For all the major films from established, auteur directors in the 2023 Venice Film Festival’s main competition (David Fincher’s The Killer, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, Sofia Coppela’s Priscilla and Michael Mann’s Ferrari, to name just a few), when he made the official lineup announcement on July 31, festival director Alberto Barbera reserved his lengthiest praise for a small film from Germany.
So enthused was Barbera for Timm Kröger’s second feature The Theory of Everything — a black-and-white Hitchcockian melodrama set in a 5-star hotel in the Swiss Alps (and a “kind of” sequel to his 2014 debut The Council of Birds) — that he claimed it was one of the very first films selected to compete for this year’s Golden Lion.
“It was really wonderful what he said, and he really described the film in a lovely way,” says Kröger, speaking ahead of The Theory of Everything’s world premiere on the Lido on Sep 3. “But he also said that it was ‘up to the audience’ to tell the festival whether or not they were wrong to choose us.”
Whichever way the audience goes, for The Barricades, the German banner set up by Kröger and producer Viktoria Stolpe, it won’t be the first time they’ve roused some interest in their films, good or bad.
Back in 2020, the company’s first feature The Trouble With Being Born, directed by Sandra Wollner, landed in the Berlinale’s Encounters strand for “daring works,” and proved so daring that it became arguably the most controversial film from the festival. Although the story, about a 10-year-old android girl and her “Daddy” never ventured into anything X-rated on screen, its premise alone was enough to provoke the frothy-mouthed frenzy of Alex Jones’ Infowars and alt-right copycats, which accused the film of promoting pedophilia (which it, obviously, didn’t), and compared Wollner to Epstein.
With online anger mob not bothering to check the film’s European credentials, Kröger says The Trouble With Being Born was dragged into various Hollywood conspiracy theories about lizard people and rapists. The Melbourne International Film Festival later pulled it from its lineup (a decision that was slammed by critics).
For all the noise, The Trouble With Being Born — which Wollner described as her “antithesis to Pinocchio,” examining the idea of an android whose only desires are the ones it’s programmed with — was largely praised by those who actually watched it, the film winning Encounters’ special jury prize, and later best feature at the Romy Awards, Austria’s version of the Oscars (it was an Austrian co-production).
The noise — and awards — also put The Barricades on the map, paving the way for The Theory of Everything, which Kröger and Stolpe had first begun pitching back in 2015.
“It’s never a bad thing — and definitely helped to put us out there,” claims Stolpe, who says that while they never anticipated quite the level of the reaction, there had been a definite intention to launch the company with something that might raise eyebrows. “It all just happened, but of course that’s what we want to do — we don’t want to make boring dramas.”
The Trouble With Being Born and The Theory of Everything —a “quantum mechanical thriller” set in the 1960s with a plot about multiverses, paranoia, love, mystery, dreams and false memories — may sound like very different movies. But both Kröger and Stolpe claim there is a DNA strand that runs through their filmmaking, stemming from a friendship that began in film school and years spent working together across multiple titles.
“I think all our films are metaphysical,” says Kröger. “We joke that all our films are, in some fashion, about ghosts. I think the reason I make films personally is always to ask questions about the world that we cannot really answer, but something like an answer can be found in the cinema… to make films that wonder about existence.”
Both feartures also aren’t what many might automatically expect to come out of Germany. “Most German films are straight-up dramas, boy-meets-girl or social realism,” notes Stolpe. “But we’re on the opposite side of the spectrum with our movies.”
Next up for The Barricades is Soi Dogs, about to start shooting in Thailand and directed by The Theory of Everything and The Trouble With Being Born co-writer Roderick Warich, who alongside Wollner helps complete the company’s unofficial quartet. And then there’s Wollner’s next feature Everytime, currently in development.
And why The Barricades, a name that conjures up images of street battles against the establishment?
As Kröger explains, it actually comes from “Les Barricades Mysterieuses” by French baroque composer François Couperin, a piece of music that features heavily both in Terrence Malicks’ Tree of Life and The Theory of Everything and whose title has — for several centuries — remained something of an enigma.
“We don’t know if it’s about quantum physics or women’s underwear — that’s an actual theory,” he says. “But that name just cropped up because it has that cultural history attached to it, which nobody gets, obviously.”
Adds Stolpe: “We also thought it sounded cool.”