A Coffee in Berlin (2012) / Drama-Comedy
aka Oh Boy
MPAA Rated: Not rated but definitely would be R for brief violence, sexuality and language
Running Time: 83 min.
Cast: Tom Schilling, Mark Hosemann, Friederike Kempter, Ulrich Noethen, Katharina Schuttler
Director: Jan Ole Gerster
Screenplay: Jan Ole Gerster
Review published August 21, 2014
A Coffee in Berlin (aka Oh Boy in its native country) is an award-winning German seriocomic drama from director and screenwriter Jan Ole Gerster, who makes a big splash in his very first effort thanks to his well-rounded characterizations and fluid stylistic choices in its ambience, including the use of beautifully shot black-&-white, along with a sumptuous jazz score.
Although modern, it feels somewhat out of its time, like a cool French New Wave film from decades back (especially Francois Truffaut), though its German dialogue betrays it. In some ways, along with a dash of Woody Allen and Jim Jarmusch in their more avant-garde years, the film also feels reminiscent of the oddball (but wonderful) Martin Scorsese comedy After Hours, with a man trying in vain to snap back to a sense of normalcy, but keeps encountering eccentric characters who further make him feel isolated and calamitous situations that spin him further off kilter, all during the course of one day.
Coffee stars Tom Schilling (Before the Fall, Crazy) as a slacker Berliner, Niko Fischer, in his twenties and living without a clear destination in mind after dropping out of law school two years prior. We get to see an eventful day in Niko's life, which starts off with nothing seeming to go right, from a strained interaction with his girlfriend (Schuttler), to an odd psychiatric evaluation to get his driver's license back, to an exasperating conversation with his displeased father (Noethen), to his inability to just get enough money for a cup of decent coffee.
Likeable characters, despite their individual flaws, are just one of the film's many admirable qualities that makes it such a breeze to watch, even during the serious moments that emerge from time to time. Some seem like throwaways, such as a lonely elderly woman who can't help but offer her drug-dealing grandson's friends some sandwiches, and who graciously invites Niko, whom she befriends in an instant, to stay the evening if that's what he wants to do. In another scene, Niko meets a nosy neighbor who has brought him a container of meatballs made by his spouse, then proceeds to spill his guts to a complete stranger, met only with awkwardness. All of these people in Niko's journey are looking for a connection, some friendly, others rude, but all of them a bit persistent, to either hilarious or tragic results.
One of the more interesting motifs of the film is the constant callbacks to the days of Nazi Germany. Not that the film is about Nazis or World War II, but it does show that the current generation of Germans, despite being far too young to have participated in any way in the atrocities of the Germany of 70 years before, still have it ingrained in their psyche. Some are flippant about it, spouting out "Heil Hitler" as if part of a comedy act, and some are more cautious. Some are even revisionist, such as a German film we see in production which shows a "good " Nazi in a love affair with a Jewish woman he's hidden from harm's way. Nevertheless, Gerster weaves this into the film as if to suggest that the current generation identifies with that still because it has yet to craft a new identity, one of its own that people will associate with them, other than spiritual separation from the Nazis of their past.
The story is relatively slight as far as events go, as well as the ultimate meaning of the film being a bit murky, but perhaps the aimlessness is its ultimate point about the generation. A Coffee in Berlin is ponderous, but is still a very watchable, entertaining, and thought-provoking film from beginning to end. Like a cup of coffee, it's a leisurely consumable that offers a bit of escapist distraction and perhaps some introspection, black and potent, and by the end of it, reinvigorating. A simple pleasure.
©2014 Vince Leo