…As We Know It
By Nick Pinkerton

NYFF 2018:
In My Room
Dir. Ulrich Köhler, Germany, Grasshopper Film

As we first come to encounter Armin (Hans Löw), the central character in Ulrich Köhler’s high-concept, low-dialogue comedy-drama In My Room, and for some time its only character, he is something like the poster boy for pampered western masculinity in crisis. He is incompetent at his job as a news cameraman—the film opens with an instance of his handiwork, footage from a political event that cuts out the sound-bite-worthy speechmaking while retaining the handheld fumbling between setups, and from here moves to him being browbeaten by his bosses. His personal life is no less pathetic; shortly afterwards he’s seen to maneuver a younger acquaintance (Emma Bading) back to the efficiency apartment that he’s occupied for untold years, only to obliviously sour the mood and send the girl packing. About the only positive attribute that he exhibits during what will come to seem like both the film’s first act and an extended prologue, labeled by an intertitle as “Winter,” is an underutilized nurturing instinct, visible in the tender manner he shows toward his elderly grandmother (Ruth Bickelhaupt), mutely dying in hospice back in Armin’s sleepy hometown, in the stuffy, middle-class house kept by his father (Michael Wittenborn).

Armin has the body of a not particularly fit 40-year-old man—the round belly and bandy arms of the citified lazybones, sometimes described as the “Grover Body”—but the petulance of a child a quarter that age, and he is brusque and bitter with both his father and the old man’s new wife (Katherina Linder), whom he treats as an unwanted interloper. So settled does he seem in his ways that it is hard to imagine him being jolted from his well-worn path of mild miserabilism by anything short of a miracle—which he gets, though it takes the form of a catastrophe.

Following his grandmother’s death, Armin parks his car beneath a bridge overpass and proceeds to drink himself insensate, encased in his self-pity and shut off from everything around him, dully watching revelers on a passing pleasure boat as though they were an extraterrestrial species. The following day, he wakes to something more than a hangover. Stopping at a gas station to pick up a pack of smokes, he finds no one minding the till. Cars, their passengers gone without a trace, litter the road. The pleasure boat now drifts empty and aimless in the current. Every living human has seemingly vanished into thin air, while animals remain—including a neighbor dog, whose sad end provides the movie its most troubling passage, and yet another instance of Armin’s abject incompetence. No explanation for what has happened is immediately available, and none will emerge in the length of the film.

Armin is last seen wandering the empty shell of his town in shock, then taking advantage of the empty motorways to joyride in the best newly driverless cars on offer, but following an ellipsis of an undisclosed amount of time, we are introduced to a new Armin so unlike the old that were it not for the bicep tattoo that looks like a mistake born of a teenage drunk, one could hardly believe it was the same man. He is brown as a berry and taut-muscled and a dexterous horseman, and he has found a new outlet for that nurturing impulse, seen helping a lost goat out of a tangle. The goat is one of a small stable of livestock that Armin keeps on a property outside of town that he’s made his own, filling his days with small improvements that will bring him gradually closer to self-sufficiency, like the installation of a hydroelectric generator to draw power from a neighboring stream. From soft simp, he has become the embodiment of consummate competence.

This second section, labeled “Summer,” has an entirely different texture from the first. Establishing the world that has fed Armin’s soul-sickness, Köhler and his returning cinematographer Patrick Orth, draw out everything antiseptic and alienating in both Berlin and the provincial ‘burgs around Bielefeld. Returning to this same landscape after humankind has been sometime absent, they find it a riot of slowly overspreading vegetation, the suburbs become a garden. The images suggest lines from Talking Heads “(Nothing But) Flowers”—“This was a Pizza Hut/ Now it’s all covered with daisies”—but with little of David Byrne’s ambivalence and nostalgia toward the disappearance of the prefab plastic world and the drive-through window cheeseburgers that formerly formed Armin’s sustenance. To find another postapocalypse this pleasant, you’d have to look back to the blissy naifs of Jim McBride’s Glen and Randa (1971), a film very much informed by countercultural Utopianism. But while the palette changes between sections, the overall approach does not—Köhler has an unhurried, observational style, neither intimate nor unduly distant, that allows his protagonist to reveal himself in the course of action, whether his incompetent foreplay, his clumsy cleanup following a post-end-of-the-world drinking spree, or going about the rounds on his little self-made fiefdom.

