Made For These Times: Ulrich Köhler on In My Room
Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room begins with what looks like a DCP glitch. The view is from a handheld news camera entering a press conference scrum, its operator confirming in voiceover that he’s rolling while roaming from lectern to lectern. Each time an official statement is delivered, the image cuts to the aftermath—the as-yet-unseen cameraman, Armin (Hans Löw), has confused the “off” and “on” switch, and the inadvertent B-roll he shot is unusable. All of Armin’s life is similarly shabbily disarrayed: At a club, he picks up a young lady and brings her home, but an ill-phrased refusal to let her use his toothbrush sends her packing. After being chewed out at work, Armin leaves the city, heading first for an uncomfortable visit to his dad’s, where his grandmother is dying. Morale attendantly flags, and eventually Armin finds himself posted up in a car down by the river, lightly beer-drinking himself to sleep while watching a riverboat of dancing revelers pass him by. When he wakes up, the boat drifts by again, but now there are no people—on it or anywhere else. Armin is slow to realize he’s entered a prototypical last man on earth scenario, but once he grasps the situation he gets desperate, grabs a Lamborghini, and—in a nerve-wracking POV shot—drives it into a tunnel littered with empty cars and animals in transport. He gets out and disappears into the darkness, literally without seeing any light at the end of the tunnel, forming an elegant natural dissolve to black.
In everyday life, Armin is a mess; faced with the end of humanity, he shapes up. When light is restored, Armin is dramatically trimmer and in control, managing an appropriated homestead crawling with livestock. Life is good but lonely—enter, inevitably, the other last person on earth, Kirsi (Elena Radonicich). They literally don’t speak the same language, which is also, potentially, a metaphor. In My Room mutates into an emotionally ambivalent inquiry about relationships: The inevitability of the pairing bears zero correlation to its desirability or sustainability—again, potentially a metaphor for all couplings. But In My Room maintains a level of inscrutability that resists attempts to break it down into a larger metaphor—it’s totally unpredictable, fluid and resistant to top-down theses. It’s also sneakily, inexplicably moving, extremely funny and a surprisingly lavish movie full of tangible production value, its vision of a literally posthuman future crowded with animals and baroquely overgrown spaces, such as a video store choked by greenery. Köhler’s fourth feature expands vastly on the ambitions of his previous films like Bungalow and Sleeping Sickness, its effervescent tone a galvanizing shock after its dourer, more grounded predecessors.
In the time since its 2018 Cannes’ Un Certain Regard premiere, Köhler’s completed another feature, A Voluntary Year, codirected with Henner Winckler, which just premiered at Locarno. I spoke with him at NYFF 2018, between the introduction and Q&A to his film. In My Room enters limited release on November 11 from Grasshopper Film, with VOD to follow.
Filmmaker: There are so many animals in the movie—pigs, the horse, the dog. Presumably, you’re not personally directing the animals, but were you worried about the temperaments of any of the animals or controlling for their performances?
Köhler: Apart from the dogs, we had no trained animals. We were shooting in a rural part of Germany and were lucky to find farmers and an animal veterinarian who worked for the government. She helped us do a lot of the stuff you see in the film. She was very good with goats and the chicken. Also, my main actor was a very good animal handler. He learns everything very quickly. In the preparation period, he was with us and started feeding the animals, milking the goats and so on. The most complicated thing was that we shot in August, and we wanted the birth scene of the goat. Goats normally get their children in the spring. I tried to get some goats inseminated in the preparation time, but all of those goats had their children too early. Just by luck, when we were training our actor for the milking scene, we found a farmer who had a goat that was probably going to give birth in the right period of time. It was really, really lucky that we have this scene in the film.
The relationship between the goat and the horse was very complicated. The horse really hated goats and pigs. One mistake we made was to prepare the goats in the barn for the horse at the beginning, because the horse really hated that place and was very aggressive. That’s how we got this beautiful scene at the end with the horse running away, because he really hated that place—his best friend was standing around the corner. But for the farmer, it was a very rough experience because the horse bit off his thumb. So, that was really tough. But I mean, I just met him recently. Everything’s fine. Well, basically.
Filmmaker: Pigs are said to be intelligent, but they’re also supposed to be super stubborn. Did you have any problem getting them to move?
