Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 12, 2019 9:36 pm 
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IN MY ROOM (Ulrich Köhler 2018)


Muddling toward heroism

While I had trouble getting a grip on Köhler's previous film, the 2011 Sleeping Sickness (NYFF), this everyman-in-the-apocalypse tale, inspired, the director says, by three books,* goes down very easy, strange though it is. And after all, you want a last-man-living tale to be strange; otherwise why bother to make another one? We're with the Berlin School here, and Köhler's wife is Maren Ade, whose Toni Erdmann was one of the School's films recently celebrated at Cannes, as was this, and Valeska Grisebach's Western. These have all been included in NYFF's, by the way.

What's fresh here to start off with in the first of three segments, the slouchy protagonist, Armin (Hans Löw), doesn't do things that are going to seem meaningful or ironic when he wakes up and there's no living other soul on earth to be found. He's a tall, slightly slobby boychild, approaching middle age but a flop as a freelance TV cameraman covering local politics. He's so bad, the wittily absurd opening segment is a lengthy clip of jerky footage where he was confusing the "on" and "off" buttons of his telecamera and would up turning it off when the politicians gave their speeches and on when nothing was happening. He seems to make the dance club scene and he fails miserably to stage a one night stand with a lady his age. No wonder: he's a slob.

Armin takes a break (an autobiographical moment, Köhler has said) in the country helping his father take care of his dying, bedridden grandmother. Köhler delivers an almost alarming degree of banality-plus-specificity throughout all segments. It also goes on a tad too long by the standards of setups for conventional sci-fi apocalypse tales. This heightens our sense of the banality, and the suspense (assuming we know the genre we're watching).

Then comes the middle section, with its stunning leap. After Armin wakes up and can't find anybody alive, he flails around for a while, exploring empty shops, breaking into grandma's house. Her corpse is there and he finds a radical solution to that. He gets drunk. Most notably, he has an inspiration and a solitary moment of grand wildness. He steals a Lamborghini painted with racing insignias and drives at breakneck speed through all the winding streets of the town dodging scattered cars. Here production designers Jochen Dehn and Silke Fische excel, providing a wealth of motorcycles on highways scattered like dead beetles, big trucks diagonally abandoned, all sorts of signs of sudden disappearance of humanity.

The film gets a shot of adrenaline with its little sudden jump forward to Robinson Crusoe Armin, pot belly gone, tan and buff and flat-bellied, out at a farm he has set up in what he later explains is the area where he grew up, with livestock, chickens and a horse and at work on setting up a hydroelectric generator on a local stream, though somewhat inexplicably, there seems to still be water and light freely available from the usual public supply. Now, Armin not only looks good. He has a purpose in life, and seems happy. Just as Köhler reveled in his protagonist's humdrum urban quotidian, he now delights in the classic gestures of self sufficiency in nature. And this is obviously a choice. Armin could have survived on the edge of leftover civilization, off the abundance of consumable products, off canned food. But no. He will dig up potatoes, raise hens, shoot game.

In the last segment, Kirsi (carefully chosen Italian actress Elena Radonicich) appears, driving a small camper. Though Armin still has a car, he seems to prefer cultivation and travel via his trusty workhorse. She's attractive. And now, Armin is attractive too, both in his physical looks and in the machismo of his functionality in this new world. So here they are, Adam and Eve, and they look good. But of course it doesn't turn out that way. Köhler has said he chose Radonicich because she seemed like a woman who has lived alone independently for five years. They have sex, plenty of it. But when Armin suggests they make a baby, Kirsi balks. "Would you want to bring a child into this world?" she asks. "I love this world," he answers (a wonderfully resonant line, richer than it looks in print). "You don't," Kirsi says, "you just love fucking!" So gradually ends the idyll.

The New York Film Festival blurb last fall spoke of this film's "meticulous details and sly, subtle ironies," and its the interplay between the two that makes this a fresh and resonant work. It's also essential somehow that most of these Berlin School films tend to go on "too long." They create their own real time pace, as was notably the case with Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann. I have the feeling that I missed the point of Sleeping Sickness, an essence the judges got at Berlin that year to award it the Silver Bear. Here, I'm pretty sure rewatching would yield plenty of rewards. The main actors are very interesting.

*He has cited Arno Schmidt's Black Mirror, Marlen Haushofer's The Wall, and David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress as inspirations.

In My Room, 119 mins., debuted at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard) 17 May 2018, and showed in at least a dozen other festivals including Karlovy Vary, Munich, Jerusalem, New York, Busan, Göteborg, Rotterdam, and San Francisco, as part of which it was screened for this review.

SFFILM showtimes:
Sat, Apr 13 at 8:15 pm BAMPFA
Sun, Apr 14 at 8:00 pm SFMOMA Wattis Theater

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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