Lately, the Cannes Film Festival has had a great track record premiering films from the Berlin School filmmakers, beginning in 2016 with Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann and then in 2017 with Valeska Grisebach's Western. This run continues with In My Room, the incisive new film by Ade's partner, Ulrich Köhler—the German director's first feature in seven years.
Like Western, it is a sly and restrained revision of a well-trod genre, in this case the last-man-on-Earth scenario. But that comes later; first, we are introduced to Hans Löw's Armin, a very average Berliner chastised at his job for his sloppiness—a television cameraman, he accidentally turns his camera off during political coverage and on during the bits in-between major speeches—and alone in his tiny studio flat. He travels to the suburbs to visit his father and look after his dying and bedridden grandmother, and after a depressed bender wakes up one morning in his car alone. All alone: The streets are empty, cars are marooned as if they'd been abandoned instantaneously. No explanation is given, and after several exploratory scenes of a world absent of people, Köhler jump cuts into a future in which Armin has optimized his life: tanned and muscular, he lives alone in a countryside house tending his farm and animals, attempting run a self-sustaining existence. Inevitably, he finds out that he may not be as alone as he thought.
Told with a precise and restrained style which evenly treats Armin's life before and after this strange world disruption, Köhler has crafted a lean but evocative allegory asking questions about what is essential and makes life worth living. A high concept film paradoxically told in an efficient, underplayed and down-to-earth manner, the seeming simplicity of In My Room belies its primal tale of a mediocre man who has to engage with the world around him to give himself meaning.
We spoke with director Ulrich Köhler at Cannes about inspirations for this unusual version of the apocalypse, his obsession with German politics, and the challenge of writing a movie with such different parts.
NOTEBOOK: There as a big gap of time between your making In My Room and your last film, Sleeping Sickness. Was this a story you felt particularly needed to be told now?
ULRICH KÖHLER: I think it was more personal. I thought that now I could try. I had something like this in mind for a long time, because I really liked some novels that play with this idea that you’re the last man, this castaway idea. Like a novel by Arno Schmidt called Black Mirror, and obviously Marlen Haushofer's The Wall, [David] Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, and some other books like that. I felt that, for me as a filmmaker, I was ready to do this kind of megalomaniac story that touches so many different issues. It couldn’t have been my first film, if that is the question. I don’t think it’s really a comment on this particular moment of time, though there are obviously some issues that are treated which for me are expressive of our time, like the gender issue, but it’s not...I cannot say it had to be shot now in this moment. In my personal biography, it had to be shot.
NOTEBOOK: Was it a pleasure to strip away the context of the moment, particularly in the second half of the film?
KÖHLER: Yes, it was in a way. Especially after my last film, where I really felt that I fell into the same trap that my character fell in, when I was shooting—a neocolonial trap that I wanted to avoid as a filmmaker. With this film, it was nice to live, to have a context to feel more free from all these constraints I put on myself.
NOTEBOOK: You just associated yourself with your protagonist in Sleeping Sickness. But that description makes it sound like for In My Room, too, you found yourself a bit like the protagonist: freer.
KÖHLER: Yeah, yes. In a way, it was a freedom, but as a filmmaker there was also the constraints of shooting a movie about the last person on earth in a country that has 80 million inhabitants, and a lot of airplanes in the sky [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: When you said this project is a more personal one, how do you relate to it in this way?
KÖHLER: Did I say that? All my films are personal in a way; my fantasy as a writer...well, it’s not that I decide to write like that, but during the writing process retrospectively I realize it’s always about a person that could have been me. One that makes a different decision and takes another path, and thinking that through. “What if?” kind of storytelling. What if I didn’t have a family? Or, in my second film, Windows on Monday, which was before I had a family, what if I had a child and I don’t love it? There is always this aspect in the writing process.
NOTEBOOK: The films are, in a way, a speculation?
KÖHLER: Yes, a speculation, going through the possibilities.
NOTEBOOK: I’d love to hear you talk to me about your protagonist, Armin. For the first third of the film, he’s a very banal, very normal. Important things are happening in his life, but objectively he’s not a very interesting person. Why did you pick this kind of person as the subject for your story?
KÖHLER: Well, for me it's because he’s detached. The kind of person who refused to grow up, refuses bourgeois lifestyle, but doesn’t have any counter-vision, a positive vision of what his life could be like. I thought it would be very interesting to see what happened to this person when he is forced to decide, to make the most important decision you can make: whether to choose living, and if he does, how do you want to live. That’s probably what makes his character interesting, that he’s forced to answer questions he’s avoided before.
NOTEBOOK: And in constructing the female character, did you imagine the first part of her life that you didn’t show?
KÖHLER: Yes, I did. I wrote some monologues. For me, she’s the contrary: Somebody who probably wanted to create a family and have a certain security, and then she gets thrown into this situation and becomes a nomad, like a cowboy riding into the sunset. Working with my actress but also in writing I had this abstraction, but obviously it’s not shown in the film. Not every actor needs that, but as a writer I need a coherent story, a coherent image. It was still difficult to find that actress; the main actor I found very, very fast, I knew him from another movie and saw him in the auditions for that film, and I already had him in mind. But for the female character, I realized in casting that the image wasn’t as precise, you know? It was really in finding this actress, Elena Radonicich, that really I felt it was right. She was so very autonomous, in a way that the others weren’t. She just felt right that she had lived five years alone.
