In the opening moments of Thomas Stuber’s third feature, the amiable romance “In the Aisles,” the camera noses around the empty warehouse supermarket in which it’s set. All is quiet in Gourmet Foodstuffs. Nothing stirs in Beverages. But then the strip lights flicker on high above the silent stacks, illuminating row after row of crated bulk goods. And finally a forklift glides across the screen, then another trundles by. Looked at from a certain, rose-tinted angle, this ugly, commercial enterprise is actually dancing a ballet as it comes to life for another shift. And just in case we didn’t fully appreciate the implications of this mechanized choreography, it is scored to Strauss’ “Blue Danube.” The mild and gentle pleasures of this crookedly hopeful little film are all laid out here, as well as the way it knocks against cliché at times.
It is the first shift for newbie Christian (Franz Rogowski, anchoring the second of his two Berlinale competition titles after Christian Petzold’s “Transit”). He is handed his “equipment” by brusque but kindly boss Rudi (Andreas Leupold): a name badge, a box-cutter, some cheap white pens, and a work-coat, whose sleeves Christian pulls down to cover his tattoos. He is brought to old hand Bruno (Peter Kurth of “Babylon Berlin” fame) for training, and the pair bond laconically over forklift lessons, stolen cigarette breaks and occasional in-house parties, furnished with unboxed display items — plastic chairs, sun lamps, barbecues — from the store’s bounty.
Christian is stacking crates when he notices the girl-next-aisle, Marion (Sandra Hüller from “Toni Erdmann”), and falls instantly, if timidly, in love. She is married, though, and since the hesitant hero of this chaste little story is not one for grand gestures or passionate declarations, Christian keeps a respectful distance, until one Christmas Eve when she puts her head on his shoulder.
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There’s not a huge amount else to this slender, tender story — a little tragedy, a little comedy, a lot of routine — so it’s a good thing we could spend forever watching two such interesting actors as Hüller and Rogowski glimmer at each other, his bashful hopefulness meeting her considering eyes, which are strangely serious however merry or mischievous her expression.
“In the Aisles” is unusual in its compassion and respect for its blue-collared characters. And it does have some insight into the transformative power of workplace relationships — not just the central love affair, but the connective tissue between Bruno and Christian and Rudi and all the others who bicker and banter through their minimum-wage days. The store, as Christian’s solemn occasional voiceover makes clear, is its own community. Indeed, the way they refer to the various departments (Frozen Food is “Siberia”; the overstocked tanks of fat fish are “The Ocean”) makes it its own world, complete with geopolitical intrigue and alliances, usually around the sharing of forklifts or pallet jacks.
And so it’s a sanctuary from the world outside, too. People are kind to each other, maybe because of their mutual tacit acknowledgement that no one ever dreamed of ending up here. Bruno misses his life as a trucker; Christian has some bad-seed friends he’s trying to avoid; and the fair maid Marion’s home life may not be idyllic. In their undemonstrative way, everyone seems to be rooting for the relationship in their midst to blossom, offering counsel to Christian like he’s the lonely Prince and they’re the talking forest creatures in a magic Disney kingdom.
DP Peter Matjasko’s visuals are pleasant and clean-lined: He makes great use of droll symmetry and the vanishing-point perspective of those long corridors of merchandise. And though it’s largely confined to this windowless barn of a building (a palm tree poster in the break room is either comforting or taunting the employees with its image of daylight) just before vitamin D deficiency kicks in, we visit Christian’s house, or join him on his bus ride home as he chats to the same driver every day. And in one nice sequence the camera floats up off the shop floor, looking down over the aisles, into Rudi’s cluttered office and the ceiling-less cigarette kiosk, from the vantage point of God, or an angel, or maybe just a guy being hoisted by a forklift.
A few incongruous sound cues, such as the rushing of the ocean, give the bittersweet confection the tiniest sparkle of the surreal. But mostly Stuber is content to follow the straight, uncomplicated lines of a burgeoning love affair (though even this tentative a romance is not without its moments of stalkerishness). He lands on a consoling, if hardly revolutionary conclusion: However unlovely and impersonal the conditions in which this modern world places us, we’ll find a way to fall in love, and so to transform them. We humans are funny like that.