Berlinale 2024 review: Scorched Earth (Thomas Arslan)

“The way the two scenes quote Mann’s classic while at the same time truly existing by themselves rather than solely relying on pastiche is another indication of Arslan’s talent as a thriller filmmaker.”

Back in 2010, German filmmaker Thomas Arslan presented In the Shadows in Berlin’s Forum sidebar. A thriller about a criminal planning an armoured car robbery shortly after having been released from prison, it starred Misel Maticevic (mainly known from TV series Babylon Berlin after that) as the main character, Trojan. Fourteen years later Maticevic returns to the role of Trojan in Scorched Earth, a direct sequel set twelve years later, in keeping for the most part with the real passing of time since In the Shadows. Trojan’s criminal career in this past decade does not seem to have been all that successful, as one final crappy deal shown before the opening credits roll is the last straw forcing him back to the very city he fled before, Berlin.

There, Trojan manages to get hired for a ‘painting job’ – not the kind depicted in The Irishman, where this term is code for killing someone, but for actually stealing a painting by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich from a museum. Yet blood and murder always follow Trojan and the team assembled around him; once the heist is done, rather easily thanks to the museum’s understaffing, his client double-crosses him and decides he wants the painting without paying the people delivering it to him. These shows of dishonesty fed by greed, already suffered by Trojan in the opening sequence in which his contact never meant to pay him either, are the sole cause of turmoil and conflict in Scorched Earth. The characters of the film all know how to do their job, and no setback is caused by anyone doing it badly.

With this perspective Arslan follows in the footsteps of great, cold-blooded classic crime movies such as The Counselor. From it he gets the inspiration for a bleak world view where feelings are hardly anywhere to be found. Everyone goes through the motions of following orders, mission statements, or the shortest path to cash. As a setting for the story, the broad and colourless streets of Berlin are used by the director to convey this numb, insensible mood; the parking lots, hotel lobbies, corridors and rooms in which the criminals conduct their business and therefore spend most of their time make things even more impersonal. Still, this should by no means give the impression that Arslan’s directing comes out as dull or flat. On the contrary, had it been screened in Competition instead of Panorama Scorched Earth would have been a strong contender for the Silver Bear for Best Director. With virtually no music and hardly any conversations (as Trojan’s contact sarcastically points out about the protagonist: “chatty as always“), the film is cut from the same cloth (or is it steel?) as its hero. Getting the best out of its shots and its editing to get straight to the point, allowing no loss of time, it is as razor sharp as a good film noir gets.

The other landmark of the genre that Scorched Earth references, explicitly this time, is Heat. Just as Mann did, Arslan arranges two stand-offs between the two antagonists, Trojan and Victor, the client’s henchman aiming to retrieve the painting and to get rid of its carriers. The first encounter is distant and silent, a phone call with no talking on either end; the second puts a deadly end to the chase and to the film, as Trojan and Victor fight like Pacino and De Niro’s characters before them, this time with a train station in the background instead of an airport. In addition to being cleverly crafted in their aesthetics and their tension, the way the two scenes quote Mann’s classic while at the same time truly existing by themselves rather than solely relying on pastiche is another indication of Arslan’s talent as a thriller filmmaker.