A ferocious imagination and wild interpretation skills are required in order to enjoy The Universal Theory. The movie has more twists and turns than Lombard Street. Don’t feel guilty if you fall off the wagon a few times. I did a few times, and I wasn’t entirely convinced that I wanted to jump back on board at all. Timm Kröger’s sophomore feature sets out to toy with the many layers of reality, allowing viewers rearrange its fragments into something poetically engaging and intellectually stimulating. He uses Hitchcockian and noir devices in a mission to create something enrapturing and grandiose. It is not entirely successful.
The story takes place in the rural Grisons, a German-speaking Canton of Switzerland. The movie opens with scientist Johannes Leinert (Jan Bülow) trying to convince his guests on a television show during the a970s that his novel The Universal Theory is based on true events that he witnessed with his own eyes. He describes his experiences as “multiverse” (as opposed to “universe”), and the consequence a “wave-function” phenomenon caused by a radioactive substance. In metaphysical terms, this basically means that his reality is deeply fractured.
Rewind to 1962. The film switches to black and white. A more dishevelled, a little swivel-eyed version of Johannes, with a vague touch of mad scientist, and his supervisor Dr Strathen (Hanns Zischler) travel to a physics congress in the Swiss Alps in the hope to investigate a new quantum mechanics theory. At the event, Johannes comes up with his very own wild theory, but others are unimpressed. Only professor Blumberg (Gottfried Breitfuss) takes him seriously. The first spacetime travel takes place next inside some sort of elevator shaft, with a suggestion that this may be actually a consequence of alcoholic inebriation. The next day Blumberg is found dead with a large chunk of his face horrifically blown away. But panic not! This does not mean we have lost one of our protagonists, in a movie where death is as deceitful as a damaged condom.
A French-speaking seductive and mysterious woman called Karin (Olivia Ross) appears just out of the blue and strikes a conversation. She has a supernatural mind, and hence possesses a detailed knowledge of Johannes’s youth. The two become romantically involved, but she vanishes as quickly as she appeared, leaving the young man desperately attempting to be reunited with her. Ross has the enigmatic charm of Paula Beer, and the relationship between Karin and Johannes recalls that of Anna and Adrien in Francois Ozon’s Frantz (2016), with the languages and roles inverted. She too will drift in and out of the story as the metaphysically multilayers of reality continue to spin around vertiginously. Dead people and doppelgangers make regular appearances. They often travels through a wormhole, often disguised as a cave or underground tunnel.
The monochromatic, black and white photography has noir written all over it. You can almost make out Orson Welles’s elusive Harry Lime (from Carol Reed’s The Third Man, 1949) in the underground tunnel scenes. The wormhole (or spacetime tunnel, if you prefer) adds a touch of magic to the story, turning it into a vintage fantasy movie. The snow covered Alps infuse the it with a little romanticism, A ravishing feast for the eyes. The suspenseful instrumental score has a distinct taste of Bernard Hermann, who famously worked Hitchcock. Unfortunately, the flavours of the story per se are far less exquisite.
One of the problems with The Universal Theory is that narrative spin-offs begin just to early on, throwing the story into disarray, and making it unpleasantly disjointed. Characters lack the depth required to engage viewers. The film becomes overweening, and intoxicated by its presumed ability to enrapture viewers. What’s intended as cryptic instead slips into gratuitously ostentatious and incomprehensible storytelling. Thirty-eight-year-old German director Timm Kröger, who also co-wrote his film, first established himself as a cinematographer before becoming a filmmaker, and this clearly shows. He wanted to make a “universal” movie about “everything”. Instead, he created a hodgepodge of film references and obscure metaphysical lessons.
The Universal Theory shows in the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival.