By Michael Sicinski

Published in Cinema Scope 75 (Summer 2018)

 

I.

In the opening minutes of Ulrich Köhler’s new film In My Room, things don’t seem right. In fact, it’s all a bit glitchy, and the unsuspecting viewer might very well wonder whether the DCP is malfunctioning. The scene appears to be the aftermath of a debate for a German election, and we are watching the event via network news raw footage. But the scene keeps jumping ahead. About the third time this happens, it clicks: every time the cameraperson goes in for an interview with one of the (real-life) politicians, there’s an ellipsis. Someone is turning the camera off when they mean to turn it on, an unfortunate rookie error.

Sadly, the offending cameraman is no beginner, but a sad-sack veteran by the name of Armin (Hans Löw), who has worked at the TV station for quite some time. Dishevelled and a bit too convinced of his own charm, Armin appears to be one of those drifting early-30s types who never transitioned from a college-dorm lifestyle to something resembling adulthood. We see Armin clubbing and drinking hard, comically putting the moves on a young girl (Emma Bading) whose mother, it’s implied, he may have gone out with years earlier. He gets her back to his cramped, filthy bachelor pad under a questionable pretext—it seems she may be interested in subletting the place—but alas, Armin can’t seal the deal. He’s too drunk, and makes an unwise remark when she asks to use his toothbrush. The young woman wisely departs the pathetic scene. Even the dulcet tones of the Pet Shop Boys on iTunes can’t get Armin laid.

Despite all this, we are never intended to dislike Armin. He is best characterized as that one friend who just never got his shit together. But Köhler shows us Armin’s tender and somewhat competent side. He leaves the city behind, returning to his exurban childhood home to help his father (Michael Wittenbom) nurse his dying grandmother (Ruth Bickelhaupt). Although they have some disagreements about the nature of her care, it is obvious that Armin is a valued member of his family. This is where he thrives, adding to the overall impression that we are dealing with a man who never entirely grew up. Even the arguments Armin has with his dad and stepmom (Katherina Linder) seem like rehashes of fights they have all been having for years.

[Spoilers ahead.] Following his grandmother’s death, Armin tries to visit his mother. She is otherwise occupied by a choir rehearsal, so he drives his car to the river and falls asleep after several beers. When he wakes up, it appears that every other human being on the planet has vanished. Going from an abandoned gas station through the city streets and eventually back to his father’s home, which he’s forced to break into, he discovers complete absence. Animals are still milling around. His grandmother’s dead body remains in the house. But all (living) people have essentially evaporated without explanation. (Why was Armin spared? Was it a Night of the Comet-style twist, in which he happened to be protected by his blood-alcohol level and the specific metallic composition of his Mercedes?)

It’s important to pause and consider the implications of the narrative framework Köhler has imposed upon In My Room. The post-apocalyptic scenario is of course not entirely original. Köhler has acknowledged drawing specific inspiration from the writings of the radical pessimist Arno Schmidt, in particular his novel Black Mirror. Though not widely read in the English-speaking world, Schmidt has attained a reputation as one of the most important (if well-nigh untranslatable) German writers of the 20th century. His bleak view of humanity was a direct response to the horrors of the Third Reich, and while Adorno famously claimed that poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, Schmidt took the opposite tack, creating a hermetic body of work that often embodied the lone, frantic scholar plunging deeper and deeper into the life of the text. (His Zettel’s Dream is essentially an extended metacommentary on Poe that many critics at the time dismissed as gibberish.) Much like the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last,” starring Burgess Meredith, Schmidt seems to posit the end of the world as a fine time to curl up with a good book.

In popular culture, the premise has most recently been explored in the Fox sitcom The Last Man on Earth, as well as the HBO series The Leftovers. Though not a comedy in any conventional sense, In My Room actually has more in common with The Last Man on Earth, especially given that Köhler’s film lacks The Leftovers’ stultifying self-importance. The sitcom’s protagonist Tandy (Will Forte), much like Armin, is a screw-up who is brought up short by the end of humanity. And like Tandy, Armin initially responds by treating his abandoned environment as a personal playground, raiding convenience stores and zooming through the streets in a police cruiser like he’s in a video game. After the initial wave of fear and distress, there is a Schmidt-like moment of relief at having the whole world to oneself.

