Many of us have, at one point or another, been stuck in a bar argument that went on a bit too long, that got a bit too hostile, with someone we didn’t know too well — and it’s rarely a memory to be treasured. Would it help if the guy at the other end of the beery debate was the handsome, accomplished, generally likable German-Spanish thespian Daniel Brühl? “Next Door,” in which Brühl puts a thinly disguised version of himself through the psychological wringer, suggests not. The actor’s slender, self-reflexive directorial debut transitions from a low-key meditation on the privileges and perils of stardom to a far-fetched stalker drama in the time it takes to down a few pints, all while rarely leaving the confines of one scruffy Berlin dive bar. Yet the film’s games of genre-shuffling and celebrity self-satire can’t override the essential tedium of its core conflict.
A lightweight selection in an otherwise predominantly solemn Berlinale competition, “Next Door” will doubtless prove a local crowdpleaser when the festival presents its physical edition in the summer. That should translate into healthy domestic box office in Germany, where Brühl is the kind of household name who can’t walk a block without being stopped for a selfie, as the film underlines in a wry running joke. Elsewhere, it’s harder to gauge what international distributors and audiences will make of a film that pivots not just on its director-star’s public persona, but on the brittle politics and evolving social structures of Berlin in the 30 years since the Wall came down.
That’s some highly specific baggage weighing down an otherwise airily confected diversion: Still, landing as it does ahead of his big-ticket franchise duties in “The King’s Man” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” it’s hard to begrudge Brühl this kind of personalized palate cleanser. Indeed, his recent Marvel exploits come in for repeated ribbing in the script by novelist and playwright Daniel Kehlmann (based on an idea by Brühl), which introduces us to slick, successful star “Daniel” as he heads to a London casting call for an inane-sounding superhero blockbuster. (It appears to be a reboot of “Darkman,” though paranoid producers are guarding the script as if it were the Ark of the Covenant.)
While gruffly rehearsing villainous lines for the casting call, Daniel breezes through a typical morning of a charmed life: breaking a light sweat at the gym, swanning around his spacious, glassily modern loft apartment in Berlin’s chic Prenzlauer Berg district, doting on his two kids before leaving them in the care of an obliging maid, and kissing his sleeping wife (“All Good” star Aenne Schwarz, underused but potent) before heading to the airport. In a buoyant mood, he refuses the early car that was sent for him, choosing instead to take a time-out at his local bar before making his own way to his flight. That turns out to be a mistake: Among the establishment’s few other patrons is Bruno (Peter Kurth), an embittered middle-aged neighbor with his sights set on ruining Daniel’s morning, and more besides.
What Daniel cockily refers to as his “Danny Boy charm” (an eager, laddish cheeriness that wins over industry folk and gawping passersby alike) meets a gray brick wall in Bruno — who lives in Daniel’s building, not that the actor has ever given him a second glance. A former East Berliner whose life has stalled while his city has thrived, he resentfully sees the actor as the living embodiment of German gentrification. Daniel, usually so lacquered and unflappable, appears genuinely unnerved to encounter a vocal non-fan; rather than shrugging it off, his insistence on picking this scab keeps him from leaving the growingly tense bar, throwing his schedule ever more perilously out of whack.
The longer they passive-aggressively snipe at each other, the more extensive and sinister Bruno’s takedown agenda turns out to be — though if we could just leave this wretched watering-hole, a sense of real-world danger might even sneak into proceedings. Kehlmann writes this chafing clash of egos with an ear for petty human offenses and defenses that might have played more effectively on the stage, where we could feel wholly consumed by this claustrophobic setting. As it is, even as Bruno’s nosiness tilts into outright sociopathy (thanks to Kurth’s dry, expertly modulated performance), it’s hard not to wonder why we — and Daniel — are spending so much time on him, when we all have places to be.
Brühl, for his part, directs proceedings with enough sleek, nippy aplomb to make you wonder what he could do with a less self-oriented, bigger-picture script: An oblique, eerie finale, in which a cameoing Vicky Krieps displaces Daniel in the very space he has hitherto occupied, is suddenly more intriguing than anything else in the film. By the end of “Next Door,” you sense Brühl growing a little weary of his own screen presence — the clearest suggestion in this odd, hall-of-mirrors curio that he and the film’s “Daniel” are not quite one and the same.