After the mini-disaster that was Yella, Christian Petzold gets a lot closer to returning to his old form, but he’s still a bit of a way off. If anything, this just proves that his desire to expert with genre is not a completely lost cause, even though he hasn’t made the transition nearly as well as some of his peers. While the story is nice enough, and maintains all the nice conventions of the film noir, it feels a little too forced. Petzold does have an eye for wonderful visuals, perhaps more so than ever, but the film’s biggest fault comes down to the fact that no one is really likable, and their flaws aren’t really redeemable. This isn’t always a problem for films, especially Petzold’s since he has dealt with negative individuals before, but when a film begs one to at least sympathize with the character’s plight, it’s a little hard to not let one’s indifference affect the viewing.
Petzold has essentially transplanted James Cain’s 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice to rural Germany and updated it to be a quieter piece. If anyone deserves credit for making the actual story work on any emotional level at all, it’s Nina Hoss who continues to be Petzold’s muse. The two men in the film, meanwhile, seem to be filled to the core with unsavory elements. I don’t mean to sound hokey, and obviously I don’t characters in movies to be completely without fault, but when a movie wants you to invest in the individuals more so than anything else, they better be at least interesting to watch. The men here are simplistic and dull, their greatest strengths lie in progressing the story and heightening the tension. In other words, they’re stand-ins for drama.
I’m not going to write off Petzold’s brief with genre as a complete failure. If anything, he seems to have become a much more confident filmmaker. Where as some of his earlier movies seem like they are forced to be minimalistic, this one pulled it off quite naturally. Even with all the lying, cheating, and attempted assassinations, there is an odd, almost serene like quality in watching this film unfold. The film’s finale, in particular, is closer to Antonioni’s Eros trilogy than something more melodramatic.
I specifically say melodramatic because that’s ultimately the level on which the film operates. This isn’t to say it’s ridiculous or poorly acted or seems stilted. It just seems to be a heightened, exaggerated drama that is successful because Petzold gives more than just a nice hook of a story. He gives us a earthly flow that almost seems displaced in a drama where the emotions are suppose to be so jarring. Sure, it’s not really a humanistic piece or even a halfway decent character study, but it is a good movie, at least from a strictly cinematic standpoint. A major step forward from the woeful Yella.