Ulrich Köhler’s Beginnings

Lennie Burmeister, Trine Dyrholm, and David Strieso in Ulrich Köhler’s 2002 debut feature film "Bungalow."
Grasshopper Film

The closing of movie theaters under COVID lockdown has forced us to look to the past. A steady stream of films made before the pandemic are still premiering on streaming services and VOD, but eventually that will stop. Judging from the viewing patterns I’ve observed on Letterboxd, a website where people list, rate, and write reviews of movies, the protests inspired by George Floyd’s death have ticked off a great interest in films by and about African Americans.

Americans’ viewing patterns used to be guided by the flow of Hollywood releases. The media took their cues from it. Usually, one “important” film took up almost all the oxygen, and it was almost always a high-profile English-language movie. Such films, like Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island” and Jon Stewart’s “Irresistible,” are still being released, but as a trickle rather than a flood. Netflix has become our national theater in place of chains like AMC and Regal. Thus, Gaspar Noé’s 2015 “Love” has suddenly found a large audience thanks to TikTok videos commenting on its hardcore sex scenes.

But this moment also allows distributors and streaming services to try and guide audiences toward films from the past that have been overlooked. In May, the Criterion Channel presented an ambitious selection of films by and about women. Grasshopper Film and the Cinema Guild last month released two Hong Sang-soo films that had gone undistributed in the US. After putting out German director Ulrich Köhler’s “In My Room” last year, Grasshopper has picked up his 2002 debut “Bungalow” to help light the fuse for its new streaming service, projectr.tv.

The director has only made five features, including one completed after “In My Room.” But he has a consistent aesthetic, with a rhythm based around ennui and negative space. His films don’t share their secrets with the audience. “Bungalow” presents the life of Paul (Lennie Burmeister), a young German man, during a few days spent AWOL from his duties as a soldier. He returns to his childhood family home, where his brother Max (David Strieso) lives with his Danish girlfriend Lene (Trine Dyrholm.) The film turns into a laid-back love triangle, where Paul becomes attracted to Lene and tries to get her to sleep with him.

Both “Bungalow” and “In My Room” are concerned with the nature of freedom. The actions of the characters in both films are pretty banal. “In My Room,” however, raises the stakes with a post-apocalyptic setting that’s never explained. In “Bungalow,” Paul’s rebellion has very clearly defined limits. He’s confined to the house. This film is dominated by a mood of aggressive banality. It plays like a teenager’s Tumblr or Pinterest page of “cool boredom.”

But Köhler has discussed how much work went into this apparent apathy. Describing the film as a “prevented road movie,” he has also said that it was very hard to find a house that looked ordinary on film and actors who could convincingly play everyday people.

Köhler’s style would in time become far more assured. “Bungalow” feels quite tentative. Its hang-out vibe requires an ability to express that rhythm with framing and editing. He wasn’t exactly there yet. Its stakes never loom particularly large. Paul wants to betray his brother and lives in danger of getting arrested by the German military police. The latter constricts his movements. But the mood is pleasant and low-key.

Only in the final scene does Köhler really show his capabilities as a director. Reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” and Abbas Kiarostami’s “Through the Olive Trees,” the film makes effective use of an extreme long shot, here one that stages an encounter among all three characters and the military police across a busy road. People are reduced to small dots, whose visibility keeps fading in and out of frame, but the shot is never hard to follow. The laid-back quality of “Bungalow” turns into a cosmic distance, where the future remains uncertain.

At best, “Bungalow” suggests that there’s something subversive about laziness. Rather than being motivated to “succeed,” Paul returns to childhood and spends his days lounging around. But the critique of militarism implied remains inchoate. The military police closing in during the final third plays mostly as a device to produce tension. Unfortunately, almost everything about “Bungalow” is half-formed. But it’s satisfying to have the opportunity to see a major director’s starting point.

BUNGALOW | Directed by Ulrich Köhler | Grasshopper Film | In German and Danish with English subtitles | Streaming through Film at Lincoln Center at grasshopperfilm.com and Projectr.tv.

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