Köhler: One of the pigs, the wild boar that you see in the background, grew up with the farmer, so it was really tame. I think it had never met other pigs. The ones you see on the bridge, that was more difficult because we were afraid they were going to run away through traffic, and we wouldn’t be able to catch them.
Filmmaker: At the beginning of the movie, after everyone has disappeared, Hans Löw walks through broad daylight. I don’t know how populated those places were, but how difficult was it for you to create a totally empty space during normal working hours? There’re all these cars. and they have to be placed in the right place.
Köhler: Well, we were in a German small town, which is already pretty dead during the daytime. It’s not a place that’s used to filming, so people were very helpful. We didn’t have much of a budget for digital effects, so we decided to do things for real. For example, we were very lucky that we found people who agreed not to mow their lawn for a couple of months and not cut bushes and so on. And we found places. For example, the vidéothèque, that’s a place that existed just the way you saw it. It was just crazy. This vidéothèque didn’t have many customers anymore; it was really rundown. They let the plants that grow on the house grow for 20 years, and that’s how it looked. So, it was a lot about searching and finding the right locations. I guess it was much more complicated than doing the same thing in the United States because Germany is crowded. It’s much more inhabitants per square mile than the States or Russia or Eastern Europe. I wanted to shoot [in Germany], but I also had to shoot there for funding reasons. So, that was also a bit difficult.
Filmmaker: Was there an amount of time you had to wait to shoot? It seems like Löw had to lose weight and get his body into different shape for the second part.
Köhler: The second part is in summer, the first part is in winter, but we shot it the other way around. He started by losing weight and doing a lot of sports, then he had to gain weight, which is the easier part. There were four or five months between the two parts, which was great. I loved that because the normal shooting process is that, halfway through shooting, you’re not well prepared anymore and start getting really stressed. This didn’t happen with this film. Also, I make very few films, so especially shooting the second part was really a pleasure for me because I still had the feeling of [being] a filmmaker, you know? Before that, I’ve done a film every five years, and when we start the casting process, I feel like I’m learning my profession again.
Filmmaker: When he’s in the river trying to build the generator and it seems like he might get knocked over, it looks really dangerous. I was stressing out just watching it.
Köhler: First shooting day, first take. It was very stressful, very cold. What I didn’t realize is, it was a very warm summer, but although I love swimming in rivers, I didn’t realize that these very small rivers are very cold even if it’s very hot because they are shaded all the time by the trees around them, and if they don’t travel through a lake or anything, they stay at 15 degrees Celsius. So, that was very tough, especially since he was very skinny and didn’t have any natural neoprene baby fat, like most of us do.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the first-person POV shot when he drives fast into the tunnel. It looks really dangerous. It doesn’t look like anything was cheated at all, there’re all of these cars, and it looks a bit like an obstacle course, because the person who’s driving is having to hit these very tight marks and not hit anything. And they have to not hit the horse. I’m assuming you can trust the driver to do that.
Köhler: I think it was more dangerous than the producers realized, and I was glad they didn’t realize it because he had to drive into that tunnel without lights on. It was a Lamborghini, so it was a fast car, and yeah, it was very dangerous. But Hans Löw is a really, really good driver, and he has good reactions. He used to be on the national team for handball, so he’s really a good sportsman. That’s why I wouldn’t do it with other actors. In Germany, one of the problems I’m having right now is that a lot of actors don’t have a driver’s license and don’t have a car. But in Hans’s case, we could use him as a stunt driver.
Filmmaker: That’s wild. How did you rehearse that?
Köhler: We couldn’t. We got like, half an hour to get to know that car. Where the tunnel is, we had like, six or eight hours. After that, day traffic started again, so we didn’t have time to rehearse it.
Filmmaker: How many times did you drive through there?
Köhler: I do a lot of takes, but in that case I was limited, so probably it was seven or eight times. I’m more of a 20-take guy.
Filmmaker: What do you use the 20 takes for? Is it to work on performance or getting different angles?
Köhler: No, no, 20 takes on the same shot. There’re different approaches to directing actors, but I believe that when things become more automatic, they become more authentic—dialogue, but also choreography. In my experience, it’s either one of the first takes or the 20th. The takes in between, when you start directing and changing and finding things, they’re a little bit clumsy, and at the end, take 20 is good again. On my first two films, I shot on 35, so with the budget I had, I couldn’t do 20 takes. I rehearsed a lot. But now I’m shooting very early, while I’m rehearsing. That’s what has changed from film to digital cameras.
