Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2022 10:39 pm 
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Daniel Brühl enjoys seeing his ego deflated, but the critics aren't very impressed

In Daniel Brühl's directorial debut, he plays as an ironic version of himself. To believe the opinions of several different Anglophone reviewers, the result is both a vanity project and a film without vanity. Is that possible? In a way, yes, as a man can be vain of his own modesty. Playing this "Daniel" who appears in every frame of Next Door Brühl allows himself to get severely pummeled, and his privilege is held up to question. Those critics also think this rather a slight film. Though some of the details are a bit over the top, I found it gripping all the way through. Its giddy sequence of revelations reminded me, for some reason, of Fred Schepisi's 1993[url=""]Six Degrees of Separation[/url], written by the excellent John Guare, with the young Will Smith distinguishing himself as a junior con man eager to - distinguish himself. This isn't as good a movie as that, but it has some of the same excitement of breathlessly revealed information. This is a nail-bitingly entertaining film and a good one for the Opening Night film of San Francisco's 2022 Berlin and Beyond festival, which is how I saw it.

Though the writing is all by Daniel Kehlmann, this screen "Daniel" is Brühl's conception and so, then, is the mockery of guys like him: a highly successful German-Spanish movie actor living in the Boho Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. The opening sequence shows off that he has all the perks: glamorous top floor apartment with its own private elevator, Spanish maid to take care of the kids, stylish, accomplished wife, Clara (Aenne Schwarz), a doctor, comfort, glamor, fame, ambition. As the straight-through real time-ish action begins, it's early morning and he's off to London to try out for a role in a superhero blockbuster of the "Darkman" type.

The real Brühl, who grew up fluent in four or five languages, has indeed had roles in such films, with more coming. There is a certain preening self-satisfaction - or is he just excited and happy? - in the way "Daniel" does a light workout, showers, freshens up, dresses, congratulates the maid in perfect Spanish, fatuously ("How could we live without you?" - she is not expected to reply, though "Not easily, I hope," would be a good one), says a quiet goodbye to Clara, still in bed, and, excited, fresh-faced, wet-haired, rolls off with his small wheeled suitcase full of nervous anticipation of the tryout in London.

A blurb says the film explores "gentrification and social inequality in Berlin": nonsense. This is a process film, and that process is the destruction of Daniel's ego. He realizes it's much too early to take a taxi to the airport, and so dismisses the one that's been called, and heads instead to a local dive bar to kill some time. It's name is Zur Brust, and he likes it because its bad coffee reminds him of his mother. Our attention is repeatedly called to the fact that the proprietress (like most other people) knows him - but, though he frequents the place, he has yet to learn her name. (It's Hilde, and she's played by Rike Eckermann.) Daniel is periodically asked for a selfie or an autography, which he always gives, and he is deflated, to our amusement, when he falsely assumes one couple wants to be photographed on either side of him when they don't know who he is and are only asking him to take their picture.

A big man is staring at him from the bar. He looks like Robert Mitchem gone very much to seed - which is saying a lot, considering how rumpled the late Mitchem became. His name is Bruno (Peter Kurth) and he is going to be Daniel's nemesis, the dismantler of his selfhood. Many beers and many schnapps later, Daniel will have missed his flight to London and misplaced his reputation.

No need to go into details, because the devil and the fun is in them. Suffice it to say Bruno has for quite some time, in some ways somewhat implausibly, been spying on Daniel, "stalking" him, Daniel later says, for quite some time, and what he gradually comes out with is devastating. But before that, and this is the good part, Bruno sententiously unveils a series of derogatory, quite irrelevant opinions of Daniel's acting in general and some of his main films in particular that are versions of films Brühl has appeared in. These include what Bruno calls "the Stasi film," which refers to the 2003 Goodbye Lenin, the motion picture directed by Wolfgang Becker in which Brühl first became internationally noticed. Bruno lived in East Berlin back in the day and he's one of those who thinks it was not so bad. The Stasi weren't monsters, as shown in the movie, according to Bruno, but regular guys. We will not be surprised later to learn some ideas Bruno doesn't like, he refers to as "Fake news." So like the Lives of Others cast, Bruno, maybe was Stasi himself?

Bruno is an elaborate construct, nicely made manifest by Peter Kurth. This is a two-hander in which Kurth has the key role, though he'd have nothing to do without Brühl, who does all the reaction shots, from feigned disinterest, to contempt, to annoyance, to rage, to floods of tears. Yes, he gets to show off.

Next Door may not quite know how to end itself. Clara appears, having received damning information at her offices. She appears to present a united front with Daniel, but then, does she? Guy Lodge comments in his [url=""]Variety review[/url] on the "An oblique, eerie finale," showing Vicky Krieps now occupying Daniel's home, that's "suddenly more intriguing than anything else in the film." Yes, there are more complex sort of film. But this one, like Six Degrees of Separation, plays its one note with gripping intensity to the end. But the identity thriller entertainment function trumps others; the probing of ego and privilege could have gone much deeper. Though I like this more than the Meta-critics do, I can't give it more than a C+ and hope the real Daniel does better next time behind the camera. (I do not know German, and so can't tell if the local reviews have been better.)

Next Door/Nebenon, 92 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Jun. 11, 2021; it appeared at 8 or 20 other festivals including Taormina, Stockholm and Taipei. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Mar. 2022 Berlin and Beyond festival where it shows at three venues:

Castro Theatre
March 11, 2022
6:30 pm

Landmark's Aquarius Theatre
March 14, 2022
6:30 pm

Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas
March 15, 2022
6:00 pm

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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