Marion and Christian, the will-they-or-won’t-they couple at the heart of the big-box store-set feature film “In the Aisles,” are like parallel-universe versions of Amy and Jonah in the NBC sitcom “Superstore.” Joke-free, German-speaking, art-house versions, that is.
Bleakly beautiful where “Superstore” is fluorescent-bright and garish, this quiet, sad yet surprisingly sweet little film centers on two night-shift workers in a Costco-like warehouse store in the former East Germany: Christian (the intense Franz Rogowski, fresh from “Transit”), a taciturn forklift trainee in the beverage department; and Marion (“Toni Erdmann’s” Sandra Hüller), a flirty and, as it turns out, unhappily married stock clerk in the candy section, here called “sweet goods.”
That departmental designation becomes the basis for her apt nickname, Sweet Goods Marion. She’s perky, with a powerfully disarming smile that effectively hides her deep pain, while hinting at her healing nature. Christian, on the other hand, is a tattooed ex-convict and almost pathologically shy introvert.
And yet their relationship, as tentative and odd as it is, somehow works. Nothing against the characters played by America Ferrera and Ben Feldman in “Superstore,” but you don’t just want Christian and Marion to get together; you feel like you know them. Maybe that you even are them, a little bit.
Much of “In the Aisles” isn’t really about these two, although their romantic tension gives the movie a momentum it needs. Shots of loading docks and empty parking lots, the Autobahn at night, employees eating discarded gourmet food out of dumpsters, and — more than anything — long, lonely vistas of desolate store aisles give “In the Aisles” a perverse visual loveliness, while also serving to slow down the narrative, at times, to a sleepy crawl.
Much more of the film is about Christian’s relationship with his mentor in beverages, Bruno (Peter Kurth of “Babylon Berlin”). There are some funny scenes, mainly during Christian’s academic classes for forklift certification, where he watches clips of a real — and hilariously bloody — safety film called “Forklift Driver Klaus.” But “In the Aisles” is hardly a comedy. The subtext of spousal abuse, coupled with a tragic fate that befalls one of the store’s workers, lends the film, by Thomas Stuber, a melancholy tone bordering on the morose.
Still, there is something ineffably uplifting — literally so — about this tale, which opens with the strains of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” waltz underscoring the choreography of forklifts gliding in an almost vacant store, as they lift and lower pallets of merchandise like dancers. Many reviewers have compared the mood of “In the Aisles” to the stories of Raymond Carver, and it’s not a bad analogy. Stuber, who wrote the screenplay with Clemens Meyer (based on Meyer’s short story), is adept at evoking both the ache of unanswered longing and the tiny promise of redemption that flickers still within the human spirit, even when crushed under the weight of soulless drudgery.
Unrated. At the Avalon. Contains some strong language, mature thematic material (including suicide), brief nudity and smoking. In German with subtitles. 125 minutes.