Filmmaker: When you’re shooting, do you cut, or do you just keep rolling and do it over and over?
Köhler: No, no, I cut in the scene. Well, we had some driving scenes on the highway, where we were shooting in normal traffic and had to find a moment where there wasn’t any traffic or so few cars that we could digitally remove them. Scenes like that, especially for synchronizing sound, it’s complicated [when you keep rolling]. But I mean, it’s much less complicated than the problems John Cassavetes had when he was trying to get the sound of Faces together with 120 hours or whatever he had of 16mm. It all seems like a piece of cake compared to that.
Filmmaker: I also wanted to ask about the boat. He’s sitting in the car, the boat goes past, then he sees the boat drifting the next day. If you mess it up, you have to move the boat back a mile or something.
Köhler: Yeah, we only shot it twice because it took three hours for the boat to come back.
Filmmaker: So, you had to tow it back up river?
Köhler: No, it’s just [hard] to find a place where it could turn around and come back because the river’s small. The drifting boat was just a leftover of the rehearsal. We did some digital stuff on it, changed it. It was a real pain in the ass in postproduction and CG. We should’ve done it for real. But I couldn’t. Normally, I have a deal with a producer to do it for real, but, as things go, they asked to do it digitally, and it was much more work and more expensive to do it digitally. It was really complicated to get the right rhythm, the right size, all those problems that you have when you want to make something digital incredible. Our postproduction supervisor almost killed me on that shot because we had, I don’t know, 25 versions until I was happy.
Filmmaker: The people on the boat, did you work with them on the choreography? They’re dancing on different parts of the boat.
Köhler: I worked with them while the boat was on land. We had half an hour to rehearse, and we had a thing that repeated itself so they couldn’t fuck it up, because they had to be very precise in the timing. But there’s choreographies I’m happier with than that one.
Filmmaker: Why? It looks good.
Köhler: The day of shooting I wasn’t happy at all, but now I’m getting used to it. It also depends on the music. We found a really good song for that scene, so that helped. From my observation, [the dancers] were a little bit too lively. I really liked shooting the disco club scene because we shot it documentary style. I’m a control freak, normally. That’s why I like to shoot embedded, because then I can’t control these things. The club scene at the beginning of the film, that was in a real club. People paid less entry and agreed to be filmed, and we spent four hours in there following our protagonists and trying out different things. That was fun. The same with the demonstration—we knew that there was going to be a demonstration with a lot of participants against industrial agriculture and used that. I really like that type of work, although it only concerns a couple of scenes. I like to work with a very small team, so these occasions are really small—the cameraman, assistant and a sound guy and an actor. That’s my ideal, although I always end up with a team of 20, 25 people around me.
Filmmaker: The flip side is all those scenes where you have all these empty cars all over the place. I don’t know how obsessive you got about choosing which cars.
Köhler: We went to a junkyard, the cinematographer and I, and spent half a day figuring out where to place which car.
Filmmaker: Did you think about what cars people in that area would actually have?
Köhler: Well, since we spent a lot of time in the area, we know sociologically what’s happening there. That city doesn’t have a center anymore. It doesn’t have a city life because of the social interventions in the 1970s, so it’s really dead and people are not working there, they’re working elsewhere. Those staying there, they’re not working. So, there is a lot of poverty and some rich people on the hills.
Filmmaker: So, why did you use a clip of The Bridges of Madison County, which Kirsi watches?
Köhler: First of all, because it’s a guilty pleasure. I really like that movie.
Filmmaker: People take that movie very seriously in a way that they didn’t when it came out, and people who really love Clint Eastwood say this is one of his best movies. I’ve never seen it, so I don’t have any feelings about it.
Köhler: I mean, I never saw it again, but I think my favorite [Eastwood] film was Unforgiven. I really loved that. That’s when he started to be ironic about his male image, and I really liked that. I don’t know if it still holds up, but that was my favorite. But I mean, [Bridges is] a really touching movie and works in ways that I would never work. I mean, even in that small scene, as you see the rhythm of the shot/countershot editing and the acting and so on—it really is against all my principles. Or, I don’t know if I have principles, but all my instincts as a filmmaker. At the same time, I’m completely touched because Meryl Streep is so great. And it’s a story that is the contrary of the story I tell because it’s a classical story about the cowboy who leaves the widow alone and rides off into the sun after saving her, a Western story. Our film turned that around. And I really wanted a tearjerker, you know?
