It’s a surprising delight to discover a bittersweet sensibility in German writer/director Jan Ole Gerster’s award-winning feature debut, A Coffee in Berlin (originally titled Oh Boy). This dramedy stars Tom Schilling as 20-something Niko Fischer, a nebbish who is a cross between Woody Allen’s earlier screen incarnations and Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Antoine Doinel character in François Truffaut’s 1960s-’70s series of semi-autobiographical films. And like several of Woody’s films, notably Manhattan, that 1979 love letter to New York, Coffee is in black and white (although minus equally luminous shots of Berlin), and the soundtrack is decidedly jazzy.
A scene near Coffee‘s opening sets the stage, as Niko nearly misses an appointment with a state psychiatrist who will determine whether or not he should lose his driver’s license. (Guess how that turns out?) In this cinematic slice of life Niko is a ne’er-do-well who, in the immortal words of “Love Potion Number 9,” has “been a flop with chicks since 1956,” as well as: a fare beater who tries riding Berlin’s subway without purchasing a ticket; a law school dropout; and so on. How this unemployed layabout manages to survive by scamming his businessman father Walter (Ulrich Noethen) is droll, as is most of the movie.
A Bunuelian leitmotif that runs throughout A Coffee in Berlin is Niko’s thwarted repeat efforts to score a cup of java (hence the title) that is humorously reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s 1972 The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [A film about a group of upper-class people attempting – despite continual interruptions – to dine together]. The scene where Niko tries to order a plain coffee in a fancy schmancy coffeehouse will strike a chord with many of us sick of Starbucks-like pretensions and prices. (It’s a bean, not a Picasso, for God’s sake!)
The characters Niko meets along the way are artfully drawn in vivid vignettes. Most memorable is Julika Hoffman (Frederike Kempter), a former classmate whom Niko had teased back in the day because she was overweight. But now “Roly Poly Julie”-who accidentally bumps into her former tormentor at a restaurant-is a grown-up, slim blonde actress who gives Niko comp tickets to the premiere of the new avant-garde play she co-stars in.
Of course, he arrives after the curtain has been raised, and complications ensue, resulting in a clash with the pretentious playwright Phillip Rauch, wryly played by Arnd Klawitter in another perfectly cast cameo. Julika shows herself to be a complex individual who is hell-bent on overcoming a tortured adolescence ruined by Niko and other insensitive schoolmates. Kempter received a well deserved nomination for a 2013 German Film Award for her insightful, poignant performance and is one of the best things about Coffee. Her character deserves a film all her own.
As you may recall, anti-Semitism is a recurring theme in Woody’s oeuvre, whether it’s his complaints that someone saying “Wouldn’t you?” deliberately sounds like “Wouldn’t Jew?” or Grammy Hall’s imagining of him as an ultra-religious Hassidic Jew in 1977’s Annie Hall. In a similar way-but with the jackboot on the other foot -ethnicity haunts Niko, who visits a WWII-era movie set where a hammy, costumed actor in a Nazi uniform greets him with a hearty “Heil Hitler.” The movie-within-a-movie’s plot revolves around the forbidden love between this German soldier and a Jewish woman.
The Hitler salute is repeated towards the end when Niko, who has a drinking problem, stumbles upon an older Aryan who recounts his childhood hard times under the Third Reich. Here, the bitter overtakes the sweet and the comedy takes a turn towards the dramatic, as Germany’s past overshadows its present. Will this encounter be a life-changing moment for the lost, floundering Niko? We stereotypically think of Germans as hard working, but does Niko’s confused slacker symbolize 21st-century Germany?
Those who enjoy sophisticated cinema should find A Coffee in Berlin to be their cup of tea. Coffee is being served for a week starting June 27 at L.A.’s Landmark Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Boulevard; (310) 473-8530. Watch for local distribution.
A Coffee in Berlin
Jan Ole Gerster (screenplay)
83 mins., unrated but not for kids