Berlin: Maria Schrader on Turning Dan Stevens Into a German-Speaking Love Robot in 'I'm Your Man'

Im-Your-Man and inset of Maria Schrader
Courtesy of Christine Fenzel; Anika Molnar

In her Berlin competition entry, the 'Unorthodox' director cast the 'Downton Abbey' and 'Legion' star as an android programmed to fulfill every desire.

You have to wonder when she sleeps.

The tireless Maria Schrader — fresh off an Emmy win as outstanding director of a limited series for Netflix's Unorthodox and another critically acclaimed turn in front of the camera as East German spy Lenora Rauch in Amazon's Deutschland 89 — somehow managed, during a pandemic, to shoot her fourth feature film.

I'm Your Man, which Schrader co-wrote with Jan Schomburg, is a screwball comedy with a sci-fi premise. Alma (Maren Eggert), a workaholic archaeologist with no interest in romance, takes part in an experiment. For three weeks she will test-drive the latest in dating technology: a lifelike android, called Tom (Dan Stevens), programmed solely for her happiness. Things don't go as planned. Beta Cinema is selling I'm Your Man worldwide and introducing the movie to buyers at Berlin's European Film Market this week.

Schrader took time from her busy schedule, and ahead of the film's world premiere in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, to talk to The Hollywood Reporter about love, technology and how to shoot a crowd scene under COVID-19 restrictions.

The movie is based on a short story?

Inspired by. The premise — that a woman could order a personalized robot — came from Emma Braslavsky's story. But the whole story goes another way.

What appealed to you about that premise?

I was attracted to the simplicity of the setup. Because it's a girl-meets-boy story. It's simple but at the same time, it asks quite big questions.

There've been a lot of stories of love robots — think of Ex Machina (2014) — but up until now, they've always been told from a male perspective.

Exactly. It's always been an objectification, about society's image of women. It goes back thousands of years. [Austrian artist] Oskar Kokoschka wanted a life-size doll made that looked just like [his once lover] Alma Mahler. Or think of Pygmalion creating his female statue. In Russia [in 2020] a bodybuilder married his sex doll. The objectification of women is something we've been dealing with for thousands of years.

And it's not uninteresting that in our film, the female lead finds it a lot more difficult to objectify her male robot, to see him as a tool for her own pleasure. Compared to the man she meets later in the film, who has his own female robot and tells her, "I've got to find out how much she costs, so I can keep her." I don't want to generalize, but it does seem that men are more accustomed to seeing women as objects.

Tom, the robot in your film, speaks German but with an English accent.

It was like that in the original story. But for the role, I'd always dreamt of finding an actor who wasn't so well known in Germany. This is sort of my first real German film. Love Life (2007) was shot in Israel in English. Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (2016) was in multiple languages. Unorthodox is not really a "German" series. But here, because the script was in Germany, I thought it would be interesting to find someone who wasn't so well known for other roles. If I took [German star] Moritz Bleibtreu, the German audience would think: "that's Moritz Bleibtreu playing a robot."

I also think the slightly foreign accent helps Tom as a character because it gives him a slight linguistic alienation. In the script, he didn't have to be English. We actually looked all over Europe. Of course, I wanted someone good-looking. I had the image in my head of Barbie's Ken. But we also needed a really good actor and one who had a touch of self-irony and would have fun playing Tom, who sometimes just stands there, blankly, not knowing what he should do next.

Then I found Dan Stevens, who had just this kind of humor, and such precision in his acting. And he speaks excellent German! The script is complicated. Any German actor would get tongue-tied. It was such a lucky break. In part, we have the pandemic to thank, because, under normal circumstances, he would never have had the time. He works so much. I met him over Zoom, we talked a few times, he read the script and we went for it.

Did he already speak German?

Yes. He studied German, in Cambridge I think, and also in Germany. He even shot a film here — Hilde (2009) about [German singer] Hildegard Knef, alongside Heike Makatsch, as her husband, who was English. But of course, he had to practice. He was so incredibly disciplined with his German.

Did you shoot the entire film last year during the pandemic?

Yes, from August to September here in Berlin. We even traveled to Denmark [for the film's final scene]. I'm actually a bit proud that we managed to shoot our opening scene in the ballroom. It was the scene everyone was most concerned about, because we had 70 to 80 people in a small room, flirting, dancing, singing, kissing. I thought, "Oh God, how can we do that?" We shot it at the very end.

