What is the German word for ‘slacker’? Jan Ole Gerster’s debut feature A Coffee in Berlin (originally titled Oh Boy in Europe) examines a modern-day specimen of a cultural type that 20 years ago was considered virtually synonymous with Generation X. But the 21st-century economy has been so merciless toward recent college graduates, especially in Europe — nowadays it’s common to read about an entire lost generation of Italians and Spaniards under 30 who can’t find full-time work, or any work at all — that the figure of the slacker has notably receded from popular culture. Dropping out means something very different in an economy this punishing.
Beyond that, the onetime bastions of hipster culture are no longer a haven for anyone inclined to lassitude. Manhattan and San Francisco are far too expensive, and to live in Brooklyn increasingly demands an artisanal, entrepreneurial temperament. Even Austin is more hectic and congested these days.
But not Berlin, perhaps. Even as the fashionable districts there gentrify at an exponential rate, and as rents climb citywide, the sprawling German capital — “poor but sexy,” in Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s iconic description — still does not lack for neighborhoods where artists and curiosity seekers can find old, unrenovated apartments that are shockingly large, by Manhattan standards, for rents that don’t require prospective tenants to be sitting on a ton of Apple stock. You can move to Berlin simply to live, to be. Or even to retreat into yourself.
So it is with Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling), whose life in Berlin consists of artless drifting. He’s not a flâneur, nor is he a budding writer or artist giving some great work inside him the breathing room to gestate spontaneously. Instead law-school dropout Niko is dedicated to finding a perfect zero point of no responsibilities and no entanglements.
The reward of A Coffee in Berlin is that writer-director Gerster presents this case study in flatlining in the context of a comedy, one that’s droll and deadpan most of the time, with a couple of detours into broader humor that are surprisingly funny.
(A Coffee in Berlin had an unheralded U.S. premiere at the AFI Fest in November 2012, where it played to little, and uncomprehending notice, and where it slipped by me. A month later, during my fact-finding mission into the beer offerings in German movie theatres, I caught up with the movie in Freiburg, along with an audience that laughed quite a bit. Seven weeks into its German run by that point, Oh Boy was a word-of-mouth indie hit.)
Closing in on 30, Niko exudes a placid cool that has probably served him too well in his life. At first it looks like he’ll be a stock indie-cinema figure, the misunderstood nonconformist who is smarter than everyone else in the movie. Consider the needy losers he has to contend with: Karl (Justus von Dohnányi), the gregarious neighbor who shows up proffering ghastly food, and who soon starts blubbering about the dismal state of his sex life with his wife; or — ultimately far more threatening to Niko’s self-enclosure — Julike (Friederike Kempter), a formerly overweight high school classmate of Niko’s who is now slender and attractive, but bristling with resentments.
Julike now acts, and Niko unwisely agrees to check out her theatre production. Julike’s play turns out to be a comically terrible avant-garde production, and at the afterparty Niko runs afoul of not just the mortally offended Julike but the pretentious director and even a couple of passing soccer hooligans. For a guy so ambivalent about the rest of humanity, it’s a punishing night indeed. This sequence probably shouldn’t work — have movies ever presented avant-garde theatre as anything but a source of easy laughs? — but Gerster’s talent for deadpan comedy turns the outing into a set piece of spiraling humiliation for Niko.
Niko’s sole buddy, the one person whose company is not an unwelcome infringement on his solitude, is Matze (Marc Hosemann), who is an actor, at least in theory. Matze is a performer of high standards: he can’t help guffawing openly at Julike’s theatre piece. He also takes Niko to visit a fellow actor on a movie set, seemingly to snicker at the production, a risible historical melodrama about a Nazi officer who falls in love with a Jewish woman and hides her underground during WWII. Gerster slips an amusing sight gag into the background of the film set, where an extra wearing a yellow Jewish star smokes and chats with an actor dressed as a Nazi commandant. Just another workaday gig for actors in the Berlin of 2012.
But Matze’s actor friend takes Niko aside and starts talking about Matze in a way that suggests he’s a cautionary tale. Matze’s friend relates how Matze has spent years waiting for the perfect role to come his way, and turned down all offers that he considered beneath him. The result is that Matze, now well into his 30s, has no acting career, only his disdainful standards. The ideal as the enemy of the viable, the real: for a young man as lost in contemplation as Niko is, it’s a preview of the fate that could await him.
If Niko at first seemed like the smartest guy in the room, beset by pedantic bureaucrats and bawling neighbors, gradually we come to see how he is nobody’s role model, no hero. Solitude is his refuge, and his prison.
With its picturesque B&W photography, jazzy original score and humorous vibe, A Coffee in Berlin suggests an homage to Woody Allen’s arty midperiod. And as if taking another cue from Allen’s Manhattan, there’s a symphony-of-a-great-city aspect to Gerster’s movie, muted at first, but which comes strikingly to the fore late in the film, in a montage of Berlin at dawn. The shots are no postcard views but mostly unlovely vistas of concrete, giving poignant visual expression to the undercurrent of melancholy that has steadily infiltrated the movie, underneath the comedy.
Those incisive portraits of Berlin, evoking the city’s scarred history, come after Niko’s climactic encounter with another stranger. Alone at a bar late at night, Niko instead has his ear bent by a drunk, garrulous old man (Michael Gwisdek). Once again, another person takes Niko’s passivity as an invitation to overshare: The old man just can’t stop talking, or take a hint. Another insufferable buffoon, Niko might think, until the old man starts telling a rambling story about his childhood. Gradually it becomes clear that the incident he is recounting was part of the Nazi era. Even Niko is roused to pay attention. Niko has finally encountered another person whom he can’t shrug off, and whose life he eventually chooses to become involved in — because, it appears, no one else will.
Gerster handles this late narrative twist with a deft sensitivity. Through Niko’s encounter with the old man, the movie ascends to a different level of seriousness without betraying its tone, and without exploiting painful local history just to give the script some dramatic bona fides.
Niko’s experience with the old man could be a turning point for him. Or it could just as easily not be. A Coffee in Berlin leaves Niko suspended between his past stasis and an undetermined future — and it leaves a moviegoer very curious to see what writer-director Gerster will do next.
A Coffee in Berlin opens in New York City June 13th, in San Francisco and Berkeley on June 20th, and at L.A.’s Nuart Theater on June 27th. For a complete list of U.S. theaters and opening dates, click here.
You can watch the U.S. trailer for A Coffee in Berlin here:
Watch the original German trailer for Oh Boy here (no subtitles):