A Coffee in Berlin (Oh Boy) (NR)

Comedy 88 June 20th, 2014
By Danny King
Jan Ole Gerster's debut feature, A Coffee in Berlin (originally titled Oh Boy), arrives in the U.S. riding a wave of success, having swept several major categories at the 2013 German Film Awards, where its main competition was Cloud Atlas (co-directed by Gerster's friend Tom Tykwer). By comparison, Gerster's film is agreeably modest: an 85-minute, black-and-white, jazz-scored film, with a Frances Ha tone, about a day in the life of twentysomething law-school dropout Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling). Niko's life is defined by indecision: He's moved into a new apartment, but hasn't unpacked his boxes yet; he's a smoker, but he doesn't carry a lighter (at home, he uses his toaster). Gerster and cinematographer Philipp Kirsamer frequently frame Niko against moving vehicles -- cars, buses, bikes, trains -- that contrast with his own nagging stasis.

Gerster structures the film around Niko's interactions with colorful supporting characters, from his confessional neighbor (Justus von Dohnányi) to a nasty psychologist (Andreas Schröders) to Julika (Friederike Kempter), an ex-classmate now moonlighting as an interpretive dancer. The film is at its most muddled when it uses these interactions to force historical and emotional resonance onto Niko's story, as in a conversation with a reflective barfly (Michael Gwisdek). Rather, Gerster and Schilling are more successful when they allow Niko's behavior to be their main subject: A scene in which he tries to talk himself out of paying for a train ticket is a painfully sharp representation of how an intelligent, confused person can waste their cleverness on mundanities.
Jan Ole Gerster Tom Schilling, Marc Hosemann, Friederike Kempter, Justus Von Dohnanyi, Michael Gwisdek, Katharina Schüttler, Arnd Klawitter, Martin Brambach, Andreas Schröders, Ulrich Noethen Jan Ole Gerster Marcos Kantis, Alexander Wadouh Music Box Films