I’m Your Man, shown for the first time only weeks ago at the Berlin International Film Festival and starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as the robot, Tom, who is programmed to fulfil Alma’s every desire, turns out to be a surprisingly moving and successful exploration of the complexities of love. While Alma (Maren Eggert) scorns Tom’s ostentatious male performance and romantic gestures, she is also intrigued and slowly becomes attached to him.
“He is unpredictable to her – she has seen him being dysfunctional on the dance floor and she tells him she really isn’t up for any of this and she says ‘no’ to him – but at the same time she looks at him with such attention,” the director Maria Schrader says on a Zoom call. “This is, at the end of the day, where even the possibility of romance could start… it’s weird.”
Schrader, best known as the director of the hit Netflix miniseries about the emancipation of a Jewish woman, Unorthodox, resisted the usually AI storylines in which the machine develops its own sinister ambition. Tom is far too civilised and selfless for that, which makes him harder to resist, and something of a model partner.
“Together they might be able to create a society that is much more peaceful and not driven by egotism,” Schrader says.
Stevens whose performance is a carefully calibrated dance between mechanical role playing and acquired spontaneity got the role because he was Schrader’s ideal mix of good looks and someone able to carry off dense slabs of German dialogue. Classically good looking with clean-cut qualities that have suited both his role as an English aristocrat and a German machine, Stevens learnt German as a child and spent time there.
“This was my first all-German script and I thought ‘let’s look abroad for Tom and find someone who brings maybe a foreign element with this character’,” Schrader says. “Since this is almost a fairy tale setup there are artificial elements about Tom, and I thought it was excellent to have an actor who we don’t recognise immediately here in Germany.”
The German FF program is not without a heavy serve of drama, and the opening night film Next Door, starring and directed by actor Daniel Bruhl, is a darkly comic skewering of celebrity and privilege while the formidable Nina Hoss in The Audition delivers a disturbing portrait of a woman unhinged by the pursuit of perfection.
“What’s interesting about Next Door is Bruhl is playing a sort of narcissistic version of himself, playing an actor,” says German FF curator Bettina Kinski. “It covers many things like gentrification and reunification, serious topics, and at the same time the film is good natured.”
Fabian: Going to the Dogs, the third international premiere with Next Door and I’m Your Man, is Kinski’s personal highlight and a film she thought important to include. Starring Tom Schilling (Never Look Away) and also fresh from the Berlinale, it is based on a 1931 Erich Kastner novel about an advertising copywriter who falls in love but loses his job.
“I think what is important about the film is the timing – it’s the end of the Roaring Twenties and just before the rise of the Nazis, and it’s about the character, Fabian, who is the moralist in a world where everyone is basically looking for their own advantage,” Kinski says.
The work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the New German cinema director, playwright, actor and author is celebrated throughout the festival with a biopic of his turbulent life, Enfant Terrible, which shows how he polarised people he knew and the audiences for his films. The closing night film, Berlin Alexanderplatz, a story Fassbinder made famous in the 1980s as a 14-part miniseries, is a modern adaption of the 1929 novel about a young man’s quest to be a moral person while trying to survive as an undocumented West African migrant in the corrupt underbelly of Berlin. A restoration of Fassbinder’s satirical tribute to the west German miracle of capitalism, Lola, which is now 40 years old, will be the centrepiece of the festival’s focus on Fassbinder.
On a lighter note, The Kangaroo Chronicles directed by Dani Levy is based on the best-selling book by the same name and features a talking, animated, communist kangaroo who teams up with a struggling musician to fight a right-wing politician. The Festival’s Kino for Kids segment also features selected films for children.
Because of COVID, the big international premieres in Australia have yet to be seen in Germany where cinemas closed intermittently last year. While the recent Berlin International Festival featured the European Film Market and held online premiere screenings, cinema seasons of major films are yet to take place.
“What makes it quite special with films like Next Door, or Fabian: Going to the Dogs or I’m Your Man is they will only screen for audiences in Germany for the first time in June,” Kinski says. “COVID has really shaken things up a lot.”
The German Film Festival at Palace Nova Eastend and Prospect from June 2-20.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.