Unknown: Berlin Scalloped Potatoes

Year Released: 2011
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Frank Langella
(PG-13, 109 min.)

"All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream." Edgar Allan Poe

It’s a dizzy cocktail of confusion, panic, and paranoia reminiscent of the grand master, Alfred Hitchcock. In Berlin to attend a conference, Dr. Martin Harris awakens after a car crash to find his wife does not recognize him, and another man has claimed his identity.

The fact that the film is set in Berlin adds to the disquieting sense of uncertainty, too. Everything from the landscape to the language is foreign to Dr. Harris (Liam Neeson). After four days in a coma, he awakens in a hospital bed with a vague sense of his identity but not much else. The kindly nurse and doctor speak to him in a language he cannot understand.

Is it any wonder that so many seniors flocked to this film? It is not that different from their own current lives or the ones they fear to come --the clean sheets, the antiseptic room, the white-coated attendants humoring them in unintelligible phrases. They can clearly indentify with Dr. Harris when he rips the tubes from his arm, throws on some pants, and gets the hell out of there.

Unfortunately, the streets are not any kinder. Without a passport, he cannot find a room at even the rattiest hotel. The one person who remembers him, the heroic cabdriver (Diane Kruger) who rescued him from the cold river after their crash, is a Bosnian refugee with no papers. And she is already on the lam after crashing the taxi and wants nothing to do with him.

Of course the cruelest blow is from his wife Elizabeth (January Jones), who is first on his mind when Dr. Harris wakes up from the coma. He knows she must be worried sick about him. When he sees the conference he was to attend covered on the hospital television, he is compelled to go there to find her. And she is there, all right, decked out in an elegant backless black dress, her fair-hair and alabaster skin recalling all of Hitchcock’s icy blonds. 

And this one is icy indeed, all wide-eyed innocence proclaiming she does not know who he is, and then pivoting without a pause to hook her arm through the other “Dr. Harris” (Adrian Quinn), this one decked out an official conference identification badge. Since the opening scenes have featured the arrival of Dr. Harris and his wife, we know that Harris is not deluded here. So we share in his frustration and humiliation when the police are called in to escort him out, following another Hitchcock tradition where police and other authorities are less than useless and more than useful idiots to the real antagonists.

Which in this case proves to be a set of unrelenting assassins that begin to bloody up the streets with a nasty predictability. By that time Gina, the refugee cabdriver, is his reluctant sidekick, but Harris is the one driving in the best car chase scenes in years, especially the sequence where he maneuvers backwards on a sidewalk littered with pedestrians.

While January Jones plays the inscrutable Mrs. Harris with finesse, and Diane Kruger tackles cabdriver’s Gina with a feisty courage, it’s the old pros that sparkle. Liam Neeson, who took us by surprise two years ago in the action thriller Taken, endows his performance with a vulnerability underlying his grit, perhaps recalling the real life loss he faced in 2009. 

Frank Langella, in a brief performance as Harris’s former colleague, wears his veneer of avuncular charm like his somewhat shabby overcoat. What is underneath it, figuratively and literally, turns out to be something entirely different.

But the diamond in the rough here is Bruno Ganz, playing Ernst Jurgen, a decaying remnant of the old German Stasi, East Germany’s version of the KGB. He does not paper over his past, but lives out his days in a modest apartment, a considerable portion of it displaying his memorabilia from what he still considers the good old days. His jaundiced eyes even sparkle a bit when they wander to this corner museum. He still has a few old contacts and vows to help Dr. Harris prove his identity.

This focus on identity, as noted by several critics, has been a persistent theme recently, in such films as Inception and Shutter Island. Here it appears to be the reverse of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, where Gary Grant’s Roger Thornhill has a mistaken identity thrust upon him when he rises to answer a hotel phone message. In Unknown our protagonist appears sure of his name; it is the world that is not. Yet, the real source of the mistaken identities may show the films to have more in common than first assumed. 

Some critics call it implausible, but I for one, find Unknown not unlike the aforementioned car chase, full of hair pin turns, screeching tires, imperiled with patches of slick ice and near crashes, but in retrospect, a clean course nonetheless.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Though he is booked into Berlin’s luxurious Hotel Adlon, Dr. Harris barely makes it past the lobby, since his identity papers have gone missing after a car accident. He is on the outside looking in at all those beautiful people feasting on cocktails and German delicacies, and the outside is cold and snowy. Not to mention the ruthless assassins out to get him. On the run, he barely has time to stop for a cup of coffee. 

I guess we’ll have to sample some German cuisine for him. I’ll temp you with some earlier offerings from other films located in Germany first:

German Apple Pancakes

Schnitzel with Lemon-Caper Cream

Baked Sauerkraut with Apples

Apple Strudel

Rote Grütze (Raspberry Dessert)

Then on to today’s hearty offering, Berlin Scalloped Potatoes, with bacon, onion, as well as spinach and your choice of Mozzarella or provolone cheese.

Guten Appetit!

Berlin Scalloped Potatoes

Ingredients

  • 4 slices bacon
  • 1 med. onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 (10 oz.) pkg. frozen chopped spinach, thawed & well drained
  • 1 (5 oz.) pkg. scalloped potato mix
  • Milk
  • 2 tsp. caraway seed
  • 1 c. (4 oz.) shredded provolone or Mozzarella cheese

In a large skillet cook bacon until crisp. Drain, reserving 2 tablespoons drippings. Crumble bacon; set aside. In the same skillet cook the onion in reserved drippings until tender. Add spinach; heat through. In a 10"x6"x2" baking dish or oval 2-quart au gratin dish combine potatoes and dry sauce mix from package. Stir in the boiling water and milk as directed on the package, omitting the butter. Stir in bacon, spinach-onion mixture and caraway. Bake, uncovered in a 400 degree oven about 35 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Sprinkle with cheese; bake for 2 to 3 minutes more or until melted. Let stand about 5 minutes before serving. Makes 6 side dish servings.

Recipe Source: cooks.com