Sleeper Celluloid: Real Reviews of Fake Movies

Brown, Branagh, Berlin: Michael Mann’s Burned

Director: Michael Mann; Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci, Kris Kristofferson, Corinna Harfouch, Ewan McGregor, Judy Dench, Til Schweiger, Jürgen Prochnow, Carey Mulligan

(To see the official Burned poster, click here. To see the Criterion Collection Burned poster, click here.) 

I saw this movie at the Berlin Film Festival in February, on a dreary night, when new snow settled on the old in such rapid manner that even hard-faced and dead-eyed Berliners stopped in their tracks to marvel at the sheer volume of the white, or at least near-white, mess dumped on their streets. Water accumulated in my sensible shoes.

The theater was overheated, for which I was grateful, and smelled of wet socks, for which I was not. The projector failed already during opening credits, and we waited in near darkness for over twenty minutes for the show to resume.

I’m not sure what Hollywood’s fascination with Berlin is—and has any other city save Moscow endured more at the hands of America’s filmmakers? The shots of decaying facades, the obligatory filters that turn every bit of natural color into a steely gray, or a steely blue—Berlin, even twenty years after the fall of the Wall, still looks more Kafka than capital, if Kafka had written third-rate spy novels. Enter Michael Mann and his movie Burned, which was shot on location throughout. Mr. Mann, in whose hands even Miami can seem like something Sarah Palin might use for Caribou-hunting, has outdone his predecessors and invented a new shade for this vast city. It’s what can only be called a steely brown and it goes a long way to show us just how dangerous the German capital is.

The crowd didn’t seem to mind that color. When the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of the Cold War and of German reunification appeared during the first thirty seconds of the movie, it was greeted with cheers. Beer bottles were raised every time a street sign or landmark appeared onscreen. In Berlin, it seems, people are grateful just to be noticed, even if only for the wrong things.

Hollywood’s A-list actors have regularly descended on Berlin. From Tom Cruise to Liam Neeson and Matt Damon, they have scattered lovers and corpses in desolate streets, chintzy clubs, bars that haven’t been cleaned since Hitler’s regime, and hotel rooms where you don’t have to look for bed bugs because they are already celebrating your arrival on the flower-patterned spread.

This time it’s Kenneth Branagh who has to enter Berlin and look for dark secrets, secret identities, and operatives who may or may not be working for the people they say they’re working for. We know that nobody is who they say they are and don’t trust Stanley Tucci, the US Ambassador, who appears to be a decent guy but has a thing for underage Eastern prostitutes, and we don’t even believe Kris Kristofferson, a former CIA operative who has stayed in the city that allowed him many decades of Cold War glory, when he grunts, “Of course it’s the truth, I made it for you myself.”

Mr. Branagh, as our hero Harry Trust, is a curious choice. He doesn’t have the star power of many of Mr. Mann’s previous collaborators, but he feels right in a way that no Robert De Niro or Tom Cruise ever has. In his younger years, Mr. Branagh often seemed over-eager and nervous, preferring the grand gestures of the stage to the near non-acting the big screen requires. But he has settled comfortably into his once lithe body, his face has filled out and gained gravitas, and he moves with the knowledge that life is full of traps and that most big successes are only the preludes to even bigger failures. I liked his work in the Kurt Wallander TV-movies on PBS, and here he is giving his finest performance yet. He’s nuanced, weighed down by too much experience, yet not defeated. He’s on this mission only because his superiors want him gone without having to fire him, but he refuses to acknowledge that. He knows that spies can come back from the dead.

A woman he once had an affair with has been murdered. When he visits the morgue he doesn’t recognize her immediately. She has aged, just like Harry, and his memories don’t track. It’s a memorable shot, Harry tracing the lines of German actress Corinna Harfouch who is a star in her country, but is not allowed the tiniest wink or smirk.

That woman, once code-named Red Pigeon, was believed to be a useful double agent, betraying secrets to Moscow her American handlers knew to be false. After the end of the Cold War many thought her to slide into irrelevance, but Harry insists that she must have known something that made her death necessary. Of course, he’s right.

