In The Aisles is the kind of film that lulls the viewer into a false sense of security. Opening with the sight of forklifts dancing around a wholesalers to the tune of “Blue Danube Waltz,” it gives off the impression that it will be merely a broad comedy about workplace frustrations, with a little bit of romance thrown in. Instead, the film deepens around the halfway point, treating the viewer to a rollercoaster of emotions that is remarkable in how smoothly it transitions between comedy and tragedy.
In the Aisles concerns Christian (Franz Rogowski), who has just been hired as the latest worker in a wholesaler. Covered entirely in dramatic tattoos, he has to totally cover them in order to start his work. This little detail speaks to his character as a whole: mostly quiet, but with many emotions bubbling up under the surface. He is put opposite Bruno (Peter Kurth) in the drinks section, an older ex-trucker who shows him the ropes. Along the next aisle, in the aptly named Sweet Goods section, is Marion (Sandra Hüller), with whom Christian falls instantly in love. From there it seems obvious where this comedy film will go — perhaps treating us to a German version of Adventureland that finds its bored characters finding love amongst a repetitive and slightly boring job — but it is merely a cover for the movie to go into far more interesting places.
In the Aisles as a comedy itself is very funny. Whether its getting to know the seemingly vast world of the warehouse (including “The Ocean,” which has real live fish all crammed together, or “Siberia,” which is where the frozen foods go) or the lessons in how to use forklift trucks, or how the rules can be bent ever so slightly, the film creates a coherent and recognisable world to mine its laughs from. Physical, minimum-wage labour is based upon repetition, and the film reflects this by constantly returning to the same gestures over and over again. Cultural staples such as the feierabendbier (beer after work) and the seemingly much-needed raucherpause (cigarette break) are stressed upon here, and are seen by the German characters as inalienable rights. We see it happen again and again, each time gaining something extra by its repetition. This seems to make it a particularly German comedy — like Toni Erdmann, also starring Sandra Hüller, it exhausts every part of its premise to achieve a maximalist effect. Also like Toni Erdmann, this eventually creates a strong sense of catharsis.
While the maddening machinations of bureaucracy are played for laughs, true emotions are repressed, with characters unable to say what is actually on their minds. Perhaps this makes it an allegory for German culture at large. Pertinent references to die wende (reunification) among older characters suggest a certain nostalgia for the GDR, something that is also embedded in the Sternberg beer (which used to be publicly owned by the government) that they stock. There is a sense that in this part of the world people stick together, but have trouble with forming real connections. Without forcing it, the subtext of the film suggests that it may be linked to wider social issues.
Nevertheless, even without these wider connections, In the Aisles simply works as a humanist drama full of small and touching interludes. For example, taking the almost empty bus home every night, Christian and the driver ask each other how their evenings were. Christian also steals food that they are supposed to throw out and gives it to Marion for her birthday. Although adding little to the plot, these moments help make In The Aisles feel deeply human. Additionally, supporting characters are not there simply to provide comic relief, but have deeply-felt characteristics of their own. One particularly heartbreaking subplot involving one of these characters helps to bring these themes into relief, making this an especially heartfelt drama. When we come to the final conclusion, it isn’t quite what traditional audiences trained on hundreds of romantic comedies may expect — instead it has far deeper aims, and a far more satisfying and profound end. Easily the best German film since Toni Erdmann.