by Ken B.
Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) undergoes a breakup, a failed psychological evaluation to regain his driver’s license, and an ATM eating his bank card. And that’s just in the first twenty minutes of A Coffee in Berlin. Here’s another thing I forgot to mention about Niko – he’s a slacker. Years ago, he dropped out of law school, but hasn’t told his father (Ulrich Noethen), and has simply accepted monthly financial payments for the education that has been long discontinued, using the money to pursue an exciting career of nothing, an aimless twentysomething living in the titular city. What he doesn’t know is that his father has indeed been recently informed of the fact that his son is a dropout, and when meeting with his son on the golf course, cuts him off financially.
Writer/director Jan Ole Gerster’s debut film is striking, shot in black-and-white, backed up with a jazz score that weaves in and out through the film, set over one day. Mix that with some solid acting and sharp wit, and you’ve got a mix of things this movie reminded me of – the jazz music, the downbeat protagonist, the urban settings bring back thoughts of early Woody Allen, and more recently, matches the visual and character setup of maybe something like Frances Ha. The main difference between Frances Ha and A Coffee in Berlin, however, is that where the former film mixes its themes of aimlessness with near-offputting listlessness, the latter feels involved and fascinating, despite its sometimes unlikable main character and supporting ones that are nearly unbelievably eccentric. But it doesn’t matter. This is a great movie.
The movie isn’t as much about finding an ending as much it’s about the course of the day. A lot of stuff happens – at lunch with his friend Matze (Marc Hosemann), Niko meets Julika (Friederike Kempter), a former classmate from years and years ago who has dropped the extra weight that earned her ridicule from other kids (Niko included) and has become an actress in avant garde theater. She offers him and Matze tickets to a show she will be in that night. Later on in the day, Matze introduces Niko to Phillip Rauch (Arnd Klawitter), an actor who is starring in a large, melodramatic WWII movie. None of these events end particularly well, with some sort of embarrassment or incident caused by Niko, solidifying the character thrown into repeatedly awkward scenarios.
There is, however, a single plot thread that runs ubiquitously throughout A Coffee in Berlin, and that is the running element that gives the movie its English language title – our main character’s basic inability to find a cup of coffee. It’s always thwarted in some way or another (not having enough money, an empty pot, a broken machine, whatever). A seemingly throwaway exchange at the start where his now-ex girlfriend offers to make some coffee for the two of them, but Niko declines, saying he is too busy that day and must leave the apartment now, becomes incredibly ironic – a foreshadowing of the poor decisions and disorganized mess that he’s made that are about to come to light.
The fact of the matter, I should restate, is that Niko is incredibly childish and lazy, making terrible decisions in order to remain childish and lazy for as long as possible. This much is evident by the amount of money he shamelessly has been accepting from his father for two years. By this, I hope I’ve expressed the point that a character that would otherwise be treated with indifference on paper needs a strong and nuanced performance to keep the whole movie from being unbearable. And Tom Schilling certainly delivers. While he’s not trying to change his character’s fortunes or behavior overnight, Schilling still adds a degree of sympathy to Niko, giving a level of depth and conflict to the character far beyond just making him a run-of-the-mill “slacker”, bringing us off our high horse of looking down on the character with a sense of stiff false distaste. Benefited by the film’s supporting cast of variously quirky characters and apt acting, the work of the cast is a huge chunk of what makes A Coffee in Berlin so great – this would have been a significantly less compelling movie with less inspired performances.
A Coffee in Berlin runs a brisk 85 minutes, so it seems slight from an outside perspective. And it looks slight, with its style. But it’s not slight. Looking into themes such as growing up and dealing with the consequences of one’s own actions, there is a deeply resonant message, surrounded by very entertaining characters and situations. Brilliantly acted, stylishly directed, impeccably paced right up until its open ending, and accompanied with excellent jazz music, this is a movie that showcases the talent of everyone involved in such a way that even though it doesn’t pave new roads in its genre, it’s still obvious that you are in the presence of stellar filmmaking.