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There’s sardonic self-deprecation in the part Daniel Brühl has chosen for himself in his first feature as director, that of a European movie star sweating over an audition for a Hollywood superhero film that stands to push his fame — and his bank account — to the next level. But celebrity entitlement is only one part of the package. It eventually takes a back seat to gentrification when the protagonist’s obliviousness to those left behind in the moneyed makeover of post-reunification East Berlin comes back to bite him in his self-absorbed ass.
An amusing, accomplished debut on its own modest terms, Next Door works best as tart meta comedy, becoming increasingly cramped in scope and setting as it spirals into an obsessive revenge thriller. Fans of the actor will enjoy spotting the parallels to his own career, with a Stasi film that corresponds to Brühl’s homegrown breakout hit Good Bye, Lenin!, a period detective series that sounds a lot like The Alienist and an all-important screen test to play a villain not unlike Zemo, the antagonist in Captain America: Civil War and the upcoming Disney+ series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. That should ease the way into streaming exposure for this embellished two-hander.
Even the character’s name and German-Spanish nationality are the same, but rather than make the fictional Daniel a monstrous caricature, he’s a realistically heightened version of Brühl. His vanity and smug assumption of being able to get whatever he wants with his good looks and silver-tongued charm (he calls it his “Danny Boy touch”) are just obnoxious enough to provide some schadenfreude when he’s served his comeuppance.
He’s also a neat freak — shown in the perfect arrangement of fruit and granola on his breakfast tray or the precision packing of his travel bag — which gives extra sting to the merciless unraveling of his life over the course of a single afternoon.
Daniel lives in the hip Prenzlauer Berg district, on what was once the East German side of the divided city. After shooting a movie there, he relocated from the West, snapping up a chic, glass-encased penthouse duplex with its own private courtyard elevator in former GDR public housing. His stylish wife Clara (Aenne Schwarz) is a medical professional and their two young sons are taken care of by a nanny, Conchita (Justine Hirschfeld). An enviable life.
While going through his morning routine, Daniel runs lines for the big-budget Darkman movie he’s desperate to land. “You crawled out of the darkness,” he snarls into the mirror in the basso growl that’s the default delivery for MCU villains. But he’s unprepared for the malicious harm that awaits him in the light of day.
Since he’s early for his flight to London for the audition, he dismisses his driver and decides to kill time at the corner pub, a holdover unchanged since before reunification. The same goes for the acerbic barkeep (Rike Eckermann, terrific), who teasingly calls Daniel “Tom Cruise” but makes it plain she’s unimpressed by his stardom. He treats “the dive,” as he calls it, like an office, juggling calls from his assistant, his agent and various production contacts in a persistent attempt to get a copy of the top-secret script, or at least a little more context on the role.
When a paunchy older customer sitting at the bar starts openly staring at Daniel, he thinks the man is just another fan so he quickly offers him an autograph. But the stranger then introduces himself as Bruno (Peter Kurth), Daniel’s neighbor from an apartment across the courtyard that has not had the benefit of upscale remodeling. Bruno informs him that since he’s home all day, he regularly accepts delivery of Daniel’s parcels, which are then retrieved by the actor’s assistant. It’s clear that Daniel has never noticed him, which is probably true of anyone who doesn’t immediately serve his needs.
Unlike the barkeep, whose droll sourness is mostly benign, if far from friendly, there’s something instantly more aggressive about Bruno’s dyspeptic manner. Looking like Robert Mitchum gone to seed, he takes evident pleasure in needling the cocky younger man, beginning by wiping his mouth on the napkin Daniel has just autographed.
Bruno then proceeds to tear apart his neighbor’s celebrated performance in a drama about the East German secret police, dismissing the film as inauthentic Western garbage. His opinion of the rest of Daniel’s work is similarly disdainful. Some of Brühl’s funniest moments involve Daniel’s shock, dismay and stifled irritation as he absorbs the unaccustomed discomfort of hearing blunt criticism and is unable to shrug it off.
Pairing a half-smile of civility with flashes of dead-eyed contempt, MVP Kurth (Babylon Berlin) slyly gets under the audience’s skin just as his character gets under Daniel’s. Bruno reveals that like most of the East Berlin old-timers, he has not benefited from all the new money flowing into the district. His late father even less so, having been forced by thuggish developers to give up his longtime home, which has since become Daniel’s gleaming penthouse.
But Bruno’s resentment of the interloper goes deeper than a mere grudge. He holds him symbolically responsible for every broken political promise that transformed the city into a playground of glaring social inequality and men like him into an underclass of losers. We only need to see the coldness in Bruno’s eyes to imagine the loathing he felt every time Daniel’s laughter floated across the courtyard.
The screenplay by prestigious German writer Daniel Kehlmann, based on an idea by Brühl, works hard to keep Danny Boy in the bar well past the time when most people would have made a hasty exit — not to mention that he has a plane to catch. This starts to feel forced as Daniel tries to paper over the animosity with his “not my fault” justifications, and even sticks around to hear Bruno’s acting advice for his audition. For a film running just over 90 minutes, the midsection grows stretched and repetitive, its verbal sparring too transparently serving as a delaying tactic until the real ammunition comes out.
There’s no faulting the performances, and Brühl has surrounded himself with a top-notch crew, so Next Door has impressive visual vitality for a story stuck predominantly in a single setting. But the buoyancy is sucked out of the film as the material shifts into darker, nastier, and it has to be said, less interesting territory. Once Bruno produces a stack of printouts and reveals the plan he’s long been perfecting to dismantle Daniel’s complacent existence, any trace of mirth is pretty much extinguished. But the class warfare is too confined by circuitous talk to pack much of a punch.
Brühl deserves credit for attempting a tricky tonal balance, and for refusing to invite sympathy for his actor alter ego. But that ultimately saddles the dark comedy with two main characters who have both become irksome and a little tedious by the end. A late cameo by Phantom Thread star Vicky Krieps, hinting at a fresh target with more trouble to come, doesn’t make the closing note any more satisfying.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Amusement Park Film, Warner Bros. Film Production Germany, in association with Gretchen Film, Erfttal Film
Cast: Daniel Brühl, Peter Kurth, Rike Eckermann, Aenne Schwarz, Gode Benedix, Vicki Krieps, Justine Hirschfeld, Ole Hermann, Mex Schlüpfer, Steffen Scheuermann
Director: Daniel Brühl
Screenwriter: Daniel Kehlmann, based on an idea by Daniel Brühl
Producer: Malte Grunert
Director of photography: Jens Harant
Production designer: Susanne Hopf
Costume designer: Lisy Christl
Music: Moritz Friedrich, Jakob Grunert
Editor: Marty Schenk
Casting: Simone Bär, Alexandra Montag
Sales: Beta Cinema
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