Berlin 2014: ‘The Unknown Known’ review


One of several high profile documentaries screening at this year’s 64th Berlin Film Festival, veteran filmmaker Errol Morris presents The Unknown Known (2013), a brilliant one-on-one with one of the most influential figures in American politics over the last three decades: Donald Rumsfeld. Having served under three previous US presidents – Nixon, Ford and Reagan – Rumsfeld became the most recognisable and belligerent face of the second Bush administration’s War on Terror. Rightly or wrongly, it has been the Secretary of Defence who has become most readily associated with the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Morris is no neophyte when it comes to the subject, having charted the dark farce that has become America’s foreign policy in Standard Operating Procedure (2008), which explored what went on in Abu Ghraib and the shifting of blame from the higher-ups down the chain of command. With the two men going head-to-head, there’s a palpable frisson. It’s like watching two old prize fighters, cheerfully lacing up their mitts to settle a grudge. To get a frame for his interview, Morris adopts a similar technique to that used with former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara in 2003’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert M. McNamara. The eleven lessons learnt became the scaffold of the film.

In The Unknown Known, Morris uses Rumsfeld’s famous habit of shooting off memos – known as “snowflakes” because they were written on white paper – about all topics, at all times of day and night, sometimes micromanaging his department and sometimes musing philosophically about larger questions and the definitions of words. From a vast archive of these snowflakes, Rumsfeld reads his thoughts and answers questions from the off-camera Morris, who wheezily jabs in an incredulous riposte from time to time. For the most part, Morris lets his camera and Rumsfeld do all the heavy lifting, but his interviewee is no pushover – as can be imagined for a man who has held executive positions in government for so many years, seeing off numerous rivals.

Morris remains unfazed throughout. His canny hold on a face for that extra second after Rumsfeld has finished speaking gives us a chance to truly appraise what is being said. We hear what we’re told, the justifications and rationalisations, and then we see what Rumsfeld’s eyes tell us. Occasionally, Morris also uses stock footage, info-graphics and satellite pictures; the world is approached from that kind of altitude. Danny Elfman’s huge score delivers a dramatic vibrancy and Morris arrangement of materials is masterful. There’s no knockout punch in The Unknown Known as such, but Rumsfeld is held up to the light and questions are asked of the power he held.

The Unknown Known is released in UK cinemas on 21 March 2014 via Dogwoof. For more info, visit

The 2014 Berlin Film Festival takes place from 6-16 February. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.

John Bleasdale