Jerichow: Interview with Writer-Director Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold is the writer-director of “Jerichow,” which will be released on May 1, 2009 by The Cinema Guild.

Director’s Statement

“When we were shooting my last film, YELLA, in the Prignitz region of Germany, there was a report in the local newspaper that the police had arrested a Vietnamese man. He was found on the highway standing next to his car which had a broken rear axle. The trunk was full of coins, and that was good enough reason to arrest him. It turned out that the man owned 45 snack-bars in the region, and the money in the trunk was change and daily receipts. He had built up his business and bought a house on the outskirts of town, deep in the forest away from the other homes, for himself and his family.

Prignitz County is a region in former East Germany dying a slow death. Nothing is produced, there is hardly any work. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese man had managed to start a business, buy a house, and find a “home” here. Finding-a-home is something that interests me, as well as people who manage to get their way against all odds. Everywhere they turn, they are confronted with defeat and bankruptcy, but nevertheless they forge on.

Often these “home-builders” are withdrawn. They are like islands. They are alone. The idea of being an islander reminds me of Robinson Crusoe: trade routes, modern capitalism, the yearning of people to understand it all and to begin anew, the result is reconstruction. That is what Robinson does, he reconstructs the world again. When other people, friendship, and love intrude into his world, it all falls apart.

When the film was finished and we could view it with a bit of distance, we were surprised to see that there is not a single scene in which money doesn’t play a role. As an image, as a value, as betrayal, and as a means of exchange. I had the feeling that money had slipped into the film, into the images and between the characters: that it lubricated the story.

I also noticed that it is always men who are these home-builders. That is why they need money and a woman. “You can’t love, if you don’t have money!” says Laura. She doesn’t want to buy somebody. She doesn’t need a home. She needs money to be independent.

The men aren’t happy with that.

So a crime has to occur in the story.

They become ever more entangled in their passions, their dreams, their interdependence and their secrets until the point where what they really want from one another only appears attainable with an act of betrayal.”

Interview with Christian Petzold

We enter this trio’s story via Benno Fürmann. Why did you choose to begin like this?

Thomas, the character played by Benno Fürmann, is surrounded by a void from the moment the film begins. That more or less explains his emotional state. He’s trying to build something of a new life for himself and drop anchor. He wants a place he can call home and an address of his own. So at the start of the film he has to be nondescript, a clean slate that enters other people’s stories. For that we needed a pictorially “flowing narrative,” which is why we opted for a Steadicam set-up on the first and last day of filming. You can’t get the same effect with a dollymounted camera: The camera keeps at a distance behind him, and we do not yet know what’s happened to him as we follow him through the graveyard. Then along comes the car. We see André Hennicke and suddenly jump in front of Thomas. At this point, the Steadicam disappears from the film until the end when it returns. While we were shooting, I told him to imagine himself crossing the Bridge of Sighs. And that the cars he gets in is a prison cell of the Doge’s Palace.

Concealment is a major theme in your film. Thomas and Laura hide money; even Ali conceals his illness.

In fact, there’s something intentionally childish about these acts of hiding. Thomas hides some money in the tree house, a place he visited as a seven-year-old with his mother; something we see in the photo. And Laura also hides money she’s swindled out of Ali in a place where children would hide things. It was important to me that there be an element of childhood regression in all of the characters running throughout the film. All the more so given that the blazing romance between the two is like that of a couple of seventeen-year-olds stealing a kiss behind the shed. They’re hiding things like that, because they’ve missed out on life and are now trying to recapture some of it. They think they’re clutching at another chance. The concealment, the hiding of money has something to do with that. They think “I’ll hide it there, where I used to hide my things as a kid, and maybe this time I can start fresh and everything will turn out okay.” ?

Is this tendency to conceal a way of counteracting the fact that everything, the characters’ very lives, are at stake? It often seems like the characters want to or have to watch their backs and that even passion is constantly frustrated by other motives.