In time, both In My Room and The Last Man on Earth explore the aesthetics of what we might call the capitalist sublime. In wide shots, the lone protagonist walks through empty shopping areas, freeways, and other contemporary ruins. We see lone human figures, surrounded by and silhouetted against nature-reclaiming-culture, like a Caspar David Friedrich figure perched on a rock overlooking the sea. This sublime decay of late-capitalist life in the West is an apocalypse by simulation, so it’s not entirely surprising that it has been best depicted in a cartoon, Wall-E (2008).

But this is where the similarities end. Like many post-apocalyptic narratives, The Last Man on Earth explains the absence of humankind with a deadly virus. This common trope is observed in an array of films, from the Charlton Heston ur-text The Omega Man (1971) to the rather horrid retread I Am Legend (2007), a recent sole-survivor zombie film that is less about ingenuity in the face of total isolation—the Robinson Crusoe problem—than it is about watching Will Smith shoot shoot shoot the ambling corpses. In My Room thankfully spares us such pedestrian explanations, as well as the tedium of the living dead.

In cinematic terms, Köhler’s treatment of Armin’s survival is highly unique in that he solves almost all of his major crises in an undefined but clearly substantial temporal ellipsis. Following the time gap, Köhler gives us a completely transformed Armin. In a nearly silent second act, we see that Armin has lost weight, become a skilled horseman, and, most astonishingly, built a self-sustaining riverside residence of such size and elegance that it could reasonably exist as high-end, LEED-certified architecture in the populated world. From 2x4s, concrete blocks, and plastic sheeting, Armin has fashioned a deluxe home with running water, solar panels, a menagerie of useful farm animals, and most importantly, fully reliable shelter from the elements. But more than this, he has books, furniture, kitchenware, and a modicum of privacy.

Armin is doing much more than just surviving in this new frontier. How did this happen? Granted, he is not finished, and we observe his efforts to install a water wheel so as to harness the river flow for hydroelectric power. The trouble he has getting this done gives us a small clue as to how long Armin has been at this whole self-sufficiency project. Köhler does not provide many concrete indices for marking time. If we look closely we can try to intuit just how long it must have taken Armin to build this structure, but we cannot really tell. Likewise, we repeatedly see certain locations, such as a highway overpass with abandoned motorcycles, and a particular service station. By comparing these spaces between the time immediately after humankind has been raptured away, and then later, layered with plant growth, we know that time has passed. But how much time?

In My Room’s most remarkable and bracing feat with respect to temporality is really just the transformation in Armin himself. In the first half of the film, Köhler presents us with one of the least likely candidates for post-civilization survival. Immediately after the disaster, for example, Armin’s neighbour’s dog is bleeding out due to his own negligence, and he cannot even bring himself to put the poor animal out of its misery. Instead, he self-medicates with some beer and pills from his father’s medicine cabinet and wakes up in a pile of his own puke. Somehow, this is the same man who will construct a nearly self-sufficient compound in the forest, who will go from wolfing down McDonald’s cheeseburgers to tilling fields and raising his own crops. No matter how much time has passed, In My Room invests Armin with an almost comical level of capability when the chips are down.

II.

The unexplained disappearance of humanity, along with Armin’s stellar rise to the occasion, is the stuff of movie magic. As such, In My Room almost cries out for allegorical readings, even though the metaphor of an empty Earth and the Last Man is flexible enough to accommodate quite a few interpretations. Certainly, any German film in which millions go missing inevitably brings the Holocaust to mind, and the menorah on Armin’s grandmother’s piano is indeed suggestive. But this seems reductive at best. Besides, there’s also the fact that contemporary Germany is a European nation under fire, both internally and externally, not for having too few human bodies, but too many.

In that respect, In My Room could be a dialectical response to the immigrant crisis, showing xenophobes exactly what it is they are asking for. Armin may have relatively advanced technology, but by the end, he is still alone in his castle, abandoned. A world without people means that certain basic human qualities—grace, courtesy, sharing, welcoming, being neighbourly, even just engaging with an Other—become impossible. For Armin, some of these skills have atrophied and take a while to come back online.

