In the Aisles movie review: An engrossing character study about a man’s need for companionship
In the Aisles is a German drama, strictly for those who like their cinema artsy and indulgent
A career-stalled German ex convict leaves his former life and gets a job in a department store, falls in love and falls apart in Thomas Stuber’s engrossing character study - In the Aisles (In den Gängen). Within the narrative, Stuber shifts tones, veering sharply from awkward romantic comedy into psychological drama territory, naturalising his hero’s obsessive behaviour and unravelling while leaving room for unexpected sidetrips into philosophical banter. Syncing cold European arthouse rhythms with one man’s desperate need for companionship, this strong fest entry signals Stuber as a director to watch.
The ex-con in question is Christian, played by Franz Rogowski (from the German one-take thriller Victoria). He’s assigned night duty carrying large boxes from one aisle to another, sorting out the mess in the store in an unsubtle metaphor that applies to his own life. During his trips between the aisles, he bumps into Marion (Sandra Huller, from the amazing Toni Erdmann), who works in the ‘sweet section’ and whose personality matches her workplace. Naturally, sparks fly within Christian’s mind.
The interesting thing about Stuber’s story and direction is that he treats the department store as a temple of sorts, turning many aspects of its inner workings like forklifts into metaphorical statements and sensitive observations about the human condition. In most situations, one would consider one’s workplace as the cold and clinical cash generating avenue to run your house and family, presumably the real objectives one yearns for in life, and the elements that shape one’s outlook and basic empathy.
This film, however, is full of people whose homes are either non-existent or golden cages of sorts, and the only humanity these people find are at work. On a purely number crunching level, an office is ultimately the most amount of time one spends in life, so why is it that we prioritise a home and not the facility that liberates you from the constraints of society, however claustrophobic the environment and however long the work hours? It is possible that a broken man can find more solace in a large air-conditioned box full of broken people, than in family life that may not turn out to be the way he expected it to. To the naïve, a marriage may seem like a gift-wrapped present but once you open it, there could be nothing but spiders inside that render a sting that never goes away. How then, would you fill the emotional void in your life? Stuber’s film gives us a small window into the answer with a clever final scene that works both as an amusing bit of off-kilter writing and a sense of closure, albeit with a bow that may seem a little too neatly tied on a pure cinematic level.
The heavy themes work mainly because of Rogowski’s central performance as the apparently omnipresent guy who sports a permanent facial expression that seems shaped out of neurotic longing; even when he laughs there’s a vulnerability that exposes internal suffering. We’re all, after all, Christian even if we don’t stay in the cold German landscapes. The only downside here is that there isn’t enough of Marion in the film as the film midway shifts focus from Christian and Marion’s In the Mood for Love-style forbidden romance to Bruno (Peter Kruth), the grizzled veteran of the store tasked with the duty to train Christian. While the character is interesting in itself, there’s a sense of over explanation and underlining every time he breaks off into dewy monologues; this in contrast to the absorbing scenes between Christian and Marion that work so well with the heavy silences and stolen gazes.
The film is naturally strictly for those who like their cinema artsy and indulgent, but there’s a lot to like about its sympathetic texture, its ability to move you with silences, and most fascinatingly, to leave you thinking about how we seldom realise how our co workers’ lives back home could be and how an emotional bond could sometimes be better than a physical one.
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