As Denkraum opens Alex (Manuel Melluso) sits scrolling through videos on his monitor and talking to himself, or possibly to the viewer about Alice (Alba Barbullushi), the woman who just broke up with him and who he can’t seem to get over. When he’s not obsessing over her he’s working to develop a new social media site, Denkraum which is German for “conceptual space” and popularised in the theories of Aby Warburg, which are cited early in the film and very quickly went over my head. That was just the first of several moments where the film left me feeling very lost.
This is the first feature from writer/director Luca Paris after a pair of shorts, Vampires-They Never Sleep at Night and The Stain. And at times Denkraum feels like a short stretched out well past its optimum length and relies on a sudden change of direction involving a religious cult to get through the final act.
Much of Denkraum is told via text messages that first show up as gibberish before being decrypted into words. For me, there was an added layer to this as the film is in Italian so I was seeing it in that language and then as English subtitles, a decryption of a decryption if you will.
That actually works well within the framework of Paris’ film, Denkraum is part AI-driven cyberpunk thriller and part meditation on alienation versus being part of society and what part social media plays in that divide. At times the film actually resembles a session on Facebook as videos play while conversations via text message scroll across the screen.
The problem is that Paris takes such a non-linear approach to the material it frequently becomes hard, if not impossible to follow. Especially if, like me, the concepts behind Denkraum aren’t something you’re already familiar with. If you are the film may make a lot more sense and be a lot more enjoyable to you.
It also makes it much harder to figure out the point of view the film takes on some of what we see. Much of the dialogue about women has an almost incel type of misogyny about it. Is the film endorsing that attitude or criticizing it? The same with some fascistic sentiments that get expressed along the way.
Granted that ambiguity may well be intentional and it does add to some aspects of the film. How much of this is actually happening? How much is in Alex’s head or possibly people trolling him? Is Jacob real? Is he the equivalent of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden? Or is he somewhere in between, a self-aware AI entity, the literal ghost in the machine?
By way of a director’s statement, Paris does make the film’s point of view clearer. But how many people besides reviewers will see it?
“Denkraum tells the social network generation’s story in a dystopian fable about scanning interactions between people in monitors. The absence of privacy, the control of our sensitive data, the language in the age of instant messaging and smartphones, the witch hunt of haters, cyberbullying, public and consensual manifestations of hatred, consensual fake news, the isolation of young people of this generation, the phenomenon of hikikomori.”Luca Paris
I give Paris credit for creating something unusual and different and for tackling these themes, I just wish he had done it in a way that was more easily understood, or at least followed. He seems to be making some valid points in Denkraum, but in the confusion, it’s too easy to miss or misinterpret them.
Denkraum is available on Digital platforms including Amazon Prime. You can also check FilmTagger for suggestions for similar films.