A Coffee in Berlin

Original title Oh Boy, written and directed by Jan Ole Gerster, released in 2012.

Brooder from another planet

(A recently received notice from our Dept. of Obscure Films)

At first glance, Jan Ole Gerster’s A Coffee in Berlin (2012) feels like a German version of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), but it’s really not. Slacker is a linearly linked series of vignettes, whereas A Coffee is a more conventional film, a series of naturalistic (even novelistic) scenes from a day or two in the life of Berlin resident Niko Fischer, with most scenes separated by brief interludes as the camera pans over Berlin graffiti and streets.

Niko is a slacker, but a brooding one in a particularly German context. Supported by his father, who thinks Niko is studying law, Niko doesn’t do much of anything. In breaking up with his girlfriend, Niko tells her he has lots of things to do that day. He tells his father he’s spent the last two years “thinking”. But we don’t see much evidence of these activities.

Mostly Niko just wanders around Berlin. The joke in the title is that Niko can’t ever get a decent cup of coffee. Perhaps he does his thinking over coffee. Fortunately he does have a friend, part-time actor Matze, without whom, it would appear, not much would happen in Niko’s life.

A couple of scenes are notable, however, and worthy of discussion. Both involve the last days of the Third Reich. No doubt it’s difficult for a German filmmaker to avoid the subject, this being Berlin after all.

The first is on the set of a movie that an actor friend of Matze’s is in, as the lead in a movie about a German soldier and his wartime affair with a Jewish bookseller. Niko guesses correctly the “secret” of the affair (a child) and for a moment we get a glimmer of a different Niko, one who perhaps sees where the others do not that the movie being made is essentially melodrama. We even get to see the last scene of this movie as it’s filmed. It feels like an old movie, like something from the 40s, and for a moment it gives the sleepy outer movie a bit of life.

A film-within-a-film can sometimes feel like a gimmick in a dramatic film, but it fits nicely into this rather laid-back endeavor. And certainly this sort of device can cut through a lot of labored explication. Think of the play-within-a-play in Hamlet. This is Hamlet’s ingenious way of playing with Claudius’s head, letting him know in no uncertain terms that somebody is onto his murder of Hamlet’s father. But what is the function in the larger film of the filming that Niko observes? Niko is drawn away by a phone call and we immediately forget all about the film being made.

Later Niko meets an old drunk in a bar. The man experienced Krystalnacht as a child and he describes to Niko what he has undoubtedly been trying to deal with all his life: the realization that his only disappointment on the night in question was that he wouldn’t be able to ride his bike because of all the broken glass on the street and sidewalks. This confession presents a bit of a problem. Up until this point the film has stayed fairly constant in tone: ironic with some mild satire and humor. Are we now to accept this story as unironic and literally true?

Shot in black and white, A Coffee in Berlin is a mixed bag of Euro-weariness, culture-specific observations and interrupted attempts at storytelling. In the 90s this might have felt fresh, even exciting, but now it feels just a little tired.

One final note: There are references to various types of “subsidies” in this movie. Niko is subsidized by his father. The creator of a ridiculous bit of performance art / dance which Niko and Matze watch (apparently only Matze sees how funny it is) complains about subsidized art. The film’s credits suggest that even A Coffee in Berlin was subsidized. Not sure if there’s anything to be read into all this or not.

© 10 Franks 2015

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