Though it’s difficult to pinpoint the typical Berlin Film Festival film, I’ve attended the festival enough times to attest that most pictures in the competition lean toward the somber end of the scale: You’re more likely to see a drama about immigrants in tough circumstances or children left to fend for themselves than a genre picture about a Danish snow-removal expert living in Norway who avenges the murder of his son by picking off a score of baddies one by one – with some grim laughs along the way. But this year, the Berlinale actually has one of those: Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance is the movie Quentin Tarantino might have made if he were charged with building an action film around Stellan Skarsgård and filming it, on a relatively modest scale, in snowiest Scandinavia.
In Order of Disappearance, which screened in competition on Monday, has a chilly, understated exuberance – arriving just before the festival’s midpoint, it was a welcome pick-me-up. That’s not to say that German filmmaker Dominik Graf’s nearly three-hour semi-biographical costume drama about Friedrich Schiller, Beloved Sisters, which screened earlier in the festival, didn’t have its moments: The picture focuses on the possibility that Schiller (Florian Stetter) may have been “shared” by his wife (Hannah Herzprung) and his wife’s sister (Henriette Confurius), an arrangement that – if it was for real, which is somewhat doubtful – was mighty progressive for the 18th, or any, century. Another German film, Dietrich Brüggemann’s stylized, moderately satirical Stations of the Cross, features a fine-grained performance by a young actress named Lea Van Acken, playing a 14-year-old girl who adheres too faithfully to the teachings of Catholic extremists. And Lou Ye’s Blind Massage, set in a Nanjing massage parlor whose well-trained staff all happen to be blind, is an intriguing if slow-moving drama about a small subset of people who admit — not with self-pity but with pride — that their blindness requires them to live outside “mainstream society.” Lou uses perceptive, atmospheric details to show how these young people live and work, but mostly how they fall in and out of love. Still, his approach may be a bit too cool — the picture feels more remote than intimate.
What can I say? Sometimes you’re just happy to see Skarsgård show up riding a giant snowblower. And this isn’t your garden-variety Snapper from Sears. These babies, as Skarsgård’s character in In Order of Disappearance tells us, can throw 40 tons of snow per minute, and boy, are they big. That’s a good thing, because Skarsgård’s dutiful, small-town civil servant Nils Dickman comes up against nasty drug-dealer villains, led by a pony-tailed vegan named “the Count” (Pal Sverre Hagen). Things get more complicated when a rival gang from Serbia cruises onto the scene, led by a papa-bear godfather-type played, marvelously, by Bruno Ganz – his face is like an expressive potato.
Mainly, though, it’s just fun to see Skarsgård, generally such a serious type – especially in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume 1, also screening at the festival — cutting loose for a change. This is Skarsgård’s fourth film with Moland. (The duo’s A Somewhat Gentle Man screened at the festival in 2010.) In Order of Disappearance probably won’t do for Skarsgård what Taken did for Liam Neeson – in other words, turn him into a late-middle-age action hero. This role is probably just a novelty for him, but that’s OK. When Skarsgård blows, he doesn’t blow.