Of course, everyone was tested, and we were very careful. Everyone in the room was handpicked. Many were actual couples. It took an unbelievable amount of organizational effort, but I think it was worth it. To give us this special feeling, to give us the kind of experience that we're no longer used to. It was really touching. Like a celebration of life. Because we'd spend months in lockdown before this. With all those safety measures and social distancing. It was wonderful to be able to shoot that scene.

You obviously wrote and developed the film before the coronavirus pandemic, but it seems particularly apt to this moment in time. In a way, Tom is the ultimate corona-era partner, because he's completely safe, so long as you can disinfect him after every use.

I never looked at it that way, but of course, you're right! The film had been planned long before. We wrote the first draft of the script before I shot Unorthodox.

But there was already something in the air. That our lives are determined by algorithms. That was true two years ago, even if it's more true now. And maybe a synthetic individual like Tom might be on more people's wish list than before because you can let him into your apartment without fear of infection.

You know, a similar thing happened to me with Stefan Zweig. We worked on the film for four years. It was about European exile. And then came 2015, 2016, and all the refugees. Suddenly there were all these big European questions that had to be answered. And just at that moment, we came out with a film that was talking about Europe and the people that had to flee from it.

With Unorthodox, too. It was the first [German] series shown on Netflix during the pandemic, and I think one of the reasons it was so successful was because it was such a warm, human story and it landed just when people had had enough of horror.

It's interesting because from the setup, I'm Your Man could have been a horror story or a Frankenstein tale. But that's not the direction you go in.

Exactly. Most stories about artificial people move between fascination and horror. Man creates them in his image and is terrified by what he sees. Like in Ex Machina. Or the Golem story. It ends in death and destruction. We think we know what's coming with a film like this because we are so used to the destructive storytelling in this field.

But it could also be a utopia. That's why I start in that retro ballroom, with an elegant, good-looking, friendly man who only later we notice is a robot. The short story goes down this path to destruction but me and my co-writer Jan Schomburg were interested in the questions we couldn't answer. What would happen if we had robots that actually were what we imagined they could be? Namely nonviolent, without a desire for freedom, completely un-self-serving? What if you had the perfect love servant, someone who gave you their undivided attention and, at the same time, wasn't driven by what all humans are driven by, namely fear. Fear of death, fear of abandonment. Free of ambition. Free of jealousy. Wouldn't they be the better humans?

That's why, in her assessment, Alma warns not to legalize these robots. Eventually, they would make us obsolete. Because they are the better humans. All those questions are in the film. As well as ones like what is actually the difference between Tom and Alma? What actually makes us human? Is it our imperfection? We see a lot of human imperfections in the film. Alma's father, who suffers from dementia. We see frailty and infertility, how things fade away. Also happiness, also love.

Alma believes in romantic love but not as something you can buy but as something that happens by chance. A Godsend. Unpredictable. But is the fact that you can order Tom make him less valuable, does it make him less valid? Are the feelings less authentic? They're interesting questions.

But the whole tone of the film is light, like a romantic comedy.

We did that deliberately. Setting things up like a classic screwball comedy. We very deliberately set the film in our time, we didn't want an AI world, like that in Ex Machina. It was more a thought experiment.

And it was a joy to work with an actor where we could play with it: how much human will we show, when can you see the machine inside, when can't you? When he learns more, how does he change? What is artificial and what isn't and is the not-artificial automatically better?

How did you get your "robot" actors to perform so that they don't seem too artificial but also don't seem too real?

We experimented. We did a lot of takes and turned the dial up and down on the machine. How would the machine react now? Would there be hesitation or a disconnect between his facial expression and his gestures?

It was often little things. Like when Tom comes in, soaking wet from the rain, and he just stands there. Then suddenly runs his hands through his hair, such a typical male gesture.

We threw ideas back and forth, we tried things out. It was great fun.

You just won an Emmy for directing Unorthodox. You're a working actor — in film and TV but also on stage — before the pandemic you were doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Hamburg State Theater. What are you planning to do next?

Everything. I want to keep doing everything. For a number of years now I've been lucky enough to be both an actor and director and I want to keep doing both, alternating back and forth or even in parallel. When I was editing Unorthodox, during the day I was in front of the camera as an actor for Deutschland 89. It can get a bit stressful but it's incredible. I love it. I want to keep doing theater. I want to keep working as a director. I want to keep acting. I want to keep doing it all.