Two fine actors volley for advantage across 90 minutes in the tastily insidious little melodrama Next Door (Nebenan). Stepping behind the camera for the first time while also remaining in front of it, Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds, Rush, Captain America: Civil War) shows a sure grip on this mostly two-handed bar room encounter between an international film star (played by Bruhl himself) and a portly older fellow (Babylon Berlin’s Peter Kurth in a terrific turn) who knows far too much about the actor’s private life for comfort. This sharp-minded and engrossing drama of wits and secrets succeeds both in keeping the audience keen to know what’s really going on here and achieving lift-off for Bruhl’s directorial career if he seeks one.
A smart, crowd-pleasing choice (albeit remotely) for the 2021 Berlin Film Festival competition, this is an unusual film in that you’d swear was originally written as a play; at least 80% of the action is set during the day in a sparsely populated café/bar in the former East Berlin, now significantly renovated and gentrified. But best-selling author Daniel Kehlmann wrote it as an original screenplay and it gives his actors plenty to play with.
“You crawled out of darkness,” Daniel repeats again and again during his morning shower, and it’s shortly clear that he’s a successful actor who’s running lines for a big audition in London that afternoon. He lives in an expensively trendy apartment with his wife and two kids and won’t be away long.
Stopping at the corner Zur Brust for a coffee before catching a taxi to the airport, the carefully coiffed and accoutered Daniel is chatted up by a formidable fellow already quaffing beer at this hour. This is Bruno (Kurth), who quickly irks the young celebrity by telling him he was bad in his latest film. Not only that, but the impertinent gent knows the actor’s entire filmography and is critical of everything, albeit in an amiable way. The older man’s spirits can’t be helped when a couple of flirtatious young ladies pop in briefly to basically say “any time” to the dashing actor.
He probably hears that all the time, but it’s safe to say that he rarely, if ever, is assaulted with the sort of curiously well-informed criticism that Bruno spews with no provocation whatsoever. The man is neither drunk nor belligerent, just bruisingly direct and frighteningly well informed.
Just when you think Daniel should cut this encounter short and take his business elsewhere, Bruno takes things to another level by telling him they live in the same building. The nuances here will mean much more to Berliners than to outsiders, but the building in question is an old one in which some of the living spaces, notably Daniel’s, have been upgraded into very pricey condos, while Bruno still lives in one of the small basic units from East Berlin days. He then informs the younger man that he was in Hohenschoenhausen, the notorious Stasi prison in East Germany, and not as a prisoner; he was a guard.
It begins to appear that Bruno knows far too much about Daniel for comfort, and more than once the younger man makes a break for it while there might still be time to get to the airport. But Bruno knows just how far he has to throw out the line in order to reel the younger man back in to unfurl further revelations and cast doubt on the fundamental assumptions of Daniel’s life.
Essential to making a story like this work is the allure of having an antagonist so coolly sharp and smooth, who knows just how to stick it in, then twist. At first glance, Bruno, a working-class sort of no particular distinction, would seem an unlikely candidate for a charismatic disruptor, but Kurth magnificently modulates the pitch of his relentless assaults on the younger man’s character, behavior and honesty. The more Bruno speaks, the clearer it becomes that he knows where all of Daniel’s bodies are buried, so to speak. After this relatively brief encounter, it’s evident that the younger man’s life will never be quite the same again. Physically, this commanding figure comes across as a combination of Burl Ives and Ned Beatty, but in the way he insinuatingly speaks, this Bruno could be a first cousin to another unforgettable Bruno, Robert Walker’s villain in Strangers On A Train.
Bruhl has to take a back seat to Kurth in the acting department here, but he keeps all the burners firing as a director, resulting in an engaging entertainment that pokes a few well-earned holes in the floors of the rich and privileged who live right above them.