The Universal Theory (Die Theorie von Allem) seen for the Imagine Fantastic Film Festival 2023
It is Hamburg, 1974, and a man named Johannes Leinert (Jan Bülow) is a guest on a talk show. He is a failed physicist who never attained his doctorate, and now the author of a book called The Theory of Everything which the host (Dirk Böhling) insists is ‘science fiction’, a ‘novel’, a ‘most fantastic tale’, a ‘mysterious story’, and (mockingly adopting parlance of “the youth of today”), ‘psychedelic’ or ‘far out’, about a congress in the Alps, a conspiracy of mysterious men, “and of course there’s a woman too.” Nervously lighting up a cigarette, Johannes – distracted, dishevelled, intense – insists it is none of those things, but an autobiographical account of his encounter with the multiverse, and with “parallel worlds where things might have gone differently.” Met with laughter, Johannes walks off the set – but not before looking directly into the camera and saying, “Karin, if you’re watching this, wherever you are, contact me.”
This prologue to Timm Kröger’s The Universal Theory (Die Theorie von Allem) promises a story that will be hard to pin down – and one that will come heavily mediated, presented not only as a written memoir, or as a topic for televised conversation, or as an academic thesis, but eventually even as a film-within-a-film (adapted from Leinert’s book). These many layers of storytelling, each with their differences of representation and reception, replicate the disorienting effect of the multiple worlds which briefly came into collision before the eyes of a younger, confused Johannes, and which he has been obsessively trying to put back together again ever since, even at the risk of being barely present in his own world, and failing fully to live the life that is his actual, apportioned lot.
The prologue also promises a story that will look back – and sure enough, after this introduction in lurid Seventies reds and browns, most of the film will in fact flash back to a 1962 of elegantly expressionist monochrome chiaroscuro. The younger, more fresh-faced student Johannes travels with his supervisor Dr Strathen (Hanns Zischler) to a conference in the Canton of the Grisons, Switzerland – a conference that will in fact never take place, as the mysterious Iranian physicist due to give a supposedly groundbreaking paper there will fail to show up, while other, weirder events will see the congress ending early. Johannes has with him the draft of a radical thesis that he is convinced holds the key (a ‘universal waveform’) to a unified theory of everything, but the stuffily conservative Strathen strongly disapproves of Johannes’ ‘esoteric’ quantum leaps of the imagination, even as drunken old Professor Blumberg (Gottfried Breitfuss), playing Dionysus to Strathen’s Apollo, encourages Johannes’ wildly intuitive approach to scholarship. Caught between these two contrasting men of science, Johannes could go either way.
Much as the central tenets and formulae of Johannes’ thesis are based on a dream, the young man also has a recurring nightmare, which is also a childhood memory, in which, during a wartime air raid, his mother (Imogen Kogge) – or is it little Johannes himself? – gets buried in falling rubble. Back then, the previous generation of Strathen and Blumberg were themselves young physicists at the coalface, in a period when atomic assumptions where being exploded – and their very Germanness lends them a certain ambiguity given the geopolitics of the time. Were they working for the military apparatus of the Third Reich? Were they exiles from Nazism? Might they be Jews? Or anti-Semites? The screenplay of Kröger and co-writer Roderick Warich will eventually answer these questions, but not before it has got viewers asking them, and pondering the ‘what if’ of it all. For The Universal Theory invites us to contemplate counterfactuals, both the better (or worse) pasts and futures that haunt our otherwise linear history – and if it focuses on a brief few days during the early Sixties, it also ramifies backwards and forwards to a Holocaust which can allow no romantic happy ending.
If the snowy Alpine setting suggests Thomas Mann’s enigmatic novel The Magic Mountain (1924) or one of those Bergfilme popular in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s – and which launched the career of future Nazi propagandist Leni Riefentstahl – then there are also other influences at work here. For as Johannes keeps running into the hotel’s jazz pianist Karin Hönig (Olivia Ross), who seems both to recognise him as much as he does her, and to be privy, or at least half-privy, to his intimate secrets, there is something of Alain Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad (1961) to the mysterious proceedings, and even, in Johannes’ hairstyle, his shabby suit and his isolation amid a room’s shadows, a touch of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and even the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991) – with Johannes the blocked writer. Soon there will also be peculiar phenomena, disorienting déjà vus, noirish murders, devilish doppelgängers and underground epiphanies, with a hilariously hardboiled pair of local policemen (David Bennent and Philippe Graber) no less perplexed than Johannes by all the irrational goings-on.
Blumberg, who in his youth had an entanglement with Strathen over a woman they both loved, advises Johannes to put his scientific inspiration ahead of his amatory interests. In fact Johannes will be driven by his pursuit of dream girl Karin – a pursuit that will extend far beyond his short Swiss sojourn and dominate the rest of his miserable life. Elusive, slippery, treacherous, Karin is a classic femme fatale, and will be Johannes’ eventual, gradual undoing – but she is also a ghost of sorts, wafting between one world and the next, and bringing with her the hope of an alternative timeline. There is another spectre here, of Nazism and the Final Solution, casting their long shadow and leaving their scars of absence and emptiness across history, so that Johannes, and we with him, can only wistfully imagine the mirror world where they did not happen, and the true love that might have been possible there.
Like the subjunctive mood that comes to pervade the novelistic narration at the film’s end, The Universal Theory is ultimately a story of (lost) potential. A necessarily speculative intrigue, it guides its protagonist towards the very outer edge of quantum physics that happens to be the basis of his doomed studies, and reveals to him a glimpse of the paradoxical and the impossible, just beyond his grasp. Out of this, Kröger sends ripples of yearning and loss that transcend the known cosmos. With its retro stylings and backward-looking characters, this is a deeply elegiac film, where everyone and everything comes tinged with phantom regret. For this is like James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence (2014) or Gaurav Seth’s Entangled (2019), retold as uncannily melancholic melodrama in times past, with a protagonist who has become tragically alienated from his own self and universe. Beautiful and achingly sad, it is a true anomaly.
strap: Timm Kröger’s melodramatic, melancholic mystery finds noirish intrigue and tragic romance in an anomaly at the edge of postwar quantum physics
© Anton Bitel