The logline “man meets robot” evokes a litany of famous android romances — “Her,” “Stepford Wives” and “Bladerunner” among them — but, curiously, there are nowhere near enough featuring male robots. The Dan Stevens-fronted “I’m Your Man” (Ich bin dein Mensch) ably rights the balance while posing philosophical questions in a witty, modern rom-com.
The Berlin Film Festival competition entry, directed by Maria Schrader, turns on cynical anthropologist Alma (Maren Eggert) who, in order to raise funds for her research, agrees to a three-week study trial with a humanoid robot named Tom (Dan Stevens), who is designed to fulfil her every need. (And yes, that’s every need.)
The Letterbox Filmproduktion-made film, which is being shopped internationally by Beta Cinema, was shot after the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, from August through September. Schrader — a major acting talent in Germany who’s now familiar to international audiences as Lenora Rauch in the recently ended “Deutschland” series, and as the director of Netflix hit “Unorthodox” — notes that although the industry had geared up again in June, production still posed a “big risk.”
Understandably, there were nerves around the opening scene of “I’m Your Man,” set in a large, heaving club with around 80 people dancing and embracing. It’s here that Stevens’ comically stoic but instantly likeable Tom stuns Alma on the dance floor with an unforgettable foxtrot.
“We pushed [the scene] till the end of the shoot,” says Schrader, “but in the end, being there and seeing all these people celebrating life again — it was an unseen picture for us for so many months.”
Best known for star turns in ITV and PBS’s “Downton Abbey” and Fox’s “Legion” — and more recently as scene-stealing Alexander Lemtov in “Eurovision Song Contest” (“I’ve heard a lot of requests for a Lemtov spin-off,” he tells Variety) — British actor Stevens happens to be fluent in German after studying the language at school. The role marks his second foray performing in German since the 2008 film “Hilde.”
Stevens loosely styled Tom after old Hollywood actors Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart with a hint of screwball comedy antics. Eggert, who hadn’t met the star prior to the project, says Stevens was so convincing, she’d occasionally ask, “Okay, Dan, where are you?” in takes.
“It felt appropriate for it to be a foreign language because Tom is a foreign object in this world and he’s constantly learning,” says Stevens, who was handed the script last spring by his agents. “They said, ‘Look, this script has come in, you speak German, let us know what you think.’ I was entirely on my own, which is not usual,” he jokes.
“I thought it was the most beautiful fairytale. As an English person, it’s this delightfully German style, where you’re able to take on huge philosophical questions in this light, easy humorous way.”
Now based in Los Angeles, the actor flew to Germany for the shoot “in the thick of the pandemic,” but assures a strict set of protocols “allowed us to go forward and make this in an extraordinary way.”
“I’m Your Man” was inspired by the eponymous short story by Emma Braslavsky, whose “very simple, intriguing logline of ‘girl meets robot boy’ immediately started my fantasies,” explains Schrader.
Reflecting on AI-themed fare like the “Pygmalion” mythology of building the perfect woman, right through to Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” in which Alicia Vikander’s Ava outsmarts her human admirer, Schrader notes that “I’m Your Man,” unlike other entries in the arena, doesn’t trade in destruction.
“[Usually], man creates an artificial creature or servant and is then terrified that this creature might control or be better than himself, so it ends in destruction,” she explains. “We wanted to approach this very differently. Alma is a woman of our times, and she’s confronted with a perfect robot, which is the only futuristic element of our story. Dan and I decided on a playful tone and an almost classic romantic comedy set up.”
Writer Jan Schomburg adds, “We were really interested in what happens if an algorithm is perfect and can meet your desires — maybe even better than yourself.”
Stevens notes that the film is a “fantastic companion piece” to the interrogation many have been making of their own lives and relationships during the COVID-19 crisis. “It’s not a heavy piece by any means, and yet the questions it’s asking are huge. For me, it felt like a real 2020 piece to be doing. It felt right to be making it right now.”