We know this because in the film’s third act, a second person happens upon Armin’s compound. Kirsi (Elena Radonicich) discovers an injured Armin in the woods and, once she ascertains that he poses no threat, enters his home to make him chicken soup. Both are thrilled to meet another living human and, since both are heterosexual as it happens, they start screwing before too long. They struggle to establish conversation, and finally get something going in that department. But the closer they become, the more of Armin’s old personality begins to return—the neediness, the solipsism, the lack of consideration. First, he aggresses against her by coming inside her during sex after she clearly told him not to. And later, as they dance together at a gas station to Tiësto’s EDM version of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Armin soon begins dancing alone, less like a partner and more like an overgrown club kid.

This leads us to another possible reading of In My Room. There is an assumption in end-of-humanity narratives that the Last Man and the Last Woman will naturally get together, either to repopulate the species, or just out of desperation. Köhler thwarts that imperative by having Kirsi choose to live on her own. This act of woman’s agency is particularly radical at a moment when otherwise legitimate news organizations like The New York Times are amplifying the voices of anti-feminist jackasses like Ross Douthat and Jordan Peterson, men who have advocated “forced monogamy” and other such retrograde concepts. In contrast to such drivel, In My Room displays the most basic truth: humanity without freedom for all is no longer humanity. Armin does what he can to dissuade Kirsi from leaving, even running her RV off the road and blowing out a tire. But he never forces her, nor does it seem to ever occur to him that he could. Both parties maintain free will.

III.

But there is another possible symbolic reading of In My Room’s driving concept, one that is perhaps less outward-facing and more self-referential. As regular readers of this magazine probably know, Köhler is one of a number of directors who has been associated with the so-called Berlin School, a group of German filmmakers loosely affiliated by characteristics and experiences that some but not all of them share: the direct or indirect influence of Harun Farocki’s ideas regarding film and media, for example, or an association with the film journal Revolver.

While critics have identified this Berlin School as a major new force in German cinema, many if not most of the filmmakers involved have questioned the very existence of such a “school.” The term “Berlin School” is highly contentious, and US scholar Marco Abel has done as well as anyone to defend the use of the term to designate a particular “new wave” in German filmmaking. Several of the aspects that are often cited as common touchstones among the filmmakers involved, however, do not apply to Köhler. He did not study at Berlin’s dffb film school, but rather attended the University of Fine Arts Hamburg (HFBK), where he was a student of experimental filmmakers Rüdiger Neumann and Klaus Wyborny. And where some Berlin Schoolers have received attention for favouring non-professional actors, the two leads in In My Room have extensive experience in film and theatre.

It can be frustrating for an artist to have his or her work implicitly or explicitly compared not only with his or her own previous efforts, but with the work of numerous other filmmakers, some of whom the artist in question may feel no particular affinity with at all. As long as critics adhere to the Berlin School trope, Köhler’s work is seen in relationship to that of Christian Petzold, Angela Schanelec, his Revolver associate Christoph Hochhäusler, and perhaps especially that of his partner Maren Ade. Köhler has stated that where the “Berliners” are concerned, it is “difficult to find a common denominator apart from the personal and artistic ties connecting the filmmakers.”

Always being lumped in with a movement must be kind of a drag. And so, with In My Room, we have an image of Armin as homo faber (who, after all, works with media) getting to experience first the fear, and then the fantasy of creating his own work in total isolation. His architecture and engineering is judged on its own merits. It belongs to no “school.” He is free to build out of necessity and self-direction, with no one looking over his shoulder, and no anxiety provoked by peers. In fact, until the arrival of Kirsi, Armin is completely free of criticism as well. His productions stand as monuments to his own creativity.

In My Room also seems to represent a desire to leave pre-existing categories behind, to build from the ground up and start again. We could see this desire at work, in a mitigated way, in Köhler’s previous film, Sleeping Sickness (2011), which centred on Veblen (Pierre Bokma), a German doctor who went to Africa as part of an NGO relief effort and “went native” (or tried to) in the fashion of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Veblen wanted to leave civilization behind and start anew, but civilization found him, in the form of Dr. Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), the man sent by the NGO to conduct an audit. In the end, though, it was the jungle itself, in the form of a hungry hippo, that took Veblen down. (By contrast, Armin and Kirsi share a Douglas Sirk moment when a majestic elk happens by the house, dappled in moonlight and interrupting Kirsi’s teary-eyed laptop viewing of The Bridges of Madison County [1995].)

