German film “In the Aisles”, which was released here in South Korea in last November but somehow eluded me around that time, is a dryly humorous human drama to be savored for the sweetness and poignancy behind its deadpan attitude. Although it may require some patience at first due to its slow, episodic narrative which initially seems to be going nowhere, the movie gradually engages us letting us get to know more about its main characters while observing them living through their mundane worktime day by day, and we find ourselves caring about them more than expected as getting some laughs from its small funny moments.
Mainly set in a big supermarket located in the middle of some remote area, the movie unfolds its story via the viewpoint of a lad named Christian (Franz Rogowski), who recently gets hired as a new employee and is assigned to work with a senior employee named Bruno (Peter Kurth). Although he is understandably awkward and clumsy as trying to get himself accustomed to many procedures and regulations, Christian is willing to learn more about his new job, and we see how Bruno calmly supervises Christian’s apprenticeship process with tactful patience and avuncular attention.
Although Christian does not talk much about himself to Bruno and other employees, we get to know a bit about Christian’s private life. While living alone in a small apartment, he does not seem to have many friends or acquaintances around him, and, considering many tattoos on his body, it looks like he once had a rather rough time in the past. Whenever he is about to begin to work, he always makes sure that his tattoos are hidden behind his clothes, and we come to sense his quiet need to restart his life as watching this moment again and again throughout the movie.
As Christian gets used to his new job bit by bit, we become immersed in his static work environment along with him, and the movie gives us a number of amusing moments as closely observing how Christian and other employees of the supermarket work from afternoon to late night. Whenever the supermarket is closed at early night after last customers leave, the mood becomes a little relaxed around the corners and aisles of the supermarket as classic pieces of music are played in the background, and the employees of the supermarket come to show their livelier side, while following their routine work schedule as usual.
In the meantime, Christian finds himself gradually attracted to an employee named Marion (Sandra Hüller), who works in a section right next to the one belonging to him and Bruno. It does not take much time for her to notice the attention from him, so she actively approaches to him at one point, and he subsequently responds to her approach in a hilariously modest way you have to see for yourself.
As Christian and Marion interact more and more with each other, it looks like they may move onto the next step for them, but Christian later comes to learn that she is married to some guy, and then he becomes more troubled after learning about how unhappy she has been in her marriage. Not knowing what to do with his problematic romantic situation, he gets himself drawn to his old way of life when Marion suddenly takes a break from her job with no particular reason, and Bruno is not so pleased about what is happening to his apprentice.
Later in the story, Bruno opens himself more to Christian, and he even invites Christian to his residence for their private drinking time. As he confides to Christian about how much he missed those good old days when he actively worked as a trucker, the deep melancholy and loneliness inside him feel palpable to us, and that is why we are shocked but not so surprised when he did something quite unexpected not long after that.
As leisurely moving from one episode to another, the screenplay by director Thomas Stuber and his co-writer Clemens Meyer phlegmatically moves back and forth between humor and pathos in a way reminiscent of the works of Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismäki, and I enjoyed its numerous deadpan moments shining with wit and insight. While I could not help but smile when “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II was drolly played during the opening scene, I was also amused by an uproariously gory education video shown around the middle of the film, and I was alternatively tickled and agitated as watching Christian’s initial attempts to operate a forklift.
The three main performers in the film are all engaging in their respective parts. Steadily sticking to his low-key appearance, Franz Rogowski, who will probably be more prominent thanks to his lead performance in Christian Petzold’s “Transit” (2018), deftly conveys to us his character’s awkward state of mind, and Sandra Hüller, who has been more familiar to us since her appearance in “Amour Fou” (2014) and “Toni Erdmann” (2016), and Peter Kurth are equally solid while ably functioning as the counterparts for Rogowski.
In conclusion, “In the Aisles”, which won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury award when it was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival early in last year, is packed with enough charm and interest for recommendation, and it sort of grows on me as I reflect more on its many good moments. In short, this is a little overlooked gem surely deserving more attention, and I urge you to check it out as soon as possible.