'I'm Your Man': Film Review | Berlin 2021

Im Your Man Dan Stevens Still - Publicity - H 2021
Christine Fenzl

Dan Stevens and Sandra Hüller in 'I'm Your Man'

Familiar high concept, played in a refreshingly low key.

As a humanoid robot tailored to be the perfect romantic partner, Dan Stevens stars opposite Maren Eggert in Maria Schrader's dramatic comedy.

Not long into I'm Your Man, Dan Stevens' character, a genial android named Tom, arranges a perfectly contrived combination of romantic clichés for his would-be partner, Alma. The rose petals are "artfully" strewn, the candles flicker, and flutes of bubbly are ready for sipping beside the bubble-filled tub. "Ninety-three percent of German women dream of this," he assures her as she exits the room, profoundly unimpressed. Tom is programmed to satisfy Alma, a German human, but he's still in beta, and his learning curve is one of the oddball delights of this farcical and poignant comedy about love.

Exploring the relationship between an AI prototype and his reluctant test-driver, director Maria Schrader and her co-writer, Jan Schomburg — who previously teamed for Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe — are interested in exploring screwball tropes, not in sounding a warning about machines who will destroy us. Tom the robot is a good guy, and for someone as smart and relationship-averse as Alma, that presents a wealth of complications.

With his erect posture, frictionless locomotion and unflappably upbeat facial expression, Stevens (Downton Abbey) delivers a performance that's subtly comical and stylized, while Maren Eggert (I Was at Home, But...) inhabits Alma in a way that's so persuasive and naturalistic it barely feels like a performance at all. The sparks between their characters are, in the time-honored tradition of screen romance, those of incompatibility, until they're something else.

An archaeologist at Berlin's Pergamon Museum, Alma agrees under protest to participate in a three-week trial run of Tom as a romantic partner. She hates everything about the Terrareca company's proposed product line, but her boss, Roger (Falilou Seck), is on the ethics committee for the android project, and she doesn't want to alienate him as she nears completion of a years-long study of Sumerian cuneiform. Roger deems her the best candidate because, in his view, she's the only truly single person on staff. She has no partner, just a recent ex, Julian (Hans Löw), who's a colleague and therefore an awkward presence on the margins of her workdays. The closest she has to a child is her father (Wolfgang Hübsch), increasingly fussy and uncontrollable as he sinks deeper into dementia.

The singles-night event where Tom and Alma are introduced has a paradoxical throwback feel: It takes place in a vintage-style ballroom, with couples cutting a rug to Irving Berlin. The paradox is that many of those lovebirds are holograms, designed to up the sense of energy and romance for the humans in their midst. The Terrareca facilitator of the evening (Sandra Hüller, of Toni Erdmann, striking a wry note between ditzy and officious) reveals this to Alma, and also confides that programming the robots to flirt is particularly difficult.

As evidence of that challenge, Tom declares to Alma soon after they meet, "Your eyes are like two mountain lakes I could sink into." His rumba moves take a similarly mechanical approach to sensual matters. Still, in almost every instance of a gaffe in wording, syntax or behavior, Tom is instantly aware that he's missed the mark: Stevens cools the high-wattage smile by a degree or two. Hit or miss, there's a childlike curiosity in the way Tom takes it all in, processing Alma's words and reactions as he continually calibrates his algorithm to be her perfect partner. That's his whole, selfless purpose — no species envy or power lust beneath the beaming facade. The reason he speaks German with an English accent, he tells her, is that she's "attracted to men who are slightly foreign."

Across the lived-in clutter and disarray of her high-rise apartment, Alma determines to keep her distance. (The outstanding production design and set decoration are fully in sync with the understated but expressive tone of the film as a whole, as is the score's unforced mix of playful and poignant.) With fresh flowers and pastries and endless watchfulness, Tom maintains his focus on seduction. Out in the city, he embraces the chance to act "like a person who wants things" by placing an order at a coffee shop, with gusto.

There's no capital-F futurism in the way Schrader (whose helming credits include the series Unorthodox) approaches the material; the story could be unfolding tomorrow or last week. But there are big questions at its core, not just about human longing and identity but also about whether androids deemed capable of sharing our lives will have full-fledged rights as individuals. Alma variously tolerates the nonhuman in her guest room, ignores him, and tries to arouse his anger, not to mention his programmed-for-performance genitalia. But a crucial shift in her attitude is revealed when she defends him against disrespectful treatment from a surprising source. She's defending herself too; every step of the way, I'm Your Man is also about how single people are often discounted, their experiences and emotional circumstances somehow deemed "less real."

In response to Tom's attention, which can seem warm or ridiculous or cold with clarity, Alma's emotions seesaw wildly. They go from wariness to confusion to despair to self-revelation, and Eggert never overplays them, lending the chemistry between her and Stevens, especially in the final sequences, a memorable edge.

That Alma works with antiquities is fitting for a story that touches on age-old mythology (the creation of human forms) and memory as a defining aspect of being human. This is a comedy that finds poetry in unexpected places: the ancient cuneiform that Alma studies, and the invented past that Tom concocts to explain their romance. With sly humor and no small ache, I'm Your Man asks if we really want our fantasies to come true, and what happens when we fall in love.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: Letterbox Filmproduktion
Cast: Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens, Sandra Hüller, Hans Löw, Wolfgang Hübsch, Annika Meier, Falilou Seck, Jürgen Tarrach, Henriette Richter-Röhl
Director: Maria Schrader
Screenwriters: Jan Schomburg, Maria Schrader
Inspired by the short story "Ich bin dein Mensch" by Emma Braslavsky
Producer: Lisa Blumenberg
Executive producers: Dan Stevens, Maria Schrader
Director of photography: Benedict Neuenfels
Production designer: Cora Pratz
Costume designer: Anette Guther
Editor: Hansjörg Weißbrich
Composer: Tobias Wagner
Casting: Anja Dihrberg
International sales: Beta Cinema

In German
104 minutes