In a way, Armin is the more enlightened version of Veblen. Finding himself in a “jungle of cities,” it is civilization itself that has left him. And like a spoiled proto-millennial, Armin comes to recognize that late-capitalist civilization did him no favours. As evident from the opening scene, he relied too much on a society that surrounded him with people but permitted him to see no one. The politicians were a literal blind spot in his footage. After messing up, he hits his co-worker (Kathrin Resitartis) up for lunch money. He only sees young Rosa from the bar as a piece of ass… Once that society is removed, he comes into his own like a Heideggerian subject achieving his Dasein. Everything around him takes on new meaning.

IV.

This independent streak is something of a constant in Köhler’s cinema. His debut feature, Bungalow (2002), focuses on a young man named Paul (Lennie Burmeister) who goes AWOL from the army, retreating to his childhood home. We never see the circumstances that lead to Paul abandoning his mandatory military service, but we can tell by implication that he needs to remove himself from the anonymous mass and reassert his singular identity. We see this in the very first shot, as Paul is indistinguishable from the line of identically dressed soldiers on the Army truck. After a stop at Burger King, he simply neglects to get back on the truck, instead hitching a ride and then taking a train back home. There, he retreats to his old room, still filled with his stuff, posters on the wall. Enjoying a bit of solitude, he halfheartedly jerks off.

Whereas Bungalow displays a retreat from the social back into the family, Köhler’s second film, Windows on Monday (2006), is a story of familial estrangement. Köhler (with the keen assistance of his regular cinematographer Patrick Orth) frames and reframes Windows’ wife, husband, and daughter, all of whom are inside a house without windows (they are being replaced) and in a substantive state of disrepair. In the midst of this confusion, the film eventually settles on the woman, Nina Buchner (Isabelle Menke), as its primary focus. She is a doctor, a loving but exhausted mother, and in a moment of frustration she temporarily abandons her family and begins wandering through the surrounding woods.

In Köhler’s earlier films, it is not so easy to give the slip to the demands of everyday life. Eventually Nina must return home to her family and deal with the messes she left behind. Paul, for his part, is not captured by the MPs by the end of Bungalow, but they are rapidly closing in. Veblen, as we already noted, paid the ultimate price in his quest for primitive solitude. Only Armin actually gets to live out his days, it seems, apart from all, as an independent agent.

But this independence is complicated by the arrival of Kirsi. He cannot quite get a bead on who she is, but he does come to desire her company, and this places him in an unexpected state of dependence. When she chooses to leave, he is in the ironic position of having his independence returned to him in the form of solitude. He wants Kirsi to stay, and when it is clear that she is committed to heading out on the road, he pleads with her to allow him to join her. (In fact, she drives away as he is making his final preparations, setting his livestock free.) Unlike other Köhler protagonists, Armin ultimately has loneliness inflicted upon him because of his failure to completely open to the other.

Structurally, this means that In My Room is devoid of the clean, almost cyclical closure that characterized Köhler’s previous films. Instead, it shoots off on a new trajectory. We can imagine a parallel story that follows Kirsi. Who was she before she discovered Armin? Where did she come from? We know that she had a long-term relationship before the Incident, one that ended badly, and we know that she has been on the move ever since. (She mentions that she and her dog were in Syria for a time.) But, perhaps most important, where does she go when she leaves him? Armin may be left “in his room,” but Kirsi, with her set of competencies, is now on the road again, her giant RV serving as a room of her own.

In this regard, we might reconsider the question of genre. Post-apocalyptic narratives can follow the castaway model, focusing on the ingenuity of the lone man conquering nature. But there is also the road-movie model, wherein a traveller scours the landscape in search of signs of life. In My Room allows both of these models, as exemplified by Armin’s nesting impulse and Kirsi’s wanderlust, to meet at a specific vector. Two approaches to an extreme situation carry within them their own narrative codes.

V.

Cinema Scope: How do you see In My Room as being related to your earlier films?

Ulrich Köhler: That’s not for me to answer. All I can say is that it’s a project I’ve had in mind for a long time. Throwing a character into a world without others raises a lot of questions. Most dystopian movies seem to concentrate on a fight for survival, while novelists like David Markson, Arno Schmidt, and Marlen Haushofer have dealt with the setting in ways I found more interesting, by focusing instead on concepts of identity.

