Do you ever think about the narrative that governs your everyday life? You certainly will after watching the idiosyncratic German tragicomedy “The Ordinaries,” which fizzes with remake potential. For her debut feature, premiering in the main competition at Karlovy Vary, German director-writer Sophie Linnenbaum and her co-scripter Michael Fetter Nathansky create a high-concept, meta-cinema world that uses the process of filmmaking to deconstruct the power of the narratives and how they determine our thoughts and actions.
The basic idea for this world came early on to Linnenbaum, with the short “[Out of Fra]me” (2016), made while she attended Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf. She wondered what it must feel like to be outside the frame and not be seen, and that turned into the story of a lonely young man who finally finds the connections with a group of people with film defects such as “jumpcutters” or “wrongly cast.” She says, “These characters have stuck with me because they embody in such a simple way our mechanisms of exclusion.”
The Nuremberg-born, Berlin-based Linnenbaum came to film school as a mature directing student, after earning a diploma in psychology and working as a playwright. Her short fiction film “Pix” won the 2017 German Short Film Prize and her documentary “Stories of Dad” (2021) received several awards. She has also helmed episodes of several TV series. “The Ordinaries” is nominated for the 2022 New German Cinema Award at the Munich Film Festival where it will premiere just before Karlovy Vary. It also marks her graduation work. The Match Factory nabbed the international sales rights.
“The Ordinaries” centers on Paula (Fine Sendel), a simple Supporting Character, in a repressive three class-society, trying to prove that she deserves to be a Lead. She is at the top of her class at the Main Character School – but so far has failed in generating great emotional music. In search of a solution, she finds herself in the abyss of the cinematic world, on the fringes of the storyline and lost amongst the Outtakes.
They are many allegorical levels to the film, including a familiar “us vs. them,” but the so-called others are defined by filmic traits. Linnenbaum says: “Our society is a perpetuum mobile where the people above, need the people on the outskirts for economic exploitation. And they also always need the ones in between, those who hope to rise and fear to fall – they legitimize these toxic structures.”
The film’s diverse casting also speaks to Linnebaum’s point. She says: “Racism, sexism, classism, etc. are not accidental side effects of our society, but are the basis for mechanisms of exclusion and the exploitation that builds on them. In order to be part of the discourse and to co-determine the narratives, visibility is needed. This is what I believe, and this is what the film negotiates.”
The narrative’s three castes of character types are further defined by the film’s visual design, from costuming, lighting and framing to color vs. black-and-white. The Main Characters enjoy a bright, colorful world that seems perfect on the surface, but definitely contains shadows. Meanwhile, The Outtakes work as their dark mirror. Linnenbaum says: “It was important for us to find an appealing visual realization without aestheticizing their poverty. Between these two worlds we installed the buffer zone of our Supporting Characters.” Besides defining the different looks for the characters, Linnenbaum and her team – including production designers Josefine Lindner and Max Schönborn and costume designer Sophie Peters – worked intensively on how to visualize the boundaries between the three classes.
One of the film’s most enjoyable aspects are its loving references to movies from the golden age of Hollywood. Linnenbaum says: “To build a world that felt intuitively logical and fun, we tried to find images and narrative elements that felt like cultural common knowledge. So, the ‘amateur’ knowledge of what films should be like was sometimes even more important than any elaborate film knowledge. One aim was to try to make a film that works like a family film – enjoyable for film nerds and non-film nerds alike, and for adults and children.”
Linnenbaum is currently writing a series and scripting her next feature. She says: “I’m also looking forward to watching ‘The Ordinaries’ with an audience and hopefully be able to discuss how to change some storylines which are quite disturbing right now.”