Filmmaker: There’s potential here for there to be some kind of incredibly precise allegory, but it doesn’t feel like it’s constructed to be allegorical when you start breaking down the film. There’s not a one to one metaphorical correspondence between all of these elements. But the possibility of allegory is unavoidable because it’s built into the parts.
Köhler: I mean, if you do a film with a strong setting like this, and you have Adam and Eve, automatically you get into that territory. But to be perfectly honest, of all the movies I’ve made, this is a movie I am aware leaves a lot of options to interpretation, and I am the least to know what it’s supposed to mean. When I was writing it, the death and life and death questions, and the last man on earth, and biblical references and so on—it seemed so wide that I knew that I was being kind of a megalomaniac. I try not to read too many critics, but I heard that some people were interpreting it as an ecological vision. That’s really not an interpretation I would like. That’s why the second character is also very important, because she has a completely different approach to the situation. The fact that she’s Italian and he’s German, that’s just a very long casting process, where I went from Scandinavia to Eastern Europe and ended up in Italy. The filmmaker is not as much in control of the meaning of what he’s doing as some people might think.
Filmmaker: When you were conceiving the script, did there have to be a reason that both of them end up speaking English?
Köhler: It was important for me that she’s not German. I really didn’t want the last two people on earth to be German. At the same time, I didn’t want [the other person] to be [from] too far away because then it would’ve had other connotations. If I had a woman from a village in the Congo or something, the cultural difference would’ve been very much in the center of attention. English is the common language in Europe, or in most of the world, for people who don’t share a mother tongue, so that seemed natural. I also like the way it reduces the dialogue to a very basic function. Both of them were not very good English speakers, but I like that. There’s ideological differences between them, but there’s also the language problem, too, very simply.
Filmmaker: They also get better at learning each other’s language as they go along.
Köhler: Yeah, she speaks some German and he speaks some Italian. In fact, she has German ancestors. We didn’t know that when we cast her, but she’s not really attached to her German heritage.
Filmmaker: At the very beginning of the movie, he’s screwing up, but it’s productive for the audience because it’s immediately disconcerting and therefore gets our attention. It’s a problem for him but an advantage for us and a good place to start. How did you think of that?
Köhler: Well, I’m a political junkie. I know everything about midterm elections in the United States or French or German elections. I’m very interested in parliamentary processes—it’s like my soap opera, in a way, my interest in politics. So, I always wanted to make a film that plays in the parliament, and I really adore [Frederick] Wiseman’s film about the parliament. I have a friend who messed up one of the most important moments in German politics, when the social democratic chancellor had to make an acceptance speech that he lost the election, and he did exactly that. That’s something that happens when you’re really in a very hectic situation. This also happened to me when I was shooting, and I think it happens to every cameraman at least once in a lifetime. It’s horrible. I think it makes conceptual sense also: that this character, who refuses the bourgeoisie lifestyle, he’s on when the others are off. You could say he’s on when the others have disappeared. For him, things are interesting that are not interesting for others. I also liked the idea of messing with [the audience]. When I did a test screening for the first time, the projectionist came running out and tried to stop the film because she thought there was some kind of mistake. I like that game. I think you have to do something to wake up the public at the beginning of the movie, even if you are doing a very slow film.
Filmmaker: The three parts are so distinct. The TIFF program copy for the festival and every other synopsis makes sure to tell viewers that there is going to be a last man on earth part, so it’s not actually a surprise. But it almost feels like they’re telling you that just in case anybody gets like bored during the first part. Did you think about giving him even more room at the beginning? How much is too much before you completely reset it?
Köhler: I don’t know. I really wanted to have a character [who] is very different from one part to the other. It’s a film made out of two parts, but the realistic first part needs some weight to accept the more genre/Robinson Crusoe part at the end. I think all my movies, when I write them, are “What if?” movies about myself or people I know. I’m not very inventive in what I offer. I always imagine that at a certain part of my life I would’ve taken a different path, and I see what happens. I was sure people would say it’s a film about a last man on earth, and then they would wait for 35 or 60 minutes before it happens. For me, he is also Robinson in the first part of the movie—he’s the last man on earth when people are still there. If the film doesn’t work without that element of surprise, then it doesn’t work and it’s a bad film.