It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie as still as Thomas Stuber’s In den Gängen (In the Aisles), which tells the affecting story of Christian (Franz Rogowski), the new employee in a wholesale supermarket someplace in contemporary East Germany. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick used the Blue Danube waltz to depict the dance-like movement of spaceships in the midst of a vast nothingness. Stuber uses this music similarly, in the opening scene, depicting the “choreography”of a forklift in the store during the late shift. The enormous spaces, with the endless aisles, are another kind of cold, inhuman nothingness.

Christian is a meek man, silent to the point of catatonia – and Rogowski’s face is inscrutable. But there are signs of a mysterious inner life. The unexpectedly vivid tattoos covering his hands and neck. The rowdy old pals who look like the last people he’d hang out with. (They mock that he’s now turned “reputable.”) But mostly, in the way he responds to Marion (Sandra Hüller) from the confectionary department, the way he stares at her hairband after she misplaces it, the way he looks at her when they finally have a cup of coffee, his eyes travelling slowly – almost imperceptibly – from the badge on her chest to her ear piercings to the necklace that rests on her downy sweater. You could describe him as quietly intense. You could also call him creepy.

But the film is not exactly a romance. It’s a chronicle of blue-collar workers who seem to depend on each other for emotional sustenance. We rarely see anyone from outside these aisles. Christian finds a friend and father figure in Bruno (Peter Kurth), but he returns to an empty house, with the camera slowly tracking away — more distance! — from him as he sits there, doing nothing. There are plenty of laughs, but a deep sadness lurks underneath and seeps under your skin. I wonder now if the Blue Danube stretch was actually a nod to Kubrick’s film, for these lives are as tethered to this store as astronauts to their spaceship. Even Christian’s description of this… world sounds similar. “There was no daylight in the aisles.”

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“It started with a slight sense of foreboding,” says Etsuko (Kaho), looking at the sky from her balcony. Her colleague, Miyuki, no longer knows what a father is, or mother or sister or brother. She has no conception of “family.” The doctor in the Psychiatry department says it looks like a new virus is causing symptoms of amnesia, but the doctor at Surgery, Makabe (Masahiro Higashide), knows it’s something else. Heck, he is something else. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Yocho (Foreboding) is a companion piece to his Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha (Before We Vanish), which premiered at Cannes last year. These films only sound like alien-invasion thrillers, while they’re really low-key, what-if stories that just happen to be propelled by extraterrestrials. Both films are overlong, messy, but there’s a homegrown, low-budget charm that makes them appear more philosophical than your average Hollywood sci-fi mega-production. There’s no third-act trick to kill the aliens and save the earth! But there’s hope the genre will survive.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Yocho (Foreboding) is a companion piece to his Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha (Before We Vanish), which premiered at Cannes last year. These films only sound like alien-invasion thrillers, while they’re really low-key, what-if stories that just happen to be propelled by extraterrestrials.

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Four girls are dancing to synth pop. Suddenly, one of them stops. She seems to have heard a door open. Not the door – a door, as though in a parallel dimension. That’s the premise of Yui Kiyohara’s Watashitachi no Ie (Our House). The house this girl – Seri (Nodoka Kawanishi) – lives in with her mother is the same house that Toko (Mei Fujiwara) lives in with a woman she found on the ferry, a woman who has lost her memory. “Why did you bring me home?” the woman asks Toko. You think Toko misses her mother or sister, perhaps, or maybe she needs someone, anyone, to alleviate her loneliness. But Toko simply says, “Because you looked like you needed help.” The film doesn’t explain. There’s no psychology. There’s just event.

Did I mention that these two sets of women aren’t in the house at the same time? The door that Seri heard open was probably opened by Toko, but again, there are no explanations. It could be sci-fi. It could be magic realism. We just have to go with it, that somehow this house exists across two different timelines. What a pity, then, that this house is almost irrelevant to the story. Seri talks to a friend about watching fireworks in summer, talks to her mother about a birthday party. Toko chants children’s rhymes with her new friend. Even without the Big Idea about the house, these stories would have played out the same. Except towards the end, when, during a power cut, the two timelines intersect. But by then, it’s too little, too late.

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My last film at the Berlinale was Franz Osten’s Die Leuchte Asiens (The Light of Asia / Prem Sanyas), the first Indo-German co-production (the producers are Peter Ostermayer and Himansu Rai). The 98-minute silent film from 1925, which was part of the digitally restored Weimar cinema retrospective, is based on the epic poem The Light of Asia (1879), by Sir Edwin Arnold. After a slightly squirmy beginning – showcasing an India filled with “Hindoos,” oxen carts, snake charmers, dancing bears – the story lands in a Buddhist temple, where a monk begins to narrate to English tourists the story of the Buddha. As much as I enjoyed watching India of the 1920s, I must say I was equally entertained by the press notes. “This magnificent, monumental film is a combination of oriental fairytale and religious Passion Play, an early form of the Hindu cinema that would later become Bollywood. Embedded in a documentary travelogue, cinema makes an appearance alongside older, magical practices.” And this gem: “People no longer hope for enlightenment under the bodhi tree, but rather from a film projector.”

 

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