Overview: A young, mostly meek computer whiz named Benjamin (Tom Schilling) joins an ambitious group of amateur hackers who struggle to go above and beyond their usual pranks to be taken seriously both within the Darknet as well as in the real world…until things get dangerously out of hand in both realms. 2014; Sony Pictures Releasing (Germany); Screened at: Kino! Festival of German Films 2015 in NYC, on April 13th; 105 minutes.
“Foreign Mainstream”: Who Am I is an engaging, fast-paced thriller about cybercrime in modern-day Germany. It’s a twisty and tautly told story — non-linear, highly-stylized and therefore totally enthralling — and it was a huge commercial success in Germany. The film is artistic and innovative without being “art house.” Not that “art house” is a negative classification by any means, but I think what I loved most about this film is the way it fed into my personal fascination for “foreign mainstream” films; we don’t often get to see foreign films that are purely silly comedies or high octane action movies. Had it not been for the Kino! Festival of German Films here in New York City, I may never have gotten to see this film, at least not on a big screen. This film is fun, exciting and interesting; director Baran bo Odar makes a lot of really bold choices that pay off immensely, and that’s what really elevates this film above similar genre fare — from Hollywood or elsewhere.
Cyberspace as a Physical Place: One of these bold choices, and one of my favorite aspects of the film, was the frequent use of a highly-stylized, metaphorical visualization of cyberspace. Whenever Benjamin is talking about MRX, confronting him directly or even when he is introducing the audience to the Darknet through voiceover, we do not simply see images of Benjamin at the computer. Instead, we are sucked in one level deeper, surrounded suddenly by a world that is tangible and understandable, even if it does not truly exist outside of a computer. The Darknet is depicted as a seedy, dark U-Bahn. In expressionistic lighting, fast camera movements and jarring angles, we see anonymous bodies in various kinds of masks; we see text bubbles pop up to indicate what they have typed, their words read aloud in distorted, mechanical voices. The imagery is striking, creepy and effective. We seem to understand the Darknet in an essential way that we would not have otherwise.
Allusion, Illusion, and Action: Besides just the Darknet, the film seems to revel in blurring the lines between reality and illusion, particularly later in the film when things have gotten truly out of control. We also question the reliability of Benjamin as a narrator and protagonist, especially as we’re pummeled with an enthralling (if a little frustrating) double-twist near the film’s conclusion. Benjamin becomes a more complex, capable character than he seems to be at the beginning of the film (an arc portrayed impeccably by Schilling), and the decision to tell his story in a non-linear way (we hear him telling his tale to a cybercrime investigator, then see the events unfold) makes the whole thing feel like a cyber-noir, pulsating with subversive, adrenaline-filled angst. I also saw quite a few references and homages to Fight Club, some that seemed more overt and purposeful than others. The frenetic, rebellious energy of Who Am I was comparable to that of Fight Club, at least, and their views of society and sanity and identity were quite similar. Whether this would make American audiences more keen on seeing a German take on a fairly familiar, universally liked genre may not matter if this film doesn’t ever open here in the states. I can only hope it gets to Netflix eventually, because I do think this is a film that would appeal to nearly everyone — unless you have a strong aversion to a loud, techno heavy soundtrack, maybe.