Maria Schrader • Director of I’m Your Man
“There might be some kind of manual here on how to improve our relationships”
by Marta Bałaga
- BERLINALE 2021: Nobody's perfect? They are in this film starring Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens, but according to the German director, that's part of the problem
In Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man [+see also:
interview: Maria Schrader
film profile], playing in the Berlinale competition, Alma (Maren Eggert) gets to test Tom (Dan Stevens) for three weeks. He’s a humanoid robot who, she is told, is everything she has been dreaming of, and then some. His romantic gestures fall flat right away, but there is just something about him. And not just those blue eyes.
Cineuropa: In romantic comedies especially, there are certain ideas about what a perfect guy should be like, or a female protagonist. Did you want to exaggerate this?
Maria Schrader: Yes [laughs]. I remember when I heard about this short story [by Emma Braslavsky], and the only thing I heard was this: woman meets robot-man. It reminded me so much of this girl-meets-boy trope. My first thought was probably Ex Machina [+see also:
film profile], and that it would be interesting to change it – to have the man be the object. I realised that we are not used to it, to having such a beautiful guy treated this way. Alma would call him “this thing”, or say: “Show me your penis, if it's really made for me.” It's usually the other way around! Women are the objects, there to make you happy. It was so joyful to have Dan Stevens as a companion because that's also rare: a good-looking actor enjoying making a fool of himself. Actors – and I know this because I am one – don't want to lose face. But the moment you do, you feel free.
In Ex Machina, you immediately see that Alicia Vikander's Ava is a machine. Here, all the mechanisms are so well hidden that it's easy to forget this fact.
It is? That's interesting. Some people have told me that they never forget he is a robot, even though they start to like him. But maybe you do forget? I wouldn't be able to tell. Braslavsky's story was set in the future, when robots like Tom have this perfect human shape. They are already part of society; it's just about adjusting them to suit individual needs. What you see is Dan Stevens, and he says all the things we secretly wish our partner would say. Alma knows it's because he is programmed this way, but her resistance is mostly in her head. It's not because he looks like a machine. We are surrounded by algorithms: Alexa, all these tools that make our life more convenient and maybe lonelier, and he is a tool. A tool you will maybe be able to marry one day. But Alma has this old-fashioned concept of what love is, and maybe that's the last thing on Earth that comes to us by coincidence. Isn't that what makes us all equal, longing for something we can't buy? And yet another “expert” she meets has never experienced it with a human.
That scene is interesting. Stories like, say, The Stepford Wives are unequivocally negative about such concepts, but listening to this man makes you understand the point of it all.
We accept all kinds of love, fetishes, a bodybuilder marrying his sex doll. There shouldn't be any judgement – it's rather a question of how to define it. I love it when Alma says that she is not having a real dialogue with Tom, that the “theatre is empty”. My co-writer Jan Schomburg wrote it; otherwise, I wouldn't praise it that highly [laughs]. It's probably like this with Alexa. At the same time, you are right: we didn't want to have another fantasy about these creatures taking over. Tom is not driven by ambition or jealousy; he is pure attention. If Alma were to allow him and his kind to be introduced into our society, perhaps they would be better humans? Maybe these imperfections that we are so proud of will spell the end of us at some point?
He is clumsy, too: at the beginning, he says Rilke is his favourite poet – in Germany, that sounds like a joke. But I understand why she doesn't want to take him home: she is also fed these narratives that artificial intelligence might be dangerous. I noticed this interesting contradiction later on: she is against the whole concept, but she pays more attention to him than to anyone else. He is unpredictable – if he were a Tinder date, she would deal with him differently. So maybe we should give each other a different kind of attention? There might be some kind of manual here on how to improve our relationships.
She tells him right away what she doesn't like. We are rarely that honest, don't you think?
Or take Tom, when she says that he doesn't understand things. And he goes: It's very easy – you lost a child, you are probably too old to have another, you are afraid of loneliness. No human would ever put it like that, and he is not even angry! He just analyses the facts. That's one of my favourite scenes because then, it's so obvious that he's a machine. At the same time, it's almost too complicated to express why she is shocked by such bluntness. I love the simplicity of this set-up: just this pair and all these big questions. What's happiness? What's loneliness? And aren't we all lonely, all the time?
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