Out of the Shadows into the Shadows

in 33rd Schwerin Filmkunstfest

by Kira Taszman

We know little about the enigmatic hero in Thomas Arslan’s film noir Scorched Earth (Verbrannte Erde, Germany, 2023). He appears out of nowhere, like the Man with No Name in a Clint Eastwood western. However, the main character in Scorched Earth has a name: Trojan, a telling, opaque first name that does not reveal much about him. It is related to Ancient Greek Mythology. The man – muscular, monosyllabic, with a respect-provoking aura about him – is clearly hiding. He only comes out of his cave – wherever that is – when something significant comes up.

Arslan’s film starts with Trojan (Mišel Matičević) driving into the city of Berlin through a tunnel into the light. However, this is a rather unspecified, exchangeable Berlin. No famous sights are recognizable. We only see the outskirts: petrol stations with adjacent diners, parking lots, and anonymous hotels with empty backyards. The action occurs in autumn – brown and yellow fallen leaves forebode coming winter, a season devoid of light and opportunity. Autumn seems to be the time to take one last action. It turns out that Trojan needs money. A burglary where he had stolen valuable watches was not worth the effort. He finds it difficult to sell the loot.

It has been quite some time since Trojan was last in Berlin. His old connections are either in jail, have broken off contact, or have opted for an honest way to make a living. Trojan, on the other hand, is still very much the restless thief, which makes him a double anachronism. Not only has he not settled down, but he refuses to adapt to the modern era. He remains an analogous creature—a dinosaur in virtual times.

Trojan pays everything in cash, shuns the internet, and is not traceable in the digital sphere. Out of necessity, he has to reach out to an old acquaintance, Rebecca (Marie-Lou Sellem), who is willing to organize another job. Trojan must steal a painting by no less an artist than Caspar David Friedrich from a museum. He will be one member of a gang of four and has only accepted the job because one of them, Luca (Tim Seyfi), is an old acquaintance of his. Computer expert Chris (Bilge Bingül) and getaway driver Diana (Marie Leuenberger) complete the quartet. 

The film takes its time to show the heist in every detail, building suspense and intrigue. We see Trojan, a man who takes his job very seriously, being suspicious of everyone and everything. He values old-fashioned principles like loyalty and reliability, which sets him apart from the modern world. However, the client doesn’t share his values and wants to cheat him and his accomplices. This leads to a final and lengthy battle, in which the taciturn hero must hide again while trying to sell the stolen piece of art, before a final duel settles the matter.

Claiming that Trojan seems like the stranger from a Clint Eastwood movie is inaccurate. The public knows him from Thomas Arslan’s 2010 thriller In the Shadows (Im Schatten). Scorched Earth subtly alludes to its predecessor through slight hints in conversations between Trojan and his old partners in crime. However, as mentioned before, Trojan has not changed much; he still lives and works in the shadows. When asked by Diana about his place of residence, he stays very vague (“here and there”), humorously mentioning that he likes to read architecture magazines about real estate owners who brag about their spacious houses, which benefits Trojan for his break-ins.

Much of the action occurs in darkness, adding to the feeling of an anonymous Berlin. Once, one recognizes a subway station (even though its name is blurred) and deduces that it must be in the district of Neukölln, where Trojan’s nemesis Viktor (Alexander Fehling) operates his headquarters. Just before the heist, Trojan is picked up in the dark under what seems to be the elevated subway line U1 in Berlin’s district Kreuzberg. But that is just a guess, like a train station in the dark that could have been the Lichtenberg district. Places don’t matter to Trojan; they are the means to his restless way of life. 

The lack of light suits the secretive hero, who does not want to be recognized or traced. He seems to live a rather lonely existence. Trojan suspects any company. He also suspects his feelings, for he would no longer be in control of the situation if he abandoned himself to them. There are not many women in the film, but the two highlighted, Rebecca and Diana, can take care of themselves.

As for the precious work of art – small but difficult to hide – it soon becomes a nuisance and causes an odyssey that leads into a forest, one of several allusions to the films of French director Jean-Pierre Melville. Here, it is remotely reminiscent of The Red Circle (Le Cercle rouge, France, 1970), while the lonely hero is evocative of Alain Delon’s character in Le Samourai (France, 1967). In this sober yet laid-back film noir, Arslan respects the rules of the genre but is not too orthodox about it. In the end, we see Trojan driving a car, which closes the circle. We will see him again – in the third and last installment of Arslan’s Trojan trilogy.


Kira Taszman
Edited by Anne-Christine Loranger