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BERLINALE 2024 Panorama

Review: Scorched Earth

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- BERLINALE 2024: Thomas Arslan continues his crime saga about old-school gangster Trojan with a sleek, minimalistic follow-up to 2010’s In the Shadows

Review: Scorched Earth
Mišel Matičević in Scorched Earth

There is something about revisiting fictional characters as a filmmaker. What could have happened to them in the meantime? How have they developed as people? Trojan (Mišel Matičević), an old-school gangster and drifter, however, seems painfully the same since we last saw him in 2010’s In the Shadows [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Thomas Arslan
film profile
]
. As a matter of fact, it is his environment upon his return to Berlin, after having been gone for a decade, that seems so out of tune. Crime has changed, it’s gone digital, or the gangsters of the bygone era have retired. But that won’t keep Trojan from seeking out another job – one that will hopefully prove successful after his failure in the prior movie.

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The question of failing is a constant in this film series by German director Thomas Arslan, whose Scorched Earth [+see also:
interview: Thomas Arslan
film profile
]
has premiered at the 74th Berlinale, in the Panorama section. After all, the storytelling draws some inspiration from the minimalist crime flicks of French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville. After a job involving stealing expensive watches goes awry, and realising that physical goods don’t sell on the market any more, Trojan is in a pickle. Unwilling to go into cybercrime, the new gold standard, he is finally able to secure a job via his handler Rebecca (Marie-Lou Sellem). He, getaway driver Diana (Marie Leuenberger), his old acquaintance Luca (Tim Seyfi) and cyber expert Chris (Bilge Bingül) are tasked with stealing a painting by Caspar David Friedrich.

But while the job in itself, breaking into the depot where the painting is stored, is pretty straightforward, the politics behind it are not. The mysterious client, it turns out, has no interest in holding up his end of the bargain and paying the quartet. To make sure that the painting ends up in his lap and that none of the four will come after him, he sends out Victor (Alexander Fehling) to take care of his problem. A simple theft has now become a matter of life and death, while there’s also an effort to sell the painting to the highest bidder, so as to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

Another unagitated, slick piece of storytelling from Arslan, it makes the noisier, busier Hollywood heist movies look absurd. This is a run-of-the-mill job for these people. The suspense stems not from shootouts, car chases or physical fighting – although these feature too, of course – but rather from the eerie disorientation within this underworld of uneasy alliances, manipulation and lack of honourable intentions. The reduced scenery, the minimal exploration of the characters’ lives and the mundanity of daily life are typical of Arslan’s filmography. Having said that, this time, the characters are more engaging than in his last effort, Bright Nights [+see also:
film review
trailer
Q&A: Thomas Arslan
film profile
]
, which lacked pacing, general direction and any glue holding it together.

Besides Matičević shining once again as the charismatic but enigmatic Trojan, it is Fehling’s smug Victor, Trojan’s counterpart in the story, who elevates the tale beyond its basic setup. Their final confrontation may be simple, but it’s effective – two different ideologies of crime and honour clashing with each other. The characters of Melville constantly had to deal with the challenges of friendship, trust, loneliness and betrayal. These narrative elements can also be found in Scorched Earth. Arslan understands how to handle these basic human conflicts, while also knowing how to keep his audience engaged right up until the final minute.

Scorched Earth was produced by Germany’s Schramm Film Koerner & Weber and is sold internationally by The Match Factory.

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