“I always wanted to be a superhero, but if I’d known the things to come, I would have stayed a nobody,” confesses hacker Benjamin (played by Tom Schilling) to Danish investigator Hanne Lindberg (Trine Dyrholm) at the beginning of Who am I – No System is Safe (Who Am I – Kein System ist sicher), a 2014 movie screened during the 8th Panorama of the European Film.
Benjamin then relates in flashbacks to recount his life story and how he rose to become one of the most dreaded hackers menacing the great BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst), Germany’s federal intelligence apparatus, and the Russian cyber mafia.
Who Am I is an action thriller by young Swiss director Baran bo Odar, widely hailed in Germany by critics as a ray of light in German cinema bringing Odar the prestigious Bavarian Film Award 2015 for best direction.
Odar’s success was also promptly rewarded by Hollywood offering him to direct Sleepless Night, a thriller starring Jamie Foxx and Michelle Monaghan and set to be released in 2016.
Critics also gave credit to rising star Schilling who slips into the role of the young introverted and extremely shy hacker Benjamin Engel, a nobody in real life and a genius in the cyber world.
The film’s existential title, Who Am I, alludes to the question of identity in a virtual world, one that parallels the real.
As Benjamin is a misfit who cannot even address Marie (Hannah Herzsprung), the law student he has a crush on, he seeks refuge in an unreal world and leads a double life like the superheroes he admires. Yet as a hacker he cannot solely exist in a world of his own creation, and has to find his way to sabotage the real one.
A cyber terrorist, together with three other hackers, Benjamin forms a clandestine group called CLAY (Clowns Laughing At You) targeting global and capitalist enterprises, regarding themselves as renegade Robin Hoods, reminiscent of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
Despite the serious and dark undertones of the film, it does not delve into deep questions and offers an action packed cat and mouse chase, comic situations and witty dialogues.
To emphasise the uptight nature of Benjamin’s character, the film introduces his nemesis Max (Elyas M'Barek), also a hacker yet with an outgoing personality. Schooling Benjamin on how to approach girls and become more confident generates slapstick situations and funny dialogues. Their discrepancy also fuels rising tensions between the two when they both battle for Marie.
Primarily an action-laden thriller à la The Usual Suspects (1995) and V for Vendetta (2005), Who Am I portrays a gloomy world of masked hackers, visually convening in tubes to spare the viewer the boredom of a chat box.
The latent evil, embodied by the Russian cyber mafia which soon pursues Benjamin and Max’s trace, is never made visible, and the threat of the cyber terrorists remains confined to the television screens of the media. Here the hackers are portrayed as Voldemort’s creatures, battling and conspiring against each other.
The emerging dead bodies and swift police chases offer the viewer a thrilling sensation, intensified by the techno-rock soundtrack delivered by Boys Noize and Royal Blood.
And just when the conspiracies and mysteries start to unravel, the director manages to pull a few aces from up his sleeve.
As Benjamin repeats throughout the film, hacking is like pulling off a great magic trick. Things are never what they seem ...
(Photo: Still from Who Am I)
The film will screen again on:
Thursday, 3 December, 6.45pm
Goethe Institute, 5 El-Bustan Street, Downtown, Cairo
Saturday 5 December, 6:45pm
Cinema Karim, 15 Emad El-Din Street, Downtown, Cairo
Check the full programme here
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