TIFF21 REVIEW: Ich bin dein Mensch [I’m Your Man] [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 105 minutes
    Release Date: July 1st, 2021 (Germany) / September 24th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Majestic Filmverleih / Bleecker Street Media
    Director(s): Maria Schrader
    Writer(s): Jan Schomburg & Maria Schrader / Emma Braslavsky (short story Ich bin dein Mensch)

Your eyes are like two mountain lakes I could sink into.

Writer/director Maria Schrader‘s Ich bin dein Mensch [I’m Your Man] posits the question: What if Weird Science, but real? That’s not to say the conceit she and co-writer Jan Schomburg have created (from a short story by Emma Braslavsky) isn’t science fiction fantasy. I just mean that their romantic comedy isn’t saddled by the puerile male gaze of an 80s sex romp. It uses its skeptical lead character (Maren Eggert‘s ancient language specialist Alma) to confront the scenario she’s been coerced into entertaining for research grant opportunities and attempt to poke holes in its general thesis that humanoid robots could (and should) become authentic enough to be recognized as legal relationship partners. She’d write her scathing indictment right now if allowed, but the test-run unfortunately lasts three weeks.

Give credit to the company manufacturing these “dream” men and women because they do truly want their product to be more than just a sex toy. They’ve enlisted ten candidates for this trial who are experts in their respective fields to gather data and insight from legitimate sources. They don’t even seem to mind that Alma is so vehemently against the whole thing either (she’s the only person at her museum who doesn’t already have a spouse/partner and thus the only person who meets the criteria to help bring some much-needed resources in). If anything, they enjoy the challenge of changing her mind. Her handler (Sandra Hüller) simply hopes she’ll be open enough to judge the experience rather than her preconceptions. Tom (Dan Stevens) may just surprise her.

What’s so great about the premise is that it’s centered on an intellectual who (ulterior motive or not) works as hard as possible to sink this ship. Alma does her best to confuse Tom despite him being a supercomputer with the ability to memorize input and learn patterns that better suit his actions to her desires. It’s a rather charmingly hilarious endeavor too because it’s never an act. She doesn’t want rose petal-filled baths regardless of his data saying 93% of German women do. She doesn’t want to be late for work in order to enjoy the huge breakfast spread he has made during the night. She also doesn’t want people to think she’s sleeping with this thing since confidentiality agreements demand she treat him like a human.

She’s not wrong either. Because even if he does truly make her happy, is happiness enough? For some it is. Some people might not even realize they’re unhappy until they find that person who reminds them what happiness feels like again. But where do you draw the line? When does a computer fulfilling your wants as a rule without ever having any wants of its own become a drug instead of a companion? Just because Tom acknowledges that Alma being drunk when asking for sex means he shouldn’t comply doesn’t mean he’s somehow cognizant of consent. It just means he knows—from a thorough, pre-test questionnaire and psych evaluation—that she wouldn’t want to wake up the next morning having slept together. He will never possess actual autonomy.

I think Schrader is quite brilliant in realizing that the point isn’t therefore to win Alma over, but remind her about what matters in life. This isn’t a Turing test (although one does exist within to fantastic comedic effect). Tom is a mirror wherein she can conjure feelings she’s prevented herself from feeling, remember the moments when she felt them, and discover that she does want them back. The reasons go beyond companionship, though. They go beyond loneliness. Tom can approximate all those things by learning how to elicit each reaction, but it will never be the same. Alma can neither shut off that part of herself nor pretend it can be filled artificially. Love isn’t about what’s expected. It’s about the longing, uncertainty, and surprise.

She also doesn’t have to sign-off on the experience to admit she’s gained something. Her word won’t be the one to stop the company’s progress anyway. Tom might not be her idea of a husband, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t served a purpose. His knowledge causes ripples, saves lives, and rekindles a vulnerable spirit Alma has justifiably kept locked in a metal box on her bookshelf for quite some time. His presence also causes her to look beyond her own nose and understand that nothing she does is done on her own. She has a team of researchers just as dedicated to the work. She has friends and ex-lovers just as invested in her wellbeing. Tom doesn’t have to be a fix-all to help her regain balance.

He doesn’t even have to be perfect. It’s better that he’s not. There’s reason for this psychologically, but also comedically since Schrader would be remiss not to capitalize on the inherent humor of putting a machine that doesn’t understand human concepts into a world that doesn’t know how to explain them (“Why are Epic Fail videos funny?”). Stevens is a delight in the all-German role too (there’s a reason they cast a Brit) as he plays it just left of natural to become comfortable inside human interactions without his origins being forgotten. And he proves the perfect straight man foil to Eggert’s well-earned Silver Berlin Bear performance as Alma. Her gradual rejuvenation is authentically drawn and inspiring to remind us that joy and love’s potency come from within.

courtesy of TIFF

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