Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The Hamburg Cell (2004)

A good thriller should absorb like a sponge in water and, just like The Day of the Jackal (the spongiest of all thrillers I guess you could say) Antonia Bird's The Hamburg Cell totally immerses you in the action despite us all knowing the ending from the outset. 

It is the story of the 9/11 hijackers and the meticulous five-year long genesis of that fateful day told in an a gripping yet understated documentarian, procedural style by Bird and screenwriters Ronan Bennett (Face) and Alice Pearman. Karim Saleh and Kamel star as Ziad Jarrah and Mohamed Atta. They are our focus and we observe them throughout, from their beginnings as part of group of young Middle Eastern students in 1990s Germany to them boarding the planes, American 11 (which flew into the World Trade Centre) and United 93, which was intended for the White House.  Both actors are incredibly at conveying these monsters into recognisable three dimensional characters. Saleh is impressive as the initially agnostic Jarrah, the good-looking son of wealthy and equally non-religious Lebanese parents who, one suspects could have gone either way - jihad or a conventional western existence. He even had a lover, Aysel Senguen, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, who he is at first glance a model European boyfriend to - he cooks for her, they drink together, they seem to love one another. But as Jarrah gravitates to the local mosque in the grey looking Germany, he becomes more and more radicalised and his relationship becomes more and more fraught, as Aysel eventually loses her lover to the influence of his jihadist friends. Kamel's outstanding performance of Atta shows a character who couldn't be more different; here is a cold, priggish fanatic who is much harder to get a sense of as a person beyond his all-encompassing faith. One suggestion the film explores is that his strict personality perhaps stems from his father, who we see during a scene in Atta's native Cairo to be an equally stubborn, immovable coldfish who curtly instructs his son to continue with his studies in Europe. Ultimately, our two central protagonists are so different to one another that it proves the theory that any effort to get a handle on a supposedly typical terrorist profile is utterly redundant. There is no standard profile, and the realisation that we cannot label these people, that they are just as distinctive and complex and different from each other as the average joe, the honest peacekeeping citizens - and that's perhaps the scariest notion of all.

Bird's engrossing, thoughtful and intelligent film was showcased at the 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival but did not receive a cinematic release. Even now, it's not even available on DVD in the UK - I bought a German DVD release for just a couple of quid of Amazon - and, including myself, only 18 people have logged it as watched on here. Its Channel 4 funding granted it a TV broadcast, but it really is a shame that people seemed so scared of its contentious, taboo nature and its lack of 'good guys' that it did not get to play to wider audience. It's even more of a shame that, having helmed such a startlingly good production, Bird didn't go on to have her pick of projects. The more I watch and revisit Bird's work, the more frustrated I become that such a genuinely good filmmaker was denied the career she was so clearly capable of and the career she deserved. She achieved great things in her career and she left us with some truly great films, but the potential beyond even that is such a tantalising thought.

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