'A Coffee in Berlin': AFI Fest Review

Oh Boy Film Still - H 2012

Oh Boy Film Still - H 2012

The Berlin-set tale of an aimless 20-something is a delightfully unforced comedy with a sure grasp of character and setting.

Jan-Ole Gerster's debut feature tracks a meandering and momentous day in the life of a Berlin slacker.

With its put-upon protagonist, black-and-white cityscape and snappy soundtrack of New Orleans-style jazz, the comedy Oh Boy inescapably brings to mind vintage Woody Allen. But the feature debut of German writer-director Jan­-Ole Gerster is, finally, its own droll beast. In the lead role, Tom Schilling is an exceptionally appealing idler, and a number of well-known German actors etch memorable supporting turns. 

The film, which opened Nov. 1 on home turf, received its North American premiere at AFI Fest in Los Angeles. Its wry, unforced comedy could translate well to art-house bookings in Europe and North America. 

Schilling plays Berliner Niko Fischer, a law-school dropout in his late 20s who hasn’t bothered to tell his father that he’s no longer attending classes. Other than cashing the old man’s monthly checks, Niko doesn’t do much of anything. As the film begins, his noncommittal attitude prompts the end of his relationship with his girlfriend, and he moves into a new place, where he’s promptly accosted by a nosy neighbor (Justus von Dohnányi) who’s in the grips of middle-aged despair. 

The day takes shape as a slow-dawning turning point for Niko, who’s forced to step back from the boredom that has become his default mode. “I’ve been thinking” is how he explains two years of purposelessness to his brash father (Ulrich Noethen), who has figured out his ruse and cut the financial strings. By the time it’s clear just how lazy and aimless he is, audience sympathies are fully with him, and Gerster spins Niko’s modest short-term goal of enjoying a cup of coffee into a deftly handled running joke. 

The absurd and often casually cruel encounters that Niko endures -- and sometimes helps to provoke -- begin with an ill-fated interview with a government psychologist (Andreas Schröders) over his drunk-driving offenses, and move into the city’s creative communities, both mainstream and fringe. A performance art piece offers a sly glimpse at several levels of angry defensiveness: The former classmate who invited Niko to see her interpretive dance, Julika (Friederike Kempter), insists she bears no hard feelings toward him for his grade-school taunts when she was “Roly Poly Julia,” but it becomes increasingly apparent that she has unfinished business with him. 

Tagging along with older friend Matze (Marc Hosemann), a maturity-challenged underemployed actor, Niko visits the set of a schmaltzy World War II drama, where the Nazi-uniformed lead actor (Arnd Klawitter) imparts a few eye-opening observations about purpose and the trajectory of a life. When the war reappears as a subject, it’s without irony, in the recollections of an elderly barfly (a sharp performance by veteran actor Michael Gwisdek). Niko at first dismisses him as an irritant, but their brief connection turns into a potentially life-changing incident for the drifting young man. 

Gerster and editor Anja Siemens give the main character’s episodic wanderings a seamless, jaunty flow. Philipp Kirsamer’s grainy B&W lensing (using the RED camera) captures Berlin as a timeless metropolis, concerned more with Niko’s state of mind than a documentary specificity.

Production company: Schiwago Film GmbH (in co-production with Chromosom Filmproduktion and Hessischer Rundfunk, in cooperation with Arte and with the support of Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg) 
Cast: Tom Schilling, Friederike Kempter, Marc Hosemann, Arnd Klawitter, Justus von Dohnányi, Michael Gwisdek, Ulrich Noethen, Martin Brambach, RP Kahl, Andreas Schröders, Katharina Schüttler
Writer-director: Jan­-Ole Gerster
Producer: Marcos Kantis
Director of photography: Philipp Kirsamer
Production designer: Juliane Friedrich
Music: The Major Minors, Cherilyn MacNeil
Costume designers: Juliane Maier, Ildiko Okolicsanyi
Editor: Anja Siemens

No rating, 85 minutes