Spy thriller “at a close distance”: paranoia in the safe house

Israeli director Eran Riklis shot large parts of his sensitive spy thriller "At Close Range" in Hamburg.

At the beginning there is mistrust: Lebanese informant Mona and her protector Photo: Gordon Timpen © NFP marketing & distribution

For a long time, Berlin was considered the agent’s nest where genre authors liked to set their spy thrillers. But the inevitable associations with the Cold War are also ballast, and so for some years now Hamburg has increasingly become a film agent city. After the John Le Carre adaptation "A Most Wanted Man," Israeli director Eran Riklis also set his film "At Close Range" in Hamburg – perhaps as a hidden homage to the grand master of the genre, because Riklis himself says of his film that it has a "touch of Le Carre."

Riklis has made a name for himself at international festivals and in art house cinemas with sensitive and often astonishingly poetic films about the Middle East conflict such as "The Syrian Bride" and "Lemon Tree". With this film now, he wants to get out of the arthouse niche. An agent thriller has a much larger potential audience, but Riklis has not made an action film for the mass market here, but remains true to his themes and also his style.

He often worked with strong female characters and so it is only consistent that he tells about two protagonists here as well: Naomi is an agent of the Israeli secret service Mossad, for which in turn Mona from Jordan worked as an informant. Now Hezbollah is on her trail, and she must quickly flee and change her identity. The Mossad organizes a facial operation and hides them in a so-called safe house in Hamburg, where Naomi is supposed to protect them.

For two weeks, the two women have to go into hiding there until the stitches from the operation have healed enough for Mona to travel on to safe Canada with her new face and new identity. Until then, however, she sits in the Hamburg apartment with a facial bandage that only hints at her beauty and therefore makes her seem even more vulnerable, where she and Naomi slowly grow closer.

Riklis has not made a film for the mass market, but remains true to his themes and also to his style.

Basically, "Shelter," as the original title goes, is a chamber play. The interior shots were indeed shot in Bad Honnef, because funding from North Rhine-Westphalia also had to be spent in the donor state. The exterior shots, however, were shot in Hamburg – and there are a lot of them, because Naomi looks for public telephones in the city for the contact calls to her boss and takes little city tours on her walks there.

The enemy agents, on the other hand, have their lair in a concrete block in the Eimsbuttel district. Riklis also shows details such as the "Stolpersteine" (stumbling blocks) by artist Gunter Demnig. And a film with Romy Schneider is shown on television.

In the first days of their shared isolation, Naomi and Mona stare at each other. They even make a secret of their real names. But this distrust fades more and more as they believe they are being watched and fear that the safe house could become a trap for them. There is a man from across the street looking in the windows or a young man ringing the doorbell because he supposedly wants to rent an apartment in the same building. The owner of the kiosk on the corner, on the other hand, looks oriental and stares after Naomi for a conspicuously long time.

Existential vertigo

The increasing paranoia of the two women is what interests Riklis the most. To make it palpable, he reaches into the cinematic bag of tricks: A robbery at the apartment in which all the suspects play a role, however, turns out all too predictably to be an anxiety dream. More subtle is the 360-degree circular movement around Naomi on the street, which is supposed to express her existential vertigo and was cribbed by cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid from Michael Ballhaus, who invented it for Fassbinder’s "Martha".

The fact that the dialogues between Naomi and Mona always remain interesting, even though a labyrinthine intrigue game in the style of Le Carre does not slowly reveal itself here, is more due to the two actresses than to a particularly refined script. Israeli actress Neta Riskin plays Naomi as an agent with doubts who believes that agreements must be kept. Even with a gun in her hand, she never comes across as a genre cliche, but as a complex film character full of contradictions.

"At Close Range." Directed by Eran Riklis. With Neta Riskin, Golshifteh Farahani, Doraid Liddawi et al. Germany, Israel, France 2018, 93 min.

Golshifteh Farahani, on the other hand, gives a very convincing performance as the tragic beauty who carries heavily the burden of her betrayal and seems to feel it almost just that she should be killed. The Iranian actress is currently working very successfully on an international career and last year appeared in the Hollywood blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge" as the sea witch Shansa.

By the way, Riklis is not interested in the action scenes that are inevitable for a thriller, because he is not a genre director. Dramaturgically, he works with a great arc of suspense that lacks a satisfying resolution – with "At Close Range", Riklis has therefore placed himself a bit between the chairs. For those who liked his other films, this one might be too simple. And for those who like thrillers, too little happens. The climax is not the showdown, but a scene in which the two women put on makeup together in front of a mirror. John Le Carre wouldn’t come up with something like that.