A COFFEE IN BERLIN: An Eccentric, Enlightening Journey

Redhead Review: A Coffee in Berlin

This German language film, originally titled Oh Boy, won 6 German Film Academy awards last year, including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, and Outstanding Feature Film. It follows a day in the life of Niko Fischer, played by Tom Schilling. Niko is a slacker—directionless and unmotivated, but still likable and endearing despite his sometimes frustrating passivity. But, on this particular day that the film chronicles, he has a series of encounters that are in equal parts awkward, funny, poignant, and bizarre—endlessly entertaining, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, each event illuminates aspects of Niko’s mundane existence, knocking him down in the hopes of eventually waking him up and propelling him forward.

I loved A Coffee In Berlin and found it deeply satisfying on a number of different levels. Shot in dreamy black and white with a sometimes comically old-fashioned jazz soundtrack, the film works as a dramedy about this current generation—20-somethings who are spoiled, confused, restless and yet sedentary, unfeeling and dangerously uncertain. The black and white is breezily beautiful and utterly bleak at the same time, surreal and gritty and melancholy all simultaneously.

Having spent four months living in Berlin myself, I also found myself picking out locations and iconic images of the city, but even this is a wonderfully difficult task—there isn’t really a typical establishing shot in the film, at least not early on, but then again, this isn’t a typical city. In fact, the camera focuses upon the cranes and construction materials that mark the city far more than any one building ever could; there is no exact skyline to be discerned, and yet the film gives personality and preference to even the simplest street shots of apartment buildings, train stations and tram lines. Trains are, to me at least, a motif in the film that worked subtly and smartly, establishing Berlin’s vibe while also speaking to Niko’s meandering, wandering self—he cannot even drive because his license was revoked, which speaks to his lack of control over his own direction in life, and so he spends much of the film walking and taking Berlin’s subway system.

Berlin’s status—the incompleteness and sense of evolution— also parallels Niko’s own unfinished sense of self, making the city itself another aspect of the film that is thought-provoking, though only if you seek it out as such, perhaps. Just like the black and white of the film and its jazzy soundtrack juxtapose with Niko’s very modern, generationally-specific conflict (a conflict that is with himself over his self-prescribed circumstances), there are other dichotomies and binaries to be had by the film—past and future, history and present, most notably.

As the film progresses from morning to night, the tone likewise darkens somewhat, each encounter becoming more serious and thus threatening to Niko’s already crumbling complacency. Early on in the film, for instance, we see a cheesy, inauthentic World War II film being shot, and the sequence is clearly meant to be humorous. Later, we’re given the film’s most chilling, powerful encounter—an old man at a bar, talking to Niko about that very time period as he truly experienced it when he was a child.

This dialogue is, as much of the film’s script is, incredibly genuine and poised. This scene is as much of a wake-up call for us as it is for Niko—Berlin is always changing, and the city’s often-painful history is still with many of its inhabitants here in the present. Some of the most haunting shots of Berlin come in the dawn of the next day, giving the film a natural, refreshing pause before ultimately concluding, a moment of quiet stillness—for Niko to consider the previous day’s events, perhaps, and allowing us time to wonder if Niko will change and mature after all.

The only goal Niko has throughout the entire film is to have a cup of coffee—a seemingly simple goal that turns into a tragicomic gag by remaining unfulfilled time and time again. Yet, we cannot blame Niko himself for not being able to achieve it, making us wonder not about his capabilities but rather about the nature of the goal itself in some way; the one substance that should wake him up is never available to him, but he is given these other, arguably more effective and necessary wake-up calls instead. And I cannot neglect to mention that Schilling’s performance as Niko is amazing; there’s an intriguing, mysterious blend of dissatisfaction and laziness that twinkles in his expressive eyes, while his entire body otherwise exudes resignation.

The film could have been as aimless and unmotivated as its protagonist, and the film’s conclusion is at once ambiguous and hopeful. However, because Niko’s encounters are woven together against the thematically perfect and aesthetically intricate backdrop of a falsely colorless Berlin— a city which, again, serves as a complex character itself, a character who is, in certain ways, much like Niko— there is more substance here than it initially seems like there would be. So, instead of being given a typical slacker dramedy, we’re given something more engaging and more meaningful, but only if you want it to be—A Coffee in Berlin, like its protagonist, never tries too hard, but rather finds itself and its greater purpose by going through such an eccentric, enlightening journey.

Director: Jan Ole Gerster
Starring: Tom Schilling, Friederike Kempter, Marc Hosemann
Rating: 4 out of 5 missed coffee opportunities.

Sara majors in Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College. Her favorite genre is horror but she loves learning, writing and talking about all kinds of movies and all forms of entertainment. She has interned with Film Forum and Tribeca Film, both in her native NYC where she hopes to find work in criticism, marketing, distribution, or festival programming post-grad. Her blog and associated Twitter were created with the intention of being more involved and aware of happenings in the film and television industries, as well as to practice writing about pop culture in an academic but friendly and funny way.