Billing itself as the first major TV dramatization of the 9/11 plot specifically from the perps' perspective, "The Hamburg Cell" looks set to polarize viewers as much as events since. Fest platforming looks a given, with TV play especially in Europe. Channel 4 commission airs Sept. 2 on the U.K. minority channel.

Billing itself as the first major TV dramatization of the 9/11 plot specifically from the perps’ perspective, “The Hamburg Cell” looks set to polarize viewers as much as events since. Written and helmed with a cool objectivity and lack of condescension toward its protags that may be interpreted as misguided sympathy or a well-intentioned portrait of the martyrdom mindset, slow-burning docudrama concentrates on three plotters during the five years prior to the fateful take-offs. Fest platforming looks a given, with TV play especially in Europe. Channel 4 commission, preemed Aug. 25 at the Edinburgh fest, airs Sept. 2 on the U.K. minority channel.

Film returns Brit director Antonia Bird to her roots in controversial TV drama, reuniting her with Belfast-born scripter Ronan Bennett, who wrote Bird’s 1994 “Priest,” about homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood, as well as her gritty gangster pic, “Face” (1997). Crucially, however, “Cell” isn’t a procedural docudrama charting the fine points of planning and execution: Such details are left vague, and the actual hijackings are never shown.

Instead, Bennett and co-writer/researcher Alice Perman concentrate on the personalities of their chosen subjects, especially Ziad Jarrah, who was at the controls of the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field, and, to a lesser extent, Mohammad Atta, who flew the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center. Through these two very different characters, pic attempts — largely successfully — to show not only why they gave their lives but also (in Jarrah’s case) how it affected his personal life with the woman he loved.

Opening is simple and low-key, as Jarrah (Lebanese-born thesp Karim Saleh), about to board United Airlines flight 93, phones his Turkish wife, Aysel (Agni Tsangaridou), in Hamburg to say simply, “I love you.” Flashback five years to Greifswald, Germany, where Jarrah is starting college. Approached by an Islamic prayer leader, Abdulrahman Al-Makhadi (Kammy Darweish), Jarrah explains he’s not a practicing Muslim: Born in Lebanon to a wealthy family and educated at a Catholic school, he’s more interested in courting and bedding the beautiful Aysel, a sparky dental student.

Early reels cross-cut between Jarrah and Atta (mono-monikored Kamel), an already convinced Muslim in Hamburg. Atta imbibes the teachings of Ramzi bin al-Shibh (Omar Berdouni) about the “godlessness” of modernity and dreams of “another world, a better world.” After finally attending one of Al-Makhadi’s meetings, Jarrah is invited to the Hamburg mosque, where he hears about atrocities against Muslims in Serbia, the Jewish-American conspiracy against Islam, and jihad as a Muslim’s duty.

Script, unfortunately, never explains (or concocts a dramatic reason) why Jarrah took the first step toward Islam. Though Saleh has considerable screen presence as the easygoing, womanizing student, his inscrutable performance also gives no hint of what is going on behind the handsome exterior.

That hurdle over, pic maintains its tightly cut, dramatized style as Jarrah suddenly becomes a “good Muslim.” Film hits its second credibility hurdle when, in 1998, Jarrah proposes to Aysel: She says she’ll only marry him if he puts her before jihad, but soon afterward they’re shown as hitched, with no further explanation.

Thereon, however, the movie gradually gathers a dramatic head of steam, as other recruits enter and — in the script’s most powerful thread — Jarrah accepts that deceiving the woman he loves is an acceptable price to pay. It’s in these later scenes with the trusting Aysel, movingly played by Tsangaridou, that Saleh’s neutral perf pays dividends, as a man who’s transfixed on a paradise beyond the present but can still lie to his wife with practiced charm. Final, white-out shot of him boarding Flight 93 packs an understated punch, especially as the audience knows he was to fail in his mission.

Claiming to be based on extensive research and “known facts and events” (scrupulously datelined on screen), script is obviously conjectural in its dialogue, though much of it is concerned with issues of faith rather than planning. Also, the on-screen noting of flaws in the U.S. security services’ monitoring seems out of place in the latter stages, taking the film more into straight docu territory and detracting from the personal drama.

However, as the pieces fall into place in the final half-hour, and Adrian Corker and Paul Conboy’s atmospheric score comes into play, film tightens its grip with icy control. Bird’s direction subtly becomes more cinematic, most powerfully in the protags’ final rituals the night before.

Other tech credits are of a high order, especially Florian Hoffmeister’s versatile lensing of cold German scenes and warmer Florida ones, both pitched somewhere between reportage and straight drama.

The Hamburg Cell

U.K.-Germany

Production

A Channel 4 Televison presentation of a Mentorn (U.K.)/Inner Circle Pictures, Simply Committed (Germany) production, in association with Canadian Broadcasting Corp., with participation of France 2. (International sales: Channel 4 Intl., London.) Produced by Finola Dwyer. Executive producers, David Aukin, George Carey. Co-producers, Michael Frenschowski, Roman Gustke. Co-executive producers, Peter Paulich, Georges Campana. Directed by Antonia Bird. Screenplay, Ronan Bennett, Alice Perman, from an idea by Darren Bender, Alan Hayling.

Crew

Camera (color), Florian Hoffmeister; editor, St. John O'Rorke; music, Adrian Corker, Paul Conboy; production designers, Phil Roberson, Chris Townsend; art director, Uli Schroeder; costume designer, Antje Gebauer; sound, Eric Rueff, Tim Alban; factual consultant, Dirk Laabs; assistant director, John Watson; casting, Jill Trevellick. Reviewed at Channel 4 screening room, London, Aug. 20, 2004. (In Edinburgh Film Festival -- British Galas.) Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Karim Saleh, Kamel , Agni Tsangaridou, Omar Berdouni, Adnan Maral, Ben Lourdjane, Ziad Adwan, Stefan Kalipha, Kammy Darweish, Abbas Kazerooni, Bassem Breish, Fahri Ogun Yardim, Navid Akhavan, Khalid Laith, Omar Mostafa, Tamer Doghem, Rami Sibai, Alexander Siddig, Nasser Memarzia, John Early, Jeff Caster.
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