Berlinale 2021 review: I’m Your Man (Maria Schrader)

After venturing into the life and times of one of Europe’s most fascinating literary geniuses in Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, and her intricate portrait of the trials and tribulations of the Orthodox Jewish community in the masterful miniseries Unorthodox, it has become increasingly clear that Maria Schrader is continuing to establish herself as one of the most exciting voices in contemporary cinema, a filmmaker with a distinct vision and an even more abundant set of talents. After taking on such intimidating material it seemed only logical that her next project would be one that shared a similar approach to getting to the very root of the human condition, in the form of I’m Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch), a heartfelt comedy about finding yourself amid a world growing increasingly insistent on the pursuit of perfection. Focused on the relationship between a lonely university professor and her ‘perfect match’, a robot designed to take on the appearance and personality of her ideal partner, the film is a charming futuristic comedy with a cheerful disposition and a heartfelt sense of humour while still being incredibly nuanced and sophisticated in exploring more complex themes. Throughout this film Schrader crafts a hopeful portrait of humanity and its current journey towards becoming too reliant on technology, inciting laughter through the vaguely absurd premise but also conveying a deeper message that contrasts beautifully with the upbeat demeanour of the film as a whole, making it both entirely delightful and thoroughly thought-provoking.

The primary theme that pulsates throughout I’m Your Man is centered around a question that has been asked for as long as speculative fiction has existed – what does it mean to be human? This is the thesis statement of the film and the fundamental concept on which the rest of the film’s themes are built. Throughout the film Schrader is provoking questions of existence through breaking down the smallest idiosyncrasies of reality, using them as the basis for a funny and insightful satire on everyday life. It may not appear to be a philosophically dense film from the outset, but these ideas are woven into the fabric of the film and emerge at key moments, working in tandem with the peculiar quirks that make I’m Your Man such a delightfully refreshing comedy about very real issues, filtered through the lens of carefully curated science fiction. This charming futuristic romance is directed towards a generation that is growing increasingly obsessed with the marvels of technology and its ability to accomplish anything, which even extends to inextricably human experiences such as falling in love. We’re constantly searching for excellence in a world where even the most complete constructions have flaws, showing that even when we genuinely believe we have attained the ultimate perfection there are limitations that keep us relentlessly tinkering for the next groundbreaking innovation. We have collectively developed a tendency towards attempting to enhance every aspect of life, improving it for the sake of convenience or even just to circumvent the difficulties that come with the manual process. However, throughout the film we learn that it’s impossible to improve on something that we don’t fully understand, even if we genuinely believe we have a firm grasp on some of the more elusive concepts, such as love, that have baffled thinkers and scientists for about as long as independent thought has been a feasible area of study.

I’m Your Man dares to offer a comprehensive definition of the basic sensation of love, a concept that we all are familiar with to some degree but often struggle to put into words that accurately describe the experience. The film accomplishes this challenging task through both words and unspoken actions, and Schrader’s assured directorial vision allows her to dive to the depths of the concept of love, finding the indefinable sense of melancholy that lingers beneath the surface of this effervescent comedy about profoundly lonely people trying to fill the gaps of isolation through the use of technology. This film offers an oddly optimistic look into some contemporary issues that Schrader anticipates will be around much longer than most of us expect, intertwined with some prominent existential ponderings that have been asked by multitudes of philosophers over the years, without any clear or concise solutions being anywhere on the horizon. I’m Your Man seems like an irreverent romantic comedy at a cursory glance, but it actually grows into a heartfelt ode to finding one’s individuality, asking some extraordinarily sincere questions about what it is that makes us human in the first place – the experiences we go through in life, the multitudes of emotions we feel at different points, and the empathy we form when interacting with those around us. Using these questions as a starting point and asking whether these are innately human qualities, or if they can be learned through imitation, affords the film the chance to make some profound comments on the nature of existence.

In constructing this striking portrait of two individuals – one human, one the product of artificial intelligence – Schrader extracts a pair of tremendous performances from two actors with incredible chemistry. Maren Eggert is wonderfully natural in her role and turns in an exquisite, authentic portrayal of Alma, a woman refusing to acknowledge her loneliness as anything other than self-imposed exile from a life outside her work. She is the beating heart of the film, the character whose journey towards self-realization is the aspect we are most interested in after the initial novelty of the peculiar narrative has subsided, leaving only a complex portrait of a woman yearning to have the same experiences as those around her. Dan Stevens is paired with her throughout the film, playing the well-meaning android who is designed to be the embodiment of everything Alma looks for in a potential partner. The film makes exceptional use of Stevens’ wide-eyed, cheerful stoicism in the construction of a character defined at first by his peculiar robotic charms, but gradually evolving into a more complex portrayal of an artificial being yearning to have the same experiences as his living counterparts. These performances anchor the film and constantly circle back to the more profound themes of humanity that underpin it. Without the nuanced work being done to develop this story, I’m Your Man could’ve easily defaulted into a morally ambiguous farce – the soulfulness brought to the proceedings keeps it afloat and allows it to flourish into something truly special.

There is a bittersweet irony in the fact that a story about the growing presence of artificial intelligence manages to harbour some of the most profound commentary on the nature of human longing, becoming a tender and moving exploration on deeper issues of identity and mortality. It strikes a beautiful tonal balance between satirical comedy, human drama and buoyant romance, exposing a brutal truth about our species that feels constructive and meaningful (rather than accusatory to our hedonism and pursuit of perfection), and demonstrates a provocative spirit of rebellion against conventions. Throughout this film, Schrader manages to produce something tender and internal, looking beyond the outrageous premise (executed with a fiercely funny screenplay and some delightfully offbeat performances), which is softened by the director’s heartfelt understanding of the overall themes. A wonderful existential comedy where the humour is gentle, the emotions are genuine, and the conversations insightful, I’m Your Man is focused on capturing and cherishing the smallest moments, giving them value through the lens of an off-kilter approach to some deep discussions and offering insights into some common issues that show the ability to find joy in the most banal pleasures of life. Looking at the concept of existence through an eccentric, humorous perspective, this film advocates for the beautiful, refreshing release of just surrendering to our own innate tendencies and curiosities, as flawed as they may be, since no amount of scientific tampering will ever replace the experience of simply being human.