Warning: This review contains major plot revelations.
For its first 35 minutes, the German drama In My Room looks like a typical European art film, centered around the sort of congenial fuckup who’s often the subject of a low-budget character study. When we first meet Armin (Hans Löw), a single man in his early 40s, he’s botching his job as a news cameraman, turning the camera on when it’s supposed to be off and vice versa; the footage he brings back from a key political event consists entirely of hurried attempts to get people in focus and blurry motion across the convention floor. Armin’s social life doesn’t seem to be going much better—he succeeds in bringing a woman to his tiny apartment, and she’s clearly interested, until he insists on opening a brand-new toothbrush for her, rather than letting her use his. (“But you want me to put your dick in my mouth?”) A visit to his hometown reveals that his grandmother is terminally ill, while his parents seem to be splitting up due to his father’s open affair with another woman. Obviously, something’s about to shake up this guy’s slightly pitiable life, and, indeed, something does: Every other living human being suddenly disappears.
Having the planet mostly or entirely to oneself has been a popular conceit of late: Z For Zachariah, I Think We’re Alone Now, Fox’s sitcom The Last Man On Earth. In each of those scenarios, however, the population has been all but wiped out by nuclear war or a pandemic. Almost everyone died. In My Room (presumably titled after the Beach Boys song, in which Brian Wilson’s room is his sanctuary; Armin’s corresponding room has a circumference of 25,000 miles) provides no explanation whatsoever for what happened—not even the vague possibility that’s eventually floated by The Leftovers’ HBO adaptation. It’s a pure Twilight Zone premise, except that here the uncanniness has been superimposed onto the aforementioned low-key European character study, and the film declines to shift modes after Armin’s world turns upside down. Instead, after briefly observing him wander streets littered with abandoned cars, wondering what to do, In My Room leaps ahead an indeterminate amount of time, to a point at which Armin, now bearded and slimmed down à la Tom Hanks in Cast Away, has created a manageable solo existence. He’s taught himself to farm and sew, has secured a generator, is hard at work on a hydroelectric dam. Given no other choice, this middle-aged ne’er-do-well has proven surprisingly resourceful. Will he share his toothbrush, though?
Written and directed by Ulrich Köhler (and co-produced by Köhler’s romantic partner, Maren Ade, a superb filmmaker in her own right), this droll yet poignant amalgam of the fantastic and the mundane ultimately suggests that while people can dramatically alter their behavior in response to extreme circumstances, on some fundamental level they don’t really change. Eventually, inevitably, the film introduces another survivor of the inexplicable event, a singleminded young woman named Kirsi (Elena Radonicich); as the only two people remaining on Earth, so far as either of them knows (and Kirsi, unlike Armin, has searched far and wide), they attempt to build a life together. (Neither speaks the other’s language—Kirsi seems to be Italian—but both of them know English.) The film’s excellent, cruel joke is that their relationship plays out pretty much exactly as it would have had they met under normal circumstances, fracturing on the same big disagreements and petty squabbles. Köhler plants seeds of disillusionment even in joyous moments, like an impromptu dance outside a gas station (with music blaring from the speakers of a big rig Kirsi found); the movie’s final third makes it clear that its first third wasn’t just an unusually prolonged setup, but crucial to our understanding of who Armin is and must remain. “Now it’s dark and I’m alone,” the Beach Boys harmonize, “but I won’t be afraid.” Give them some time.