Venice 2023 review: The Theory of Everything (Timm Kröger)

“At its heart a love story wrapped in a metaphysical mystery, The Theory of Everything captivates with its cinematic prowess but less so with its emotional core.”

The press room of the Venice Film Festival, where I am writing this review, is located on the top floor of the Palazzo del Casinò. The building was erected in 1938, and if its façade doesn’t give you hints about it being from a bygone era, the long climb up the stairs, slaloming past buckets when it is raining and the ceiling leaks, is like stepping back in time. A fitting location to write about a film that seems to have been transported from the same era. Timm Kröger’s The Theory of Everything isn’t so much a neo-noir as it is a pastiche-noir, a film that recalls the days of Fritz Lang and early Alfred Hitchcock, or maybe Orson Welles. At its heart a love story wrapped in a (confusing and overwritten) metaphysical mystery, The Theory of Everything captivates with its cinematic prowess but less so with its emotional core.

Germany, the early 1970s. Johannes Leinert (Jan Bülow), a physicist-turned-novelist, appears on a talk show to present his first novel, introduced by the host as ‘fantasy’. Johannes assures the audience that the story really happened, and that it is his story. Fed up with the host’s mockery he walks out of the interview, but not before addressing a woman named Karin directly into the camera.

The clock is turned back to 1962, the Swiss Alps. A young boy named Johnny and his friend Susi narrowly escape an avalanche by hiding in a mountain hut. With no chance of getting out the way they came in, Johnny surveys the space and finds a hatch that leads to a ladder and a set of dark tunnels under the mountain. Exploring the tunnels, he unearths a dark secret.

Back to Johannes, the same year. He is writing his dissertation while tagging along with his doctoral supervisor Dr. Strathen (Hanns Zischler), who has been invited by an unknown Iranian physicist to a seminar in the Swiss Alps. Much to the chagrin of Strathen, they run into the boorish Professor Blumberg, a colleague and nemesis of Strathen. While Strathen is harsh about Johannes’ work, Blumberg’s interest is piqued by his theory about a multiverse. When the Iranian physicist is a no-show and the seminar is cancelled, the three men stick around for a bit of vacation. Johannes meets the hotel’s pianist, who later introduces herself as Karin (Olivia Ross). “Inspiration before women,” Blumberg impresses on Johannes, but he falls like an avalanche for the mysterious woman, and when she tells him a story about his childhood, something only he could know, Johannes is both sold and intrigued. When Blumberg is found dead things suddenly take a turn for the dark, and Johannes gets caught in a web of suspense. There’s something about those mountains…

The Theory of Everything is without a doubt a technical marvel that faithfully transports the 21st century back to the ’30s and ’40s of the previous one. Aside from a little better image quality, the look and feel of the film are a sight to behold; the cinematography by Roland Stuprich, Diego Ramos Rodriguez’s and David Schweighart’s score (at times a bit overbearing, but definitely on point) and the sound department’s work on especially the voice recordings are all done to perfection. Kröger’s compositions and the way he unfolds the story further perfect the pastiche, to the point where this becomes almost indistinguishable from a film out of the period it copies. Film buffs who appreciate technical perfection in cinema will likely adore it.

What the film lacks though is an emotional core. We are meant to root for the relationship between Johannes and Karin, but it never really takes off and it gets lost in Kröger’s needlessly complicated tale. The plot is overwritten and rooted in complex theoretical physics, but the payoff takes too long to present itself and is rather flaccid. Add a long voice-over exposition of Johannes’ life after the events of the film, aiming at a Rosebud moment, and The Theory of Everything comes out as less than the sum of its parts. It is a thoroughly enjoyable film for its impeccable craft, and Kröger directs it to within an inch of its life, but in the end it all feels somewhat soulless.