TV UK, 3 September

Getting inside The Hamburg Cell.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Docudrama is generally expected to fill out the human story behind important events.

Stephen Greengrass’ and Guy Hibbert’s Omagh (1) focused on the grief of one man who lost a son in that bombing, while Peter Morgan’s The Deal (2) dramatised the personal rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Ronan Bennett and Alice Perman set out in The Hamburg Cell (Channel 4 last night) to humanise the 9/11 hijackers, but the banality of the resulting story could be seen as a wider comment on the attacks, albeit unintentional.

Boy meets girl. Boy also meets mullah. Boy has sex with girl, but disapproves of her drinking and provocative clothes. Boy marries girl, but then goes off to terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. Boy calls girl from Newark airport, tells her he loves her three times and then takes part in terrorist outrage. Right.

Docudrama is not generally expected to explain the politics of any situation, but the politics in The Hamburg Cell are so cursory as to be meaningless. The simple fact that the hijackers met and became organised in German colleges rather than the streets of Egypt or Palestine is of course significant, but disappointingly for a film purportedly telling the human story, The Hamburg Cell says almost nothing about the motivation of the individuals concerned.

Early on the main protagonist Ziad Jarrah is made to feel guilty about not doing anything for the Palestinians; Mohammed Atta is portrayed as a fanatic from the start, but ultimately we are left to draw on our own prejudices to explain why these affluent and well-educated young men chose to kill on such a massive scale. Of course, nobody really knows what was going on in the men’s heads, but the film feels like a missed opportunity to examine the politics of contemporary nihilism within the freedom of a fictional form.

Other than Ziad’s Turkish girlfriend, and one or two apolitical Arabs, the film focuses exclusively on the terrorists themselves. The lack of broader perspective actually inhibits the film from developing convincing individual characters. We get no sense of the Western society in which they live, apart from a ham-fistedly jolly counterplot about Ziad’s friend running a pizza restaurant. If only Ziad had taken that job as a waiter…. Gimme a break.

Instead of exploring the politics or even the psychology of the hijackers, The Hamburg Cell often felt like a call for vigilance. The cell is watched by German agents, but nobody is arrested; they are able to get into America, and the staff at the flying school are friendly and helpful. Tut, tut. It’s hard to know what to make of the film’s highlighting of these security issues beyond a suggestion that the authorities should have been more vigilant and arrested suspected terrorists at every opportunity.

The message seems to be that we must all be wary that the apparently mild-mannered aspiring dentists in our midst could actually be part of sinister cells bent on mass murder. It is a paranoia that stems naturally enough from the film’s failure to understand or even imagine what contemporary terrorism actually means. Ultimately, however, it probably means very little, and so perhaps the film’s failure to humanise the terrorists is unwittingly apt.

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Topics Culture


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