A Coffee in Berlin
The title, "A Coffee in Berlin," seems to suggest a romantic rendezvous, a quaint café, and a wispy narrative, but this German comedy-drama is something quite different. In his debut, writer/director Jan Ole Gerster takes us from locale to locale in handsome Berlin, using crisp black and white to capture the malaise of his college dropout protagonist, Niko. The film may meander, as well it should considering Niko's aimlessness, but it also lands on substantive moments. Clearly, whoever is in charge of the German Oscars deemed it worthy of recognition.
The original title, "Oh Boy," may be a bit more apt, if devoid of descriptiveness. This is because the film boasts some remarkably uncomfortable encounters, and this exclamation seems to suit Niko perfectly. He's not apathetic, but he is an even-tempered, go-with-the-flow kind of bloke. Actor Tom Schilling imbues him with a low-key charm that is hard to resist. Sure, he's an urban slacker who lacks a sense of purpose and who doesn't really take a strong stand for anything throughout the film; yet, he is affable and sincere, so it's easy to sympathize with his indolence in the face of commitment.
In the beginning of the film we see him making the typical male excuses for not sticking around the morning after. Later, he squirms only minimally when his golf-playing father (who laughably critiques his son's putting as if it were a major life failure) confronts him with his deceit -- for two years, Niko has been taking his father's college money despite no longer being enrolled. The fact that his father could be oblivious to this reality for so long speaks volumes to the sort of self-serving detachment that reigns in this sort of bourgeois realm, and we can faintly get a sense of the vapidity that Niko so passively seeks to escape.
The film depicts quite a bizarre day in Niko's life, and one can appreciate the director's sense of what makes Berlin both amazing and absurd. One of the few moments in which Niko actually becomes heated, and in which coffee figures prominently, is an early scene in which an overly bubbly barista (like hipster meets Southerner) at a pretentious coffee shop works vigorously to upsell him despite his insistence on the simplest cup of coffee possible and then refuses him with a huge smile when he doesn't have the change to pay for the hyped-up cup of joe.
It is a minor moment, yet it sets the tone for Niko's journey through absurdity, which arguably comes to a climax when he reconnects with a formerly-fat grade school classmate. He never quite apologizes for calling her 'Roly Poly Julia' back then, but he does receive her awkwardly boisterous attention graciously (at least partially because she is smokin' hot now).
Julika is almost a caricature -- she is the most traditionally comedic component of the film -- and one could argue that the narrative's use of her psychic trauma is a bit cheap or superficial. But ultimately, this is Niko's story, and he is never a bastard to anyone. He even stands up for Julika when she provokes hecklers on the street instead of defusing the possibility for violence. It's the accompanying male who pays the price when his female date gets too feisty with hooligans, but it's the woman who perpetually pays the price of being a sexual object, especially in the crasser corners of society. A bathroom sex scene, in which Julika's insecurities come to a head, encapsulates the devastating after-effects of childhood teasing and the way that sexuality becomes warped by psychic trauma.
This film is not heavy fare, yet it has heart. It deftly wields comedy to get at the peculiar ways in which it becomes necessary to tap into one's humanity while traversing the city on any given day.