No longer burdened and buffered by the support of civilization, Armin has discovered a long-untapped resourcefulness, and in the process remade himself as a Westphalian Robinson Crusoe. Accordingly, he will discover his proverbial footprint in the sand, and in due course meets a fellow survivor, Kirsi, played by the Italian actress Elena Radonicich. The two communicate in English and in halting German and, after a period of mutual wariness, through sex, which both draws them closer and threatens to tear them apart. Where once we saw Armin firmly tell his father that he had no desire for children, the evaporation of his fellow man seems to have kick started his reproductive urge, while Kirsi steadfastly refuses motherhood. “Who wants to bring a child into this world?” she asks. “I love this world,” he responds.

From here the movie proceeds as a two-hander, a quietly comic study of the last two people on earth in their inability to keep it together as a couple—he wants to start from the ground up in his cultivated corner of the globe, while she, prone to wanderlust, prefers to live out the time remaining to her traveling and touring the ruins. Dedicated as it is to meticulous and unhurried character study that eschews subjective or sentimental identification, In My Room checks off most of the descriptors usually applied to work produced by filmmakers attached to the Berlin School, a much-debated designation whose roll call has been given to include such figures of disparate ages and educational backgrounds as Christian Petzold, Maria Speth, and Maren Ade, Köhler’s partner and co-producer. In its opening, Köhler’s film displays the concern with transcribing the texture of life in post-reunification Germany that runs through so many Berlin School–attributed films, and even when German society per se disappears, as it does here, it continues to exert a powerful influence in its vacancy. In the same manner, the Armin-shot flubbed footage that opens In My Room, which includes everything but the essential speeches that he’s supposed to have been capturing, gives us a sense of how to look at what follows—as defined by a structuring absence.

As in Köhler’s Bungalow (2002), likewise concerned with an antisocial layabout protagonist, or Ade’s Toni Erdmann, to date the defining blockbuster of the Berlin School, there is a critique of the world wrought by neoliberalism or late capitalism, whichever you prefer, implicit in the view of contemporary life in the West put forth in In My Room. Köhler and Ade, both dealing with alienated individuals, also share an interest in popular culture’s role as a vehicle for expressing otherwise unarticulated feeling, integrating it into their films and their characters’ lives in a way that tightrope-walks between sincerity and irony—the “Greatest Love of All” karaoke outburst in Ade’s film; a dance solo to a techno version of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” by headlights and a therapeutic viewing of Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (1995) in Köhler’s; the plaintive, emotionally arms-flung-open pop kickers of both otherwise largely reserved movies: The Cure’s “Plainsong” for Toni Erdmann; the Pet Shop Boys “Later Tonight” for In My Room. I detect here something of the same equivocating tendency to smuggle sentimentality into otherwise “rigorous” films while keeping that sentimentality at arm’s length; the determination to redeem the responsive suppleness of realism that comes cossetted in unbending, surprise-resistant theory; and a similar hard, sour sense of humor—that most irreducible of qualities—that happens to be almost exactly inimical to my own.

For whatever elements it has that might tie In My Room to a larger movement, however, Köhler’s film is a distinct breakaway in other respects, not least in its gesture toward genre and the cinema of the postapocalypse, here created in subtle but telling touches by production designers Jochen Dehn and Silke Fischer, who give us a weary world that, like Armin’s exhausted grandmother, ended with a whimper, its service stations and holdout video stores not leveled but left instead to green rot. From this jungle, Armin carves out a spruce, fully operational mini-model of the middle-class world that he’d once disdained, only to have his perfect nest rejected by Kirsi, the only mate who might share it. This makes for an unfulfilling, irresolute ending, and Köhler knows as much, for his movie is nothing if not drum-tight and wonderfully well thought through. And this will be enough for some; it’s just that, like Kirsi, I happen to believe there’s more out there.