You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Berlin Film Review: ‘My Brother’s Name is Robert and He is an Idiot’

Time is a flat circle, and narrative an even flatter one in Philip Gröning's richly lensed, roundly tedious exercise in philosophy and shock tactics.

Philip Gröning
Josef Mattes, Julia Zange, Urs Jucker

2 hours 53 minutes

“When I love, I don’t notice time,” the eponymous character muses an hour or so into “My Brother’s Name is Robert and He is an Idiot.” Even with two hours left to go in German provocateur Philip Gröning’s marathon of philosophical rumination, incestuous sexual tension and magic-hour nihilism, audiences are likely to understand the truth of this statement: 173 minutes pass in this film, and each one of them is likely to be noticed, felt and unloved. Following dysfunctional, disaffected teenage twins as they kill time — among other things — testing each other’s intellect and daring over the course of one scorching high-summer weekend, “Robert” begins merely ponderously before turning actively unpleasant at the halfway mark: When you’re almost grateful for a late bout of torture porn to break up the tedium, it doesn’t say much for the film’s ideas, however poetically expressed and visualized they may be.

A near-impossible sell internationally — without some drastic editing, at the very least — the film, unsurprisingly met with boos and copious walkouts at its Berlin press screening, comes as something of a disappointment from Gröning after 2013’s equally long, mannered but more emotionally compelling “The Police Officer’s Wife,” and even that was a polarizing arthouse puzzler. (A thistly anatomy of domestic abuse languorously divided into 59 chapters, “Wife” still plays like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” relative to Gröning’s latest.) The filmmaker who received universal acclaim and awards for 2005’s extraordinary monastic documentary “Into Great Silence,” meanwhile, is even harder to connect with this spiritless endurance test.

“Philosophy means working on truth,” lanky wastrel Robert (Josef Mattes) instructs his twin sister Elena (Julia Zange) near the beginning of the film, before confirming, “Are you ready to work on truth?” It’s a question that sounds more like a threat, and before the audience gets a chance to think it over, Gröning and co-writer Sabine Timoteo forge ahead with their dense, wordy tangle of philosophical discourse, drawn from sources including Plato and St. Augustine, and obsessively preoccupied with the concept of time — which is academically discussed and examined before the film’s own sense of chronology begins to stretch, warp and melt across its supposed 48-hour timeframe.

Popular on Variety

Robert is notionally helping Elena prepare for a high-school philosophy exam she is due to take on Monday, though his lines of inquiry and argument seem to be largely off-syllabus: “Real thinking is based on serenity,” he helpfully offers, before gassing on further about the impossibility of knowledge, the failure of time to exist in the present, and the entropy that increases with, you guessed it, time. Serenity is provided by the rolling sun-ripened farmland that sprawls around them like a vast wheat-and-wildflower picnic blanket, with only a modest gas station, to which the twins repeatedly return for beer and bathroom breaks, disrupting both the view and the woozy all-day study session.

Even these obdurately affected kids can’t stay on-topic when the topic is this cyclically dull, however, and so the conversation drifts to other, more intimate matters of sibling rivalry and, queasily, the romantic jealousies between them, which they wrestle out through a series of increasingly dangerous dares and bets — with Elena’s restless virginity on the bargaining block. If she loses it by the time she graduates, her brother gets to demand anything of her; if she doesn’t, he gets the car they share. Quite what’s in it for her is one of several questions viewers will, by this point, be too numbed to ask of Gröning’s film as it dives into a nightmarish abyss of ugly, impulsive violence, equal-opportunity sexual abuse and repeated listens of Elena’s favorite song by (who else?) Serge Gainsbourg. A hapless gas station clerk (Urs Jucker) is drawn into their fun and games as our good friend time ticks by ever so slowly.

If there’s an underlying message here regarding generational ennui and sexual liberation, Robert and Elena are too vaguely and vapidly drawn for their exploits to accrue any greater power or resonance than their airy, naive philosophical ramblings; with no backstory or social context to their relationship, their most climactically shocking acts are too coldly schematic to be greeted with much more of a shrug.

