In My Mind: Ulrich Köhler’s “In My Room”
To properly assess what happened to me throughout the screening of Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room (2018), I need to discuss plot points that most viewers have said are better left not known before seeing the film. So, beware, this review contains “spoilers,” as I’ll discuss the film’s twists, as well as the overall tone it maintains throughout its two-hour runtime.
In My Room opens with footage usually discarded: sloppy camera movements; tripod adjustments; the sound of plastic and metal clashing with one another; zooms in and out; and the act of framing itself. We don’t see these things when watching any form of audiovisual media, the mistakes made before the camera starts to record. These in-camera edited sequences are long, terminating when the camera rests, the frame adjusted so that a person about to speak in front of dozens of microphones is the center of a shot. There’s an official nature to the ambience being recorded, as if everything that matters were left out on purpose.
The images belong to Armin (Hans Löw), a freelance videographer who has made a rookie mistake: he was filming before the event started, and when he pressed record, he actually stopped shooting. He’s scolded at the TV station where he hands in his footage, and from his face, we know that he knows he messed up badly. At the same time, there’s something beyond him that caused the mistake. After all, the film itself becomes a chronicle of being able to see what shouldn’t be seen, what’s impossible to portray, the inner life and mind of a young man surrounded by nothingness.
Armin struggles with the approaching death of his grandmother, as well as the intricacies inherent in the acts of seduction and sex. He’s clearly depressed, and he tints the world around him with his sense of emptiness. We see it in his room: anonymous, glimmers of a former film fanatic, someone who knows not only how to shoot but how to edit, a true audiovisual freelancer who studied cinema, confronted with the reality of life that’s become too hard for him to even care about beyond his own feelings of sadness. That is until suddenly the whole world disappears, and he’s the last man alive on earth, or so he believes.
The empty life that he’s living, the despair, all of that becomes externalized and turned into a Last Man on Earth scenario, but without vampires/zombies. Armin’s world becomes as hollow as his inner life, as sad and grey as his feelings. The only bodies present are his own and his grandmother’s, the one that caused his sorrow in the first place. Having just passed away, she lingers on the bed, the only remnant of society. He burns her corpse in an act of self-purification, and as a way to cut ties with the life that he lived before. Alone, his mind becomes the only place where he can exist: his body is now his room.
From this point on, the movie shifts, turning into a series of scenes in which Armin invents a new life, a new way of living, as if the depression disappeared with the rest of the people (not that they were the cause of it). The desolate landscape is his own, as he becomes one with nature: he hunts, builds dams, harvests crops, takes care of cattle and other animals, and is confronted with the brutality of it all. He is another animal. There’s no humanity in him except for the inventiveness with which he manages to survive, his mind the sole refuge of mankind.
As the film progressed, my mind wandered. The empty frames, Armin’s repetitive actions, the way that the film completely sidesteps any kind of explanation as to what happened — it made me think of many things. Like, for instance, how this movie was the perfect template for a film adaptation of the videogame The Last of Us, or how much time I would have as the sole character, trapped inside my mind, trying to figure out ways to further survive in this cruel world in which I think I live in. Maybe I’m as depressed as Armin was at that moment, maybe I’m just overreacting. All that went through my mind, racing as I saw Armin being confronted with the only thing that he wasn’t prepared for: another human being.
It’s clear that Köhler knows the end-of-the-world scenario isn’t original, so he plays with the expectations of what you think is going to happen. What are you willing to do when you think you’re the only person alive? Some might kill themselves, but Armin doesn’t. When another person arrives, we already know that it has to be a woman, and we know that Armin is a horny heterosexual, so Köhler diverts the whole relation between them by having her say, against any conventional apocalypse scenario, that she doesn’t want to bring a child into the world. She has her reasons, and in a way, she also voices a feminist point of view by controlling her body, even though they can’t manage their animalistic desires.
Maybe Köhler wanted his film to become a discussion point regarding gender roles and what we expect from a society that seems on the verge of planetary change, one that will upend notions about what humanity owes the world in terms of ecology, feminism, politics, and social care. Moreover, there are plenty of themes for critics and scholars to pick up and run with for readymade “the way we live now” pieces. But I can’t quite shake off the impression that the film is like a container housing and amplifying the thoughts that one brings to it.
In My Room is blank enough to guarantee these mental diversions, but not because it’s devoid of ideas. Rather, it’s empty of metaphors, something that is so typical in this kind of story. Here we see people doing their work, first badly, then a little better, and finally failing. At the same time, they find new ways to inhabit a brave new world ready to be explored and understood.
Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It opens in New York City at the Museum of the Moving Image on October 11.