New York 2018

Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room

The Daily — Sep 29, 2018
Hans Löw in Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room (2018)

Though it premiered in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes and has since screened in Karlovy Vary, Toronto, and other stops along the festival circuit, Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room hasn’t generated much noise. Reviews have been approving overall, but that admiration has been expressed with a reserved understatement that matches the film’s tone. As Nick Pinkerton puts it at Reverse Shot, “Köhler has an unhurried, observational style, neither intimate nor unduly distant.”

One of Köhler’s champions is Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a member of the New York Film Festival selection committee. “A film of meticulous details and sly, subtle ironies, In My Room infuses its high concept with a touching spirit of genuine inquiry,” Lim wrote in a dispatch from Cannes to Film Comment. “Its central scenario is by now exceedingly familiar from science fiction and pop culture, but it takes a director of Köhler’s skills and temperament to maximize its potential as a philosophical thought experiment.”

In My Room is divided into three distinct acts but remains throughout a character study of Armin (Hans Löw), first seen as a schlubby Berliner who’s neither a good television cameraman—the film opens with news footage he’s botched—nor much of a friend or lover. One morning he wakes to find that all of humanity has vanished, that he is the proverbial last man on earth. At no point in the film will any explanation be offered. But the catastrophe does wonders for Armin, who buffs up, builds a single-room shelter, and discovers he’s got a knack for the survivalist lifestyle. The third act introduces Kirsi (Elena Radonicich), but this post-apocalyptic Adam and Eve may not be destined to reboot human history. At Slant, Carson Lund points out that, in a shot “that evokes The Mirror—one of a few whiffs of Tarkovsky that perfume this otherwise decidedly unshowy film—the divide between the two is visualized as irreconcilable, though the film’s lingering impression is hardly one of despair.”

Nearly every reviewer mentions that, if there is such a thing as the Berlin School—a group of loosely affiliated German filmmakers such as Christian Petzold, Angela Schanelec, Christoph Hochhäusler, and Valeska Grisebach who, in fact, resist the notion that they’re part of a unified movement—then Köhler would be part of it. So, too, would his partner and coproducer, Maren Ade. Considering In My Room in the light of Ade’s 2016 surprise hit, Toni Erdmann, Nick Pinkerton senses “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 cosseted 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.”

But not to Giovanni Marchini Camia’s. Noting in his review for Sight & Sound that In My Room is “peppered with delightful comic touches,” he singles out in particular the “sight of Armin on horseback, a massive rifle strapped to his back and loot-filled bags from the supermarket REWE in each hand,” a striking picture that “ranks amongst the most inspired images to come out of German cinema in recent memory.” Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov agrees that the film is “playful and fun” and “full of surprise song cues, its deceptively drab opening segment full of information unexpectedly crucial to what’s about to follow, the whole appropriately despairing about heterosexual relationships.”

Notebook editor Daniel Kasman calls In My Room “a lean but evocative allegory,” a notion that Michael Sicinski probes in an outstanding six-part essay that appeared in this summer’s issue of Cinema Scope. He briefly floats and then dismisses the idea that Köhler might be addressing the Holocaust. The film could be “a dialectical response to the immigrant crisis, showing xenophobes exactly what it is they are asking for.” Or, considering a decision Kirsi makes, an argument that “humanity without freedom for all is no longer humanity.” But it could also be a declaration of independence from the Berlin School.

“For me,” Köhler tells Sicinski in an interview that comprises one of the sections of the essay, “the interesting point is that a character who refused to adapt to a bourgeois lifestyle starts building a future once the society he didn’t want to be part of disappears. So you could ask, has Armin ‘changed as a person,’ or is he only reacting to a changed environment? And more fundamentally, is there any difference between the two?”

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