Director: Jens Meurer (Germany, Austria, UK). Year of Release: 2021
An Impossible Project asks us to choose between analogue and digital – well, sort of. It, and its main characters keep returning to the plea that they’re not anti-digital as such, but they think that the world would be a whole lot better if analogue were still allowed a place. Which is a nice, if slightly sentimental, idea in theory but what does it mean in practise?
Let’s start with a definition of terms. For a film that’s so fixated with this discussion, An Impossible Project is a little slippery in explaining what exactly it means by analogue and digital. The most sympathetic description is that analogue is something you experience with 5 senses, but digital requires only 2. I’m not entirely sure that this definition is adequate – where does a kindle fit in this schema? Nonetheless, the idea that digital is something you can’t feel or smell feels quite compelling.
There are some “old man shouting at the clouds” moans – everyone spends all their spare time on their mobile phones nowadays, we need a digital detox, you know the drill. There are also some arguments which, the more you think about them are quite élitist – the problem with digital is that it’s available to everyone. Pride of place in the analogue collection is the device which records a live performance straight onto vinyl so that only one person can own the resulting LP.
Most of the film is seen through the eyes of Florian “Doc” Kaps – a genial Austrian innovator (he calls himself a visionary). Doc is constantly depicted as an underdog who isn’t interested in the machinations of big business. Towards the end of the film, when asked if The Impossible Project, his company is a business, he looks perplexed and says “what is a business? Who needs business?” (in the German subtitles, business is strangely translated as business model).
And yet the more we learn about Doc, the more disingenuous this feels. He decides to produce a new polaroid camera that appeals to the younger “digital” generation. To help him develop this, he buys the last remaining polaroid factory for €180,000. He also sets up an office in Berlin “world centre of start-ups”. This is followed by a lot of management speech and flip charts as amazed employees say how great it is to ride with the CEO on his motorbike to his favourite sushi bar.
A marketing campaign ensues, which uses the word “retro” a lot. The idea that analogue is better than digital is quietly forgotten, as the campaign hones in on the retro gimmick. In a short amount of time, the film tells us four things: a young man, Oskar Smolokowski starts work at The Impossible Project, at first as an intern, the company finds itself in need of money, and receives a large donation – from Oskar’s dad. Doc no longer works for the company. Oskar has become CEO.
No causal links are suggested between these events, no background detail. Maybe there is no direct relation between the events. Maybe there is, but director Jens Meurer doesn’t think that they matter. And yet the fact that Doc gets kicked out of his own company contradicts the main thing that the film appears to be arguing – that innovation trumps commerce. Now you can compare Doc to Steve Jobs all you like, but it’s clear that it’s the men with the money who are taking the decisions.
This point is underscored by Doc’s next project. He wants to renovate an old hotel in the Austrian mountains. “The public” (by which he means the rich people who could afford to visit this sort of place) must be allowed access to this epitome of analogue. I don’t quite get why big hotels are analogue, but let’s leave that pass while we look at the sponsors of Doc’s new project – facebook. As he argues, the only way you can change the world is by sitting down with the people with lots of money.
None of this made the film uninteresting or Doc any less engaging, but I did leave wondering whether they were trying to fool us or were fooling themselves. A propos, throughout the film, Doc wears different tops, each with a horizontal rainbow pattern. I wondered for a while what it was, till it dawned on me. This is the polaroid logo. The visionary who is not interested in commerce is advertising his business partner throughout the film.
This all makes for a fairly confused film, which appears to be putting forward contradictory arguments. Support the little man, but the only way you can do this is by begging support from the very big men. Support innovation, but the only way in which this can be sustained is by courting commerce and marketing, Someone even says it: we want to be the rebel, but we can only do this with the support of the people with money.
All this leaves a film that is interesting in far as what it shows, but one which leaves too many unanswered questions to be fully satisfying. In a sense the contradictions of the film makes it more interesting, but they also make it frustrating. We are intrigued by the vision of utopia with which we are presented, but we just can’t trust the integrity of the people who are making the presentation.