The pitch-black comedy "In Order of Disappearance" about a gangland war between Norwegian drug dealers and the Serbian mob delighted the Berlin film festival Monday.
Veteran director Hans Petter Moland, a Norwegian who lived in the United States for more than a decade, called his movie a satire about wealthy countries' attitudes toward immigration.
It tells the story of Nils, a Swedish snow-plough operator and recent winner of his tiny village's Citizen of the Year award played by Stellan Skarsgard. His Norwegian neighbour even tells him straight-faced that he is a "well-integrated immigrant".
But when Nils' son is murdered for getting mixed up in a dispute over drug smuggling at the airport where he works, Nils embarks on a grisly hunt for revenge against a band of criminals led by a fussy vegan known as the Count (Pal Sverre Hagen).
As the corpses pile up, Nils inadvertently touches off a blood feud with the clan of a Serbian mafia boss called only "Papa" (Swiss actor Bruno Ganz).
The humour comes from the absurd culture clashes and laconic dialogues among the gangsters reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino which drew big laughs during a packed screening at the festival.
Sunshine or welfare
Moland portrays the bumbling Norwegian thugs as xenophobic bigots who, in defending their drug territory, believe they are protecting the homeland from interlopers.
In one scene, a hitman shooting the breeze with another goon concludes that the colder climes of northern Europe gave rise to the welfare state coupled with fiscal discipline.
Meanwhile sun-kissed countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy promoted lying about and racking up debt. "Sunshine or welfare -- that's the choice," he says.
The Serbian wise guys, meanwhile, speak with grudging admiration about the relative merits of Scandinavian prisons including less abuse at the hands of guards and "great food".
Each murder is marked to comic effect, with the name of the victim appearing on a black screen with a Protestant cross, Serbian Orthodox crucifix or Humanist symbol above it like a tombstone.
Moland is a regular on the festival circuit who made the 2004 picture "The Beautiful Country" starring Nick Nolte, Tim Roth and Bai Ling about Vietnamese immigrants in the United States.
"How does violence keep escalating? Well, you need an image of your enemy as dehumanised," Moland said.
"And this is where all of this scepticism and animosity towards other cultures and other nations in this film stems (from)."
He said despite the underworld setting, the themes in the film mirrored broad tensions in European society.
"In Norway we have a wealthy nation. A lot of Europe right now has great economic difficulties and people come for work," he said.
"That is a huge dilemma in Norway because I think the fabric of our nation was initially a generous spirit, an idea of ourselves being generous toward people in need. I think this is being challenged today."
Skarsgard, who was also at the festival for the premiere Sunday of the director's cut of Lars von Trier's English-language "Nymphomaniac Volume I", said hopscotching across cultures and languages was good exercise for an actor.
"Of course it's always easier to work in your mother tongue," he said. "You have to work harder when you work in a foreign language. But I feel more and more comfortable in English."
As for working in Scandinavian films, he quipped: "The Norwegians think I'm a Norwegian with a speech impediment."
Ganz said Moland helped him cover up his mistakes delivering lines in Serbian.
"Hans Petter said that we can deal with language problem by giving me a nice scar from a gunshot through the throat -- that way regardless of what language you're speaking people won't understand you anyway," he said.
"In Order of Disappearance" is one of 20 films vying for the Golden Bear top prize at the 11-day festival, to be awarded Saturday.