Fans of foreign films will recognize the two lead actors in Thomas Stuber’s In the Aisles, a sweet fable of love blossoming in the break room of a Costco-like warehouse superstore. The infatuated are Franz Rogowski, most recently seen in the highly acclaimed Transit, as Christian, and Sandra Hüller, best known for her star-turning role in Toni Erdmann, as Marion. She works in the Sweets & Desserts section, and he’s recently been hired on in Beverages, as a night-shift stock boy. As Christian learns the ropes (and learns how to drive a forklift), he develops a crush on Marion that, even if his shyness keeps him from making any grand gestures, is obvious to all their co-workers.
Based on a short story by Clemens Meyer (who adapted the screenplay as well), In the Aisles appropriately has the feel of a snapshot, a brief glimpse into an environment where several disparate lives intersect, a group of hourly employees without much in common except their shift schedules. Christian is the newbie on the floor (as Marion affectionately calls him), his training serving as a vehicle to explore the people and politics of the warehouse. Everything that he needs to learn, from that forklift to where to sneak in a smoke on your 15-minute break, we learn, too. Christian’s colleague Bruno (Peter Kurth) is our main conduit into the inner workings of this mini-society, ensuring the new hire knows what to expect, where to find what he needs and how to get by in his new role.
The narrative arc of In the Aisles doesn’t go much further than that; there’s no major crisis, nothing that inserts itself to wreak havoc on the store or its employees. Instead, Stuber trains his camera on the humanity of his characters, allowing the “action” to be the reveals and discoveries that bubble up as we get to know Christian, Marion, Bruno and their co-workers better. He allows a bit of the light-hearted to sneak into the pair’s early interactions, as Marion is charming and quick with a flirtatious laugh. But all is not easy-go-lucky for the pair, as Marion’s personal life and Christian’s past threaten to puncture their happy little work bubble. It’s a beautifully rendered portrait of how a simple life, actually, is quite complex. Everyone has their story, a history that informs their place in the superstore ecosystem. The details revealed about Christian and Marion, in particular, serve to draw us closer to them, offering an understanding of their motivations and actions even as we question just what it is that draws them together.
It’s the strength of these two talented actors, their talent for infusing even the quietest moments with emotion and context, that keeps us rooting for them as we learn more about each of them. On paper, Christian probably has less than a handful of pages of dialogue, and yet Rogowski manages to make him a brooding, sensitive presence throughout the film. Marion, on her own journey that sees her inexplicably disappear from work for an extended period of time, is nevertheless a bright addition to any scene, Hüller mustering an optimism that, though clearly an effort, is never forced.
With just a handful of films behind him (several shorts and just two other features), In the Aisles marks Stuber’s highest profile production to date. The gentle, thoughtful pace is coupled with a creative score that emphasizes the film’s themes of escapism, simplicity and even a little fun; if anything, there’s a sense of hope that permeates the proceedings. Though no one would accuse the film of being a jolt of energy, it’s no snooze either. The film’s several layers hold one’s attention, from the chemistry between Christian and Marion to character developments both tragic and otherwise, making it a pleasant, contemplative observation of daily life.
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