NOTEBOOK: To go back to Armin, how did you approach the first third of the movie, which is a very delicate balance of observation of regularity and interlacing themes that will be reconfigured in the next part of the story?
KÖHLER: Obviously it touches on some themes that will be taken off of later. The main part, the part where he’s together with his dying grandmother and his father, is really quite autobiographical. That was the year before I shot Sleeping Sickness that my grandmother died and I spent this week in this house with my father, and it really felt like if you open the door maybe nobody will be there. There’s just this breathing person, talking very little. That was one one trigger. There are different elements. Like when you see the first scene of the movie [when Armin's camera is accidentally off], for me it makes sense that the “off” you lose is more interesting than the “on,” and for my main character is in the “off” when he is alone—he finds his true self, in a way. But that part is also a relic from a film project I never realized. I wanted to to shoot a film in the German parliament, part fiction and part documentary. I’m very interested in daily parliamentary activity; I love, for example, Wiseman’s State Legislature. When I read the paper I read much more the political part. That’s my soap opera. I know a lot about senate elections, stuff like that—I’ve spent a lot of time in the parliament, I know a lot about that process, so that’s where that part came from, I knew this stuff already and decided to shoot that.
NOTEBOOK: Was it tempting, when shooting the story, to have more or less of each of the film’s halves? Once I realized what the film’s twist was—if I can call it a twist—I was surprised by how much you gave us in the beginning. You fall into what seems like the movie and then you fall out of that movie.
KÖHLER: I like this, that it changes completely, that you can never really be sure what arrangement it can take. There was more material—that was also the risk of the film, because when people go to the movies they will know what will happen and will be waiting for it to go there. That’s the dramaturgical risk. But I felt like the story needs that. I shortened it a little; there was another part of the Berlin part I threw out where Armin had an on-and-off relationship with a woman his age who had a child, but I threw that out—it was too much exposition. All the scenes that are in the first part re-appear in the second part, and it just made sense to me.
NOTEBOOK: Was there a difference in the writing process of the two parts? I would imagine that the first part is more of a dramaturgical challenge and the second part is more practical challenge. On one hand, expositing Armin’s life in Berlin, his psychology and routine; and on the other, defining the world and his actions, his interaction in the world.
KÖHLER: That’s true, it was very different. The first part is more observational, the things I’m talking about are things I know. The second part is more conceptual, a dramaturgical guide. It’s the same, in a way, as with Sleeping Sickness, with the first part being everyday life and the second, Heart of Darkness. That’s the “what if” part of the movie, the second part in both movies. In both cases, also, literary novels that inspired me helped me through the writing process. In the first part, I was really more on my own, trying to organize elements in a way that made sense.
NOTEBOOK: Was it a pleasure to be thinking through mechanisms of survival and lifestyle for Armin, which is a different way of thinking how he exists in the world?
KÖHLER: Yeah. In my childhood—because I grew up in Africa—and later in Germany, I had a godfather who was a hunter who took me into the forest together, we slept in the forest together. There’s this kind of child-like fantasy, and also these novels, like Robinson Crusoe, and so on, that inspired me. It was fun. It was more a process of deciding which elements to throw out—it was very rich in material.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me more about this incredible scene where Armin finds a Lamborghini and drives it through abandoned streets. In a film that’s otherwise quite discreet, restrained, and respectful of the character’s experience, we suddenly plunge into his experience and we get a first-person view of driving: We get a sense of his sense of this new freedom. Why did you change the film’s style for this scene?
KÖHLER: I just felt like we needed this element, this one moment where he finds pleasure in this situation. I wanted it to be like a video game, like GTA [Grand Theft Auto]. Also, there we had thousands of possibilities when you start writing, all these elements, as in [Bertrand] Bonello’s Nocturama where the characters are in a department store after hours and can try on anything. But somehow it made sense to somehow reduce it to this one moment of pleasure. Later, he rejects the combustion engine, but he has this one moment where he does this thing he never would have done before. It also is a way for the film to become more abstract, before we lose him and come back to him and he’s a newborn person.
NOTEBOOK: I’m glad you bring up qualities of abstraction, because I found this film on a delicate edge between completely realistic and completely abstract. This is best seen in the relationship between Armin and Radonicich's character, Kirsi. You give us just enough to plausibly built a human relationship—psychological, sexual—but also keep them at a remove, keep the dialogs spare and to a minimum. So the two are held together almost more as an idea….
KÖHLER: Yeah, that was really the balance I was trying to find, I didn’t want it to be a dream of my protagonist, between the projection and the real person. The way you described it, that was what we were working at, really. I was coming from Crusoe to Adam and Eve, and I was in this symbolically highly charged environment and how to deal with it. It was a complicated writing process—how much background do I give this woman? I re-arranged some things so that there was more abstraction when they meet before they come together, and then a bit of everyday life. It was also quite referential to painting, Courbet, and so one. It was a challenging process to structure that.
NOTEBOOK: Do you find this movie in general a hopeful movie? Despite the ending, I somehow found it hopeful.
KÖHLER: That’s nice, I’m happy that you say that. I hope that people don’t see it as a generally pessimistic thesis about the sexes!