A hoppy and vaguely Hitchcockian two-hander about a famous German-Spanish actor named Daniel who stops for a drink in the wrong bar on his way to an audition for the Hollywood superhero movie that could elevate his career to new heights, Daniel Brühl’s directorial debut — in which the artist formerly known as Baron Zemo also stars as the aforementioned German-Spanish actor — is never sharper or more assured than when it leans into the meta element and takes the piss out of self-obsessed stars. Though shot with a clear sense of tone that allows the film to straddle dark comedy and light thriller, “Next Door” finds itself on much shakier ground whenever the focus switches to the sour boomer our hero meets in the pub that fateful Berlin afternoon.
Daniel fails to recognize the man sitting on the stool across from him, despite the fact that he and Bruno (“Babylon Berlin” alum Peter Kurth) have lived in the same Prenzlauer Berg apartment complex ever since the actor rode in on a wave of new money a few years back. That’s to be expected; gentrification requires a certain degree of short-sightedness in order to buy itself a sense of home, and just because Daniel has the resources to rent a swanky glass penthouse for his wife and their two sons doesn’t mean he can afford to look any of his neighbors in the eye. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like the money he’d make from landing the villain role in the splashy new “Darkman” reboot would do anything to change that (it’s unclear if screenwriter Daniel Kehlmann is nodding to Sam Raimi or just going with the most generic superhero name he could think of, but Darkman fans shouldn’t get too excited either way). The only thing that’s clear at the end of the day is that Daniel will never be able to ignore Bruno again after this encounter, no matter how much he might want to.
Spry enough to sustain its wisp of an idea but too contained in both story and setting to resonate beyond its most basic thrills, “Next Door” is a pleasantly unfulfilled promise of a debut. It’s a semi-cinematic IOU — the kind of movie that someone in Brühl’s position would make as a down payment on the directorial career he’d like to have down the road. It bodes well that Brühl displays enough self-awareness to see the reality of his ambitions, as this is nothing if not a film by an actor who’s trying to stretch his wings while still keeping both feet on the ground. (Its preoccupation with the socioeconomics of post-Wall Berlin will limit global appeal in a way that almost seems intentional, as Brühl’s “aim small, miss small” approach makes it easier to appreciate the project on its own terms.)
Daniel comes off as the man Brühl is desperately afraid of being mistaken for, or maybe even the man Brühl worries he’s just a few small missteps away from becoming. He’s nice to all of the people on his payroll, he plays with his kids when it’s convenient, and he never turns down a selfie request on the street, but Daniel only gives enough of himself that he doesn’t have to worry about what he takes in return. When he asks his housekeeper “What would we do without you?,” it’s clearly a rhetorical question; if Conchita offered an actual response he’d look at her like she’d broken the fourth wall.
Everything about his home life suggests someone who’s more interested in being looked at than being seen. That’s most obviously reflected by the glass walls of his sleek modern penthouse (complete with a private elevator), but the emptiness is also there when Daniel runs his lines in the bathroom mirror like he knows what they mean. Later, we’ll learn that the studio wouldn’t send him the entire script because God forbid anyone learns who Darkman fights in the third act or whatever. Daniel begs for more context, but it just won’t come.
So now we have a self-described “good guy” whose rent money — earned by entertaining German audiences — is helping private investors price East Berlin families out of the apartments that used to belong to the state-owned housing associations of the German Democratic Republic, and his greatest aspiration is to be in another country playing a lucrative role that he knows nothing about. It’s no wonder Daniel’s next-door neighbor has been secretly plotting his ruin for the last few months.
Eager to calm his nerves before hopping the flight to London for his audition, Daniel slips inside the old watering hole on his corner. Big mistake. Huge. The no-nonsense owner and her two day-drinking patrons don’t exactly look at him with the same star-struck googly eyes as the pretty girls who pop in for a photo and some questions about what it was like to work with Wes Anderson. Paunched over by the bar, Bruno seems like more of a critic than a fan; when Daniel signs his napkin, Bruno immediately uses it as a coaster for his glass.
And so the screws begin to turn, as Kehlmann’s script takes the kind of “waiting for the other shoe to drop” tension that percolated underneath Brühl’s scenes in “Inglourious Basterds” and stretches it for the length of an entire movie. The way that Bruno dismisses Daniel’s Stasi film as Western propaganda and berates him for currying favor with bourgeois viewers suggest that he might have some deeper bias against the actor, but the specific nature of his grievances doesn’t snap into focus until Daniel figures out where he’s seen this stranger before. “You live in my building?,” he asks. “No,” comes the reply. “You live in mine.”
A child of the former GDR who’s been struggling to tread water amidst the riptide of capitalism that swept through Berlin after reunification, Bruno sees Daniel as the living embodiment of everything that’s gone wrong in his life, and he has an outlandish plan to exact revenge. The details are teased out across the repetitive final hour of this shiv-length film (things get intense enough for Daniel to start vaping by the end of the second act), but it’s safe to assume that both of these self-righteous men have their blind spots.
Kurth is excellent at locating the hidden menace inside the heart of a middle-class German whose social immobility has receded into a need for retribution; if Bruno’s eye-rolling plan only grows less compelling as it comes to light, the actor who plays him sustains our curiosity by yawing between an avenger and a sociopath. “Next Door” doesn’t hedge its bets on that score, but — in a truly bizarre use of Vicky Krieps, who doesn’t appear until the middle of the end credits — the movie doesn’t really put its thumb on the scale until after it’s over.
So while it’s easy to take some schadenfreude-like pleasure in watching Daniel come undone (a process that’s less fun when it makes Daniel into the typical victim of a psychological thriller than it is when it presents him as a narcissistic movie star who has to watch his ego get amputated without any painkillers), his adversary doesn’t give us enough of a foothold to stand by his side. “Next Door” sparks to life when Brühl shines a harsh light on the limits of an actor’s social conscience, especially during a pointed section that contemplates the different impressions you might get if you compared someone’s IMDb credits to their bank records.
But that’s only a fraction of what this film is about, and despite how Brühl’s light touch allows his setting to feel bigger than it is, the East German bar proves suffocating to a story that’s as fascinated by how people bring their lies home with them as it with how they live with them in public. Mercilessly honest as Brühl is being with himself, his directorial debut stops short of its most intriguing ideas. It leaves us feeling hopeful that he’ll follow through on them from here, and queasy that his next gig is — you guessed it — reprising his role as Baron Zemo in the Marvel Disney+ series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”
“Next Door” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.