Armin (Hans Löw), the lanky slacker with a bad goatee at the center of Ulrich Kohler’s In My Room, is something of an anti-protagonist, a void of charisma around which a plot transpires. Our introduction to him comes in the form of video footage of a German election that he shot for the local cable station where he works. In it, the bumping-and-jolting camera keeps strangely cutting whenever a politician is about to deliver a speech, slowly revealing itself as evidence of a gaffe. He sheepishly explains his error to his colleagues, who’ve clearly dealt with such negligence before, and receives only a mocking demonstration of the difference between “on” and “off.” Later, we see him botching a potential one-night-stand, and when the disinterested young woman has to re-enter his cramped apartment to claim her forgotten bag, she walks right by his half-naked body as if he weren’t even there.
In soberly observing this man’s drearily prosaic day-to-day life for the first third of the rather protracted In My Room, Kohler risks our immediate disengagement. Even when Armin leaves Berlin for the suburbs, where his bedridden grandmother’s (Ruth Bickelhaupt) encroaching death hints at possible dramatic conflict between him and his family, the director keeps the pulse low and the tone muted, with Armin’s arguments with his father (Michael Wittenbom) over the best nursing methods amounting to little more than mild disagreements. Armin drinks beer, but it’s not like he’s trying to chase away any inner demons. Rather, he seems like a guy who’s just coasting through life, alienated from the post-collegiate working world he’s fashioned for himself, unhappy with his “little cash-flow problem,” and hopelessly short on meaningful relationships but too passive to change anything.
The studied banality of Kohler’s approach—no score, undramatic lighting, very few close-ups—combined with Armin’s essential diffidence generates a subtle underlying air of suspense, a suspicion that the narrative could feasibly could go anywhere from the seeming impasse at which it begins. It turns out that this is by design, since the ensuing plot gambit is meant to be received as a shock to the system, both for the audience and for Armin. After a night spent ambling around and trying to visit his mother, Armin wakes up to find that all of humanity has apparently vanished, due to no evident calamity of any sort. Here, In My Room becomes an unforeseen—at least for those who haven’t read the synopsis—riff on the last-man-on-Earth sci-fi subgenre, albeit one that skirts depicting a sensational show of survivalism at every step in favor of something more oddly tranquil. In this sense, it joins other films of the so-called “Berlin School,” like Western and Toni Erdmann, in embodying the trappings of a specific populist genre if only to casually subvert them.
What’s different is that, whereas those films steered away from melodramatic flourishes to burrow deep into their characters’ states of mind, In My Room often exhibits an interest only in the accruing of incidents, giving it a this-happens-then-this-happens quality that defiantly eschews psychological shading. The effect is hypnotic at first: Armin’s initial encounters with a world now empty of human life have a shell-shocked stillness that gives way slowly to giddy catharsis, with this mope suddenly and unexpectedly ripping it down a forsaken thoroughfare in a Lamborghini as the camera takes in a view from the front bumper—a rare jolt of adrenaline that suggests Kohler might be a Need for Speed nut. But as the months start passing unceremoniously, with hard cuts disguising ellipses that fast-forward dramatically through Armin’s time in isolation, it’s hard not to feel like Kohler is evading some of the most fruitful opportunities to explore his main character’s psyche. How does Armin go from being an ineffectual nobody to a ripped Robinson Crusoe-esque figure overseeing a virtual Noah’s Ark of livestock, and what emotional and logistical hurdles needed to be usurped to get there?
It’s possible to appreciate Armin’s solo trajectory as an academic articulation of fundamental human adaptability, whereby Kohler seems to posit an anti-capitalist worldview in which some are far more capable of fulfillment when stripped of societal structures rather than burdened by them. Alas, In My Room becomes far more engaging when it throws yet another twist into the works, this time with the arrival of Kirsi (Elena Radonicich), the assertive Eve to Armin’s laidback Adam. Again, Kohler thwarts expectations: Armin and Kirsi begin looking after each other, collaborating on food gathering and other quotidian necessities, and, inevitably, fucking, but stirrings of romance are kept cautiously at bay. Where films like Into the Wild and Cast Away seem settled on the idea that human connection is at the very least a sanity barometer if not a survival imperative, In My Room walks a delicate line between showcasing the fruits of Armin and Kirsi’s compulsory partnership and arguing for Armin’s essential inadequacy as a social being.
As the two survivors grow closer, Kohler’s detached camera finally moves in, indulging a few strategically timed closeups that, instead of offering long-delayed emotional catharsis, only add to the layers of ambivalence surrounding the nature of this pairing. At a point when Armin, in a more conventional drama, might have been most legible to us as a character, he’s suddenly rendered impossibly remote and beguiling, while the woman who’s just entered his life becomes the film’s most transparent figure. In a parting shot that evokes The Mirror—one of a few whiffs of Tarkovsky that perfume this otherwise decidedly unshowy film—the divide between the two is visualized as irreconcilable, though the film’s lingering impression is hardly one of despair. This piquant mix of emotions makes In My Room worth its plodding stretches, but it’s hard not feel as though these passages comprise little more than a convoluted vehicle to get to their eventual end point.