A COFFEE IN BERLIN (2014)
Starring Tom Schilling, Friederike Kempter, Marc Hosemann, Katharina Schüttler, Justusvon Dohnányi, Inga Birkenfeld, Ulrich Noethen, Leander Modersohn, Arnd Klawitter, Justus von Dohnányi and Andreas Schröders.
Screenplay by Jan Ole Gerster.
Directed by Jan Ole Gerster.
Distributed by Music Box Films. 84 minutes. Not Rated.
If you were ever wondering what a mumblecore Gen-Y German version of Woody Allen’s Manhattan would be like, I guess Jan Ole Gerster’s A Coffee in Berlin (formerly titled Oh Boy) is as close as you are going to find.
The slight problem here is that the storyline in general seems to be at odds with the Gerster’s obvious attempt to create a pastiche of that older film. The crisp black and white photography, the chamber of commerce-worthy visuals of a big city and the classic jazz score all seem like they would not necessarily be at service to a story of a directionless slacker in modern Berlin.
Of course, probably the biggest problem is that the writer/director seems much more enamored of his lead character’s angst than I could quite will myself to be. Niko (who is very well played by Tom Schilling) may be a smart and sensitive kid, but almost all of his problems are of his own making.
Then when something happens in A Coffee in Berlin that is not Niko’s fault, it is often a complete and utter coincidence. In fact the entire climactic section of the film relies on a drunken stranger striking up an unwanted conversation with Niko in a dive bar. In this supposedly vital crossroads in his life (at least being important enough to bring the film to a close), Niko is not so much a participant as a witness.
Then again, you can perhaps say that about the guy’s entire life.
In the great biodrama 24 Hour Party People Steve Coogan’s character acknowledged that he was a supporting character in his own life story. It was a clever line, and it somehow also seems just a bit too prescient in this kid’s life.
A Coffee in Berlin is 24 hours in the life of Niko. He wakes up, breaks up with his girlfriend, loses his driver’s license, looks for a good cup of coffee, has awkward conversations with men he barely knows, goes cruising with his best friend, has lunch with his dad, tries to take a train without paying, scores some dope, runs into a school acquaintance, sees a bad piece of performance art, almost gets beat up and broods handsomely throughout.
It’s all straining so hard to seem cool, but it’s difficult not to note what a loser the guy is, though he is a handsome, hipster loser.
Take lunch with dad. Please. He meets up at a country club with his father and a young associates (who dad can’t resist pointing out is a year younger than Niko with a good future ahead of him). The whole time, Niko is trying to bring up the idea of borrowing money from his rich father, though dad is studiously ignoring each not-very-subtle attempt. Finally dad asks him how school is going. He says fine. Then dad say he recently ran into his professor and the prof told him that Niko had dropped out two years earlier. What are you doing with the money I’ve been sending you for tuition? dad asks. When he can’t come up with a good answer, dad pulls the plug financially. Niko squirms and looks morose and put upon. The world is so unfair.
I’m sorry if this makes me sound like the old “get-off-of-my-lawn” guy here, but I totally sided with his father. The dad had every right to do what he did. Niko had been lying and exploiting him for two years. And then when his father asked what he had been doing for those two years, Niko sheepishly answered “Thinking.” Who can blame dad for thinking it is time for him to get off of his ass and get a job?
The other most interesting segment of the film also ends up going off the rails a bit. At a restaurant, he runs into a schoolmate of his named Julika (Friederike Kempter). Honestly, he doesn’t recognize her at all, she is the one who knows him. As a child he had made fun of her for being fat (calling her “Roly Poly Julia,” a name that stuck.) Now she has grown up to be a strikingly attractive blonde woman.
She invites him and his friend to a performance art showing that she is doing that night. He and his best friend show up late and laugh through the show (yes, it was pretty horrible, but still…) He gets into a fight with the director at the after party, so goes out for a smoke. Julinka follows him outside and three young punks rudely hit on her outside (asking “How much to see your tits?”) Niko tries to ignore it and diffuse the situation, but Julinka tells the kids off in no uncertain terms. And Niko blames her for putting him in the middle of it, when he should have put himself in the middle. Then Julinka throws herself at him and he demurs, saying it would be too weird.
The whole time you are watching this, you are wondering why he is doing any of what he does. And throughout A Coffee in Berlin, you never really know why Niko does anything that he does.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, an unpredictable character is certainly preferable to a boilerplate one. I guess I just never warmed up to this guy.
That said, A Coffee in Berlin is a gorgeously shot film, extremely well acted and often very cleverly written. It’s a flawed film, but it is certainly interesting.
Jay S. Jacobs