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BERLINALE 2011 Out of Competition / DE-UK-FR

Explosive closer Unknown puts spotlight on German capital

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For its closing film, the 61st Berlin Film Festival chose a boisterous thriller which, despite its American tone and register, is both a combination of European talents and a homage to the German capital. Unknown [+see also:
trailer
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]
, by Catalan director Jaume Collet-Serra (who regularly helms international co-productions) is an adaptation with Hitchcockian overtones of French Goncourt prize-winner Didier van Cauwelaert’s novel "Out of My Head". Co-produced by France’s StudioCanal, Germany’s Babelsberg Film and the UK’s Dark Castle Entertainment, it features an impressive host of European stars.

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In the film, Irish actor Liam Neeson plays American botanist Martin Harris, who arrives in snow-covered Berlin with his model wife (blonde Mad Men star January Jones) for a summit conference where he expects to meet Professor Bressler (Sebastian Koch, the East German playwright in The Lives of Others [+see also:
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interview: Florian Henckel von Donners…
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).

He has only just got into the taxi driven by Gina, a resourceful Bosnian illegal immigrant (Diane Kruger), when a dramatic accident plunges him into a coma. He awakens in a state of confusion that turns into a paranoid nightmare when nobody, not even his wife, believes he is Martin Harris, to the point where he himself has doubts.

He carries out a desperate investigation into his identity, with the help of Gina and a former Stasi officer who is as good-natured as he is infallible (played by a superb Bruno Ganz). This investigation soon becomes a nail-biting, headlong race, in international spy film mode, as his life and name seem to be at the centre of a sophisticated plot whose agents are more than sinister-looking (among them, razor-sharp-featured Croatian actor Stipe Erceg plays a killer impossible to shake off).

While its premise – memory loss and identity disorientation – seems to put the film in the psychological thriller category, the scale and fierceness of the conspiracy thrust it unceremoniously but successfully into highly-charged action film territory, where we never know who to trust. Speeded up by the constant impression of a countdown, the film is full of frantic car chases on Berlin’s icy main roads, poisons and modern gadgets, innocent people who get bumped off and dramatic twists.

At the same time, the film gives pride of place to Berlin, a protagonist in its own right which we see (unlike the very clear-cut characters) in all its facets, from luxury hotels, large avenues, airports and train stations, to subway corridors and nightclub strobes. Judged as an action film (as it should be, for it has no other pretensions), Unknown is an exciting finishing piece that delighted festival-goers.

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(Translated from French)

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