From the get go, I found the film’s love story to be rather “post-Fordian.” It is from an era in which blue-collar jobs have been obliterated. It’s reminiscent of the realms you see in Ossessione or Cain‘s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Nonetheless, in present-day Germany, there are almost no real blue-collar jobs left. There are jobs in the service industry and mere remnants of the old jobs–exploitative jobs, like the cucumber harvesting work Thomas does in the film. But even they are in decline. The cucumbers that used to come from the Spreewald are now planted in China. In Germany, we no longer see the kind of exploitative, grueling farm-work like that done by B. Traven’s cotton pickers. It was interesting for me to see how passion, love and intrigue work today; how you can convey these things in times when these blue-collar jobs no longer set life’s pace. That was something that came up a lot during rehearsals. The characters in Jerichow reside in this kind of backward enclave, which quickly gets the better of them.

During the dance sequence on the beach we detect a strong sense of opposition to Ali’s domineering ways, his affability, as well as how insecure he is in hi
s relationship. To what extent do you map a scene like this in the script?

There are often scenes and days on a shoot that make everyone nervous. Our 17th day of filming, when we filmed them making love in the hallway was such day. Another was the 23rd day, when we filmed the picnic you asked about. I think it was only given about half a page in the script. I hadn’t written down any directions for it, as I do to give the actors a clue of where things are going, as well as the images and metaphors driving the scene.

Two days before the scene was shot, we spent a whole evening together in my hotel room rehearsing it, this time with musical accompaniment. Hilmi Sözer felt such a strong connection to these famous Turkish songs. He realized that, for Ali, the music and the sea were a strong symbol of home, of his heritage. And there, on the beach, these two Germans make him out to be a Greek, and Laura has the audacity to laugh at it. Now he’s insulted. They just snatched his revitalized identity, sense of homeland and nostalgia out from under him. This feeling is stronger than his jealousy and runs so deep that he even wants to draw the pair into his patriotic outburst. And he doesn’t notice that he’s basically sowing the seeds of his own downfall.

The tragedy in Jerichow is unusual, because you chose not to address the issue of who is at fault directly, which in turn intensifies the issue …

I thought long and hard about how to end the story. And I thought about what it would be like if the person Laura and Thomas wanted to ask for forgiveness had exited their lives before they got the chance. They basically enter the very realm they’ve struggled so hard to avoid, namely a sort of no man’s land. All of Thomas’s efforts, his attempt to rebuild his mother’s dilapidated house, as well as Laura’s attempt to finally be financially independent and to become the woman she’d always dreamed of being… that’s all gone now.

We filmed the script rather chronologically, including the final scene, which we shot on the last day. Ali sends both of them away, shouting after them. And they go as… sort of like condemned people. Then they hear the engine revving. Nina Hoss asked me… she wanted to say one last word to herself as she turns around. I asked her what word she had in mind and she said she wanted to say “Ali.” I knew right away that that was it. That’s what all of this is about. At that moment, I knew that the actors understood the role fault played here. And we ended the film with Ali’s name.


Born in 1960 in Hilden (Germany), Christian Petzold studied German literature and theater at the Free University in Berlin. From 1988–1994, he went on to get his degree in film at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (dffb), while working as a directing assistant to Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky. By the time he made THE STATE I AM IN (DIE INNERE SICHERHEIT), Christian Petzold had earned a reputation as one of his generation’s most talented young German directors. His two films prior to JERICHOW, GHOSTS (GESPENSTER) and YELLA were in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival. Christian Petzold lives in Berlin.


2007 YELLA
Berlinale: Silver Bear – Best Actress, Nina Hoss;
German Film Critics Award: Best Film, Best Cinematography; German
Film Award: Best Actress

German Film Critics Award: Best Film

Berlinale: Fipresci Prize, Panorama; Adolf Grimme Award

Adolf Grimme Award; Biarritz Film Festival: Fipa d’Or;
German Television Award: Best Directing

German Film Award: Best Film; Hessian Film Award: Best Film;
Thessaloniki Film Festival: Best Screenplay, Fipresci Prize;
Valenciennes Film Festival: Grand Prize

Max Ophüls Festival: Promotional Award