Writer-director Jan Ole Gerster’s insightful first feature "A Coffee in Berlin" swept the German Film Academy Awards last year, but it’s not your typical lavish awards bait. (It has the alternate title "Oh Boy," which would probably do less business on VOD.) Featuring Tom Schilling as a disillusioned young man wandering through missed opportunities and dead-ends, the black-and-white sketch of a movie never ventures beyond the limited environment of its doleful anti-hero. But there’s wisdom lurking in its light, witty approach, which gradually transforms from a series of silly misadventures into something far more perceptive.
A figure of slapstick from the outset, twentysomething Niko (Schilling) surfaces in the opening minutes lighting a cigarette on his toaster, one of many indications that he lives hand-to-mouth to a hilarious degree. The examples keep coming: After ticking off the girlfriend who dumps him in the first scene, he attempts to steal change from a beggar to pay for his coffee nearby. In short, he’s desperate.
No matter the travails Niko faces, however, he’s constantly forced to confront the far bigger grievances experienced by others: Moving into a new home, he’s faced with a weepy older neighbor frustrated with his needy wife; at a restaurant with his fun-loving pal Karl (Justus von Dohnanyi), he encounters old high school classmate Julia (Friederike Kempter), who has shed the extra pounds from her teen years that led Niko and his pals to anoint her with the cruel label "Roly Poly Julia." (The nickname rhymes in German.) Persistently ineloquent and devoid of any discernible ambition, Niko never turns into a sympathetic figure, although Gerster makes it easy to pity his meandering trajectory, which plays out like a series of amusing awkward encounters until the underlying melancholy takes hold in a startling final act.
Given that it’s a modern day, black-and-white depiction of a forlorn single person incapable of getting his act together, "A Coffee in Berlin" unavoidably contains echoes of Noah Baumbach’s "Frances Ha," in which Greta Gerwig memorably portrayed another indecisive character stumbling into adulthood. However, for all its charming physical comedy—Gerwig’s mad dash to an ATM machine in "Frances Ha" is a close cousin of Niko’s thieving of change—Baumbach’s movie used droll conversations to elaborate on Frances’ surrounding environment. "A Coffee in Berlin" is far more visual in its portrait of an even less sympathetic male character who’s constantly the victim of his own indecisiveness. The city scenery, both modern and haunted by history, increasingly serves to draw out his internal state with perceptive results.
Gerster sets the movie to a freewheeling jazz soundtrack that similarly echoes Niko’s drifting mindset. But its chief asset is Schilling’s ever-deadpan reactions, which go to far greater lengths to address his situation than he can. Despite its series of capricious developments, "A Coffee in Berlin" finds a rich blend of humor and sadness in its leading man’s predicament.
Of course, many first features—sometimes echoing the plights of their makers—have grappled with the unseemly mindsets of nomadic urbanites. "A Coffee in Berlin" doesn’t go to excessive lengths to make its scenario stand out, and the movie’s restraint can only go so far to make this particular journey worth the trip. But there’s a noticeably surreal quality to its labyrinthine descent into Niko’s troubles that undeniably contains shades of Martin Scorsese’s "After Hours." Attending an experimental dance performed by the former object of his bullying, evading sexual advances in a bathroom, and blind-sighted by a sudden violent encounter, Niko is constantly baffled by developments that take hold of his surroundings even as he remains static.
But "A Coffee in Berlin" truly justifies its winding path during a climactic scene involving Niko’s encounter with an elderly barfly that leads him to a fresh understanding of his situation. It’s here that Gerster finally cuts away from his protagonist, in a telling montage of various Berlin sights, all of which are devoid of people. With the notion of a typically bustling urban scene emptied out, "A Coffee in Berlin" ends on a tranquil note. Like everyone else, Niko feels isolated by his problems, but the world is a much bigger place.
Music Box Films releases “A Coffee in Berlin” in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.