Venice 2023: The Theory of Everything review


The ‘multiverse’ is one of the worst concepts to enter storytelling since Victoria Principal woke up in Dallas and discovered it had all been a dream. And so it’s weird to find yourself in a universe where the concept finally gets a decent cinematic treatment in Timm Kröger’s The Theory of Everything, not to be confused with Eddie Redmayne’s black hole.

Following a short prologue set in the seventies in which Johannes Leinert (Jan Bülow), an oddball science-fiction writer is interviewed on German TV only to reveal that his novel is actually non-fiction, we go back to his time as a research student. Johannes is finishing his thesis under the supervision of his rather stern professor Dr. Julius Strathen (Hanns Zischler). As part of his research, he accompanies his tutor to the Swiss Alps where a speaker is going to introduce an apparently radical breakthrough in quantum theory.

An old rival of Dr. Strathen, Professor Blumberg (Gottfried Breitfuss), offers Johannes a more sympathetic ear and is in fact impressed with his work. Strathen dismisses his wild conjectures as “metaphysics”. At the hotel, the promised physics conference is delayed as the professor has yet to arrive and Johannes works on his thesis. He finds himself drawn to Karin Honig (Olivia Ross), the jazz pianist who, for some reason, seems to know him. So far, so beguilingly mysterious. Murders will happen in the snow. Bodies are left with brutal wrenching injuries. Two policemen, like the Thompson Twins mixed with the Gestapo, begin to prowl. Avalanches rumble and underground tunnels from a disused uranium mine are discovered under the hotel.

Cinematographer Roland Stuprich captures all of this with angles so Dutch you can hear windmills and a beautiful black and white photography that recalls Carol Reed’s The Third Man. With Diego Ramos Rodriguez’s luxuriously cinematic score hinting at Hitchcock – there’s a kind of Vertigo-esque theme every time Karin is near – the multiple universes are as much filmic as physical. It’s like Carol Reed shooting the best Philip K. Dick/Agatha Christie collaboration.

Speaking of PKD, the prologue – the German TV interview – also seems indirectly inspired by an incident in the writer’s career. While attending a conference in which Dick was to receive the critical attention for which he had yearned for so many years, he blew it all by claiming his books were inspired by interstellar communications. Whether this was a sincerely held belief is open to interpretation, but it does show the danger of playing with reality (and amphetamines, in legendary doses). One other danger from a narrative point of view is that the multiverse has third act problems. How do you decide when and where to stop when that conclusion could come anywhere, anything, anytime you like (to misquote a recent Oscar-winner)?

That said, Kröger manages well with moments of pure cinema in between, and a particularly out-there moment of noise and mayhem which threatens to crush the film and the audience in an audiovisual avalanche. There’s an immersive strangeness that only David Lynch has snuck into mainstream cinema. One could’ve lain happily crushed under that crescendo but, by that time, the film had earned a right to tie up loose-ends however messily. The Theory of Everything earns the distinction that, despite the possible looseness of its title and concept, it is most definitely “something”. In the midst of a relativistic quantum universe, that in itself is a miracle.

The 80th Venice Film Festival takes place from 30 August-9 September.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty