You can tell that Timm Kroeger was a cinematographer before he was a director. The German filmmaker’s second feature, following 2014’s well-regarded The Council of Birds, is stunningly well shot, its lighting inventive, and the organisation of its images as deliberate as any film in competition for the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival. It deserves to be in the running for the top prize.
After a brief, unnerving prologue that implies some kind of cosmic error, we find ourselves in early-1960s West Germany, where longtime physics doctoral candidate Johannes Leinert (Jan Bülow) thinks he might have a breakthrough. But his straight-and-narrow supervisor Dr Strathen (Hanns Zischler) considers his edgy ideas misguided and tedious, and drags him along to a conference in Switzerland for a little inspiration.
On the journey they meet fellow attendee Professor Blumberg (Gottfried Breitfuss), an amiable but odd scientist who worked with Dr Strathen’s in Werner Heisenberg’s lab in Leipzig, where the Nazis had sought to build their own atomic bomb. For more than just their embarrassing resumes, it appears, Johannes’s teacher is keen to avoid Blumberg at all costs. Johannes minds him less, in large part because the former Nobel Prize nominee is genuinely interested in his new ideas.
When they arrive at the Alpine conference, Johannes has no room, a child working at reception does a Hitler salute, and it’s announced that the headline speaker can’t make it. Amid Kafkaesque proceedings in which little is learned or done, Johannes becomes besotted with jazz pianist Karin (Olivia Ross), who seems equally confused about her place at the lodge, and in the universe. She seems to know a little too much about Johannes and, as eerie cloud formations above suggest some kind of glitch in the chemistry, we learn that all is not as it seems.
The first act of The Theory of Everything is straightforward enough, but as its story becomes less and less grounded in the laws of physics we know, Kroeger does an excellent job to keep us onboard. In a society where asking difficult questions is still frowned upon, Leinert becomes a kind of private investigator seeking an explanation to a growing number of curious, and eventually fatal, happenings.
His mission is scored brilliantly by debutant film composer and violinist Diego Ramos Rodríguez, whose dramatically heightened, golden age of Hollywood-inspired music sounds most like a score by John Williams or Bernard Herrmann. Together with Kroeger’s quick pans and highly contrasted black-and-white photography of empty Alpine mountaintops, it adds an almost pulpy quality to Johannes’s tense adventure, his own search for a Lost Ark, Nazis similarly in tow.
But Johannes is no Indiana Jones, and The Theory of Everything is more like the nerdy parts of Oppenheimer, a meditation on what science can and can’t explain. And that’s just when it makes sense. The last half hour is a pretty baffling, albeit hugely impressive, exploration of just what might’ve been going on — and, by extension, what Kroeger’s movie is really about. By the end of The Theory of Everything its allegory isn’t exactly rocket science, but don’t be offended if you’re as confused as audiences at Venice have seemed to be. Theory can only take you so far.
This review is from the 2023 Venice Film Festival. There is no U.S. distributor at this time.