In many ways, Michael Mann has never been an original filmmaker. His stories haven been told twice and thrice and often many times more, yet I haven’t missed any of his offerings yet. There’s a quietness in even the loudest of his productions, an eerie sense that all the mayhem is happening to people who—just like those dead-eyed Berliners—would rather stop and stare at the mounds of snow just as they’re being buried by them. And I, for one, am glad to stare with them. Miami Vice was not about Sonny Crockett blowing up scores of baddies, and The Last of the Mohicans did not revel in bloody rituals. Instead, watching Daniel Day-Lewis hunt deer in buckskin, noiselessly, effortlessly is a revelation. In Collateral, even the parlor trick of giving Tom Cruise a gray head of hair is a touch of brilliance.

Mr. Mann’s movies’ outcomes are never in doubt. He is the rare filmmaker who seems to forget the story while he is making it. In this, he is a direct descendant of Don Siegel, the B-movie auteur, who found his freedom and virtuosity in the run-of-the-mill sixty-minute flick. In Heat, we never believe that Robert De Niro could escape into retirement, in Collateral, we know that Tom Cruise cannot go unpunished. And so it is in Burned, too. Harry will win, and he will lose it all, and Mr. Mann never stoops to bore us with unnecessary plot twists.

Harry, who can’t trust anyone, stumbles through Berlin and its steely brown autumn. Of course Red Pigeon was on to something (I won’t spoil the fun, but it involves Middle-Eastern rogues), of course, Harry gets beaten often and badly, and of course Stanley Tucci is so deeply involved in her death that double-agent seems too quaint a word to describe him. And still I watched in awe, even forgetting my wet socks.

British actors, it must be said, seem to make the most reliable movie Germans. I was waiting for Gary Oldman to jump out at me, with some showy throat-clearing consonants Hollywood imagines to sound German. Instead it’s Ewan McGregor, reprising his role in The Ghostwriter, as an author steeped in espionage and with a brutally shortened life, who tries himself at appearing Teutonic. Judy Dench, in a cameo even shorter than Mr. Kristofferson’s, is equally convincing at sounding, if not German, then strangely foreign.

The German actors who make appearances are another matter. Til Schweiger, who had a forgettable and silent role in Hollywood’s Replacement Killers, and could recently be seen as a quiet killer in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, is not allowed a single sentence. He is offed quickly by a reluctant yet efficient Harry. Jürgen Prochnow, still known Stateside as the doomed Captain of Das Boot, plays an old Nazi, who assumed a false identity and tended gardens for fifty years and is now brought to trial. Soon I was waiting for some well-known German actor or actress to play a cyborg, alas, not even Middle-Eastern rogues employ cyborgs in these cash-strapped times. However, all Middle-Eastern rogues, as far as I could tell, were played by Germans.

As Harry runs from, and dispenses with, unshaven baddies, which, it must be noted, are never as bad or as effective, let alone intelligent, as a cleanly shaven Stanley Tucci, thus making a convincing case against facial hair, he picks up a damsel in distress (a subdued and utterly convincing Carey Mulligan). She is, of course, not in distress, but out to make Harry’s life hell on earth, until she falls for our hero. We know how such things end from Casino Royale, but a dying Carey Mulligan, signaling Harry her undying love still produced countless sobs in the crowd.

So convincing is Michael Mann’s vision of Berlin, that, when I finally left the theater and hurried through ice, snow and slosh to the nearest subway entrance, I wished for some more brown shades. The reality of snowed-in Berlin was a touch brutal after watching Burned, the city streets less convincing than what I had just watched on the silver screen. Steely brown had made it almost believable. Bearable too.

Stefan Kiesbye has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. Born on the German coast of the Baltic Sea, he moved to Berlin in the early 1980s. He studied drama and worked in radio before starting a degree in American studies, English, and comparative literature at Berlin’s Free University. A scholarship brought him to Buffalo, New York, in 1996. Kiesbye now lives in Portales, NM, where he teaches creative writing at Eastern New Mexico University. His stories and poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his first book, Next Door Lived a Girl, won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award. His novel Your House is On Fire, Your Children All Gone was released by Penguin Books in 2012.