Critics Corner: A COFFEE IN BERLIN

Read two critical perspectives on A Coffee In Berlin  (2012, Jan Ole Gerster) , from Kelly Vance and Jackson Scarlett.  A Coffee In Berlin  opens in San Francisco at Landmark Cinema’s Opera Plaza and in Berkeley at Landmark’s Shattuck Theater on Friday, June 20, 2014. 

Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) in A COFFEE IN BERLIN. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) in A COFFEE IN BERLIN. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Niko Fischer’s Day Off

by Kelly Vance

Niko Fischer is having a bad day.  In fact Niko (Tom Schilling), the anti-heroic protagonist of Jan Ole Gerster’s curiously beguiling A Coffee in Berlin  (2012) looks to be having an off year, if not exactly an unfortunate life.  The thirtysomething neo-boho starts the morning in bed with his friend Elli (Katharina Schüttler).  She wants him to stay but he clumsily takes his leave, and his fortunes go downhill from there.

It’s established up front that the diminutive Niko, who resembles the feckless younger brother of English actor James McAvoy, is so broke he can’t afford a cup of coffee, and yet somehow he has just moved into a roomy flat of his own.  How is that possible?  He cadges money from his grumpy, disappointed father (Ulrich Noethen), who thinks his son is attending university—but Niko has long since dropped out and is living on the school allowance.  So he’s sponging on his family and treating women like Kleenex.  That’s the way it goes with Niko.  We’ll be surprised if he makes it to the end of the movie without being beaten or shot.

First-time writer-director Gerster gives his character a full portfolio of annoying tics and habits, but in spite of that we come to sympathize with him, the same way we pulled for Pierrot le Fou or Ferris Bueller or the scoundrels created by Bertrand Blier for Going Places  and Get Out Your Handkerchiefs  (played by Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere).  Call it the charming rogue syndrome, with a slight tilt toward the infantile.  We disapprove of Niko but can’t wait to see what kind of trouble he’ll get into next.

Niko obligingly pings from one awkward encounter to another.  An ATM eats his card.  A bureaucrat lectures him over a drunk-driving ticket.  He blunders around town with his mischievous buddy Matze (Marc Hosemann).  A woman recognizes Niko in a restaurant—it’s an old school classmate, Julika (Friederike Kempter), whom Niko used to ridicule for her weight.  Niko plays a haphazard round of golf with his dad, who disowns him then and there for lying about his school career.  The sudden acquaintances grow increasingly sinister: a pair of goons in the subway; Marcel the dope dealer and his grandmother; street thugs, etc.  We fear Niko is heading for a major crackup.  At some point in the film’s second half we seriously begin to wonder if tagging along with a loser like him is worth the effort.

It is, if we care about the shape of German filmmaking in 2014.  Actors Schilling and Schüttler are the stars of Philipp Kadelbach’s Generation War, a worthy 2013 TV mini-series about ordinary Germans in WWII, released here as a theatrical two-parter.  A Coffee in Berlin  (original title: Oh Boy ) was produced before that,  in 2012, and arrives in American art houses at this late date as a further sign that contemporary German films can fully relate to a world dominated by Hollywood genres.

In the 1970s—the golden age of Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog (his particular golden age is still going on), Schlöndorff, Kluge, et al. —Germany meant challenging material and non-clichéd performances.  Today Gerster, who came up through commercials and music vids and has worked alongside Tom Tykwer, seems more determined to fit in than to stand out.  Appropriately, Niko Fischer’s picaresque misadventures reflect Woody Allen (old-fashioned jazz and Robert Mitchum crooning on the music track, plus Philipp Kirsamer’s luscious black-and-white cinematography) just as much as Wim Wenders.  Niko may be a selfish nosebleed, but he’s a recognizably indie selfish nosebleed, camera ready for international film festivals everywhere.  We can see A Coffee in Berlin as a cautious step forward.  Stay tuned.

Kelly Vance
Kelly Vance fell in love with flickers the day he saw Cecil B. DeMille’s
The Greatest Show on Earth  at El Rancho theater in Culver, Indiana, and he’s been trying to catch up with the world’s cinematic output ever since.  When he’s not at a screening or a film festival he writes for the East Bay Express (where he is the chief film reviewer) and the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City e-magazine.  He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.


