The film’s action is set entirely in the German capital of Berlin, which is also where the movie was shot. Collet-Serra says the city suited the story’s theme perfectly. “At the heart of the film is a crisis of identity, and Berlin has that, having been divided for so many years. Now, even with the reunification and new buildings rising amongst the old, you can still see the scars. Different worlds co-exist within the city, so to me, Berlin was an extension of the main character.”
One of the best things about filming in Berlin was that, according to Silver, “They’ve really invested in and taken the time to build an infrastructure. Great crews, great facilities. It’s become one of my favorite cities to shoot in.” Collet-Serra described Martin Harris’s quest to production designer Richard Bridgland as a journey through a labyrinth, where he frequently comes up against a dead end, has to retrace his steps and try another route to discover who he is. Bridgland tried to use the locations to illustrate both sides of Martin’s dilemma—the world that he thinks he belongs to, and the world in which he finds himself when stripped of his identity. This dichotomy plays out naturally because, after the Berlin Wall was knocked down and the Communist bloc began to crumble over 20 years ago, Berlin has been the subject of massive growth as the two halves of the city reunite.
The production utilized the old East and West Berlin, including a variety of neighborhoods, from the edgy streets of the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg borough to iconic sites like the Brandenburg Gate and Museum Island. “Our central character doesn’t have a home, so we follow him around the city in taxis, on foot and on the U-Bahn,” the director details. “We shot in 40 locations in 48 days.”
When Martin and Liz Harris first arrive in the city, they go straight to their hotel, the world famous, five-star Hotel Adlon. Situated near the iconic Brandenburg Gate on the Unter den Linden Avenue, the hotel survived bombing during the war, only to be burned down in an accidental fire 10 years later. It has since been restored to its former luxurious state.
Shooting in a working hotel, with more than 100 crew members, tons of equipment and numerous extras, was a challenge to the production, which had to be careful to create minimal disturbance to the hotel’s other guests. Says Bridgland, “Scenes had to be choreographed around the normal life of the hotel, and we built our own reception desk so that real guests weren’t inconvenienced. But they did allow us to shoot in the spacious lobby, their dining room, corridors and in the kitchen, below stairs. The access was remarkable, especially for such a busy hotel.”
However one sequence involved stunts and pyrotechnics that would be impractical for the location. Instead, the production design team built a replica of the hotel’s ballroom on a stage at Studio Babelsberg, the world’s oldest major film studio, established nearly 100 years ago. They did film the aftermath of an explosion outside at the real location, and the art department created craters of debris and destruction around the Adlon exterior. The filmmakers were amused to learn that, thanks to the city’s thriving avant-garde art scene, many passersby stopped to ask if it was some sort of art installation, and who the artist was.
In trying to locate Gina, Martin remembers the logo of her taxi, the Television Tower, a landmark of East Berlin built to literally tower over the city. For the taxi garage, the production used a 19th-century brewery. The taxi office was constructed from one of Bridgland’s favorite city sights, a metal cabin like those used throughout the city by building workers, providing shelter in which to brew their tea.
Another set Bridgland delighted in creating was Gina’s apartment. “She lives in Kreuzberg, where Berlin’s first migrant Turkish workers settled,” he says. “Her apartment building is home to many transient workers, legal and illegal, and we imagined that she had taken over the attic, trying to make a home in this cold, dreary environment. She has some fabric on the very thin walls, and some personal things—photographs and so forth—to remind her of her life before. She’s essentially making a nest in an alien environment.”
A very different home that Martin visits is that of Herr Jürgen, once a member of the Stasi, the secret police who encouraged friends and neighbors to spy on each other. Bridgland wanted to illustrate Jürgen’s previous life in his surroundings. “Jürgen clearly relished his work and the privileged life it afforded him, and we reflected this by decorating his apartment just as it would have been before the Wall came down. His medals and citations are on display, and his furniture is a much better quality than regular East German citizens would have had access to. It’s almost a museum to life in the lower ranks of the 20th-century Stasi, a life that he enjoyed and now misses.”
The exterior of Jürgen’s apartment was filmed in Freidrichshain, on Karl-Marx Strasse, outside one of the earliest buildings erected by the Soviet regime to house the personnel they sent from Moscow to oversee the East Berliners. Ironically, these light, spacious apartments are now highly sought after by residents.
The scene when Martin and Gina meet with Jürgen is something of a throwback to his Stasi days—a clandestine encounter on a bridge to Museum Island, over the River Spree. The water is just beginning to thaw, and huge blocks of ice float past in the background, the cold weather acting as a deterrent to the many tourists who would normally flock to the area. In fact, shooting during the city’s coldest winter in the last 20 years—mainly in exterior locations—caused some hardship for the cast and crew and concerns for continuity of light and weather within scenes, but also contributed to the main character’s sense of isolation.
Collaborating with Collet-Serra, director of photography Flavio Labiano says he “shot the film with an eye for Martin’s isolated perspective as a man searching for the truth.”
“We were both blessed and cursed by very heavy snowfall in December, which lasted right through till mid-February,” Collet-Serra recalls, “allowing us to show the city on a scale we might not otherwise have been able to do, in terms of snow cover. Of course, then it disappeared, which gave us another challenge. We had to keep going, so we had to make our own snow.”
One of the major events in the film was shot entirely outside, all through the streets of Berlin: an extensive car chase, in which Martin and Gina are trying to escape from the killers who are after them. The sequence took 10 nights to complete and, after such a lengthy exterior shoot in the cold, the cast and crew couldn’t wait to get back inside.
By contrast, the nightclub scene took place in one of Berlin’s most popular hot spots. In order to shake the assassins tailing them, Gina takes Martin to a club, hoping they’ll be safe among the crowd. The sequence was shot in The Tresor, known internationally to ardent followers of the club scene as the birthplace of techno music. It is located in a huge, abandoned power station on Köpenicker Strasse, Mitte. The art department flooded the industrial basement area with a harsh neon light show that, along with the crashing, repetitive music, helped emphasize Martin’s alienation from the world in which he finds himself.
Another interesting location the production was able to utilize was the splendid, stark exterior of the New National Gallery, built in the 1960s by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. For the interior shots in the scene, however, they switched to the Museum of Photography in the Charlottenburg district where, for the purposes of the film, Bridgland staged an original exhibition. “‘Unknown’ is about identity and loss of identity, so we tried to reflect this in the photography,” he says. “We found a student who had done some extreme portraits, and I art-directed her work. The result was large format, close up portraits of very interesting faces, each seeming to tell its own story.”
Martin’s story is also one of different faces, and somewhere in between is the truth. “It really is unpredictable,” Liam Neeson offers. “It has a few thrills and chills that I truly believe will take the audience by surprise.”
Leonard Goldberg points out, “The reason films of this genre have been around for so long is because the good ones allow moviegoers to play a game of cat and mouse with the filmmakers.”
“This film really gives you the best of both worlds,” Joel Silver says. “It’s a ride that keeps you on the edge of your seat and keeps you guessing.”
Jaume Collet-Serra concludes, “From the moment Martin Harris wakes up and is told he is no longer the man he knows he is, we want to know what is happening. None of us can imagine what it would be like to have someone steal not only our identity, but everything that makes us who we are, even our family and friends. What would we do? How would we take back our life?”