Film

The Ordinaries: Sophie Linnenbaum's feature film debut is a sci-fi spotlight on inequality

In imaginative German sci-fi tragicomedy The Ordinaries, Sophie Linnenbaum challenges the constrictive narratives of an unequal society.

The Ordinaries, directd by Sophie Linnenbaum

The Ordinaries is set in a parallel universe in which hierarchies follow movie tropes. Photo courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

In the UK, the richest one per cent of the population is now wealthier than the poorest 70 per cent combined. Just as in any unequal society, the story of your life is shaped by the circumstances into which you’re born. That trajectory is hard for anyone to escape. In German sci-fi tragicomedy The Ordinaries, director Sophie Linnenbaum takes an imaginative leap to examine and challenge these constrictive narratives.

The Ordinaries, which screens at the Glasgow Film Festival this week, takes place in a universe where status and opportunity follow the hierarchies of the movies. Main Characters live in full colour, their emotions soundtracked with dramatic scores as they live in luxury, and periodically burst into song from their sheer good fortune. Under them, the Supporting Characters are beige and muted, their very dialogue restricted as they are relegated to dull blocks of flats and the backgrounds. At the bottom, Outtakes live in squalor – many suffering from cinematic deformities, unintentionally glitching between scenes or plagued by out-of-context audience reactions.

Paula is a Supporting Character who dreams of more in The Ordinaries. Image: copyright Bandenfilm
Paula is a Supporting Character who dreams of more in The Ordinaries. Image: copyright Bandenfilm

“It’s a world that that talks about narratives in life and how narratives shape reality,” explains Linnenbaum. “Emotional storytelling shapes how we perceive people. So I wanted to talk about this empowerment possibility, to grab your own narrative.”

The high concept has echoes of Charlie Kaufman (whose Being John Malkovich is referenced in the low ceilings of the Outtakes’ zone) and Terry Gilliam (whose Brazil can be seen in the bureaucratic trappings and East German-style concrete backdrops), but for the high society scenes there’s also references to the Hollywood golden age, with Singin’ In The Rain-style song-and-dance routines. “We wanted to create a language that is universal, so we tried to find pictures that are kind of burned into our brains,” says Linnenbaum. “You don’t need to know film history to understand the references.”

The idea of using film trappings as a metaphor for social exclusion first came to Sophie Linnenbaum while she was studying at Konrad Wolf Film University of Babelsberg. Her short film [Out of Fra]me told the story of a man who “falls out of frame” from sheer loneliness. “Despite everybody telling me, ‘This is just a film for nerds, nobody will get it’, a lot of people came to me and talked about their feelings when they are not in frame,” she says. “So I stuck with this idea because I got so much interesting feedback.”

A family of Main Characters sing for joy, in a Hollywood golden age style.
A family of Main Characters sing for joy, in a Hollywood golden age style. Image: copyright Bandenfilm

The Ordinaries is not simply the same story told over a longer time frame – a lesson that many early-career filmmakers could heed when turning a successful short into a debut feature – it’s a totally new story, set in the imaginative universe of its predecessor. At the centre of the film is Paula, a Supporting Character with dreams of being a Main Character just as her beloved father was before he was lost to the family in the midst of an Outtake uprising. Her quest to find out the truth about her own background brings her face to face with the lies she’s been told about the society she lives in.

“The roots of the story were really obvious, basic and also universal. There’s this story of different classes, and the ones above use the ones below,” says Linnenbaum. “It is a really universal thing: if you think of Nazi Germany, if you think of capitalism, if you think of apartheid. It’s everywhere, and it’s not a coincidence. And that was the important thing I wanted to talk about. It’s not like some people fell out of the system, it’s that we need them to stay down so others can be above.”

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In her native Germany, Linnenbuam is already known for her 2017 short Pix as well as work on TV series including Deutscher and teen drama Skam Germany. The Ordinaries is an opportunity to speak to a global audience. Following on from the recent successes of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and BAFTA-winning All Quiet on the Western Front, does she think UK and American audiences are finally ready to engage with filmmakers who don’t work in the English language?

“I don’t feel like this, because I feel like behind those successes, like All Quiet on the Western Front, there’s a big machine. With the Oscars as well, when Parasite entered the competition, it was the movie everybody already had watched or wanted to watch. And so other lovely movies like the French debut Les Misérables [which was up against Parasite for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars], it wasn’t seen,” she says.

“I feel like there are some very beautiful films that always are drowning in the attention of others. It’s still a lot about making yourself being seen to have success internationally. And this is something that only some films can afford. That doesn’t mean that those films aren’t worth watching. It just means that other films that might be great as well, won’t be seen.”

One of the Outtakes in The Ordinaries. Image: copyright Bandenfilm

While Linnenbaum has been delighted with the praise so far heaped on The Ordinaries from its appearances at global film festivals, she has been frustrated that much of it has been couched in terms of just how ripe the movie is for a Hollywood remake. “Like, thank you for whatever,” she deadpans.

That said, Linnenbaum acknowledges there are more stories to be told in The Ordinaries universe. It’s a rich world that, like the best imaginative planes of reality, feels brimming with actual people starring in their own adventures just on the edge of your peripheral vision. She can imagine making a series set there one day (and I, for one, can’t wait for the Netflix binge) but that’s not the next chapter of Sophie Linnenbaum’s story.

“I’m an embarrassing, idealistic person, so I want to make movies that count,” she explains. “I feel like that means it’s sometimes a longer process to figure out what’s the next step.”

Sophie Linnenbaum’s The Ordinaries screens at Glasgow Film Theatre on March 2 and 3 as part of Glasgow Film Festival.

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