This is not life-affirming, hardy-har-har, two-GREAT-BIG-thumb’s-way-up family entertainment. But it’s not a bad movie, either.
What director Christian Petzold has done here is to strip down The Postman Always Rings Twice to its James M. Cainian fundamentals and set it in Jerichow, a depressed rural backwater of post-unification former East Germany about sixty miles west of Berlin.
We hear bells toll as the opening credits roll in white on a black background. After the action begins, we gather that these bells toll for the mother of our protagonist, Thomas (Benno Fürmann), because Thomas is leaving the cemetery where his mother just has been buried.
Gather is all we need do: as Mr. Donne advised, it is never necessary (and in this story clearly not advisable) to ask for whom the bells toll.
Someone with a henchman is waiting for Thomas outside the cemetery. Leon (André T. Hennicke), evidently Thomas’ business partner, is an affluent German from the west who had loaned Thomas €1,000. Thomas apparently ‘left town’ without telling anyone.
We subsequently learn that Thomas is a former Bundeswehr soldier who served in a combat role in Afghanistan, but was dishonorably discharged from the service for undisclosed reasons. But there does not seem to be much mystery here. One gets the sense that rather than a dark secret or unspeakable act, Thomas just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time and ‘one day the axe just fell.’
Out on his ass—again. Thomas is alone, back in his childhood home: no money, prospects, no future.
Then Ali Özkan (Hilmi Sözer) drives into his life in a Range Rover blasting Turkish popular music.
Ali, the assimilated, middle-aged son of gastarbeiters, made good in Germany. He owns a chain of 45 snack bars, a kind of an immigrant ‘Döner Sultan’—roadside kiosks that sell ethnic food. He lives within walking distance of Thomas. He also has a drinking problem. This brings him into contact with Thomas, whom he hires as his driver after he loses his license for driving while intoxicated.
Ali also has a wife. Laura (Nina Hoss), an attractive, tall, blonde German woman no longer young—younger than Ali, roughly Thomas’ age—helps run his business. Laura evidently was headed nowhere on skids when she and Ali met in a bar where she worked. Ali ‘redeemed’ her, but keeps her in the gilded cage of a prenuptial agreement which states that if she leaves him, she reassumes responsibility for the €142,000 debt she carried when they met.
Ali seems to sense that Laura and Thomas are as though made for one another. Made for one another, yet one dimensional: they are creatures of blind appetite rather than fertile imagination, flies intoxicated by free air as they bumble helplessly against the sheer nylon screen of Ali’s largesse.
James M. Cain might be smiling somewhere.
Petzold brings a new element to this story though. Hilmi Sözer’s Ali is a fuller, richer character than his [Greek] predecessors, and his view is told through the lyrics of the Turkish music he listens to—the film’s only music, besides the doleful cello music that characterizes the fruitless lives and disappointments of Thomas and Laura.
It is too bad that the song lyrics do not get subtitles, because they speak directly for Ali’s state of mind.
After Ali’s brief drive-by audio introduction, we see him at the beach during an outing with Thomas and Laura singing along with Gülşen Bayraktar’s Nazar değmesin (May misfortune—i.e., the evil eye—not spite the happiness of my love), dancing drunkenly in the sand with a bottle of vodka.
Although the Baltic Sea is at least 100 miles/160 km from Jerichow (and the North Sea farther yet west), the beach outings and chalk cliffs are lovely locations—and of course critical to the story.
Dancing and singing against a background that feels as though it takes him back to his long-ago home near the eastern Mediterranean, Ali cannot understand why the setting and music does not move his friend Thomas. Thomas says that Ali reminds him of Zorba the Greek. Ali puts on Sezen Aksu’s pop love song Sen ağlama (Don’t you cry) and makes ‘der Deutsche Thomas’ and Laura dance as he stumbles off to get more vodka.
Laura and Thomas will deceive Ali, but it is as though Ali expects them to. He seems pained less by their deceit than by their desperation and limited imagination, these people who would be his ‘betters.’
As Ali tells his wife: ‘I live in a country that doesn’t want me with a wife that I bought.’
But as the desperately unhappy Laura later needlessly tells the equally unhappy Thomas, ‘You can’t love if you don’t have money. That’s something I know.’
Ali’s decision ends the story. As the credits roll, we hear Turkish pop diva Nilüfer Yumlu’s Karar verdim (I decided), which starts roughly like this:
‘I decided to forget/I decided to leave/I want to get far away from here/Get you out of my mind/I wish I could be happy like a child./ I decided to forget you/I decided to leave you/No one before/No one in my life/Hurt me as much as you have’ etc.
(‘Karar verdim unutmaya/Karar verdim ayrılmaya/Çekip gitsen buradan/Gitsem çok uzaklara /Çocuk gibi mutlu olsam./ Karar verdim unutmaya seni/Karar verdim ayrılmaya/Daha önce hiç kimse/Hayatımda hiç kimse/Senin kadar incitmedi böyle…’)
The full lyrics can be found online, with fair-to-fairly-wobbly translations here and there.