Gathered around the kitchen table for their routine communal living meeting, this group of roommates face a crucial decision: the purchase of a new vacuum cleaner. However, what was supposed to be a straightforward vote quickly gets derailed, as the conversation drifts off topic. In Dirt Devil 550 XS, writer/director, editor and producer, Rolf Hellat transforms this mundane situation into an exploration of complicated group dynamics, contrasting personalities, and the workings of democracy, infused with humor and an incredibly sharp screenplay.
“When we actually decided to buy a vacuum cleaner, the discussion went on for over 45 minutes and became very emotional”
Anyone who has experienced shared living will be familiar with these discussions, when decisions need to be made for the household, and I can only assume that most of us will have had to buy a vacuum cleaner at some point in our lives. So it wasn’t unexpected to hear from Hellat that his story was “inspired by real facts”. Having lived in an apartment with sixteen people, the filmmaker probably knows more than most about coexistence and he used that experience to help create the different characters in his narrative. “When we actually decided to buy a vacuum cleaner, the discussion went on for over 45 minutes and became very emotional”, he explains. The director’s own encounters feed into the script and create a level of authenticity that makes the film so effective and resonant, the creation of Dirt Devil 550 XS also likely serving as a cathartic endeavor for Hellat.
The overall absurdity of the situation is the main element of the comedy in the film, but this is a short with much more to offer than its superficial layer. Between the clashes of personalities and derailments into unrelated matters, there is already enough to chew on. Yet as the audience looks on and begins to understand how meaningless this conversation is in the grand scheme of things, we also begin to appreciate just how necessary it is for this community, as we witness the democratic process with each participant getting a chance to speak before the vote. In his screenplay, Hellat has crafted a sharp dark comedy, with all of his characters taking the situation very seriously, and only the viewers getting to laugh. The editing also fosters that tone, with the first and last scene opening and closing the film on such a satirical note. Since the film is set in only that one location, DP Pascal Reinmann also deserves some praise for keeping the image moving between characters and preventing a static look that would have made the film feel a bit claustrophobic, when we are supposed to just enjoy witnessing that conversation.
Ultimately, the film can’t work without the group dynamic of the full cast: Markus Urbscheit, Julia Gräfner, Giorgina Hämmerli, Jonas Rüegg, Pablo Aguilar, Yann Schmidthalter and Gwendolin Kircali. It’s their chemistry that makes the film feel so genuine and conveys the pressure of living together. As they list vacuum cleaner details, they all reveal sides of their personality and how they work (or don’t!) in a shared environment, with all the drama those differences produce making the film all the more captivating. Those differences also allows the audience to identify to the individual characters, furthering the emotional engagement in the narrative. Hellat confessed that while they started shooting actors were encouraged to improvise on set, which most likely benefits the film by infusing a bit more chaos in the scene.
Dirt Devil 550 XS hit the festival circuit in 2021, including a stop at the Palm Springs ShortFest. Hellat already has a new film on the festival circuit, titled Déjà Nu, which had its World Premiere at the 2023 edition of Odense and that he qualifies as a “mystical audiovisual poem about life and death and mother Earth”.