Germany's New Cinema Hope: 'Oh Boy' Director Jan Ole Gerster

Jan Ole Gerster - H 2013
X Verleih

Critics hail Gerster's b&w debut, tipped to beat "Cloud Atlas" at Germany's Lolas awards on Friday, as the film of his generation.

Director Jan Ole Gerster named his debut film Oh Boy as a Beatles tribute, recalling the line from John Lennon's lyrics to A Day in the Life:

"I read the news today oh, boy/About a lucky man who made the grade/And though the news was rather sad/ Well, I just had to laugh.

These days Gerster has a lot to laugh about himself. His little black-and-white feature, a quirky day-in-the-life portrait of a slacker wandering the streets of modern-day Berlin, is being hailed by German critics as the film of his generation. It's wowed audiences at the AFI last year and at its East Coast debut this week as part of the 35th anniversary of MoMa's Kino! New Films from Germany program. Already Gerster, with his mix of laconic ennui and snappy one-liners is drawing comparisons to vintage Woody Allen and early Jim Jarmusch.

“I wasn't thinking of them at all when I made the film. Obviously you are influenced by the things you see and I am an admirer of Jarmusch in particular, both his films and his way of working, but Oh Boy is really a very personal story,” Gerster told The Hollywood Reporter. “I spent a long time trying to write very ambitious films, ambitious in the worst way, with really complicated plots and hooks. It was only when I gave that up and limited things to what I know – Berlin, these streets and these people, that I had a real breakthrough".

Plot-wise, not much happens in Oh Boy. We join our hero Niko (played by the superb Tom Schilling) two years after he dropped out of law school, essentially to loaf about, living off his father's monthly checks and aimlessly thinking about his life.

The film takes place over the course of a single day when Niko's dad cuts his financial strings, forcing him to reassess his life and, in a classic running joke, try to find a "normal" cup of coffee.

What has captivated the critics is Gerster's easy style, his deft mix of drama and humor and his B&W lensing of Berlin, which, set to jazz soundtrack, gives this most hip, of-the-moment European city a timeless, almost melancholic feel. 

“It's not meant as an answer to those Berlin hipster films you see a lot of now, where its all 'techno capital of the world',” he says. “I was just trying to capture how I see the city. The funny thing is, it's always the same. When I came here (in 2000), people were telling me 'it's all over. You should have come here 10 years ago, then Berlin was happening.' And when I seen young 20 somethings here now, I probably tell them the same thing."

Despite his affinity for the layabout Niko – Gerster jokes he was notorious as being “Berlin's most famous director without a film” for years before completing his debut – the director's slacker days are behind him. He is arguably the most hyped director of the moment in Germany. Besides its critical success, Oh Boy, made for around €300,000 ($400,000) was a sleeper hit at home, where it has earned more than $2 million at the box office.

Oh Boy is also the odds-on favorite to sweep the Lolas, Germany's equivalent of the Oscars, tomorrow night, even though its main competition is Cloud Atlas, the $100 million would-be blockbuster starring Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Halle Berry.

“I don't think you can really compare the two films, they are trying to do very different things, so its strange to have them competing against one another,” says Gerster. “But I've known (Cloud Atlas co-director) Tom Tykwer for years. He's a friend. And people should remember he didn't start out making $100 million movies either, he started small, like I did".

Gerster started, actually, as a production assistant on Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), the comedy about German reunification directed by Wolfgang Becker and produced by X Filme, the Berlin company in which both Becker and Tykwer are partners. 

Good Bye, Lenin!, a critical success (it swept the German and European Film Awards and received BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations) was also a global box office hit. For many the film signaled a new wave in German cinema that arguably peaked with four years later when Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others won the Oscar for best foreign language film.

Since then, international interest in German cinema has waned. Of the past five Lola Best Film winners only one, The White Ribbon in 2010, reached a significant international audience. Ironically, the film, from Austrian's Michael Haneke, was also the only one not directed by a German.

It might be too much to hope that Oh Boy, on its own, can change international attitudes towards German cinema, much less spark a new Teutonic boom. But win or lose Friday night, Gerster's little gem of film suggests Germany's new generation may be finding its voice.