Synopsis: Story of three supermarket workers whose lives intersect between the aisles of the store they work in.
Not every festival can deliver a TONI ERDMANN, one of the most hilarious and affecting Cannes offerings to come in a while, and IN THE AISLES certainly isn’t as insane, but it comes close to being this Berlinale’s most crowd-pleasing, heartwarming and touching films.
Clocking in at a bit over two hours, Thomas Stuber’s deceptively simple story about the lives of three supermarket workers delivers a fascinating examination of consumerism, capitalism, and loneliness in a way few German films have done. Taking place entirely behind the scenes and between the aisles of one of Germany’s largest superstores, Stuber goes beyond the expected and delivers a humane look at the people we see every day while shopping and never stop for once and wonder who they are.
Christian (Frank Rogowski) is an introvert worker who joins the superstore as his first job in the wholesale market. He is assigned to Bruno (Peter Kurth), a much more experienced worker who becomes responsible for training him. Soon, Christian meets Marion (Sandra Hüller) and a sweet one-sided love story ensues.
Thomas Stuber creates his most accessible and engaging film to date with IN THE AISLES, choosing what could have been a mundane, uneventful story and turns it into one of the most surprising films of the Berlinale. Deeply touching, intelligent and humorous, the film manages to say quite a lot without ever sounding on-the-nose, overlong or scattershot. Stuber creates a fascinating environment in the wholesale supermarket, one that works perfectly both as a metaphor for German society today and a natural lab where Stuber’s critiques of capitalism and consumerism are perfectly fitted.
More than a critique or an intellectual film, though, IN THE AISLES manages to be a deeply affecting look at isolation, loneliness, and love thanks to Stuber’s great eye to detail. Nothing in the film is wasted or random – and as the film goes by, the supermarket becomes a meticulously crafted stage whose characters are truly connecting with the audience rooting for them.
The choice of music, mise-en-scene, and editing help bring the film’s messages and narrative structure to great focus, weaving in several ideas in organic, subtle and convincing ways. Stuber smartly uses the comedy where it fits but is never afraid to go darker with the story. After an amusing, funny and heartwarming first half, Stuber goes much darker and bleaker in the film’s surprising second half, creating a saga of human emotions that take center stage at the superstore. The film’s three characters are expertly written, devoid of any clichés or stereotypes about supermarket workers who we pass by every day but never really know.
A high point of the film is its tremendous acting, particularly by Rogowski and Kurth. Rogowski proves he is a major emerging talent here and manages to give Christian the right vulnerability, mystery, and emotions. It’s a fantastic showcase of an actor whose skills are truly special: subtle, nuanced and deeply expressive without uttering so many words. Hüller is charming in her role that could have been expanded more and was perhaps contained to ensure the story’s pace, but the real surprise of the film is Peter Kurth who delivers a mesmerizing and award-worthy supporting turn as Bruno, the truck driver turned supermarket worker. Kurth embodies several complex emotions with great sincerity and vulnerability while also utilizing his equally impressive comedic and dramatic chops to deliver a very memorable character.
Verdict: Just when you think a film about supermarket workers can be light, boring or uneventful, IN THE AISLES will certainly change your mind. A touching, surprising and intelligent crowd-pleaser with great commercial and art-house prospects. One of the most surprising films of the Berlinale.