by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
This self-described Rom Com surprises with its wit, and its depth. The frothy wit with which it abounds is contrasted by flashes of tragic despair.
German written and acted, with subtitles, directed by Maria Schrader, it more than merits its many awards. The female lead, Maria Egert, won Best Acting Award in the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. At the 2021 German Film Awards, Egert was named Best Actress; the male lead, Dan Stevens, Best Male Actor; and Schrader, Best Director.
Egert plays the role of Alma, a career-focused archeologist, seeking evidence of poetic writing in ancient relics. In pursuit of funding for her research team, she reluctantly agrees to serve as a subject in another study, one that explores the feasibility of using humanoid robots programed to adaptively modify their behavior, as humans’ companions. She is to cohabit with a robot, Tom, for an extended period of time, and to evaluate the experience.
At a fanciful party where many of the attendees are holograms, Alma, while giddily brushing through hologramed guests, literally bumps into her proposed companion, whose appearance is that of an attractive young man. Tom invites Alma to dance, leading her in a hilariously extravagant tango, in the midst of which he begins to malfunction and is carried off for repairs.
Once Tom is refitted, Alma drives him and his baggage to her apartment. The drive is the occasion for an awkward conversation during which Tom assures Alma that he is programmed to modify his behavior in the light of her preferences. Alma makes it clear that the relationship is to be more formal than intimate. As he explores his new setting, Tom notes a painting that Alma says was a gift from a friend. As the story unfolds, the “friend” is the father of Alma’s still- born child. Tom also notes a photo of Alma as a youngster, radiating happiness as she sits next to a male companion, coincidentally also named Tom. Alma tells Tom that the delightful male companion of her youth drifted away from her long ago.
Tom, in the hope of helping, speed-reads all the literature on the topic Alma and her team is researching, and discovers that a competitor has already published proof of the thesis Alma was seeking to confirm. Crushed, in an alcoholic daze, Alma has sex with Tom.
She suffers a second blow, learning that the partner that had given her the painting and fathered the unsuccessful pregnancy, has married another woman who is now pregnant.
Tom tries to comfort Alma and she begins to feel drawn to him, but ultimately despairs, telling Tom, “I’m acting in a play. But there’s no audience. All the seats are empty. I’m only acting for myself. Even right now, I’m only talking to myself. It’s not a dialogue,” a rueful acknowledgement of the psychological truth that without the gap of otherness, real love cannot exist. This confession becomes the framework of a second confession that closes the film.
Alma tells Tom to return to his factory. When she learns that Tom has not returned there but has disappeared, Alma becomes concerned. Looking for him, she returns to the site where she had last seen her childhood companion. She finds her robot companion waiting for her. The film ends with Alma confessing anguished feelings of loss and loneliness to Tom.
The movie is available on Hulu, Amazon and Netflix.