It’s a widely held belief that the earliest composed texts by mankind were of administrative nature. Tablets in Cuneiform scripts as early of approximately 3200 BC are proof of a growing society’s need to account for its many businesses. The romantic drama at the core of German contemporary sci-fi I’m Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch) stems from a similar need. Alma (Maren Eggert), a researcher on these Cuneiform scriptures with the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, is pressured by her dean to engage in a romantic experiment with a humanoid robot that’s specifically programmed to compliment her in every regard. The aim is for her to write a report on the ethical and administrative implications of such a partnership between human and robot: should a society grant these new companions passports, the right to marry and conduct business?
It’s the impossibility of writing such a report without factoring in the most human aspects that director and co-screenwriter Maria Schrader is interested in. Alma herself tries to prove in her research that even the Cuneiform tablets contain fragments of poetry and art, suggesting that “society doesn’t live of bread alone.” It’s exactly the subtle and fleeting expressions of love and life that this film also tries to capture within the many novelties of artificial intelligence and coded awareness. By asking the question what makes a robot a robot, it of course also reflects on how we define our own humanity against the backdrop of a rapidly digitized world.
For regular moviegoers and sci-fi readers the subject matter seems familiar, and indeed I’m Your Man draws easy comparisons to classics like the Kubrick/Spielberg hybrid A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and more recent fare like Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and Charlie Brooker’s popular television series Black Mirror (2011 – ). It’s in the inquisitive depiction of romantic dynamics and the delicate exploration of femininity, masculinity and sexuality that I’m Your Man stands out. Maren Eggert should especially be credited here for her portrayal of Alma as a dedicated and independent professional that reluctantly opens up her life to the humanoid Tom.
Tom is perfect for Alma, maybe annoyingly so. He’s a tall, handsome and educated specimen, played by no less than Downtown Abbey hunk Dan Stevens. He makes the perfect breakfast eggs, recounts Rilke’s poetry down to the last letter and can crawl through vast online databases to inform himself on Alma’s research project. It’s this artificial perfection that grates with Alma, who doesn’t need a partner that bases his romantic gestures on statistical research. If she even wants a romantic relationship, she wants all of it; the friction and the intimacy, the risk and the comfort, the familiarity and the mystery.
What gradually does intrigue her is the mystery beyond Tom’s wiring, the absolutely unique ways her input is changing his output in unexpected patterns. This hints at complex ideas explored in media studies that technology doesn’t just impose itself on humanity, but that technology and humanity co-adapt each other in a sophisticated network of relations. The fact that I’m Your Man incorporates these grand ideas in such a delicate and delightful manner is testament to Schrader’s craft. Her film manages to accomplish what Alma has been trying to establish in her research. It carves out the space for a beating heart in a text essentially concerned with society and its future.
This review is from the 71st Berlinale Film Festival.