There is a strange beauty to it all: the geometry of the almost deserted aisles, the precarious stacks of beer crates, the discrete whoosh of electric pallet carriers zooming to and fro (to “The Blue Danube”, no less!), and all of it during the graveyard shift. In the half-dark, the superstore is less of an abomination that is part supermarket, part warehouse: it is a refuge for the assorted sad sacks and losers that work there, most likely because they wouldn’t find anything else. These are the outskirts of East Germany almost thirty years after Reunification, and the reality is drab and depressing – but at night, in the aisles, you may just find something you don’t have anywhere else: a home.
Clemens Meyer’s film In den Gängen (In the Aisles) is an odd beast: it sits somewhere between laconic tragicomedy reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch (though with the occasional flash of Coenesque wit) and social mood piece, the emphasis being on “mood”. There is a purgatorial quality to it all: these characters have been doing the same thing for a long time and they will probably continue doing it until they retire and/or die, and you only very rarely get any sense that they dream of anything better than what they have. Their high points are the impromptu Christmas parties looking out at the deserted parking lot and finding a pack of wieners just past their sell-by date in the bin and scarfing them down, which they do at the very same time as impressing on the new guy that stealing expired food from the bins is a fireable offense.
The new guy, Christian (Franz Rogowski, who was in the continuous-take festival hit Victoria), fits right in. He’s quiet, though when he speaks, his mumble is so close to an actual speech impediment that it’s obvious why he doesn’t speak more often. He is shy and he makes sure to cover up the extensive tattoos on his neck, shoulders and arms hinting at a bad-boy past with his blue work coat. If he didn’t work at the superstore, he would probably be hanging out with the wrong crowd, drinking too much and getting into trouble – not so much because that’s his natural disposition but because he’s not someone who seems to have much of a sense of direction himself. He’s a good, if somewhat slow, learner at work because he does what he’s told.
Marion (Sandra Hüller, of Toni Erdmann fame), however, is different, and Christian is quick to see this. She approaches Christian with a teasing flirtatiousness, a lively spark, and most of all a sense of existing beyond the dimly lit shelves. Christian isn’t the most expressive person, even in a place like this where nearly everyone exists somewhere on the continuum between terse and monosyllabic, but his workmates start remarking on his attraction: “You like her, don’t you?” – and, more emphatically, “Don’t hurt her.”
What follows is far from a traditional movie romance. Christian finds out that Marion is married and that her husband may not be treating her particularly well, but what exactly this means isn’t clear. He briefly falls back on his old ways, hanging out with the kind of old friends who really aren’t, getting drunk after work and turning up late the next day, but his heart isn’t in it. He later tries to visit Marion at home after her husband has left, and when she doesn’t open the door he breaks in and furtively roams through the house – which, too, seems to be him reverting to old, less than constructive patterns, as we later find out that he spent some time in prison for B&E. Christian isn’t well prepared for any kind of human interaction, let alone the complexities of romance – but in spite of his stalkerish missteps he is willing to learn and take his time.
Does Christian overcome all obstacles and do they end up together? The film ends long before this could ever happen, but it does show us that for all his slowness and inhibitions, and in spite of being more of a follower than a leader, he has a sense of determination. In a film whose joys and tragedies are largely small-scale and muted, it is a minor triumph when Christian passes his forklift operator exam, even if just barely, and there is an unexpected pleasure to see how, in whichever small ways possible, he grows beyond himself. In den Gängen is not the kind of film where Christian finally picks up Marion with his pallet carrier and they whoosh into the sunset at barely more than walking speed; it is a film of quiet sadness and modest triumphs, of dreams postponed and finally, more often than not, discarded with the expired wares. Nevertheless, it is full of affection for its bunch of sad sacks, finding humour and poetry in its material. In the end, if you listen closely, you may even hear the sound of ocean waves echoing down the aisles.