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Choreographed to the airy strains of The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss, a troupe of forklift trucks waltz between the towering shelves of a vast wholesale supermarket at the start of In the Aisles. This wryly bathetic nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 sets the bittersweet tone for director Thomas Stuber’s Berlin competition contender, a charming exercise in low-key romantic realism that risks being too subtle for its own good.
A lyrical portrait of emotionally damaged misfits sharing a soulless working environment in contemporary East Germany, In the Aisles is full of tender observation and humane empathy for its downtrodden protagonists. Based on a short story by Clemens Meyer, the literary screenplay aspires to Raymond Carver territory and hits the target much of the time. That said, the spare plot also feels overstretched and low on incident, suggesting Stuber’s tragicomic ensemble drama will find its natural home in art cinemas and festivals rather than commercial theaters.
The mostly youthful team behind In the Aisles already has a solid cinematic pedigree. Stuber is a former student Oscar winner whose previous feature, A Heavy Heart, picked up numerous awards. Co-star Sandra Huller has a strong commercial profile domestically, and earned breakout international acclaim with her lead role in Maren Ade’s 2016 Oscar contender Toni Erdmann. And Franz Rogowski is currently a hot property in Germany, his recent credits including Sebastian Schipper’s Oscar-nominated Victoria and Michael Haneke’s Happy End. He also stars in Christian Petzold’s Transit, scoring the rare distinction of two lead roles in this year’s Berlinale competition.
The story’s main focus is Christian (Rogowski), a tattoo-covered loner with a troubled past and a socially awkward manner that borders on autism. Christian has just begun his probation period as a shelf stacker at an unnamed warehouse superstore in a faceless East German backwater town. His avuncular mentor is old lag Bruno (Peter Kurth), a chess-loving ex-trucker who misses the mundane certainties of the former Communist era. The young rookie also develops a shy crush on Marion (Huller), a flirtatious married woman 10 years his senior whose abusive husband commonly features in hushed workplace gossip.
Forklifts serve as a recurring dramatic motif throughout In the Aisles, as a kind of in-store status symbol and vehicle for illicit flirtation, but mostly as a marker of Christian’s growing self-confidence. Stuber even uses a brief clip from Forklift Driver Claus, a cult 2000 short directed by Stefan Prehn and Jorg Wagner, which subverts the banal grammar of safety instruction films with comic-book splatter violence.
In the Aisles could have used a few more of these knowing, light-hearted asides, especially in its somber latter stages, when bleaker events impact on the characters without ever being fully explained or resolved. Perhaps Stuber and Meyer set out to intentionally subvert audience expectations, but they appear to seed the first hour of drama with ominous portents to grander developments that never materialize. The net effect is ultimately deflating.
That said, there is still much to enjoy about the classy team of talents at work here. Huller’s magnetic happy-sad screen presence brings a note of nervy fragility to her otherwise thinly drawn character, making Marion’s romantic attraction to the semi-catatonic Christian a little more plausible. Meanwhile, Rogowski’s sulky intensity and angular jolie-laid looks have pleasing echoes of the young Joaquin Phoenix. Favoring mostly dark, grainy shades, Stuber and cinematographer Peter Matjasko make excellent use of the supermarket interior’s strikingly symmetrical geometry. The soundtrack alternates classical pieces with bluesy rock, presumably staking out the film’s Carver-esque emotional terrain between aching romanticism and blue-collar stoicism.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Sommerhaus Filmproduktion GmbH, Rotor Film, Departures Film
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Sandra Huller, Peter Kurth, Andreas Leupold, Michael Specht, Steffen Scheumann, Ramona Kunze-Libnow
Director: Thomas Stuber
Screenwriters: Clemens Meyer, Thomas Stuber
Producers: Jochen Laube, Fabian Maubach
Cinematographer: Peter Matjasko
Editor: Kaya Inan
Sales company: Beta Cinema, Germany
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