October 4, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Maria Schrader
German with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Berlin, the romantic comedy/drama “I’m Your Man” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one mixed-race person and one person of Indian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A museum scientist/researcher reluctantly agrees to do a three-week experiment to live with a humanoid robot that is designed to be her perfect man.
Culture Audience: “I’m Your Man” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in well-acted movies that combine romance with depictions of how technology affects humanity.
“I’m Your Man” asks the question “Can a robot be programmed to be a perfect love partner?” It’s a question faced by Dr. Alma Felser (played by Maren Eggers), an analytical scientist who works as a researcher at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. She’s been chosen to participate in an experiment to test if a robot can be programmed to be her perfect man.
Because humans created these robots, it’s an experiment that assumes that humans are the ones in control and have superior knowledge over the robots. However, the appeal of this charming, well-acted movie is when “know it all” Alma finds out that she might learn some things about herself from this robot. The question then becomes, “How emotionally attached should Alma become to Tom, when he can cater to her needs, but he still has no soul?”
Directed by Maria Schrader (who won an Emmy Award for directing the 2020 Netflix limited series “Unorthodox”), “I’m Your Man” is based on Emma Braslavsky’s short story “Ich bin dein Mensch.” Schrader and Jan Schomburg adapted the story into the “I’m Your Man” screenplay. “I’m Your Man” is Germany’s official entry to be considered for a Best International Feature nomination for the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony.
Alma is a never-married bachelorette in her mid-to-late 40s. Her life revolves around her work. In the movie’s opening scene, Alma arrives at a work-related party, where she soon meets Tom (played by Dan Stevens), a good-looking man in his late 30s. Tom immediately kisses her hand, flirts with her, and tries to impress her with his knowledge. He mentions that he likes Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Autumn Day” poem, which is a favorite poem of Alma’s too. Tom shows Alma that he can do large mathematical calculations in his head.
But then, his speech starts to repeat, like a broken record or a glitch in playback. An unnamed Pergamon Museum employee (played by Sandra Hüller), who is supervising this robot experiment, has Tom taken away from the party. And that’s when she tells Alma that Tom is really a robot and that Alma has been chosen to be the ideal person to test if this robot can be the perfect man for whomever is paired with the robot.
Alma’s female colleague says matter-of-factly about the temporary glitch in Tom: “You have no idea how hard it is to program flirting … Holograms can be done cheaper and longer.” The robot that is being tested isn’t just programmed with ways to talk to people. The robot can also anticipate the needs of the companion human, though a series of algorithms. And through detection of brain waves, facial expressions and body language, the robot can deduce a person’s true inner feelings.
Later, when she’s at her job, Alma hears more details about this “perfect man” robot. She finds out that she was chosen for this experiment because she currently doesn’t have a love partner. The experiment would require Alma to live with Tom for three weeks. Alma is completely against the idea that robots can become legitimate companions for human beings, so she refuses to be a part of the experiment.
However, after getting much pleading and coaxing from her colleagues, Alma agrees to participate in the experiment. Alma’s female colleague tells Alma this selling point as a way to convince Alma: “When happiness knocks on the door, you should open it.”
At first, Alma is very uncomfortable with Tom living with her. He is very doting (he cooks and cleans for her without her having to ask) and tries to be affectionate with her. But she is cold and dismissive, treating him more like a pesky housemate, rather than a potentially intimate companion.
Alma considers herself to be an independent woman, so part of her resentment (which she doesn’t say out loud) is that she doesn’t like that her colleagues chose her to live with this robot because they think she’s a lonely, aging spinster. She also hates that Tom has been programmed to say sappy lines to her such as, “Your eyes are like two mountain lakes that I can sink into.”
Stevens, who is British in real life, portrays Tom’s as speaking German with a British accent. It’s explained in the movie that because Alma has shown a pattern of being attracted to non-German men, Tom was programmed to sound like he’s not from Germany. This deep mining of personal information might be troubling to people who value their privacy. But in this day and age, with millions of people posting so much of their personal lives on the Internet, it’s not that far-fetched for people’s preferences in romantic partners to be easily found and used as data.
Alma has also been chosen to recommend to an ethics committee that is overseeing this experiment if having a robot like Tom is psychologically and emotionally healthy for human beings. She is required to submit her recommendation (acceptance or rejection of the project) to Dean Roger (played by Falilou Seck), who is in charge of the ethics committee. Although he’s not supposed to show his bias, he essentially tells Alma that she hopes her decision is an acceptance recommendation.
“I’m Your Man” takes place in a world where robots and holograms are already accepted in the culture as chosen companions for humans. For example, there’s a scene where Alma goes back to a bar where she sees humans on dates with holograms, and it’s considered normal. The question she has to answer for herself and the ethics committee is if it’s ethical for robots to be sold and marketed to humans as live-in partners or spouses.
One of the ways that “I’m Your Man” isn’t a typical “robot fantasy” movie is that Tom isn’t always cheerful and willing to let Alma constantly disrespect him. He talks back to her and calls her out on some of her rude and selfish actions. Because he is supposed to be attuned to her emotions, he tells Alma what he observes about her.
Alma has other things going on in her life that complicate her experiment with Tom. She’s under a lot of stress because her father (played by Wolfgang Hübsch), who doesn’t have a first name in the movie, is showing signs of early dementia. Alma has a sister named Cora (played by Annika Meier), and they both are in various forms of distress and denial over what to do with their father if or when his condition worsens.
As for her love life, Alma has an ex-boyfriend named Julian (played by Hans Löw), who also happens to be one of her co-workers. They remained friends after the breakup, but viewers will get the impression that things aren’t completely resolved between Julian and Alma. He might have lingering feelings toward her.
For example, there’s a scene where Julian asks Alma out to lunch, but she declines, and he seems disappointed. Later, Julian tells Alma that he’s moving in with his girlfriend Steffi (played by Henriette Richter-Röhl) for “mostly financial reasons.” Julian’s heart might not be completely in his relationship with Steffi, but Steffi seems completely in love with Julian. One of the funnier scenes in the movie is when Anna brings Tom as her date to Julia and Steffi’s housewarming party. It’s enough to say that things get awkward.
Stevens’ earnest portrayal of a robot doesn’t fall into a parody, but there is a slight wink and a nod to his performance. He gives enough robotic eye movements and too-perfect smiles to remind viewers that there is no soul underneath this human-looking being, even though Tom knows how to look and act human. It’s a tricky performance that Stevens handles in a very talented way.
Eggert also does an admirable performance as Alma, who is obviously the more complicated one in this would-be couple. Alma doesn’t express her thoughts as easily as Tom does. And it unnerves Alma that Tom can do an accurate psychoanalysis of her, which he does on a regular basis. She’s also conflicted because her scientific brain tells her that robots are incapable of feeling and giving love, but her lonely heart is telling her that maybe she should take unconditional emotional support and companionship wherever she can get it.
Rather than it being a one-sided relationship where Alma bosses Tom around, Tom ends up challenging Alma to look at herself and figure out what she wants out of love and what she’s willing to do to seek out or shut out certain relationships. There are several comedic moments along the way, as well as some emotionally touching dramatic moments. The overall message of “I’m Your Man” is that wishing for an ideal love mate can come at a “be careful what you wish for” price, but it might be worth it if you know who you really are in the first place.
Bleecker Street released “I’m Your Man” in select U.S. cinemas on September 24, 2021. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is October 12, 2021.