Let it be said that Gröning’s gifts as a pure formalist remain robust. As in his last three features, the helmer acts as his own director of photography, and “Robert” is rich in sensual, seasonally saturated widescreen compositions streaked in tones of maize, flame and blood, while the documentarian in Gröning yields some astonishing nature-based imagery: We invest more urgently in a grasshopper, viewed in exquisite closeup as it swims and extricates itself from a body of water, than in any of the notionally human action here. The film’s extravagant visual language may not especially illuminate or substantiate its opaque storytelling, but it keeps the eyes engaged when so much else in this enervating film compels either to droop or look away entirely.

Berlin Film Review: 'My Brother's Name is Robert and He is an Idiot'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 21, 2018. Running time: 173 MIN. (Original title: "Mein Bruder heißt Robert und ist ein Idiot")

Production: (Germany-France-Switzerland) A Philip Gröning Filmproduktion eK, Bavaria Pictures GmbH, L Films production in co-production with Bayerischer Rundfunk, WDR, ARTE, Ventura Films. (International sales: The Match Factory, Cologne.) Producers: Philip Gröning, Dr. Matthias Esche, Philipp Kreuzer, Emmanuel Schlumberger. Co-producers: Elda Guidinetti, Andres Pfaeffli.

Crew: Director, camera (color, widescreen): Philip Gröning. Screenplay: Gröning, Sabine Timoteo. Editors: Gröning, Hannes Bruun.

With: Josef Mattes, Julia Zange, Urs Jucker, Stefan Konarske, Zita Aretz. (German dialogue)

More Film

  • The Island

    ‘The Island,’ ‘Calamity,’ 'Piano Player' Highlight Cartoon Movie 2020 Lineup (EXCLUSIVE)

    BARCELONA – Rémi Chayé’s “Calamity, a Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary,” Anca Damian’s “The Island,” Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal’s “They Shot the Piano Player,” and Enrique Gato’s “Tad the Lost Explorer and the Curse of the Mummy” are among the sixty-six projects from twenty countries to be pitched at the 22nd Cartoon Movie, Europe’s [...]

  • Kirby Dick Amy Ziering

    'On The Record,' Russell Simmons #MeToo Doc, Charts Course to Sundance After Oprah Exit

    Update: A spokesperson for Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering says the filmmaking team will participate in print and broadcast interviews at the Sundance film festival. The accusers featured in the film are weighing press options at this time. Earlier, a spokesperson for the film “On The Record” confirmed to Variety that only photo calls would [...]

  • Ariel Winograd'TOD@S CAEN' film premiere, Los

    Viacom International Studios Signs First Look Deal with Ariel Winograd (EXCLUSIVE)

    MADRID  — Adding to a powerful and still growing talent roster, Viacom International Studios (VIS) has clinched a first-look deal with Argentine writer-director Ariel Winograd whose latest movie, “The Heist of the Century,” has just become one of the biggest Argentine openers in history. The multi-year pact takes in the development and production of not [...]

  • William Bogert Dead: 'Small Wonder' Actor

    William Bogert, Who Appeared in 'War Games,' 'Small Wonder,' Dies at 83

    TV, film and theater actor William Bogert, who appeared in a recurring role on 1980s sitcom “Small Wonder” and in films such as “War Games,” died Jan. 12 in New York. He was 83. On “Small Wonder,” which ran from 1985 to 1989, Bogert played Brandon Brindle, the Lawsons’ neighbor and Harriet’s father who became [...]

  • 1917 Movie

    Why '1917' Is the Last Film That Should Be Winning the Oscar (Column)

    There’s a feeling I always get at the end of a long Oscar night when the movie that won isn’t a terrible choice, but it’s the safe, blah, MOR predictable choice, the one that conforms to the dullest conventional wisdom about the kinds of movies Oscar voters prefer, because in the core of their being [...]

  • Civil Rights Drama 'Praying for Sheetrock'

    Civil Rights Drama 'Praying for Sheetrock' in the Works as Feature Film (EXCLUSIVE)

    Enderby Entertainment is developing a feature film based on Melissa Fay Greene’s civil rights drama “Praying for Sheetrock,” Variety has learned exclusively. The non-fiction book, published in 1991, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, Georgia Historical Society Bell Award and the ACLU National Civil [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content