Scope: Armin does seem to be a kind of castaway or Robinson Crusoe within his own culture, which raises interesting questions. One I have, though, is: why the large temporal ellipsis? There is so much of Armin’s struggle we don’t see, and surely that would have helped us understand his identity formation in certain ways.

Köhler: I don’t see how showing more of Armin’s struggle would serve the film. On the contrary, it would lose its focus. For me, 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? Does the question even make sense? Is there anything else to identity apart from interaction with one’s environment?

Scope: When we see Armin and Kirsi in the overgrown video shop, or the Aldi and Lidl stores covered in vines, we remember that capitalism has vanished with the population. Is this a kind of utopia?

Köhler: But has capitalism really vanished with mankind? I’m not so sure, since Kirsi still consumes its products and Armin’s efforts to avoid them seem quite absurd and futile, turning him into a Sisyphus.

Scope: This problem does seem to be something you examine in your other films. In Sleeping Sickness, Veblen goes looking for “the primitive,” but in In My Room, the primitive, in a sense, comes to Armin. What would you say is your interest in civilization and its discontents?

Köhler: The main character of Sleeping Sickness can’t escape the culture that has made him the person he is. (That’s why I would have liked to call the film Europa…) You could say In My Room reframes the question, asking what happens when the culture that has formed us disappears. But that’s only in hindsight. It wasn’t the reason I started writing the script. I’m not a very analytical person. Maybe all my films deal with the same obsessions and questions.

Scope: The removal of all humankind is one of those flat cinematic facts that seems open to a wide array of allegorical readings. Did you yourself perceive In My Room as an allegory? Or should we take it at face value?

Köhler: I think Frank Stella’s quote, “What you see is what you see,” should apply to most works of art. But it’s equally true that every interesting piece of fiction can have allegorical readings, because it transcends the individual story it tells. In My Room isn’t any more allegorical than my previous films. It just has an “unrealistic” premise.

Scope: The Stella quote calls to mind your earlier essay “Why I Don’t Make ‘Political’ Films,” in the sense that political films seem content to exist only at the symbolic or allegorical level. Do you think critics (and others) are too inattentive to the surface of things?

Köhler: I’m in no position to make a general statement. I spend far more time on the internet reading the political pages of websites. I’m not a feuilleton reader. But when I watch a film, and then read a text about it, I do sometimes wish there were more basic information about the formal construction of the film. For example, is there a score from beginning to end? Is there a voiceover or a narrator? I wouldn’t mind a bit more Bordwell in film criticism.

VI.

The title of Ulrich Köhler’s film is In My Room. This is no translation; the official title is in English. Köhler is quite clearly referencing the Beach Boys’ classic song about finding peace in isolation. It ends, “now it’s dark and I’m alone/but I won’t be afraid/in my room/in my room.” Given Kirsi’s departure and the coming of nightfall, this is a poignant, somewhat optimistic perspective on what awaits Armin in the coming days.

But instead of the Beach Boys track, Köhler reprises the Pet Shop Boys’ “Later Tonight,” heard earlier during Armin’s abortive seduction scene. It’s a somewhat different song about the arrival of nightfall: slow, melancholy, and referencing a moment that is forever deferred. The singer notes that his beloved desires another, and that he/she “wait[s] for later, for later tonight.” That is, an immediate but never-ending future, implying that Armin (without Kirsi) is now stuck in a kind of perpetual twilight.

This state of suspension is also emphasized graphically. The title only appears at the very end of the closing credits, which bleed in and out of the frame in three overlapping columns, hazy and translucent like beads of rain on a windshield. The listing of the credits is the most objective part of any film, since it refers to the material fact of its having been made and by whom. But here, Köhler subjects this factual data to a kind of wistful dispersion, as if these people, like those inside the diegesis, are already gone.

So when the title finally appears, in letters whose blocky font is belied by their shimmering liquidity, it lacks even the tentative confidence of Brian Wilson’s assertion of self. Armin has worked so hard to make a room for himself in this new world, only to be reminded by Kirsi’s departure that as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but room for him. As she drives away, there can be no doubt that she has taken his illusion of a bounded existence with her. Armin has been working so hard not to bleed into everything, but now, without the Other, maintaining the barriers of the Self becomes something of an academic exercise. Like those end titles, Armin is a figure at one with his own negation.