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Timm Kroger The Theory of Everything


The Universal Theory (Die Theorie Von Allem) | 2023 Venice Film Festival Review

The Universal Theory (Die Theorie Von Allem) | 2023 Venice Film Festival Review

Multiverse of Sadness: Kroger Captivates with Cryptic Cold War Sci-Fi Exploit

Timm Kroger The Theory of Everything ReviewAlthough it will invariably be confused with the 2014 Stephen Hawking biopic, Timm Kröger’s fascinating sophomore feature The Universal Theory (Die Theorie Von Allem) blends modern cinema’s excessive obsession with the notion of the multiverse into a gloomy, sci-fi neo noir. It’s also a fatalistic, overcast love story, reminiscent of everything from Solaris (1972) to Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime Je T’aime (1968), utilizing contemporary fascinations folded into vintage aesthetics. In the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023), Kröger’s film arrives as if from some fortuitous concentric time loop to revel in the ripple effects of the atomic bomb. Surviving shards of Nazism dispersed throughout the world, and some complicit survivors of the Third Reich discover a secretive radioactive tunnel in the Swiss Alps allowing them to travel through time. In essence, it might sound like something we’ve seen before, as the focus is a young student working on his doctoral thesis who finds himself reintroduced to the woman he loved from ‘another time, another place’ as he starts the first steps on an impactful destiny in quantum mechanics. Kröger doesn’t so much as get lost in the scientific theories his characters are obsessed with, instead focusing on a mood which slowly crystallizes in the direction of entropy.

In a Berlin television interview from 1974, Johannes Leinert (Jan Bulow) a scraggly writer, appears to speak about his well-received sci-fi novel, The Theory of Everything. Only he claims the novel isn’t fiction but fact regarding a sinister group of scientists lurking in the Swiss Alps engaged in time travel. The interview is abruptly cut short as makes a plea for someone named Karin to contact him. The film returns to twelve years earlier, finding Johannes as he prepares to travel with his doctoral advisor, Dr. Julius Strathen to the Swiss Alps in 1962 to attend a conference led by a mysterious Iranian physicist lecturing on quantum mechanics. Strathen is a terse, unamused sort who seems more than happy to eviscerate his student’s lofty dissertation on the possibilities of a multiverse. Johannes is somewhat indebted to Strathen, for if he does not succeed with his doctorate, his wealthy grandparents will refuse to financially assist him and his mother (Imogen Kogge). On the train to the conference, Srathen is irritated to be confronted by his jolly nemesis, Professor Blumberg (Gottfried Breitfuss), the both of them having been mentored by Heisenberg two decades prior. Blumberg seems immediately keen on supporting Johannes, confirming Strathen is nothing more than a workhorse blinded by meticulousness. Wandering into a nearby church one wintry night after arriving at the resort, Johannes runs into a beautiful woman, Karin (Olivia Ross), who he feels he already knows. Since she is the pianist working at the resort, he’s able to pursue questioning her, though she doesn’t seem very interested, disappearing whenever she is able to. But when Johannes sees Karin with Blumberg one day at the ski slopes, the latter turning up dead late the same day, he realizes something quite alarming is going on at the hotel.

The film’s opening moments feel a lot like Hitchcock’s early espionage thrillers, like The 39 Steps (1935) or Foreign Correspondent (1940) before it settles into a tone which most closely resembles Fritz Lang, particular his 1944 Ray Milland starrer The Ministry of Fear, but overdosed with Spielbergian transitional flourishes (not to mention a similarly befitting score from John Gurtier and Jan Miserre, who worked on Else Kremer and Levin Peter’s excellent documentary Space Dogs, 2019). Kroger owes much to DP Roland Sturpich (who lensed his 2014 debut The Council of Birds, concerning a 1929 music teacher with the same surname of Leinert), whose black and white cinematography perfectly evokes a sinister, strange shadowy thriller, the theme of which also recalls Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).

There’s a sense of claustrophobia exerted by the film’s repetitiveness, much of which takes place in the confines of the resort, where the ambiguity of femme fatale Karin is representative of either Johannes’ salvation or destruction. By the time he pieces together the fragmentary clues, some of which he’s ‘dreamed’ and others he discovers, Kröger leads us to the film’s more extravagant visuals, hidden beneath a secretive area of the resort (which sorta resembles the cabin in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall). Strathen and Blumberg appear as multiple versions of themselves a la Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (2007), while there’s a considerably astute channeling of the period’s tone, which recalls Hilary Brougher’s lo-fi The Sticky Fingers of Time (1997). Arguably, we’re never quite led into realizing why exactly Jan is drawn to Karin, but this adds to the narrative’s sinister possibilities. A gradual, slow burn, The Universal Theory is an alluring, resourceful piece of arthouse, sci-fi pulp.

Reviewed on September 2nd at the 2023 Venice Film Festival – In Competition. 118 Mins.

* Note: This was reviewed at the Venice Film Festival as “The Theory of Everything”. We’ve made changes to reflect the new film title.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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