An ode to Woody Allen in its jazz-scored, black-and-white, low-key nomadic melancholy, Jan-Ole Gerster‘s debut feature “A Coffee in Berlin” (aka “Oh Boy“) is a self-effacing film of minor pleasures and few missteps. With little at stake as a passive protagonist drifts from one set of eccentrics to the next. Gerster’s script is full of half-formed commentary, teachable moments for Niko (Tom Schilling), our sullen, disconnected lead. The resulting picture consistently reaches for some higher meaning, even managing to inject an unearned bit of pathos into the final reel, offering up slight but pleasant returns.
Niko, a law school dropout who has been living with little purpose while deluding his family and subsisting on checks that his father sends to pay for university, is having a bad day. His cash card has been swallowed up by an ATM, his driver’s license has been indefinitely revoked, an irritating neighbor has invited himself in with a bowl full of particularly nasty meatballs and a decent cup of coffee is nowhere to be found. Gerster, working with DP Philipp Kirsamer, conjures up pleasant compositions of modern-day Berlin that make the film, if not gripping, imminently watchable. This is Niko’s story however, and we are often following the young man down a street or resting on his conventionally handsome visage.
Our lead’s journey for the day is formulaic in a way that recalls better films—Niko will encounter a character, and will proceed to have a conversation that is initially ordinary but soon slips into awkward or uncomfortably funny territory. Nearly every supporting role, from Niko’s friend Matze (Marc Hosemann) who delivers dialogue from “Taxi Driver” without prompting, to an actor portraying a Nazi in a melodramatic award-fodder picture who is caught up in the fake story he is portraying, to Julika, a formerly hefty young woman (Friederike Kempter) whose crush on Niko persists, though the attraction has taken on some disturbing baggage, the personages we meet are less full-bodied (no pun intended) people than forces throttling Niko in attempt to banish the unchallenged manchild in him.
It is the film one true setback, flying in the face of Schilling’s relatable but underserved by the script performance. This is Generation Y malaise and Gerster certainly understands how affording for a great deal of free time left to ponder the world can leave a person unwilling to commit to being someone. Niko has no strong opinion one way or the other, even when challenged by a trio of provocative thugs who insult Julika—he faults her for the confrontation later, simply because she did not let the punks have a few cheap shots at her expense and move on. He runs a single day’s gauntlet and sees momentous things stripped away—his domineering father cuts off the funding and his girlfriend leaves him—and yet, Niko does away with opportunities presented with a wave of his hand, letting others shuttle him from one place to another, adrift and slowly dying.
With a final encounter at a bar and a drunken elderly gentleman (Michael Gwisdek) sharing a traumatic experience of his youth, “A Coffee in Berlin” takes a step too far into manipulative territory. No doubt the film has been leading us here, but the emotional heft of the scene and the old man’s sudden crisis feel like the hand of a storyteller forcefully moving pieces into place to end on a resonant note. We are unclear on what that note is precisely, or how the skilfully delivered monologue relates to the loose strands we’ve been handed, but Gerster’s handling of the scene suggest something vital is afoot. The performances remain the primary draw, even if the many talented actors are working with a set of quirks and neuroses. “A Coffee in Berlin” is watchable and far from dumb, but the film embodies Niko’s lack of clarity to the point where it hurts the picture—as an audience, we can certainly relate to the alarming aimlessness, but the art of filmmaking and storytelling is generally predicated on depicting change. [B-]