NYFF 2018 review: In My Room (Ulrich Köhler)

The world is your playground. Sounds nice, but what if it became reality? That is what happens to the protagonist of Ulrich Köhler’s follow-up to Sleeping Sickness, which propelled him to some art-house fame when he won the Best Directing prize in Berlin at the top of this decade. In My Room is again a character study of an individual whose existence barely registers, even to himself, but who is confronted with some very existential questions following an apocalyptic event that is puzzling but effective in its punctuation of the character’s psyche.

Armin (Hans Löw) is a 40-something cameraman in Berlin whose life is running into a bit of a dead end. Somewhat desperately holding onto a lifestyle more befitting somebody two decades younger, dreams and possibilities have passed him by, both professionaly and personally. In a hilarious opening scene he screws up coverage of an important political event by mixing up the on and off buttons on his camera. And in his private life things don’t fare much better, as is made clear when he drags a girl possibly half his age home after a night of clubbing, only to unwittingly talk her out of his apartment within five minutes. There is no way forward for him. A lukewarm relationship with his father (Michael Wittenborn), taking care of Armin’s grandmother (Ruth Bickelhaupt) who is on her way out of this world, underlines the emptiness and lack of meaning of Armin’s life. Or perhaps ‘existence’ is a better word, because there is not much life to it.

But then something happens to turn his whole world upside down, and very empty as well. After staying the night at his father’s place, Armin wakes up to a planet suddenly devoid of any human life except his own. Whereas at first his life was empty and without much possibility, suddenly it is the world that is empty and he has all the possibilities to change his life around. After going through the activities any man-child would in such a situation (reckless driving, heavy drinking), he is forced to face the simple question: what now? Armin decides to return to the rural area of his childhood and become Tom Hanks in Castaway, forced into self-sufficiency, and for a while he manages to reinvent himself.

Things take another drastic turn, however, when he encounters Kirsi (Elena Radonicich) and is no longer alone. This move from Robinson Crusoe to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a feeling enhanced by Patrick Orth’s sunlit and warm-hued lensing (contrasted with the drabness before the humanity-wiping event), is as unexplained as the earlier dystopian break. But In My Room‘s insistence on not providing answers lends it a refreshing freedom to explore Armin, who for the second time has to reassess his life.

While not actually creating Kirsi from Armin’s ribs, the evocation of biblical imagery after the divine reset that ends the opening third is abundantly clear. Armin is given a second chance at building a life, but Köhler uses the character study to try and make a point about society as a whole needing a reboot. While some would dismissively disqualify early Armin as a ‘loser’, enough of his life and in the film’s opening is somewhat uncomfortably recognizable, certainly when it comes to his familial relationships. By grounding his fable in reality, when the jarring event occurs it leads viewers to ponder their own lives with “What if?” scenarios, but also wonder what such an event would mean to the world as a whole. The two contrasting phases in Armin’s life are called ‘Winter’ and ‘Summer’ respectively, which suggest a cyclical nature of events. Just how many reboots of this kind has God already done?

In My Room throws up a bunch of these philosophical questions without providing answers, but providing answers is not that interesting for philosophical exploration anyway. The fun is in pondering the questions themselves. Those who crave explanations will probably find the film lacking, but viewers not scared to do some soul searching through the aimless life of a man who has a little bit of all of us in him will find In My Room an enjoyable philosophical snack to chew on.