It says much, perhaps, about the enduring appeal of James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice that it’s been adapted three times already for cinema and, astonishingly, even once as an opera. This year, you can add two more adaptations – Vasilis Douvlis’ The Homecoming and Jerichow, from writer-director Christian Petzold.
Jerichow is a small town to the west of Berlin. As the film opens, ex-soldier Thomas (Benno Fuermann) has returned home for his mother’s funeral. He’s met, grave-side, by two men to whom he owes money. There is a sudden, shocking moment of violence and Thomas is left for dead. In a way, these opening 10 minutes set the tone. Full of stately Stedicam shots and passages of brooding silence, they build an atmosphere of unease that runs through the film like slow-acting poison. Thomas, serendipitously, meets Ali (Hilmi Sozer), the owner of a chain of local stores, and after Ali loses his license he offers Thomas a job as his driver. Ali has a wife, the graceful but distant Laura (Nina Hoss). She and Thomas – as fans of Cain’s novel will know – soon start an affair. Things do not end well.
Although one of the key filmmakers in the New German Cinema, Petzold’s previous films – Yella and The State I Am In – both doffed their cap to American movies. Yella borrowed from Herk Harvey’s 1962 b-horror movie, Carnival Of Souls, while The State I Am In in many ways played out as a homage to Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty. But while in those movies Petzold filtered his influences via observations on present-day Germany, this riff on Cain’s novel seems to have no such subtext. He seems happy here to let it play as a tightly constructed psychological thriller. There’s much to admire here – not least the performances from Fuermann and Hoss. Their blankness and inscrutability make it hard to determine quite what they’re thinking, which adds conspicuously to the tension. By the end, you’re forced to wonder quite how complicit Ali, even, was in the unfolding of events, or whether Laura had perhaps more ambivalent feelings towards Thomas than you might have imagined.