FILM JUNE 3, 2009
Jerichow--The Cinema Guild
The Window--Film Movement
James M. Cain's famous postman not only rings twice, he keeps delivering. Especially on screen. Cain's novel has been filmed twice in Hollywood, as well as in France, Italy, and Greece. Now comes a German film called Jerichow whose credits don't mention Cain's book, but very clearly the writer-director, Christian Petzold, has been sparked by its tone and tale.
Petzold's last film, Yella, consisted of veristic bits hung on an incredible story. In Jerichow the verism is even starker, and, in a reversal of Yella, sustains the story. Because we know Cain, we think, as the elements gather, that we know what will happen, but Petzold moves to his own, different finish. The title--the German version of Jericho, I assume--is the name of a town and district west of Berlin that seemingly were designed by Providence in case Petzold ever wanted to make this picture there.
It starts with a funeral, treated in a way that quickly marks Petzold's impatience with cliche. Instead of the usual group around a grave, we see three young men in business suits walking away from the camera. In the background is one gravestone. Immediately we feel a tick of interest.
The men go to the house of one of them, Thomas, or rather his late mother's house. The two other men then demand from Thomas money that he owes them, apparently through some sort of crooked deal. He says he does not have it; they don't believe him. They find the money, clout him, and leave.
So Thomas, beginning with the day of his mother's funeral, is shown to be a native of the shadowy side, a man who lives in a world of money-shuffling and clouting. We subsequently learn that he has been a soldier, was dishonorably discharged, and served two years in prison. He is Cain's taciturn tough guy returned, and he is attractively played by Benno Furmann.
Furmann is the kind of actor who seems to have been born on screen. He is about the size of Paul Newman, solid, capable of being meaningfully still, not as handsome as Newman but with a face that sometimes suggests him. Inevitably then, there are also suggestions of Brando, and it is no surprise to learn that Furmann has worked at the Lee Strasberg studio in New York. Since his character here is a close-mouthed veteran of a private past, he does not need much emotional range--allowing for his later bursts of sex--but Petzold, who has worked with him before, has sensibly depended on Furmann's aura to revitalize this familiar story.
A few days after the funeral sequence, Thomas is walking along a road, sees a car that has had an accident, and helps the driver. He is Ali, a middle-aged friendly Turk--in Cain, it was a Greek--who is the shrewd owner of forty-five snack shops. Ali is grateful to Thomas for his help and offers him a job. Thomas, largely because he has nothing else to do, accepts. Ali takes him home. Ali has, of course, an attractive bored wife. The Cain triangle is now in place.
One proof of this film's quality is that, even though we know what is being constructed, we want to see what Petzold does with the template. First, his three actors are perfect for their jobs. We already know that Furmann is one reason that the picture was made. The bagel-faced Hilmi Sozer as Ali is both effusive and foxy, yet manages to convey under his maneuverings a vulnerable human being. Nina Hoss, as Laura, the wife, provides all that she is asked for--without blatantly selling it.
Then, strong as Petzold's triangle is, he insists on seeing his film as more than its five o'clock news story. A big help in this aim is the lighting. With Hans Fromm as his cinematographer, Petzold backlights many of the interior shots. The source of light is on the other side of the characters: thus we frequently see them as dark figures moving through portentous lives. This approach conveys that these three are trapped somberly even before they know it. Petzold's script carries out this fatalistic design. Ali nearly invites Thomas's attentions to Laura--we learn why at the end. Laura thinks she knows what is happening, or is meant to happen, and accepts her role. Thomas, even when he is making love, seems to be watching himself as a character in an inevitable story. In the hottest moments, we can almost hear him murmuring, "So it goes. So it goes."
As the film ends, Petzold's ultimate reason for making another film derived from Cain's book becomes clear and trenchant. Aside from the chance to promote Furmann, he wanted to show that the finish of Cain's novel is not the only possible one. Destiny, Petzold, tells us, is not necessarily unalterable, Aristotelian. Ironies can occur.
An Argentinean film called The Window also derives from a predecessor. Carlos Sorin, who has written and directed six films, says that he saw Bergman's Wild Strawberries forty years ago and that, in effect, he has been moving toward his own version of that masterpiece ever since. He, I am sure, would be quick to say that he has not matched Bergman. Still, Sorin's long love has some rewards for us.
Like the Bergman work, The Window is about an old man and it all takes place in one day. We are in the large country house of an eighty-year-old successful author, Don Antonio. He is unwell. He lies in bed through much of the day, an intravenous nib in his arm, while two devoted maids take care of him. Chatter between servants, one of the most venerable devices in drama, supplies the information that we need. Don Antonio's son is coming today. The son, a well-known pianist, long ago quarreled with his father, and they are about to make up. So we look forward to a family drama that, to judge by the deftness of the opening moments, we want to watch.
The drama never comes--not to any sizable degree. Sorin has other purposes. Some things do happen, but that is hardly a definition of drama. Here are some of the things that happen. The film opens with a dream in which the old man thinks he hears people dancing downstairs and a lovely girl kisses him. His two maids, with their daily routine, come in and bring him back to the present. Don Antonio's doctor, an old friend, arrives to examine him, which he does in a manner that tells us what the doctor thinks without his saying anything. The patient gives his doctor a copy of a Borges first edition that Borges inscribed encouragingly to this author long ago. Don Antonio hopes that he hasn't let Borges down, and the doctor reassures him.
When Don Antonio is left alone, strictly against orders he gets out of bed clutching his infusion jar, finds his jacket and panama hat, and actually goes for a walk outside. It is as if he wanted to see his fields once more, just as he wants to see his son. In the middle of a field he even pees, possibly in pride. But his strength soon falters, and he collapses. Some young people--oh, how young they look--who are touring the countryside come along, and they summon aid.
After Don Antonio is back in bed, his son arrives with his thirtyish wife. The reunion is warm enough--just. The son opens a bottle of champagne that his father has been treasuring for this occasion. It is flat. Don Antonio laughs. They all laugh. The son goes downstairs with the maids, and the wife is left with Don Antonio. Soon the old man asks quietly, "Are they dancing downstairs?" The wife, moved, understands that a dream is happening. She leans forward to kiss him, and in that very last moment--a Bergman touch--we see her in a dress of bygone days.
I have detailed the story because there are so few details. The Window screenplay is not dramatic in an orthodox way, or (like Bergman's) a unique one. It is a visit to several lives. This is an idea that appeals to some imaginative film-makers. A recent instance, the South Korean film Treeless Mountain, has been criticized for having no developed story. To me, that is like criticizing a string quartet for having no brass. That film was made so that we could spend some time with two little girls. Sorin made his film from--his words in a press statement--"a very weak story in which apparently not very much happened, but I hoped that many things might happen in the spectator's mind." This approach seems to me daring and interesting. The trouble is that not quite enough happens in the spectator's mind.
Much is admirable. Julian Apezteguia's camera leads us into sheer pleasantness. (We are soon tickled by the fact that Don Antonio's bed, in this large well-furnished house, is a plain iron bedstead.) Lesser characters, like the young people who help Don Antonio in the field, like the son's wife, are handled with casual verity. But the two most important people are limitedly characterized. The son is not an individual. Don Antonio is recognizable but insufficiently deep. He is played by Antonio Larreta who has done as much writing and directing--for theater and film--as acting. We can suspect that Sorin knows Larreta well and relied on the richness of the man himself to fulfill the role without having to write it all out for him. This fulfillment doesn't quite happen. So we come away with respect for Sorin's intent, affection for much of what he has done, and a wish that we had been too overwhelmed to put our response so calmly.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic of The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann