Thanks to science fiction, we all have a basic grip on the theory of the multiverse: the idea that there are innumerable parallel worlds in which the chances and choices of the past – the roads not taken, whether by ourselves or the dinosaurs – have split off into alternative stories, endlessly bifurcating into other pasts, other futures that must be peopled, most provocatively, with other versions of ourselves. It is an idea that has proved rich pickings for comic-book adventures, where peril can come from any available universe and there is always a chance of confronting a doppelganger, but German director Timm Kröger has returned to the theory – which dates back to the 1950s – to explore how mysterious, sinister and terrifyingly vast a proposal it really is. This is a theory of everything where everything – that familiar word – is infinite. Where nothing, in fact, is ever going to be “everything.”
The Theory of Everything (Die Theorie von Allem) is set in the Swiss Alps in winter, a backdrop of silent whiteness that gives an immediate sense of another world. Johannes Leinert (Jan Bülow) has come from modest circumstances – a widowed mother, a small village – to work on a doctoral thesis with the unrelentingly severe Dr Julius Strathen (Hanns Zischler), despite his supervisor’s contempt for his central theory which he dismisses as “mere metaphysics.”
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When master and student travel together to a physics conference in Switzerland, Johannes finds an initially more sympathetic ear in Strathen’s old academic sparring partner Professor Blumberg (Gottfried Breitfuss), an affable drunk whose intellectual brilliance is overshadowed by his clumsy manners. More immediately attractive is Karin Honig (Olivia Ross), the hotel pianist. She seems to recognize him, even becoming angry with him for sins he can’t remember committing; when she lets down her guard, she tells him she knows things about his future – that he will become a doctor, that he will marry the girl next door – that he can’t know and that this is the particular gift she has.
When Blumberg is found dead in the snow, two peculiar detectives arrive to investigate; everyone is a suspect and various parts of the mountain are closed to the conference delegates; there is a story that there are tunnels under the mountains and some evil business going on. Above ground, the physical world is erupting with random oddities. Strathen’s customary irritation is further inflamed when he gets a strange skin rash that soon spreads to other guests. Overhead, the clouds roll into tsunamis of vapor. There are other deaths. There are also, more bizarrely, reappearances. Is Blumberg really dead? Is anyone actually dead at all, ever?
Meanwhile, Johannes keeps having the vivid dream that has haunted him for years, in which he and his mother are trapped in a bomb shelter. It is a scene that will be replayed differently when he eventually finds his way into the secret spaces under the mountains, where hatchet-faced men are indeed working on some experiment that creates explosions fissuring time in some way that neither Johannes nor we will understand. Karin is there too, seen intermittently in the flash of the explosions. And then she isn’t.
The Theory of Everything is peppered with names familiar to anyone who recently saw Oppenheimer – Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg – and Johannes is surrounded by piles of notes covered in equations; it is almost as if we are watching Oppenheimer’s world from a reverse angle, where the intellectual strivings of quantum physics are stripped of any sense of purpose to become murky and malevolent, more Dr Caligari than Albert Einstein. Kroger says he wanted Johannes’ calculations to look convincing, but that there is no direct theoretical basis for the idea that anyone can move between parallel worlds; it is the metaphorical potential of those worlds’ existence that matters. There are no calculations on blackboards to baffle us, no discussions of theory that are beyond the ordinary person’s reach and are thus intended only to show us that these people are much cleverer than we are.
The mystery beneath the mountains is never solved, because this universe – all these universes – are in perpetual chaos. As a film about the fears that have underscored the 20th century, it is appropriate that its spirit seems drawn from directly from German Expressionism, with all its suggestions of the horrors soon to come.
The Theory of Everything actually has elements of everything, cinematically speaking. Kröger himself refers in his director’s notes to “its rather idiosyncratic texture poised somewhere between The Magic Mountain, Erich Kästner, Hitchcock and Tarkovsky,” but anyone watching it might catch a glimpse of French Nouvelle Vague, the jagged camera angles and deep contrasts of light and shadow of film noir, as well as the German skiing films that promoted the idea of adventure in the open air. There are moments when Kroger and his cinematographer Roland Stuprich pull back to show a row of mountains and the valley below it, the scene playing out between characters seen as black dots, in shots immediately reminiscent of black and white Alpine postcards still sold as nostalgic souvenirs.
Long tracking shots showing the alpine hotel’s public rooms through an invisible fourth wall recall scenes from ‘50s studio films, the exact references hovering just beyond the reach of memory. A sudden explosion of the image into abstract whirls and swirls could be a slice of ‘60s psychedelia. This is pastiche elevated to become a story in itself: it is a visual multiverse, where we see a bundle of disparate pictorial histories of the last century playing out simultaneously.
Just as powerfully evocative as this sweep of imagery, however, is the music. Loud, lush and almost constantly surging beside – as opposed to behind – the story, the score by Diego Ramos Rodriguez recalls and quotes classical film music while amplifying it – both literally and figuratively – to become another parallel story, full of melodrama. For many viewers, this tide of sound will be unendurably wearing, if they have not already been exhausted by the story’s ellipses or its stylistic extremes. The Theory of Everything presents a world in itself, appropriately enough, that many people will not want to enter, in the same way that many of us really don’t want to put ourselves through a ride on the Mad Mouse. Another Marvel movie or the weird elusiveness of The Theory of Everything? It is a marvelous multiverse that can include both.
Title: The Theory of Everything (Die Theorie Von Allem)
Director: Timm Kröger
Screenwriters: Roderick Warich, Timm Kröger
Cast: Jan Bülow, Olivia Ross, Hanns Zischler, Gottfried Breitfuss, David Bennent, Philippe Graber
Running time: 1 hr 58 min
Sales Agent: Charades
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