You can’t call a film “In My Room” if you don’t want Brian Wilson’s spare, melancholic verses for the Beach Boys song of the same title to spring to mind: “Now it’s dark and I’m alone/But I won’t be afraid/In my room.” That indeed captures the mood of Ulrich Köhler’s disquieting, wonderfully imagined survivalist drama — the catch is that the room in question turns out to be the entire world, uncannily depopulated and sprawling with possibility, yet often made to feel as small as the loneliest studio apartment. Tracing the uncertain course-correction of a nowhere-bound Berlin manchild after he finds himself, suddenly and inexplicably, the last man on earth, “In My Room” presents and accepts its partial apocalypse with unquestioning calm — an extreme contrivance that merely enables an elegant, exacting character study.
It’s been seven years since Köhler’s last feature “Sleeping Sickness,” a stylish, febrile study of settler psychology in west Africa that won him a directing prize at the Berlinale, but got less than its due in terms of international distribution. Following its well-received Cannes premiere in Un Certain Regard, this worth-the-wait follow-up should get wider exposure — thanks not least to a neat high concept that recalls another recent German-language variation on the isolation theme, Julian Pölsler’s “The Wall” — but it’s steeped in ambiguity and human eccentricity as complex as any sci-fi mechanics. Some viewers may be frustrated by lack of explanations to go around in “In My Room,” either for its premise or its taciturn characters; those willing to groove with its question marks will find unexpected emotional rewards in its stoic approach.
The first of the film’s cleanly defined three acts, preceding any dystopian occurrence, is its least urgent: With proceedings running a slightly over-roomy two hours, there’s potential here for some gentle trimming. It doesn’t take long to establish that Armin (Hans Löw) is at a personal and professional cul-de-sac as he creeps reluctantly toward middle age. He’s outgrowing his nightclubbing, his cramped, crummy bachelor apartment and his spotty dating record, and is actively incompetent in his job as a news cameraman — as demonstrated in a terrific opening gag that subtly teases the film’s concern with negative narrative space, the story that transpires in the lapses between critical events. An uneasy relationship with his father (Michael Wittenborn) festers as his grandmother (Ruth Bickelhaupt) slowly withdraws from the living; nothing in Armin’s life is on the upswing, yet he hasn’t the gumption to fight his way out of it.
So fate intervenes, whether exclusively for his benefit or not: Overnight, without warning, commotion or explanation, the world is apparently and inexplicably drained of all other human life. Cars are strewn, abandoned and off-track, in the streets; buildings sit fully intact and unpeopled; animals are suddenly free to roam through the world untended. Armin, understandably, takes some time to adjust to this baffling abandonment; when attempting to drink his way through it fails to change things, he comes to see this oddly tranquil catastrophe as a cue to reboot his life entirely. Following some Grand Theft Auto-style joyriding on deserted highways, he returns to the rural region of his childhood, creates a shelter, rears livestock, and acquires more self-sufficiency in the space of months than in his first 40-odd years on the planet.
Which isn’t to say that “In My Room” romanticizes or idealizes Armin’s back-to-nature arc. One might perceive some tacit, witty mockery here of the way he, with the world’s conveniences now fully at his disposal, opts to forge a traditionally, even nostalgically, macho path of at-one-with-the-elements survival. It’s an approach thrown into relief when he stumbles into another survivor, the no-nonsense, independent-minded Kirsi (Italian actress Elena Radonicich, brisk and alert), who’d rather explore the planet lying before them than hunker down in the wild. As an unlikely attraction builds between what might be the last man and last woman, their opposing impulses and philosophies become ever more of a sticking point.
Whether “In My Room” is a deft, winking allegory for shifting gender roles in general or simply a precise, idiosyncratic two-hander is among its many intriguing, unspoken uncertainties. Either way, it’s observed with dry, crisp acuity and human insight, and keenly performed by its leads, playing characters whose connection is still rife with scratchy, velcro-like friction. Löw, his lanky frame and planed face gradually bearing the rigors of Armin’s chosen lifestyle, carries long solo stretches of the film with silent, increasingly soulful stature. His sloping, unhurried body language breaks for one spectacular out-of-character dance sequence that underlines the frustrating possibility of other lives to be lived in a now-limitless existence.
Köhler, who shares a certain wry perceptiveness and slow-burn storytelling sensibility with his co-producer (and other half) Maren Ade, directs with the same measured, flash-free conviction he brought to “Sleeping Sickness,” sidelining the wilder genre possibilities of his out-there premise to look long and hard at its spiraling psychological realities. Patrick Orth’s serene, tactile camerawork, favoring rustic hues and immersive stillness, is on the same page of effective restraint. Perhaps the richest below-the-line opportunities in “In My Room” are afforded to production designers Jochen Dehn and Silke Fischer, who vividly map and construct this new-old world of desolate human property slowly succumbing to nature: motorbikes lie prostrate in the road like dead beetles, while a DVD store, already near-obsolete in its way, is swamped by aggressive greenery. The earth is set to inherit the earth in this strange, funny, sneakily poignant vision, and there’s nothing meek about it.