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Based on its elevator pitch — teenage twins hang out at a rural German gas station while they philosophize about time, have sex and flirt with violence — the HKIFF Cinephile Paradise entry My Brother’s Name Is Robert and He’s an Idiot (Mein Bruder Heisst Robert und Ist ein Idiot) sounds like a Sundance-movie plot that somehow crash-landed in Heidegger’s Heimat. But instead of delivering something colorful and endearingly quirky, German auteur Philip Groening has something much more serious in mind, so the film resembles a Sundance title about as much as Robert Pattinson looks like Robert De Niro.
Groning’s international breakout title, the immersive documentary Into Great Silence, about a Carthusian monastery, ran 162 minutes; while his follow-up fiction film, The Police Officer’s Wife, was a story of domestic abuse told in 59 chapters and 175 minutes. Idiot clocks in at 172 minutes and actually tackles the director’s fascination with time head-on.
RELEASE DATE Nov 30, 1999
When these three films are taken together, the guiding principle of his cinema becomes clear: Groning sees cinema as a way to collapse and expand time, and tries to use a succession of individual moments of the “now” as a way to distill eternal and timeless truths that can exist beyond the present. This worked best in Silence; not at all in Wife; and finally sort of in Idiot, which contains an almost Porumboiu-like explanatory scene at the end that allows the filmmaker to lecture the audience on how to read everything that has come before it. Purely in terms of commercial potential, that might be too little, too late. But adventurous festivals will want to make room for this on their schedules.
The socially awkward Robert (Josef Mattes, Silent Youth) has flunked out of school, though he’s more bookish than his twin sister, Elena (novelist turned actress Julia Zange), who is preparing for her final high school exam in philosophy when the film opens. Set over the course of a single summer weekend, the siblings hang out in and around the modest gas station that belongs to their family, though their parents are conspicuous only by their absence.
The idea behind the duo being stranded in a wheat-fields patchwork cut up by small country roads is quite clear: With Elena making plans for university and Robert’s plan for the future being to have no plan at all, they find themselves in a literal as well as psychological no man’s land between childhood and adulthood.
Most of the time, the two spend their day lying in the fields talking about the Heidegger and Saint Augustine texts that deal with time that Elena is studying and going to a natural pool in the woods nearby to cool off (though 18 or thereabouts, both also love childish bets and games). Groning, as usual serving as his own cinematographer, alternates between large wide-screen vistas and overhead shots that make the siblings look tiny and extreme closeups that show, for example, ants and bugs crawl all over parts of the two protagonists and their belongings. The philosophical takeaway of having shot and edited the film in this way is obvious: Size and relationships are all a matter of perspective and philosophy, too.
Purely as a narrative, Idiot remains too stiffly theoretical to become really moving. Though Mattes (son of New German Cinema actress Eva Mattes) and newcomer Zange both have an appealing insouciant quality about them, their characters remain stick figures more than well-rounded personalities. The ways in which they differ and are the same feel calculated more than organic, designed to make certain points rather than to take audiences on an emotional journey. Especially in the third act, when the placid philosophizing gives way to more of a pressure-cooker atmosphere, this becomes problematic because for audiences to not dismiss what the characters choose to do, it is necessary to have at least some empathy and understanding for them and their naive thinking.
As an exercise in illustrating some of Groning’s ideas about time and how it can be experienced by humans in the world in general and by audiences in cinemas in particular, the feature is much more interesting. The ruminations of especially Robert — thus at least an idiot savant rather than the straightforward idiot of the title — form a loosely connected anthology of ideas that draws on not only Heidegger’s Being and Time and the writings of Saint Augustine but also on the works of thinkers like Brentano and Bergson. Even for viewers not well-versed in their modern philosophers, however, a provocative statement such as “The present doesn’t exist” should resonate within the strict context of the film. Somewhere about 90 minutes in, the feature might start to feel endless and aimless, which is of course intentional, as it offers proof that time is a construct that can be manipulated, with each minute of our lives not feeling like they all have the exact same length. That said, Groning doesn’t quite manage to tie his more general ideas about time to the very specific transformative nature of time for adolescents beyond the generic idea that a single weekend — as illustrated here — can feel like a lifetime.
Compressing and expanding time in stories are part of the basic possibilities of cinema but they have a more particular relevance for Groning as an auteur. The director waited 16 years for a reply from the monks he finally got to portray in Into Great Silence, for example, and he frequently spends years in postproduction until he has found exactly the right edit for his films. Case in point: Robert was shot back in summer 2013, when Kim and Kanye’s North West was born and Obama’s second term had just begun. Doesn’t that feel like at least an entire lifetime ago?
Production companies: Philip Groning Filmproduktion, Bavaria Pictures, L Films, Bayerischer Rundfunk, WDR, ARTE, Ventura Films, RSI
Cast: Josef Mattes, Julia Zange, Urs Jucker, Stefan Konarske, Zita Aretz
Director: Philip Groning
Screenplay: Philip Groning, Sabine Timoteo
Producers: Philip Groning, Matthias Esche, Philipp Kreuzer, Emmanuel Schlumberger
Director of photography: Philip Groning
Production designer: Alexander Manasse, Maja Zogg, Sebastian Wurm
Costume designer: Pia Marais, Carla Kiefer, Petra Kray
Editors: Philip Groning, Hannes Bruun
Casting: Seibicke Silke Koch, Philippe Elkoubi
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 172 minutes
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