If life is what happens when you’re making other plans, than Janina Herhoffer’s After Work could potentially be a greater hymn than even Malick could muster. Through a series of riveted frames, it fixates on participants of group exercises, physical and psychological, to highlight the personal catharsis involved. These skills are as wide-ranging as marathon training, diet motivation and laughter yoga, and each of them are captured in long takes as keenly focussed as the subjects are in their chosen activity. In this way, the English title feels purposefully arbitrary, because while the tasks might be labelled as a past-time to be undertaken after day jobs, it only sustains the relentless modern chasing of emotional stability.
The same few groups are revisited, with the camera repositioned to different but rigid angles between appearances. In this way, Herhoffer and fellow DOP Tobias Zielony draw us back from tighter points of focus within each group over the 71-minute runtime. This act of microscopy also reveals tacit social dynamics that are both inclusive and exclusive. One indelible image is a reactive chanting class that supposedly channels their deepest spirit, but somehow breaks off from their cohesive circle into a smaller group that leaves a man shimmying awkwardly on the perimeter. In that group’s reappearances, Herhoffer and Zielony eventually turn such isolation to an advantage, elevating a single participant into the sole, striking figure on a blank wall.1 Similar tacit schisms emerge through visible skill levels, whether it’s the few stragglers in a youth ballet class or the one exceptional middle-aged gymnast who nails his handstand. This varying exceptionalism and ostracisation is explored well by these smart choices in composition.
Not all of the segments fit within that framing of talent. The most amusing and interesting exception is a men’s group, which progresses from a meditation session to Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” cover to an awkward role-play of office negotiations, where masculine dominance is comically asserted with a throne built out of stacked chairs. Like the women’s weight loss group that is also visited, the idea of self-discipline is present in a more aspirational sense, further enforced with the instructors’ tendency to be present only in the recorded sound designed by Jochen Jesuzzek, like a deity profiting off their pursuit of happiness. It would be easy to weave in the monetary gain made by the fitness and wellbeing industries in these exact situations, but it stays nicely inferable while compelling human interplay and self-exploration take centre stage.
The subtlety of Herhoffer’s sardonicism in this regard threatens to be tipped at times, with a teenage friend circle’s trip to a clothing store focusing incongruously on popular taste without any similarly therapeutic element. It does at least boast the same feeling of unobstructed verisimilitude as the rest of the film, particularly that focusing on an all-girl rock band, which is the most pointed and poignant of the lot. As they giggle and bicker while practising for a contest, the doubt they express on how to analyse themselves brings questions of purpose to the fore. “Did you mean goal or reason?” asks one of the bandmates, since the two can be so tellingly interchanged. By the time we’re watching people literally running backwards, it’s hard for even us to know.