Christian Petzold’s subtle genre exercise Jerichow explores the ever-shifting relationship between a hunky German ex-soldier, his jealous immigrant boss, and the boss’ hot wife. Benno Fürmann plays the soldier, a stoic paragon of German manhood (with some shady dealings in his past) who helps neighbor Hilmi Sözer when the latter drunkenly drives his car into a river. Sözer, a self-made man with a soft heart and a hot head, offers Fürmann a job driving him around the countryside to restock and collect money from his chain of vendor carts. But Fürmann risks his livelihood when he meets Sözer’s wife (Nina Hoss), a sweet-looking femme fatale with her own set of secrets.
Jerichow proceeds in the direction of James M. Cain and Blood Simple, and while it’s entertaining and artfully staged, little about the movie’s first 85 minutes is especially brilliant. It’s more a character piece than anything else, wrapped up in the contradictions of Sözer, who can be a screaming ogre one minute and a jovial chum the next. Petzold carefully manages the audience’s reactions to Sözer, wanting him to be just sympathetic enough that we’ll question Fürmann and Hoss’ judgment for sneaking around behind his back, but not so sympathetic that we don’t root for their affair a little.
Then the final five minutes of Jerichow recontextualizes everything we’ve just seen, in ways that raise it a notch above the standard-issue B-noir homage. Petzold doesn’t introduce a shocking twist or thrilling setpiece, but through a few key lines of dialogue, some minor revelations about character backstory, and a couple of heart-stopping moments of suspense, Jerichow raises unsettling questions about issues of national identity, trust, and generosity. The movie ends abruptly, setting up an epilogue that viewers will have to provide for themselves. Jerichow’s sparseness, tiny cast, and minimal plot can make the film seem a little elusive, but there’s a certain elegance to Petzold’s concision, too. He shows all he wants us to see.