Reviews Short Narrative

Herr Herrmann Mann (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Lars Smekal

Writer: Lars Smekal

Cast: Lars Smekal, Lea Alina

Running time: 5mins

Considering he is the writer, director and star of Herr Herrmann Mann, Lars Smekal is surprisingly hard to track down. Beyond the paper trail left by various festivals his offbeat comedy has appeared at, and defunct IMDb and YouTube profiles, Smekal remains an international man of mystery.

This isn’t directly relevant to what I have to say about his film, but it certainly helps illustrate the lingering effects of its fleeting five-minute runtime. I don’t often put that much effort into researching a film before my write-up, the argument being the movie should be able to stand on its own. But every now and then, there is an exception, something so bafflingly weird that I need to know who made this, and why?

I am sure you don’t need an A-Level in German to know our protagonist’s name translates roughly as Mister Misterman Man – but this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the comedic oddness on display in this offbeat, aloof morality tale. As the film commences, we join Herrmann in the eye of the storm, his wife, Frau Frauke Mann (Lea Alina) unleashing a furious tirade of abuse upon him.

Alina makes the most of her brief time on screen – hurling abuse and household objects at the unblinking Smekal, whose indifference to her rage seems to only fan the flames. Herrmann is preparing to go running, the same as he does every day – and on this evidence, it seems clear what he is running from. The audience is invited to relate to his quiet determination to escape the clutches of his domineering spouse, who demands that he “take care” of her.

As the shell-suited Herrmann scuffs his way through the forest listening to Mozart on a Walkman, an uncredited narrator (probably Smekal again) tracks his movements, step by step. The pudgy Herrmann honestly does not seem to be in great shape for a man who allegedly jogs for several hours per day, something which is initially played for laughs, but gradually takes on a more ominous feeling as his disembodied companion also begins to unpack his life leading to this point.

It is at this point, the relationship between Herrmann and Frauke is fully explored, and we realise just why it is she is so angry at his distant demeanour. We also realise that we have sympathised with him wrongly assuming she is a selfish ogre when actually he has removed himself from her life at a time when she needed support. Herrmann’s running is motivated by a desire to escape a tragedy he finds himself unwilling to confront, and has seen him leave his bereaved life-partner to deal with those feelings alone.

At the same time, as we and Herrmann join the dots, we all come to realise at once that he has left it too late to address these issues. All we are left with is a tear-stained voicemail from Frauke, before the credits abruptly roll, leaving us alone with our thoughts. This time, Herrmann has run out on us.

What really baffled me about all this was what the film ended up being, considering the package it came in. We get a poignant cautionary tale about caring for each other, about recognising and confronting emotional trauma, and about making the most of the time we have to show our loved ones that we love them. But that comes from an inexplicable vignette about a schlubby fitness enthusiast who forgot a very important day at the worst possible moment.

Because of this, Smekal’s film has a bizarre cinematic cadence – it seems to be making sounds without ever truly understanding what it is doing, like one of those dogs on YouTube that has learned to say “I love you.” Much like Sam Elliot’s storyteller in The Big Lebowski, even the narrator does not seem to really know what is happening. Sure, he can give us the lowdown on Herrmann’s running habits, but as he does not set up the conclusion, it seems he is as oblivious to it as the fictional character he is telling us about.

Much like the archetypal Coen Brothers movie, Herr Herrmann Mann uses this veneer of performative incompetence to bamboozle us, before serving up storytelling with more emotional or thematic clout. Like the long lulls that come before the explosion of violence in a Tarantino film, this serves to heighten the impact the ending of the story has, as with Miller’s Crossing, Fargo or Burn After Reading. It prompts us to think about the deeper themes of the initially nonsensical film long after it is over, without feeling preached to.

To do that in a film that is so short is brilliant – and I’d love to see if Smekal could replicate it over a feature length outing. After all, the Coen Brothers look like they’re about to retire.

Herr Herrmann Mann is a film that seems like it was tailor made for me. It is a film I would spend weeks raving about, and when chastened members of my periphery finally caved in to see it for themselves, they would probably be flummoxed. What on Earth did you see in that? Nothing happened! That’s OK. There are plenty of skull-shattering blockbusters or stoner comedies to serve up more straight-forward viewing elsewhere. If you like your narratives off-kilter, and your comedy bitter-sweet, however, Lars Smekal is a filmmaker whose work you need to look out for.

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