German director Thomas Stuber seems to have dramatically upped his game since his very straight-faced, moody debut Teenage Angst, which featured at the Berlinale back in 2008. Now also acting as a co-writer alongside Clemens Meyer (a collaboration that has existed since 2015), Stuber is producing a type of film that is much more light-hearted, complex and funny: In the Aisles (In den Gängen).
It's fortunate that this comedy-drama is such a triumph too, because it gives excellent rising star Franz Rogowski (Victoria) a chance to redeem himself as a lead actor after his terrible involvement in Christian Petzold's rival Main Competition entry Transit. Stuber's effort is indisputably the better film, and In the Aisles' wonderful world creation puts it up there as one of only maybe three to four films that actually deserve a shot at this year's Golden Bear.
This heart-warming world which Stuber so painstakingly creates is quite an unexpected one, though: he focuses on the weird and wonderful world of a German cash&carry, somewhere just off the autobahn in what used to be communist Eastern Germany. So the title "in the aisles" quite literally means scooting round a supermarket for an almost uninterrupted 125 minutes, and quite surprisingly the intense microcosm that this creates is rich with comical joys.
Like a sort of vaguely alien realm, our protagonists almost always work at night, giving the film a very odd subterranean quality. The store's harsh lights always radiate off the brightly coloured products, but they also cast sinister shadows. The colour schemes seem intensely German, constantly full of bright oranges, browns, muted blues and greys - but they're also always very carefully observed, consistently playing opposites off each other for very beautiful effect.
The concept of being in stuck in an aisle or groove also deeply informs Stuber's filmmaking. His settings are cluttered and claustrophobic, and almost every shot leads your eye off down towards a focal point - like the dreams and aspirations the characters seem to pin at the end of their humdrum lives. A mix of classical and contemporary music also works to give the characters' habitual movements a fantastically balletic quality at times, generating some great humour out of forklifts moving as though they were elegant dancers.
In the Aisles' universe is also full of funny feuds that seem hard for an outsider to understand, like the "gentle war" we're told is unfolding between Sweet Goods and Frozen Foods. And the inhabitants of this budget retail Mecca are full of wisdom and slang that would never be known in the outside world. To help us navigate this new terrain, we follow in the footsteps of Rogowski's character Christian, a gently lisping, very reserved newbie with a past, who is soon hilariously being bombarded with things you do and don't do in this strange new world.
The exchanges between Christian and his blokey mentor Bruno (Peter Kurth) are particularly brilliant, and in these early stages, it is almost as though In the Aisles is a German movie that has a Scandinavian heart. The jokes are so clipped, absurd and deadpan that it's difficult to not see gentle nods to Scandinavian filmmakers like Roy Andersson or Aki Kaurismäki. That said, there's also lots of great physical comedy in Stuber's latest, to the point where some of Rogowski's turns even seem almost Chaplin-esque.
The equally brilliant Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann) then soon emerges as a fiesty sparring partner, who keeps Rogowski on his toes even more. Filled with moxie, Hüller's character Marion is a delightfully unrestrained stacker of Sweet Goods, and she immediately puts Christian (or "freshling" as she teasingly calls him) through his flirtacious paces. Whilst clearly a case of love at first sight for Christian, their acquaintance soon blossoms into a mutually disarming romance that is not stylistically unlike last year's Golden Bear winner On Body and Soul.
These two strangers experience the most wonderful of frissons, and what makes it particularly intoxicating is just how cute their interactions are. The seemingly steet smart Christian can't even say more than one word in Marion's presence at first, and he's soon shuffling around, adorably preparing her a surprise birthday cake from the bins of food that has passed its sell-by date... Their combined acting pedigree definitely adds up to a rom-com type film that is rarely conventional, a repeatedly laugh-out-loud funny.
But genuinely, this isn't one of those mindless rom-com that someone will trick you into seeing when on a date at all. The intricately intertwining lives of Christian, Marion and Bruno produce some very serious themes as well as some wild belly laughs. By the end, In the Aisles has definitely taken you on a journey that is similar to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Toni Erdmann, two comedies that have real substance and are actually trying to do something pretty complex.
Within that bracket of comedy, In the Aisles is a wonderful exploration of how rich and meaningful life can be, even when we are stuck in some of the most ordinary of daily routines. It will break your heart - a few times - but it will definitely leave a smile on your face.