Berlinale Bloggers 2021
Beyond the Male Gaze

“I'm your man”, director Maria Schrader, with Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens
“I'm your man”, director Maria Schrader, with Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens | Photo (detail): © Christine Fenzl

In many films, female characters who conform to the male gaze reflect a society that has been teaching women to please for centuries. Maria Schrader unravels the regimen of the male gaze in her witty and astute film I'm Your Man.

By Regine Hader

At first, the synopsis of I'm Your Man (German title: Ich bin dein Mensch) sounds unsurprising: an ethics commission is to decide whether humanoids in Germany will soon be granted “human rights” and be allowed to marry. In an experiment, Alma (Maren Eggert) is to live together with the humanoid robot Tom (Dan Stevens). To ensure that the report turns out as positive as possible, a mysterious company programs Tom to be her ideal, adaptive relationship partner.

After at most the first fifteen minutes, however, one thing is clear: this film is great! In a beautiful, symmetrical establishing shot, the protagonist walks through the sand-coloured backdrop on Berlin's Museum Island in a beige trench coat. She blends in with the yellowish stone buildings and the fluting of the columns, briskly walking towards her place of work. A more convincing portrait of a determined archaeologist researching Persian cuneiform inscriptions from the fourth millennium BC is hard to find. Alma's home is a continuation of this sand-coloured scenery: here her clothes and hair blur with the sofa, which in turn disappears in front of the beige walls of her flat. Alma is like a chameleon, camouflaging herself in a beige Jil Sander collection. The stones she explores seem to extend to her life as a whole, to physically merge with her. But the scene in front of the museum only exposes its true wit through the subtle, animated aesthetic of the background, which looks just a little too fake, thus foreshadowing the theme of the film.

Rated: Siri Aesthetics

As the hoary sci-fi cliché of cold robots and warm, vulnerable humans would have it, Tom contrasts Alma's warm colour theme with shades of blue and black. When he arrives, he even appears to float through the flat. Precisely what is happening in the area of his knees harbours a declaration of love for gliding: the shiny black Rimowa suitcase. When this symbiotic combination of robot and design-classic sets itself in motion, one is reminded of chess pieces with a felt underside that move in a straight line across the lacquered board. One might prematurely wish to think of the suitcase as a cyborg-like extension of Tom's body, but would that not definitively declare him human?

Dan Stevens and the other humanoids copy so brilliantly the way robots reliably fall just slightly off when they imitate “naturalness” that they have well and truly earned the rating “Siri aesthetics”. We seldom get to see so much of our current actuality. Hints are hidden everywhere that the distinct categories, indicated by hackneyed contrasts of cold and warm, are obsolete. Although we have long since been living in a digitally permeated world in which de facto neither “analogue” nor “digital” exist any longer, we still cannot stop contrasting these simplistic categories. Schrader narrates this misconception masterfully and subtly.

She sets up the conflict over how Alma works in the museum lab particularly beautifully. Alma's method is to analyse scans of objects. But in her heart of hearts, she desperately wants to work on the originals. In order to get the necessary funding for research and travel, she even agrees to live with a humanoid as a partner. What is truly comical is that her scans feature the very same, somewhat too perfect, too animated, too flexible aesthetics as the background images of the Museum Island in front of which she first enters the museum.

Pleasing as impossibility

Although up to this point one thinks: “A creative film, but with little innovative reflection on the subject”, Schrader's feminist twist to the regimen of the male gaze takes us by surprise as soon as Tom comes to live with Alma. Already in the first few days it becomes clear that he neither wants nor can want anything. He is unable to discern or assess, but only seeks to please, and even here it is unclear whether he really feels like doing so.

At first, Alma is annoyed when Tom whispers to her, “Your eyes are like two mountain lakes I want to sink into,” or scatters rose-petals in the bathtub by candlelight because she “deserves” some time off. But then, being a real sweet-talker, he informs her that 93 percent of all women in Germany would like that!

For me, this is too much of the “pick me” cliché. In feminist discourse, “pick me” describes, among other things, the following equivalence: a woman is “cooler” or “more interesting” because she is “different from other women” – a perennial favourite from rap to Hollywood romance. So in this case, the protagonist belongs to the exciting 7 percent who do not dream of bubble baths. Of course, deviating from clichés is a good thing. But stylising the mass of “other women” either as un-cool horse-crazy girls, frustrated wives or, in this case, female wellness romantics in order to then distance oneself from them, is never without a pinch of misogyny. However, Alma, who in the following days provokes the robot and tests her power, plays neither with the “pick me” pattern nor with the “women want” cliché, so that even her adaptive robot partner no longer sabotages her with statistics and platitudes. Schrader ties in with the history of feminist science fiction by having her protagonist break the age-old patterns of a woman who desires to please and is determined to do so. How often have you seen women in mainstream, heterosexual love story films reject pleasing with complete self-assurance? The list seems rather short.

But Schrader also shows how quickly the dominance of the male gaze is re-established: It comes right back when Alma meets her ex-boyfriend – along with the capitalist negotiation of self-worth through desire and fertility described by the sociologist of love Eva Illouz.

In the end a cliché?

While Alma the scientist merges with her object of study at the beginning, by the end, having merged into sandstone, she is now no longer interested in her career or her subject. At least we don't see any more of it apart from an excessive, tear-drenched evening when she learns that another woman researcher is going to publish the same findings ahead of her. It is a pity that this refreshing film does end up smacking of “lonely career woman”, Alma realising her situation and even turning to her family.

Her report to the ethics commission, which concludes the film, begins with generalities along the lines of “humans are only lovable because of their faults – that's what distinguishes them from robots”. But then the film does contribute something astute to the debate: at the end, the protagonist does not resolutely advise against allowing marriage for humanoids because she sees a moral problem. She instead justifies her opposition by saying that human relationships would no longer work once people have become accustomed to pleasant relationships with a humanoid, but nevertheless believe that these relationships are not genuine. Maria Schrader plays with the audience in this way again and again. She makes us expect something cliché-laden – only to turn our expectations around at the last moment.

Overall, with I'm Your Man, despite the rather mediocre ending, the director has succeeded in making an impressive film that, far from the typical sci-fi aesthetics, comments on the original and the copy on a visual and intellectual level and manages to be funny and feminist at the same time. Kudos!