Winning six 2013 German Academy Awards including Outstanding Feature Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay, as well as the Discovery Award at the European Film Awards is Jan Ole Gerster’s debut feature, “A Coffee in Berlin” (original title “Oh Boy”). Playing exclusively for a one-week run at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, “A Coffee in Berlin” chronicles a day in the life of directionless 20-something Niko Fischer (an excellent Tom Schilling) as he encounters lovers, friends, people from his past, and people with a past throughout Berlin.
Opening on Niko trying to sneak off from his girlfriend’s apartment, Niko is quickly seen as non-committal and lost. He’s dropped out of school, has funny, yet irritating interactions with everyone from coffee baristas to a psychiatrist/social worker who refuses to grant him back his driver’s license. Niko’s bad day continues as he meets his new neighbor, a distraught married man, hangs out with his actor friend, meets a former female classmate he helped verbally abuse, and then his father, who somewhat abuses Niko with tough love. But it’s Niko experience with strangers, an elderly grandmother and then an old man in a bar that seems to shift his perspective.
Shot in black and white by cinematographer Philipp Kirsamer and with a great piano and jazz score by Cherilyn MacNeil and The Major Minors, respectively, the film has a timeless quality, yet plays very much present day. The film is also a postcard to the city of Berlin. It has the feel of a road movie without a car. Gerster remarks in his film’s production notes that early on, “I always had … the idea of some sort of a road movie that never leaves Berlin, really. It’s a road movie of someone who has to walk because he lost his license.”
Often multi-award-winning films are big historical spectacles or socially conscience films, but “A Coffee in Berlin” plays more as a small art house film with its subtle, but relevant message. Comparisons of Gerster to the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh (in his indie film mode) have already been made and are on the mark. Gerster has an astute eye in capturing a character just slightly on the outside of the masses, yet speaks to his generation (in this case Gen Y).
With its setting in Berlin, a city ensconced in history, Gerster is skilled in using Niko as a character that’s not taking part in life and thus not creating any real history for himself. Responding to his father’s question as to what has he been doing for the past two years, Niko truthfully replies, “thinking.” But a chance encounter in a bar with a old man with a personal war story makes Niko take a step toward infiltrating life once more. Maybe he’ll even find his cup of coffee more easily in the future.
“A Coffee in Berlin” is smart gem of a movie worth seeking out.
“A Coffee in Berlin” is 88 minutes, Not Rated and opens June 27 at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles.