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Chief Inspector Minks (Christian Redl, "Untergang, Der") is surly, downtrodden, driven by obsession but is basically a damn good Cop.
He strong-arms Police recruit Marc Schrader (August Diehl, "Anatomie 2") into joining his squad on a gruesome case involving the road death of a naked young woman, with a skinned back, who staggered into traffic.
Schrader is moody, resentful of authority and seems more at ease hanging around with those on the fringes of 'normal' society, in fact the first time we meet him he's dancing at an illegal rave, than with his fellow Cops.
As the two mis-matched partners look into the woman's death Minks tells Schrader that he has spent the last two years looking for a friend's missing Daughter and asks the young Cop to look out for her during the investigation.
A bitten off finger, found in the stomach of the skinned girl's corpse, belonging to a Nobert Gunzel (Joe Bausch), who has convictions for assault and rape, seems to open a break in the case.
On raiding Gunzel's home Minks and Schrader find a basement lair with a bloodstained restraint table spattered with bits of flesh, a video filming set-up and the tattooed, preserved skin off their victim's back. In the garden they discover numerous buried corpses.
Gunzel is nowhere to be found though.
Schrader learns that the missing girl Minks mentioned is really Mink's Daughter (who ran away after the accidental death of her Mother) and now every case that Minks is involved with concerning missing persons or murder he thinks will lead to her, every hooker on a street corner looks like her to him and every illegal rave and underground club may contain her.
Mink is basically being driven to increasing heights of obsession in his quest to find his Daughter and Schrader slowly learns about what is legend and what is truth concerning the grizzled Cop he is now partnered with .
As the macabre case unfolds (with more skinned tattooed corpses turning up), and the two cops track down their suspect, they each have to come to terms with their own inner demons and both discover that all is not as it seems.
Robert Schwentke's feature film debut took a long time to fully open up the career doors to Hollywood, where he would direct Jodie Foster in "Flightplan" to mixed critical results, and it's a shock that such an accomplished writer/director debut never led to bigger things much quicker.
Dark streets flecked with sickly yellow light, thumping clubs streaked with neon, corridors and alleys shadowed by dirty naked bulbs, morgues drained of colour, as they are of life, by a harsh and soulless glare. This is the Berlin that Schwentke's characters inhabit.
It's a place of streetwalkers, underground clubs, concrete ghettos, illegal dives and sinful pleasures.
A place of the dead, the soon to be dead, the desperate, the corrupt, the lonely and the lost.
Schwentke takes the prolific German Industrial/Alternative/Tribal scene and mixes it with the desperation of drug addiction, the lure of easy money, personal desperation and the shadowy danger that can haunt the most extreme examples of any underground culture.
Sure it's the ill-educated 'mainstream society's assumption' of what such fringe cultures must be like that Schwentke is playing with (although some aspects are indeed risky to indulge in in real life given their underground status and the criminal mind that status can attract) , but this is nothing new and thankfully he does it all so well, and so artistically, that we can forgive the overly nightmarish representation of raves, sex clubs and extreme body modification and tattooing.
Ultimately it's just a movie and does what it has to do to make the tale, and it's telling, as effective as possible.
There is darkness everywhere in the world of "Tattoo", even in the daylight, and corrupt minds and their foul deeds even contaminate the supposed peace of the cemetery and the rest of the grave.
Like SE7EN in fact (a film "Tattoo" owes much too in tone and minor events, while still managing to remain it's own movie) there is always a darkness that threatens to (and sometimes does) overwhelm any kind of hopeful light in the movie, but there is a far more personal and realistic picture of it's lead Cops here than in Fincher's (still excellent) work.
And some of the twists and turns in Robert Schwentke's own screenplay are as harsh and uncompromising as his portrayal of Berlin itself and take the audience on an emotional roller coaster even more intense than "Se7en" managed. Although it is sadly more obvious in it's final revelations.
The cinematography (by Jan Fehse) and the visual ideas it captures are both vital to the movie's impact, and with it's use of bright light, dark shadows, muted colours and radiant hues the film looks as good as one of it's impressive tattoos. Indeed an unusual, unexpected and erotic 'unveiling' of a tattoo is one of the film's best moments.
Martin Todsharow's industrial tinged, driving, soundtrack compliments the movie's unfolding events, and the impressive visuals, perfectly and remains another fine example of the accomplished mix of the technical and the artistic which "Tattoo" manages to do so well.
The film's most graphic sequence (and genuinely striking in it's grotesqueness) is the initial appearance of the skinned, naked, woman but from then on the film mainly concentrates it's more ghoulish aspects onto the aftermath of death. Corpses are bloodied and mutilated and the 'forensic gore' is explicit and coldly clinical as rotted, burnt and broken bodies lie naked under the uncaring florescent glare of the morgue lights, as gloved hands scoop out entrails, crack open ribcages and operate bone saws. Again, like "Se7en", the film is all about the consequences of death and the nasty smells and the morbid sights it leaves behind.
There is some fine dialogue here as well to accompany the striking visuals.
Minks's no-nonsense and frequently angry exchanges with suspects cut like a knife and there are some fine exchanges between him and Schrader, the most telling and powerful being a conversation in a graveyard:
Schrader: "If somebody always pays, who paid for your wife's death"?
Minks: "I did: I paid".
Christian Redl is wonderful as the world weary, gnarled, ruthless but virtuous old Cop and can tell as many stories about Minks with his facial expressions as his words.
We truly feel his anger, frustration and inner turmoil as he tries to battle his own guilt and failings concerning his Daughter's disappearance while also coping with the hole left in him by his Wife's death as he tries to do his job and catch the murderer.
As the fresh faced Schrader the delightfully named August Diehl does a good job in his characters solo scenes as well as those with Minks and he skilfully opens up his character as we learn more about Schrader and see that there is more to him than the initial arrogance and attitude that he gave off when first paired with Minks.
Both the actors and their characters make for an interesting pairing and the relationship (as well as their individual troubles) are basically the back bone of this fine, well scripted, striking in appearance exercise in German shock cinema.