Alma (Maren Eggert), a scientist and researcher at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, is deep in a years long project on cuneiforms (an ancient script developed to write the Sumerian language) when a need for resources leads her to take part in another department’s own research project: for three weeks she must live with Tom (Dan Stevens) a humanoid robot programmed exclusively to bring her happiness and contentment.
The film opens in a bar, full of couples dancing and chatting merrily. It’s bustling, thriving even, and when Alma meets Tom for the first time, his smile is charming if not a tad too intense. As human as he appears to be, the natural awkwardness of humanity is forgone and instead he quotes poetry with an unnerving preciseness, oblivious to the discomfort that Alma clearly feels. It is only when he starts to malfunction, and Alma leaves, stepping from the warmth of the bar to a clinically white and polished building — it is all a set up, designed to relax but manages to invoke the opposite reaction.
Living alone, quite contently, and finding no desire to change her personal situation Alma initially resists any significant contact with Tom, banishing him to the “spare room” — a cupboard, repurposed — and refusing to engage with his flirting and attempts to create a relationship. For her, this is a purely symbiotic engagement: put up with a robot for just under a month and write a report, and in return receive funds in order to continue with a project that she has dedicated the past few years to.
Unlike other iterations of the robot/human relationship films that have proliferated our culture for the past few decades — Ex Machina, Black Mirror’s ‘Be Right Back’ episode, or even as far back as Fritz Lang’s Metropolitan — I’m Your Man doesn’t seek to examine the ethical concerns of robotic romantics, or even touch on the dark underbelly that threatens the narrative at times. Instead, the script by Jan Schomburg & Maria Schrader focuses on the emotional pull of relationships, and what it is that truly makes us human.
Tom is, as he reminds Alma during their initial meeting, programmed to respond to her own desires and wishes. When she asks him why he speaks with an English accent — the film is entirely in German, Stevens’ no doubt exaggerated accent only serves to deepen his ‘otherness’ — he replies that she is attracted to foreign men, but not too exotic, and that end result in his programmes English accent.
This passivity, the inability to anger easily, his eagerness to respond to Alma’s ever wish is what she constantly rails against; when she gets drunk, she demands why he won’t get angry or react to her drunkenness. He simply regards her with an unnerving calmness and asks if she “seeks friction in her relationships”. Alma is momentarily stunned. In a single look Eggert is able to portray so much in this examination of a complicated woman who both deserves and rejects happiness when it is presented to her without question.
The performances of the two leads are excellent, as wary distance gives way to a very real chemistry that manages to fool even Alma’s closest friends and family into believing that their relationship is a real one. Stevens’ robotic ticks, the slightly too wide smile that doesn’t fade and his sharp head tilts lead itself to the uncanny valley elements of Tom, but as their relationship develops a gentleness appears around the edges of his expressions, a tenderness towards Alma that builds despite her initial reluctance.
Tenderly and carefully observed, I’m Your Man is an examination of what it is to love – and how letting ourselves to be loved is ultimately, messily, and sometimes without reason, what makes us human.
I’m Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch) screened as part of the virtual edition of Berlinale Film Festival 2021.
by Rose Dymock
Rose is a film critic , who graduated from the University of Liverpool with an MRes in Film Studies. She loves thrillers, Al Pacino, and multilingual cinema and she’s not entirely sure if she’s a millennial.