In den Gängen

 (Thomas Stuber, Germany, 2018) 126 minutes


Director: Thomas Stuber
Producers: Jochen Laube, Fabian Maubach
Screenplay: Thomas Stuber,
  Clemens Meyer from his short story
Cinematography: Peter Matjasko
Editor: Kaya Inan
Music Supervisor: Milena Fessmann
Sandra Hüller (Marion Koch)
Franz Rogowski (Christian Gruvert)
Peter Kurth (Bruno)
Henning Peker (Wolfgang)
Matthias Brenner (Jürgen)
Gerdy Zint (Tino)
Ramona Kunze-Libnow (Irina)

Reviews and notes

2018 Berlin, Sydney, Galway, Wellington, Vukovar [Croatia], Athens, Napoli, Chicago, Stockholm

In the night-time world of an East German supermarket, forklifts glide, crates of alcohol are stacked, and shelves of gourmet foodstuffs are re-filled. Despite the grim climate of ‘re-unified’ Germany, where the economic imperative dictates that edible food must rot in bins, the workers find their own ways to carve out humane spaces. Rising German star Franz Rogowski (Transit) is immensely watchable, despite few words, as Christian, the new worker with a troubled past taking his first shift in the prestigious aisle of Beverages. Before long, he has fallen for a nearby worker from the Sweet Goods aisle. Sandra Hüller, whom many will recognise from Toni Erdmann, plays the object of his attention. Both shine, as do the surrounding support cast who hold their lonely realities with poignancy and humour. Peter Matjasko’s cinematography delicately captures the bizarreness of this surreal world, in all its magical and heart-breaking poetry. Director Thomas Stuber’s delightfully considered third feature fully immerses the viewer in this culturally specific folk tragedy which resonates with films like I, Daniel Blake, portraying the way people slip through the gaps in a capitalist world. It’s simple but deeply suspenseful, and as the screws turn in the plot, several heavy threats hang large.
- Jo Randerson, NZIFF 2018.

Sandra Hüller is the German actress who found world-cinema stardom on account of her performance in the black comedy Toni Erdmann; now she makes a very stylish appearance at the Berlin film festival in this utterly engrossing and richly humane workplace drama In the Aisles, from Thomas Stuber. Hüller is, of course, excellent. My only quarrel with the film is that she isn’t in it more.

Franz Rogowski (who was in Sebastian Schipper’s one-take robbery thriller Victoria) plays Christian, a quiet, watchful guy who has just started work in a gigantic cash-and-carry megastore. He mostly works the night-shifts, after the customers have gone home, wheeling motorised pallets and driving forklifts in the aisles, getting crates of food and other things down from shelves as high as buildings – difficult, potentially dangerous work. Christian keeps himself to himself, and is keen to cover up evidence of a more delinquent past: pulling up his collar and rolling down his sleeves so his tattoos don’t show. An older man has been tasked with showing Christian the ropes: this is the worldly, phlegmatic Bruno (Peter Kurth) for whom driving forklifts is a sad decline from his glory days at the wheel of a truck, relishing the freedom of the open road. And Hüller is Marion, who works on the confectionery section; as she drolly reminds everyone, she is in charge of “susswaren”: sweet stuff. She takes a distinct shine to Christian, and he to her. As Bruno says gleefully to Christian: “You’re forklifting like a lunatic because you’re in love!” But she won’t talk about her home life and her abusive husband.

In the Aisles is a movie on that overwhelmingly important but rarely filmed subject: work. We behave as if the workplace is somehow not real to us, and that hearth and home is where our authentic experience and identity are to be found. But is it the other way around?

The functional, unpersonalised area of office or factory or shopfloor is where many or most spend their days, and some people, perhaps particularly men, are not-so-secretly in love with the workplace as an arena of freedom, where the messy entanglements of domestic life can be left behind. And we can spend years, and decades, in intimate proximity with certain people, working alongside them, and yet not have the smallest idea what their home lives are like and what they are like when they are at home; and might moreover come to realise that we are an enigma to our co-workers and even ourselves.

The amusing and entertaining thing about In the Aisles is that it is, in its way, a love letter to the vast, mysterious and strangely beautiful cathedral that is the vast retail warehouse where Marion, Bruno and Christian work. There are upsets and quarrels but basically everyone is pretty happy there. It is especially beguiling when the lights are dimmed after closing time, and the manager puts on classical music to echo around the place. “Welcome to the night!” intones Bruno over the tannoy. The forklifts make a sublime ocean sound when they are slowly extended and retracted and Stuber shows us how the freezer cabinets in the basement emit an extraordinary bagpipe-whistling when they are all switched on. There is an even a bizarre and little-visited section where live fish are kept, waiting to be sold as “fresh”. It is huge and enigmatic, like a benign version of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

The film comes to a crunch when Christian leaves the confines of the store and breaches the ultimate taboo: someone else’s house. Marion’s, in fact. He is overwhelmed, not merely with love, but curiosity. What is she really like? It is a piercingly sad, strange scene. In the Aisles is a poignant and richly sympathetic film.
- Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 24 Feb 2018.

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