When we first see Niko, the aimless young protagonist of A Coffee in Berlin, it is through an open doorway. Quietly slipping back into his trousers and shoes, he bristles when the sleeping figure to his left stirs and wakes; when she asks him to stay and offers him a cup of coffee, he feigns a series of “appointments” and shuffles out the door without any hint of affection. His aloof disembarkation is better suited to a one night stand than to the long term relationship he has just quietly dissolved, but Niko’s entire life has been defined by commitments abandoned. Depending upon which side of it you’re on, an open door can be either an invitation or a liability. For Niko, however, it’s neither; rather, it’s a means of escape, a safety hatch, and a crutch upon which, he will learn over the course of one eventful day, he can no longer rely.
Taking its visual and narrative cues from the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, Lindsay Anderson, and Woody Allen, Jan-Ole Gerster’s much celebrated debut feature is a sly and knowing portrait of disenfranchised youth. Too smart to celebrate Niko and too sympathetic to cast him in contempt, A Coffee in Berlin — which was originally released in Germany as Oh Boy! in 2012 — maintains an admirable, delicate balance between somber and jocular, a deft mix of dark and light which is perfectly complemented by Philipp Kirsamer’s rich, evocative black and white cinematography. As Niko crisscrosses his way through Berlin, meeting up with family, friends, and strangers, his interactions add up emotionally rather than narratively, culminating in one of the more oblique and touching cinematic explorations of young adulthood of recent memory.
Tom Schilling stars as Niko, an unemployed college dropout in his early twenties who has spent the last two years living off of the monthly stipend sent to him by his father, a source of revenue which quickly dries up when his father learns that Niko has neglected to mention that he is no longer a student. His driver’s license, also, has been revoked, for driving drunk. He is reliant upon Matze (Marc Hosemann), a struggling actor a decade his senior, for transportation. While having lunch with Matze, Niko is recognized by Julika (Friederike Kempter), a former classmate whom Niko used to taunt for her weight. Julika, now proudly a beautiful and svelte performance artist, admits to having had a crush on Niko “in spite of all the humiliation,” and invites them to the premiere of her latest show later that night. Embarrassed, Niko attempts to politely decline, but Matze insists that they will be there.
Though Julika’s show is ostensibly the focal point of Niko’s night, it progressively takes a backseat to the acquaintances he makes on his way to and from the theater, each one of which casts a harsher light upon his stagnation, ineffectuality, and the discord between reality and the false image of himself which Niko has propagated. A classmate of Matze, now a successful leading man, explains to Niko that despite a surplus of raw talent, Matze’s refusal to accept and commit to roles which he believed were not worthy of his abilities cost him a career; now he works in advertising and begs his former classmate for bit parts in his films. Julika’s advances betray a lingering weakness and insecurity at odds with her confident exterior. And the grandmother of Matze’s seventeen year old drug dealer is an exemplar of quiet acceptance, perseverance, and unconditional love. All of them, and especially the elderly man who confides in Niko at the end of the night, make us — audience and protagonist alike — question our notions of pride, of shame, and of self.
It seems almost too easy to bring up Frances Ha (TMT Review), Noah Baumbach’s fantastic 2013 black and white tragicomedy starring Greta Gerwig. But that film’s sense of wanderlust, trepidation, and millennial malaise, as well as Frances’s apologetic assertion that she’s “not a real person yet” and her complicated relationship to the past all echo the central concerns of A Coffee in Berlin. One of the film’s recurring visual motifs is an image of trains passing in the distance behind Niko; often he is seated, sedentary, such as in his apartment or in a cafe. Whether afraid of failure or of commitment, Niko has walked away from just about everything, from music lessons, to sports, to law school, to relationships. That which once felt liberating has become a prison, acts of self-assertion have become acts of self-defeat. His past is littered with roads not taken. In one scene, Niko does ride the train, but he does so without paying the necessary fare. “Purchasing a ticket is entering into a contract,” the railway guard tells him, but rather than tender his ID and pay the fine, Niko runs into the next departing train, once again skirting the repercussions of his actions. As he rides, he stares out the window, his reflection bifurcated in the double-paned glass — what of the contract he has entered into with himself?
It’s unfortunate that distributors felt the need to change the title of Gerster’s film. Not only does Oh Boy! beautifully convey both the exasperation and the immaturity of the protagonist, but it’s also a subtle nod to Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! and the classic Angry Young Men films of the British New Wave from the 1950s and 1960s. Whereas those misguided youth were usually impatient for adulthood, Niko and his American kinfolk like Frances are drowned in comfort, having mistaken consistency for contentment. They frame their torpidity as an act of social defiance, but they are only thwarting themselves. After refusing his girlfriend’s offer to brew him some coffee before he leaves in the first scene, Niko is unable throughout the film to obtain a cup. Restaurants are out of it, machines are broken, he hasn’t enough money on him. The elusive beverage is a fantastic running gag, but it becomes more than that: it’s the apotheosis of Niko’s ability to look beyond himself, to unify thought and action, and to take the next step from boyhood to manhood. As a title, A Coffee in Berlin perhaps oversells the metaphor, but as a film, it hits all the right notes.