Liam Neeson may be Unknown – but his Oscar-level supporting cast aren’t…

I was hugely entertained by Liam Neeson’s latest thriller, ‘Unknown’, this weekend. It’s standard-issue silly thriller fare, in which the Big Fellow and his beautiful wife Betty Draper, whoops I mean January Jones, are set on a rollercoaster ride when Neeson wakes up from a coma to discover that an imposter has taken his place. Many implausible plot twists ensue!

However, the film is a must-see for any Germanist or Berlin fan for the astonishing supporting cast of top-notch German actors hamming it up as baddies and morally compromised goodies in a wintry Berlin. Goodies include Bosnian refugee taxi driver Diane Kruger (really quite a good performance, if you discount the accent), kindly doctor Karl Markovics (from ‘Die Fälscher’) and top open-scource bioscientist Sebastian Koch, shambling around in a truly terrible suit jacket.

Baddies include sinister assassin Stipe Erceg, who doesn’t say anything but beats up Liam Neeson a lot. In the morally compromised middle, playing a dangerous game of chicken with hitman Frank Langella, is ex-Stasi officer Bruno Ganz, now running a private dick operation from a preserved-in-aspic flat on Frankfurter Allee (the set could well have been left over from ‘Das Leben der Anderen’).

Berlin features in lots of loving set-piece shots, including a clandestine meeting on the snowy Museuminsel, a hilariously bad CGI explosion at the Adlon, a gritty underground techno club which is playing New Order (touch of realism, in my experience), a game of cat and mouse at the Neue Nationalgalerie, and even a long loving shot of Liam Neeson doing a stake-out over a currywurst underneath the U2. Brilliant stuff.

However, the loving realism (cough) is strained from the beginning – the whole plot is set in motion when Diane Kruger drives her taxi off the Oberbaumbrücke into the Spree, thereby sending Liam Neeson into a coma… and really, it’s entirely her fault for trying to take anyone from the Adlon to Tegel airport via the Oberbaumbrücke, no matter how iconic it may be. That was always bound to go wrong!

Harry Potter and the Legend of Lotte Reiniger

I just returned from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 1 – there’s another one to come, apparently). The sole high point in all the predictable cinematography was the charming ‘Legend of the Three Brothers’, an animated fairy tale inserted half-way through the film. The gorgeous, fantastical lines, silhouette aesthetic, faintly orientalist motifs and subtle shadings were a beautiful echo of the Weimar animator Lotte Reiniger, and her 1926 Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed’. Reiniger used stop-motion and real cut-outs to produce her film, without benefit of the CGI available to Warner Bros.

I haven’t been able to find any legal screenshots of the ‘Legend of the Three Brothers’ online, and legally shareable screenshots from Reiniger’s work are hard to come by, too. Here’s one shot to give you an idea of the beautiful complexity of her silhouettes, uploaded at drnorth.wordpress.com:

I’m not sure whether Reiniger’s influence was credited at the end of ‘Harry Potter’, but it’s wonderful to see a more unusual aspect of Weimar film – and one created by a woman – influencing today’s fantasy epics. Harry Potter’s Ministry for Magic is a shiny dystopia not unlike the underworld in Lang’s Metropolis, but the Reiniger citation is far more original and enchanting, for my money.

Reiniger always seems to merit a mention in histories of Weimar film, but there’s little written about her in depth. Christiane Schönfeld’s ‘Lotte Reiniger and the Art of Animation’ in Schönfeld, Christiane (ed. and preface); Finnan, Carmel (ed.) Practicing Modernity: Female Creativity in the Weimar Republic. (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2006), pp. 171-90 seems as good a place to start as any.