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Review: Ulrich Köhler’s "In My Room" Imagines the End of the World

In the new drama from German director Ulrich Köhler, a man wakes up to find himself alone in the world.
Lawrence Garcia
The desire to have the world disappear overnight, leaving one alone with a devoted lover, undergirds many a melodrama, from All That Heaven Allows (1955) to The Bridges of Madison County (1995). It is also the bold, rather literal inspiration of Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room—an astonishingly protean film that begins as a minor-key character study of sad-sack, forty-something Berliner Armin (Hans Löw), before arriving at a place of strange, apocalyptic wonderment. Given the German director’s typically dogged, process-oriented realism, explicit references to Sirk’s Technicolor romance and Eastwood’s passionate two-hander—both of which emerge in the film’s later half—might seem misplaced. But it is this very tension between and union of opposites that will come to define Köhler’s fourth feature.
When the film opens, though, we are faced with a reversal of a more banal sort. Armin, who works as a TV cameraman, makes a particularly embarrassing gaffe during a parliamentary press conference, capturing everything but the relevant interviews. (“You can’t even tell if the camera is on or off,” scoffs a colleague of his before storming out. “What a great artist!”) Soon after, Armin will go to a club, bring a woman to his apartment, and subsequently strike out. But it’s not until about half an hour in, after he drives to see his dying grandmother in an outlying rural town, that the film’s title will start to accrue any kind of meaning. After a drunken, despondent night, he wakes up to find his surroundings somehow changed: as far as he can tell, all of humanity has disappeared. The world has, quite literally, become his room.
Initially, this leads Armin to attempt suicide—but when he’s unsuccessful at even that, we observe him wake to the possibilities of his situation. A listless, ambulatory tour soon follows—not so different in rhythm from much of contemporary realist art-cinema fare. But then he happens upon a Lamborghini, and we are soon treated to a video game-like, POV shot from the car zooming recklessly through the deserted town as if through an obstacle course—a kind of Grand Theft Auto fantasy come to life. When Armin eventually enters a darkened, blockaded tunnel, he frees a pair of horses that walk off into the blackness. Then, the film’s most transportive cut: to an in media res shot that glides along a shallow stream through which Armin walks. No longer the hapless Berliner we had once seen, he is lean and muscled, and an able marksman, farmer, and horse rider on top of that. With the same intense focus as before, Köhler methodically details Armin’s improbably exceptional existence, including a (failed) attempt to set up a self-constructed, hydroelectric generator. Even without it, though, Armin’s abode stands as a kind of survivalist fantasy—efficient, idyllic, bereft of any authority but his own—harking to castaway stories such as Robinson Crusoe. If the teenaged army deserter of Köhler’s Bungalow (2002) were asked to describe his ideal living space, it might look something like Armin’s. Although he was at one point ready to leave the world, every indication suggests that he would now fight to stay.
For its apocalyptic conceit, cleanly bifurcated structure, and Armin’s reversal of attitudes, In My Room shares something with Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), though in other respects the two are diametrically opposed—Köhler’s découpage has none of Von Trier’s portentous grandeur. As with the movements of his last feature, Sleeping Sickness (2011), the German director tends to small-scale, materialist depictions, even as his governing conceits are supremely accommodating to allegorical implication. It’s not that In My Room refuses any sort of thematic payload, but that its movements serve primarily as a vehicle for transformation. Just as the viewer acclimates to Armin’s solitary existence, Köhler reveals that he might not actually be alone. After a surprise scuffle under the cover of darkness, Armin falls off his horse and is knocked out. When he awakes following a kind of Adam’s slumber, he knows with certainty that someone else is here—and he soon meets a fellow survivor named Kirsi (Elena Radonicich), his newfound Eve, with whom he enters into a tenuous relationship.
Apart from rerouting the film’s trajectory yet again, this development throws Armin’s vigor into sharp relief. The film's fundamental scenario belongs to classic speculative fiction, but it’s not until Kirsi shows up that Armin’s own paucity of imagination—his refusal to speculate, as it were—becomes fully evident. “You want a baby to grow up in this world?” Kirsi asks in a furious, post-coital argument. “I love this world,” he responds, perhaps not absorbing that he could very well find himself in an untenable situation—one that is not so different from that of the convicts in Claire Denis’s High Life (2018), which merely takes the implications of his sentiment to their terminal point. Never more at home than in this depopulated Earth, Armin is altogether unburdened by the thought of what lies out there, while Kirsi, for her part, had spent untold amounts of time roving far and wide. The scenario basically inverts the dynamic of The Bridges of Madison County—viewed on a laptop late in the film—where Meryl Streep’s Francesca Johnson (an Italian war bride to match Radonicich’s own nationality) remains bound to her home, while Eastwood’s Robert Kincaid exists as an itinerant photographer. Here, Armin and Kirsi manage to find companionship—or at least sexual compatibility—in each other, but though no social barriers separate them, it is Kirsi who’s eventually overcome by a peripatetic urge.
The couple’s potential separation notwithstanding, In My Room never ventures into outright melodramatic territory. In Köhler’s method lies a similar ambivalence to pop sentimentality that marked Everyone Else (directed by his partner and co-producer Maren Ade, no less), whose centerpiece scene, of Lars Eidinger’s architect doing an ironic-kitschy dance for his partner to “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” finds a belated echo here, in Armin’s impromptu gyrations for Kirsi in an abandoned gas station. Detractors might be suspicious of this guarded position, particularly given that both directors tend to hinge a lot on such pop-fueled emotional crescendos, despite their (and their characters’) reluctance to embrace the means of expression. Granted, few elements here push beyond the film’s well-proportioned emotional heft and rigorous mise-en-scène, or upset the balance between its high-concept scenario and taut realism. But to take this as a defect would be to dismiss the ways that Köhler and other Berlin School directors such as Ade have committed to portraying the external markers of a contemporary West governed by capital and corporate finance—from the unflatteringly lit offices of Toni Erdmann (2018) to the imposing towers of Christoph Hochhäusler’s underseen finance thriller The City Below (2010). Even more than that, they’ve captured the far-reaching cognitive shifts that have resulted from this hegemony, which specifically delimits, compartmentalizes, or even controls an individual's self-expression, and which here extends even beyond civilization as we know it. (It seems no coincidence that the titles of three of Köhler’s features—Bungalow, Windows on Monday [2005], In My Room—point up to structural concerns.)
No explanation is ever provided for the apocalypse of In My Room, though part of the scintillating experience of viewing it is cycling through—and then perhaps discarding—various interpretive frameworks. That the act of doing so might mirror Armin or Kirsi’s decision on how to carry on is not a coincidence, but the entire point; one feels, as this Adam and Eve must, the impossibility of truly starting anew, unable as we are to step out of our own skins, our painfully limited means of engaging with the world. The tragedy of In My Room is not that Armin chooses to reconstruct a de facto version of the life he had known previously, but that he can conceive of no other. End of the world or not, there’s no transformation in store for these two—certainly nothing even close to the animist suggestion of the final, jungle-set passage of Sleeping Sickness. But in leaving Armin and once again setting her sights on the unknown, Kirsi, at least, takes her first step into the wilderness.


ReviewsUlrich Kohler

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