At first glance, the merciless ménage-a-trois of Christian Petzold’s Jerichow seems like nothing more than a deliquescent rewrite of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The penniless and piercingly blue-eyed ex-solider Thomas (Benno Fürmann) stumbles into the employment of a drunken Turk-Teuton, Ali (Hilmi Sözer), who owns a far-flung collection of ethnic food stands in the titular East-German province; and after only a few wordless encounters with Ali’s sex-starved, battered blonde of a wife Laura (Nina Hoss), the new hire is carnally smitten. The illicit relationship that develops between them lacks James M. Cain’s animal logic and gallows wit, primarily because the few fervent exchanges where the two explore their mutual attraction—for example, Thomas clumsily penetrates Laura in the hall while her spouse languishes nearby in a vodka coma—are confusingly devoid of erotic chemistry. These lovebirds are drawn to one another more out of loneliness and ennui than lust: Thomas’s bald, stoic cipher is too listless for arousal, and Laura’s gangly, sad-sack features would attract a social worker before a lover. This romantic uneasiness creates implausible tension in the plot, and when the urge to kill the superfluous husband inevitably arrives it has no Freudian terra firma on which to stand.
But here’s the primary distinction between Jerichow and its presumed inspiration. Where Cain (as well as Tay Garnett, et al) invented the betrayed patriarch Nick as an avuncularly impotent foreigner, Petzold’s Ali is a menacing, phallic, porcine stereotype, precisely the sort of mythic Turkish-European greaseball that films such as The Edge of Heaven were designed to debunk. His character is unsavory to the point of near camp: Not only does he dominate his wife with a jaundiced eye and punitive bruises, he runs his business with a colorful, spittle-slicked mouth (“Next time I want you to stir fry him,” he barks repugnantly to Thomas after a spat with an embezzling Asian employee). And yet this ostentatious performance forms a much-needed fulcrum of sexual frustration. In one early, clever scene Ali forces the uncomfortable Thomas and his vacant-eyed wife to dance with one another while he roams the beach dunes sneering in an inebriated stupor—and, naturally, their awkward embrace slowly evolves into violent tonsil hockey. There’s no mistake: Tumescent with machismo jealousy, Ali makes himself a cuckold for his own autoerotic fulfillment. As such, we imagine his burning gaze and labored breath behind every wide shot that depicts Thomas and Laura’s trysts, providing the film’s sterile visuals with a voyeuristic intensity. And though a last-minute attempt by the script to salvage some sympathy for Ali painfully wrecks the denouement, the orgasm of his automotive suicide—complete with a digital plume of smoky ejaculate billowing toward the sky—satisfactorily pays off the barbed teasing of Sözer’s masturbatory performance.