By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 28, 2014)
Have you heard the good word? There’s this trendy new food pyramid that apparently keeps you energetic and svelte: Vodka, cigarettes and chewing gum. This appears to be all that sustains Niko (Tom Schilling), the Millennial slacker hero of writer-director Jan Ole Gerster’s debut film, A Coffee in Berlin (known in Germany as Oh Boy). Oh, you are allowed to drink coffee…if you can get your hands on a cup. This is proving difficult for Niko, as we follow him around Berlin on (what we assume to be) a typical day in his life.
“I’m late…I’ve got a million things to do,” Niko tells his skeptical (and soon-to-be ex) girlfriend after she catches him giving her the early-morning slip (her Jean Seberg haircut is no accident; from this opening scene onward, Gerster’s camera movements, black and white photography and jazzy score leaves no doubt that his film is a paean to the French New Wave). Niko doesn’t seem to have much of anything going on, except maybe the rent. Even that is doubtful, after an ATM machine confiscates his debit card, much to his puzzlement.
In a Benjamin Braddock moment set at a posh country club, Niko gets an explanation, along with an admonishment from his father, who has figured out his deadbeat son has in fact not been spending his 1000 Euros a month stipend on law school for the past two years. Niko’s day has barely begun; many more such encounters await him, each more discombobulating than the last.
While you could say that the film is about “nothing”, it manages to be about everything. Perhaps it is the sheer breadth of the vignettes that make up Niko’s day; from the bathos to the pathos. From moments of silly slapstick, like Niko’s attempt to appear casual whilst dipping back into a homeless man’s hat to retrieve the change he had donated a few moments before his fateful encounter with the ATM machine, to an extraordinary monologue from an elderly barfly recounting a suppressed childhood memory of Kristallnacht, it collectively adds up to a summation of the human experience.
Visually, the film evokes Wim Wenders’ moody Wings of Desire; which has everything to do with the location photography. Berlin, like New York or Paris, is a metropolis that is most likely to reveal its true colors when viewed through a stark black and white lens. It’s tough to explain why such an episodic affair, wherein the dramatic tension derives from whether or not the protagonist will find an uninterrupted moment to enjoy a cup of coffee before credits roll, is one of the freshest films I’ve seen this year, but I believe I just did.