Color, 2000, 91 mins. 20 secs.
Directed by Buddy Giovinazzo
Starring James Russo, Steven Waddington, Ornella Muti, Heino Ferch
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Best Entertainment (DVD) (Germany R2 PAL), Magna (DVD) (Australia R4 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Though he's still best known in cult circles for his blistering Combat Shock, filmmaker Buddy Giovinazzo has taken some unusual directions in his career since then. After his second feature in Staten Island, the drama No Way Home, he reunited with that film's star, James Russo, and made the jump to Berlin for The Unscarred in 2000. Largely inspired by the wave of indie '90s crime films that were all the rage at the time, the film didn't get a lot of play outside Germany but establish Giovinazzo as a filmmaker there and paved the way for work on numerous homegrown features and TV shows including the wildly popular, long-running Tatort.
Our story kicks off in 1979 in Berlin as some Stanford exchange students at a farewell winter party get into a violent, bullying altercation that ends with one of them fatally plunging over a high banister. Twenty years later, Mickey (Russo) is long past his glory days and working a blue collar factory job in New Jersey when he gets invited to a reunion in Berlin. There he reconnects with the very wealthy Travis (The Last of the Mohicans' Waddington) and Johann (Downfall's Ferch), the latter now with Rafaella (Muti). Soon their violent past turns out to be just a harbinger of things to come as murder enters the picture with multiple conflicting narratives thanks to a night of excess that seems to have clouded people's memories.
The strong quartet of leads here are really the main show, with Russo anchoring everything with a very dark and intense performance. In keeping with the tone of films like Suicide Kings, 2 Days in the Valley, etc., Giovinazzo keeps the Steadicam moving constantly with lots of snappy editing and chic shots of nightclubs and firearms in between tense dialogue exchanges. The combination of American, British, German, and Italian actors results in an interesting dramatic texture, with the always welcome Muti proving to be something of a wild card here since she always has a compelling, ambiguous quality that makes her perfect for roles like this.
Given marginal DVD releases in Germany and Australia, The Unscarred has been mostly overlooked over the years unless you managed to stumble across it on a few streaming platforms. Severin Films (whose association with Giovinazzo goes back years and also includes the anthology film The Theatre Bizarre) has given it a shot at wider recognition with a 2023 Blu-ray release, featuring what's listed as a 2K scan from pre-print German vault elements. Whatever that refers to, it looks fine here with colorful and era-appropriate transfer -- nothing so vivid it'll ever be a demo piece, but this seems to be faithful to the stylized look of the feature itself. DTS-HD M 5.1 and 2.0 English tracks both sound good and offer some nice channel separation where needed, with optional English SDH subtitles included. Giovinazzo appears here for a new audio commentary with Severin's David Gregory, a sequel of sorts to their track for No Way Home, and it's a very solid one as they cover the credit for a nonexistent screenwriter, the impetus for shooting in Germany, the changes in style he undertook for a project he intentionally wanted to be less personal, and his thoughts on wrangling the cast. In "Once Upon A Time in East Berlin" (10m2s), Russo chats about revisiting the film for the first time in years and being pleased with the result, as well as his initial reluctance taking another dark role and the memories he made on the shoot in Germany. In "Run Johann Run" (8m49s), Ferch recalls working with Giovinazzo and being the closest thing to a native on the production, which found him rubbing shoulders with different acting styles that helped set this apart from a standard thriller script. The trailer is also included.
Reviewed on November 23, 2023