Julika Hoffmann (Friederike Kempter), Matze (Marc Hosemann) and Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) in A COFFEE IN BERLIN. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Julika Hoffmann (Friederike Kempter), Matze (Marc Hosemann) and Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) in A COFFEE IN BERLIN. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Coffee, Served Cold

by Jackson Scarlett

There’s a kind of studied grandiosity to the San Francisco coffee shop experience that’s never been a friend to the poor and lonely. It’s clearly for the folks who are not gear hungry enough to have their own machine yet but can afford the daily habit. The towering brass roaster that sits at the back of Four Barrel and the esoteric filtering schemes of Blue Bottle are a spectacle I’d just as soon forgo if I’ve got a dollar in my pocket and all I seek is a simple cuppa.  Fika, the Swedish tradition of a brief break for coffee and a sweet, is practically a national right, but if Jale Ole Gerster’s droll and understated Coffee in Berlin  is to be believed, our teutonic friends too can hope for precious little relief from the march of time and crushing onset of luxury living.

Coffee seems to Niko (Tom Schilling) a fundamental right he’s currently being denied—a metaphor for the life he took for granted which has, with little fanfare, abandoned him, as does his girlfriend at the film’s outset.  Like Frances in Noah Baumbach’s similarly sepia’d Frances Ha , Nico is a type finding out that his particular charm has outlived its usefulness—at least in the sense of earning him a living.  The aforementioned girlfriend has left him abruptly and a psychologist of dubious credential has stripped him of his ID due to claims of “emotional instability” following a bit of drunk driving.  He’s adrift in a city that’s not particularly preoccupied with his predicament.  Neither is his father, who abruptly cuts him off on a golfing excursion, having all but adopted a new son in his new golfing assistant.

The sneaky charm of Jan Ole Gerster’s debut, which may be familiar to some in its original German award-winning title Oh Boy , is that it may appear to be an amateur effort, but like its star Schilling—a veteran of German screen since childhood—it isn’t.  The gags are all there, as especially evident in a droll moment in which Niko attempts to recover his just-donated change from a panhandler’s begging cup after his ATM card is eaten by a machine, but they’re all delightfully underplayed in parallel to Niko’s own blasé acceptance of his abrupt arrival to overdue adulthood.  While Coffee  shares a palette with the films of Jim Jarmusch (a fact that Music Box’s new title lays a bit too bare), it never avails itself of the American director’s cardinal sin: call it the pretentious unpretentious—the cinematic equivalent of a 22-year-old gushing to you about the secret knowledge of the homeless.  Neither Coffee  nor its weasely winsome protagonist is 22 anymore and both have long forgone aspirations of looking “cool.”

Over the course of one long day—a narrative frame that has seen a rise in popularity in German independents in recent years—Nico floats across an impressively scaled Berlin which ranges from indifferent to hostile to his particular predicament with his buddy Matze, a lapsed actor in more ways than one.  Like the film’s running gag—that Niko can’t secure a coffee despite all his best efforts—each of these encounters sets up a joke that’s refreshingly shunted away from its punchline toward a familiar disappointment, from a trip to the set of another “good Nazi” film in production to a chance encounter with an over-emotional neighbor.  A run-in with a former classmate once called “Roly Poly Julika”—who has now trimmed down and still holds a bit of a flame for Niko—threatens at redemption, but Niko’s attendance to her play later in the evening ends in a now-familiar letdown.  In all cases, Gerster stumps expectation and creates some amount of joy by flipping a cartoon setup into a well-observed and candidly human moment.  Nico, for his part, maintains his melancholy mood until the film’s final encounter forcefully intrudes.

For such downbeat outcomes, Gerster keeps things light throughout, burnishing even the most romance-less encounters with luminous black and white cinematography and a cool jazz score that seems to have many fondly remembering a Woody Allen film that never quite was.  For both he and Nico, life doesn’t come with resolution, but maybe, at last, there will be some coffee.

Jackson Scarlett came of age entirely in movie theaters across the Northeast.  After attending NYU he moved to San Francisco, dead broke.  He now writes film criticism, interviews, and commentary for
7×7 Magazine, BULLETT and others.  He couldn’t be happier.

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