Next Door | 2021 Berlin International Film Festival Review
Neighbor Labor: Brühl Gruels Through Interesting Scenario, Banal Characters in Debut
Gentrification is supposedly the thrust of Next Door, Daniel Brühl’s directorial debut which showcases the vulnerability of a narcissistic, self-consumed actor and a resentful man who has an axe to grind. Said axe makes more sense as an overarching metaphor than a logical dramatic, catalyst concerning this increasingly intense two-hander which starts off in menacing Pinteresque mode and then turns into a soap opera. But the script from Daniel Kehlman (You Should Have Left, 2020) has enough subtexts to make one curious as to where the chips will fall and evokes the uneasy spirit of gentrification as euphemism considering the cultural take over of East Berlin after the fall of the wall.
Daniel (Brühl), a successful actor, wakes up for a big day wherein he will fly to London to audition for a huge studio franchise film opportunity. Any real details about the project are secret, which drives him crazy (Vicky Krieps is one of several voices we hear on the phone politely trying to assuage him). His maid Conchita tends to his child while his wife sleeps in and he toddles off to await his flight in a local neighborhood bar he likes to frequent, where the pub owner seems sweet on him (though he doesn’t know her name). While basking in his glory as random clients recognize him, Bruno (Peter Kurth), an unimpressed patron, seems intensely familiar with Daniel’s work. An uncomfortable commiseration transpires and eventually it’s revealed Daniel’s on-screen persona isn’t the only thing Bruno knows about intimately.
We’ve seen Brühl in countless films playing a variety of characters, though often he’s showcased as a villain or at least morally reprehensible. One wonders what his directorial debut would have looked like had he removed himself from the more autobiographical elements of playing a notable actor living in Berlin by casting some lesser know persona with a sunnier disposition. From the initial frames, Daniel seems like a problem, so his callousness as regards the owner of his favorite watering hole, whose name and signature dish he knows nothing about, hardly seems surprising. Next Door needed the energy of someone who believes they’re actually a good person worthy of their acclaim, but as Daniel, Brühl seems painfully aware of what an asshole this man is.
Brühl injects subtlety where he can, a bi-lingual, multi-cultural character with a German-Spanish background straddling two worlds in more ways than one (not to mention, one of Brühl’s breakout roles was the 2003 indie hit Goodbye Lenin!—walls and divisions are in his wheelhouse). However, patience with both Daniel as a character and the increasingly Bunuellian scenario wears thin considering there aren’t any redeeming qualities, either as a human or monstrous ego.
Our sympathies for Peter Kurth’s Bruno are equally reserved considering his problematic sentiments on most matters not involving Daniel, and when secrets are revealed in the second act which waylay Daniel’s departure, Next Door ends up seeming ludicrous. There’s fun to be had with the absurdity of it all, but as a black comedy, Brühl’s film never lands because we never feel its bite since we don’t really care about its characters, and therefore can only glibly acknowledge the self-righteous messages about, yes, gentrification and social inequalities. But Berlin is certainly a city where gentrification has more disparaging connotations and yet Next Door doesn’t feel as dark as it should be thanks to Bruno’s actions—the lengths with which he goes to keep Daniel in his gleeful, vengeful thrall needs something more than just a resentful bystander nursing familial sorrows.
Neither the mentions of Bruno’s stint in Hohenschonhausen nor the problematic history of this prison prior to the fall of the Berlin feel more than red herring details (the ham in aspic ends up being creepier than Bruno’s past). Sure, this exposition helps explain the narrative mechanisms but something more personal needed to justify what eventually transpires. By the final act, it feels as if Brühl is simply dancing around the fire and not jumping right into it, which is exactly the kind of intensity which this day-long narrative requires.
Reviewed on March 2nd at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival – Main Competition. 92 Mins.