A conference about quantum physics in 1960s Switzerland plays host to this atmospheric noir debut

The Theory Of Everything

Source: Venice Film Festival

‘The Theory Of Everything’

Dir. Timm Koger. Germany/Austria/Switzerland 2023. 118mins

Style meets even more style in Timm Kroger’s dazzling noir exercise The Theory Of Everything, the German director’s anticipated feature debut after his graduation film The Council Of Birds premiered in Venice’s Critics Week in 2014. Promoted to the festival’s main Competition, the director fields a black-and-white Hitchockian multiverse time-meld which may overstay its welcome, leaving behind the sense of a highly talented visualist in search of a richer emotional canvas, but this discovery will be relished by connoisseurs of post-War paranoia and independent-minded distribution outlets alike. A thematic similarity to Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer – as well as the frame-melting nature of Nolan’s work – will do the film no harm in its search for audiences.

 It is not all heritage: there’s a slipperiness here that is quite Lynchian

While The Theory Of Everything exhales Hitchcock all over its plot and locations  (in particular 1938’s The Lady Vanishes) this is set in post-War Switzerland of 1961, giving it a Carol Reed air, even venturing into Le Carre terrain (say, 1965’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold). There are secret underground tunnels; a train trip through the Alps to a mysterious scientific conference about quantum physics; two professors, one with a Nazi-sympathising past; and bodies which seem to come and go – as well as a piano-playing femme fatale who knows more than she should. It is in so many ways a pastiche. But it is not all heritage: there’s a slipperiness here that is quite Lynchian.

Kroger, writing with Heino Deckert, plays with his style within a sprouting narrative framework. While it is always a delight to look at and experience, The Theory Of Everything does sacrifice characterisation, fielding a flavourless leading man who performs all the requisite flailing around after he stumbles into – or creates – a scenario which is far bigger than he realises. Jan Bulow plays that protagonist, Johannes Leinert, firstly as an addled author who appears on a chat show in Hamburg in 1974 to claim that his cult novel about ‘the multiverse’ really took place (a colour VHR tape soon gives way to black and white widescreen, as strings fire up and the horns start to sound). 

We are back in 1961, with Johannes saying goodbye to his mother and heading off to a mysterious conference in the Canton of the Grisons in Switzerland with his excessively-gruff tutor Dr Julius Strahten (Hans Zischler). En route, they are joined by the excessively-boozy Professor Henry Blomberg (Gottfried Breitfuss), a hail-fellow-well-met type who is immediately given a narrative red flag due to having assisted the Nazis during the wa,r and also because he seems to know more than he could possibly…know.  The professors have a mutual antipathy: Dr Strahten is overly impatient with his student’s work on quantum mechanics, while Professor Blomberg seems as if he might have a more sympathetic ear. A familiarity with Schrödinger’s Cat will come in handy for viewers.

Their hotel, when they arrive, is a connoisseur’s delight. There’s a crusty receptionist who needs to be bribed to offer up a room in direct tribute to The Lady Vanishes; a small bellboy given to blurting out ‘Heil Hitler!’; and a man with a scarred face – and that’s just the welcoming committee. Over on the piano is Karin (Olivia Ross). We know the name, because in 1974 Hamburg our hero Johannes Leinert is still looking for her.

As Karin enters the frame, she gives the first clue that all is not what it seems. Karin thinks she knows the future – or a version of it. And she seems subtly different every time we see her. Underground tunnels, which the young bellboy and his friend have discovered, could hold a key to what is going on, but pretty soon accidents start to happen on the ski slope and the bodies begin to mount.

With Karin a cypher, and Johannes a less than compelling presence – his attempts to prove his thesis come across as more irritating than urgent – the viewer must rely on the two old professors, two sinister detectives and a mounting tension between all the players as secrets are revealed. While the emotional heart is lacking, or at least under-performing the high specs on screen, The Theory Of Everything is not just a pastiche, but using the familiar to move an unexpectedly knotty scenario along.

Top credit is versatile lensing, by Roland Stuprich, but Jaan Anderegg’s editing is well-attuned to his director’s intent, and the music by Diego Ramos Rodriguez is a retro delight. Cosima Vellenzer design is well-executed, immediately transporting us back to a world where black and white were never as clear as they are here.

Production companies: Ma.Ja.De Fiction GBMH, The Barricades

International sales: Charades sales@charades.eu

Producers: Heino Deckert, Tina Borner, Viktoria Stolpe, Timm Kroger

Screenplay: Roderick Warich, Timm Kröger

Cinematography: Roland Stuprich

Production design: Cosima Vellenzer

Editing: Jann Anderegg

Music: Diego Ramos Rodriguez

Main cast: Jan Bulow, Olivia Ross, Hanns Zischler, Gottfried Breitfuss, Philippe Graber, David Bennent, Ladina Carla von Frisching, Imogen Kogge