Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.
Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) is one of the oddest films to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. A bleak comedy about the moral depths to which one lowly data entry office worker (Jack Lemmon) will descend in order to climb the corporate ladder, the film is a far cry from the populist Important Films that are so often associated with that most coveted of prizes in American filmmaking. Nevertheless, due to its pitch-perfect equipoise of cynicism and optimism, the film has endured, taking its rightful spot in the canon of great American motion pictures.
That said, it has rarely served as an urtext for other filmmakers in the manner of Wilder’s oft-imitated Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). No more: With his new film In the Aisles, German director Thomas Stuber has taken The Apartment’s unrequited workplace love story and painted its white collar blue. While not a direct remake, the inspiration is clear, and this new portrait of yearning and angst among the working class contains the same threads of comedic grace as its forbear.
In lieu of the condemnation of the American bootstrap myth in The Apartment, Stuber’s film is more interested in reconstruction and second chances — a reconfiguration logical to its Germanic setting. Christian (Franz Rogowski, star of another great SLIFF selection, Christian Petzold’s Transit) is a brooding ex-con who’s granted a fresh start as a beverage stocker in a Costco-like wholesale warehouse somewhere in rural Germany. He’s forced to wear long-sleeve shirts while on the clock, starting each day by strategically tugging at his clothing to hide the tattoos that are a symbol of his previous life. Throughout Aisles, the director uses rapid montages of Christian readying himself for work to depict the monotony of labor — a routine that, while soul-sucking for some, represents stability for Christian.
Christian’s curmudgeon ally and teammate, Bruno (Peter Kurth), notices his trainee’s lingering eye on the effusive and charming Marion (Sandra Hüller, lead of Toni Erdmann ), and fills him on her rocky marriage. Christian doesn’t necessarily heed that warning, presenting her with a vending machine brownie topped with a candle as a birthday surprise. Their attraction is palpable yet hushed, with clandestine meetings as deliberate as the film’s narrative and mood. Stuber lays out carefully placed breadcrumbs in revealing his characters’ motives and histories, similar to the way minute acts of personal disclosure gradually inform any worker of the inner lives of the strangers with which they’re obliged to co-exist.
The director is as interested in the ecosystem of the cavernous warehouse and its inhabitants as he is with the specifics of their narratives. Stuber glides his camera within and along the towering aisles, as the audience — like Christian — is given a tour of the space's nooks and crannies. These not only represent operational functions for the warehouse, but also reflect the personalities of the workers within them — such as the desserts and baked goods section “Sweet Marion” inhabits.
Tati-esque man-versus-machine scenes further detail the travails of warehouse work as Christian struggles with his forklift, evoking Sisyphus and his rock. This becomes a kind of existential struggle for him, paralleling his quest for meaning and human connection as the film moves into a more soulful and somber mood in its second half. The shift isn’t necessarily jarring, as the seeds for the transition are sown early in the film. That delicate balance of light and dark that Stuber endeavors to navigate could have caused In the Aisles to come crashing down like a pallet of boxes of wine. Instead, the feature is executed as gracefully as the mechanized balletic confidence exhibited by the film’s veteran forklift operator.
In the Aisles screens Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 2:10 p.m. and Friday, Nov. 9 at 12:30 p.m., both days at Plaza Frontenac Cinema.