My Brother’s Name Is Robert and He Is an Idiot review: a philosophical film that’s worth your time

There are several shades of Terrence Malick in Philip Gröning’s leisurely film about twins playing dangerous games, but that’s far from the only reason to watch.

Reviewed at the 2018 Berlinale Film Festival.


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Josef Mattes as Robert and Julia Zange as Elena in My Brother’s Name Is Robert and He Is an Idiot

Josef Mattes as Robert and Julia Zange as Elena in My Brother’s Name Is Robert and He Is an Idiot

Half an hour or so into the new film by Philip Gröning – the German director best known for the 2005 documentary Into Great Silence – I turned to S&S editor Nick James and whispered, “This is a bit like Les Enfants terribles remade by Terrence Malick.” And so it was, at least for the first couple of hours, and not only because its portrait of the intensely charged, troubled relationship between teenage twins Elena (Julia Zange) and Robert (Josef Mattes) is set largely in cornfields rippled by the wind, makes intriguing use of the different qualities of light throughout the day, and pays more than the usual amount of attention to flora and fauna (in this case grasshoppers are prioritised, though ants, wasps, the odd bird and a dead rabbit also get a look-in).

No, the Malick factor that had clinched it for me was the focus on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger: a long-time favourite of and influence on the Texan auteur, and here one of the primary topics of discussion between the twins, since Elena – who hopes to go to university, even though her brother failed to get accepted – needs to do some serious revision in philosophy before taking her own exam.

So the pair take themselves off for a couple of days to a field in the local farmlands north of the Bavarian Alps, there to buy and drink beer and cigarettes, from a nearby gas station they’ve been visiting for years, to swim in a lake, to ponder the nature and meaning of time, existence, identity, knowledge, happiness and so on, and to indulge in their private rites of togetherness: sometimes tender, sometimes violent, always edgy and tinged with a suspicion of and jealousy towards others. Aware that their paths may soon diverge, Elena frets that Robert has slept with her best friend, and bets she can seduce someone – probably at the gas station – before she has to sit her exam. Trouble, inevitably, is imminent.

My Brother’s Name Is Robert and He Is an Idiot (2018)

Not that Gröning is in any hurry to reach the tipping point. For all their volatility, for the first two hours the twins mainly loll about in the sun, with Robert in particular ruminating on Heidegger’s theories of time; seemingly unconcerned with plot development, Gröning focuses mainly on the relationship between these abstract ideas and their physical manifestation in the summery microcosmos that is the film’s setting. In this regard, it’s that rare thing: a genuinely philosophical movie, with all the strengths and flaws that can entail. Much of it feels indulgent, lacking in drive, even pretentious; moreover, the siblings are not the most sympathetic of movie characters. Still, notwithstanding the echoes of Cocteau and Malick, there is undoubtedly something different, fresh, even devil-may-care audacious about the first two thirds of the movie.

Then comes a surprise twist in the narrative – that moment when the twins’ unsettling games spiral out of control – and the film, ironically, becomes more predictable; leaving Malick’s universe (though Badlands sticks in the mind), we now enter the world of genre, and events take a more obvious course. (It’s that old story: if there’s a gun lying around somewhere, it must always be used.) Only an odd, deeply metaphorical coda brings the philosophy back into play.

Unsurprisingly, Gröning’s film proved divisive with the Berlinale press; neither fish nor fowl, and testing the patience of many with a running time of nearly three hours, it’s unlikely to travel far beyond the festival circuit. But anyone interested in a cinema that tries to wrestle with some of the big ontological and epistemological questions could do worse than give it a little time.

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