Daniel Brühl’s clever and entertaining Berlinale competition entry Next Door (Nebenan) combines two familiar narrative arcs in a twisted, well-crafted package. On the one hand this is a satire about the film industry and transnational stardom, built on Brühl’s own screen persona and lightened by unsparing self-mockery. On the other hand, a much darker tale about voyeurism lurks just beneath the glossy surface. Early in the film, famous German actor Daniel (played by Brühl himself) rehearses ridiculously overwrought lines in English to himself in preparation for a casting call that will possibly land him a recurring role in a popular superhero franchise. He asks his assistant to find the best book about Beethoven since he is going to play the famed artist in an upcoming biographical film, but changes his mind when he learns that the canonical text on the subject is over 800 pages long! He frequently switches between three languages (English, Spanish, and German), talking about the high life an actor of his fame undoubtedly leads (lunch in London with the Netflix guys, weekends in Barcelona, frequent visits to LA). He keeps signing autographs for fans and seems to enjoy being the center of attention at all times. All of this keeps Next Door mostly light-hearted and unexpectedly hilarious for a while, particularly for audiences familiar with Brühl’s real-life trajectory as an actor. The first half of the film is full of witty lines about television shows and films that enthusiastic viewers can easily identify, and offers a breezy snapshot of life as a celebrity on the verge of a global breakthrough. As portrayed by Brühl in a nicely measured performance that avoids exaggeration, Daniel is self-obsessed, a bit arrogant, lazier than he would like to admit, but not entirely lacking in charm and warmth.
He is due to fly to London that afternoon, but decides to visit a local bar in Berlin before he gets to the airport. That seemingly insignificant decision leads to a lengthy encounter with a middle-aged man named Bruno (Peter Kurth), who claims to be Daniel’s next-door neighbor but doesn’t show much appreciation for the actor. Bruno criticizes a period film that Daniel previously appeared in for not being ‘authentic’ enough, says Daniel doesn’t really perform and gives the same ‘performance’ in every film, pays half-hearted compliments with lines like “oh, that other film of yours was good, until you appeared.” But as the satire gets increasingly dark because of Bruno’s intrusive attitude, the film evolves into a more layered tale of voyeurism and obsession. Bruno is not exactly a fan, but his behavior is not dissimilar to other toxic fans audiences may recall, perhaps the most famous example being Misery‘s Annie Wilkes, played by Kathy Bates in an Academy Award-winning turn. Bruno never gets as threatening, but reveals disturbing news about Daniel, his wife, and his children one after another. He is uncomfortably familiar with Daniel’s and his wife’s finances, knows their house all too well, and seems to have an unsettling personal connection with his neighbors.
All of these revelations complicate Daniel’s relationship with his own stardom. For someone whose entire life is built on the idea of being seen by others, questions about voyeurism and invasion of one’s private sphere are particularly thorny. The threat in Next Door arises because Daniel is being watched, and paradoxically, being watched is the key element that his life revolves around. This encounter with Bruno makes Daniel realize things about his own life; either things that he never had the courage to face, or things that he was too busy to pay attention to despite their proximity. As a character study that may or may not be based on Brühl’s experiences, Next Door is surprisingly complex and mysterious. While the film is mostly confined to a single location and functions primarily as an extended conversation between the two men, the viewing experience remains consistently engaging thanks to the rhythmic dialogue, solid performances from the two leads, and the unexpectedly dark turns the story takes.