whether the screenwriters in both movies, who happen to be the directors themselves, are even capable of writing the kind of crackling dialog found in a Coen brothers movie or the earlier classics they are based on, from “The Postman Always Rings Twice” to “Double Indemnity”, both based on novels by James M. Caine, the master of hardboiled pulp fiction that both Ceylan and Petzold appear to admire but are incapable of representing on the big screen.

A Summer 2008 interview with Cineaste reveals Petzold’s chief influence:

When I was eighteen I saw John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). That was a major filmic event for me, which left its mark on me to this day. It’s a film with mental, subjective images, as well as objective ones; their alternation creates the sensation of horror. You never really know whether what is on screen is objective or subjective. And sometimes the possessor of the gaze suddenly steps into what appears as a point of view shot, thus appearing as an object, not subject, in front of the camera. This comes as a shock every time anew. I think this really formed me.

Without giving away too much, Thomas and Laura plot to kill Ali and make it appear as if he drove off a cliff in a drunken driving accident, which is exactly how the cuckolded husband is disposed of in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. Unfortunately, Christian Petzold is no James M. Caine.

In fact, to his credit to some extent, Petzold appears far more interested in the social and economic circumstances of eastern Germany than he does in the lives of his characters. They serve as convenient symbols for a region that he describes as follows in the press notes for “Jerichow”:

When we were shooting my last film, Yella, in the Prignitz region of Germany, there was a report in the local newspaper that the police had arrested a Vietnamese man. He was found on the highway standing next to his car which had a broken rear axle. The trunk was full of coins, and that was good enough reason to arrest him. It turned out that the man owned 45 snack bars in the region, and the money in the trunk was change and daily receipts. He had built up his business and bought a house on the outskirts of town, deep in the forest away from the other homes, for himself and his family.

Prignitz County is a region in former East Germany dying a slow death. Nothing is produced, there is hardly any work. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese man had managed to start a business, buy a house, and find a “home” here. Finding a home is something that interests me, as well as people who manage to get their way against all odds. Everywhere they turn, they are confronted with defeat and bankruptcy, but nevertheless they forge on.

Now this sounds interesting. If only Petzold made a documentary about people such as this, he would have been more successful.

If I had the job of writing a screenplay for “Jerichow”, I would have made the Thomas character a proud and angry Turkish immigrant, the wife a long-suffering East German and the husband an imperious and hateful West German. Yes, I know, this is much more conventional in political terms but what can you expect from an unrepentant Marxist. Speaking of which, although Petzold clearly has sympathies for the left, I do have problems with his treatment of Ali, who is something of a stereotype. His macho behavior at home and his unethical treatment of the snack shop operators in his petty empire would reinforce German prejudices against the Turks, but this is probably mitigated by the fact that the target audience for such a self-conscious art film would exclude all but the cognoscenti, who are presumably more enlightened than the average bigot.

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