A Coffee in Berlin (2012)
Editor’s Note: A Coffee in Berlin is now open in limited release and on VOD
As if itself inviting the assured Allen comparisons that equally abounded in considerations of its close cousin Frances Ha, A Coffee in Berlin concludes with a montage of city sights that’s straight out of Manhattan. But it’s not only to acknowledge inspirations that debut director Jan Ole Gerster gives the German capital the same treatment Woody reserved for New York: it’s telling that his equivalent occurs at the end of the film, and if Allen’s movie was staked on a strong sense of place, Gerster’s is nothing if not the gradual discovery of the same. Here is a Bildungsroman squeezed into the space of a day, an ephemeral coming-of-age tale that’s every bit as much state-of-the-generation specificity as the international universality that has—already, excessively—facilitated the comparisons to Baumbach’s film.
Here is a Bildungsroman squeezed into the space of a day, an ephemeral coming-of-age tale that’s every bit as much state-of-the-generation specificity as international universality…
It’s no discredit to Frances Ha to call Gerster’s the far finer film: A Coffee in Berlin—re-titled from the original Oh Boy, a move that robs the movie of one of its most dryly amusing cuts—skates the thin ice of self-pity inherent in its setup with graceful figures-of-eight and a balletic flourish so balanced it seems every bit as effortless as its central figure. He is the slacker Niko, played by the haggardly handsome Tom Schilling as a self-loathing loser less lost to the world than to himself. “I’ve been thinking things over,” he tells his father on being found out as a dropout of two years; Schilling has the eyes to inform us that nothing in the reality check lecture to follow has not been thought before.
This is a magnificent performance, diaphanously dour with a depth—and a depth of dispassion—that’s never introspective without intrigue: Schilling’s Niko is like a man whose momma never told him there’d be days like this. It can only help that Gerster frames him so well, casting his search for a cup of the black stuff like a Sisyphean Waiting for Coffee. His is comedy so dry you might well need a drink as much yourself: here reclaiming the change he’s just given to a beggar, there feebly dealing with the emotional outpouring of a new neighbour, Niko’s travails are the stuff of quiet hilarity, awkward encounter after awkward encounter like some cosmic injustice he feels he deserves.
A Coffee in Berlin skates the thin ice of self-pity inherent in its setup with graceful figures-of-eight and a balletic flourish so balanced it seems every bit as effortless as its central figure.
But he doesn’t—not entirely, at least—and if Gerster’s comic continuity is a tone-setting disclaimer of his protagonist’s po-faced ennui, his direction boasts the nuance to marry that smart self-awareness with a genuine sense of existential inadequacy. After all, no matter our misgivings we’re entitled to feel lost amidst the crowd: Gerster’s soft-focus shots of Schilling cutting through a throng moving the opposite direction emphasise the listlessness of life in the city, like a modern-day answer to that forgotten masterpiece The Man Who Sleeps. Niko’s days—this one, certainly—are like an upright dream just a little too mundane to be a nightmare. There’s a wonderfully funny scene where an actor friend apes the angry diatribe of Travis Bickle; would that Niko felt that fury, or indeed any emotion at all.
If it’s a film buoyed on the blithe brooding that plumbs profound depths with a levity that might seem only to skim the surface, A Coffee in Berlin hits new heights entirely in its sublime final moments, which make of this not a movie about the amusing emptiness of one man, but a superb study of the generation he stands for and the culture that bore it. Gerster has pulled a coup twice over, making of this tale of self-obsession one of self-realisation, and suggesting—as the sly proliferation of mirrors throughout teases—that it’s never entirely about who it might seem. Niko might not wake up as the film ends, but he smells the coffee. This is a movie that gives us an almighty whiff too.
A Coffee in Berlin is a film buoyed on the blithe brooding that plumbs profound depths with a levity that might seem only to skim the surface.