Review: A Coffee in Berlin
Chronic dissatisfaction, self-absorption, financial dependence, laziness—the dominant traits of the Gen Y gene are hardly desirable when it comes to generating the lead character of a film. That doesn’t stop German writer-director Jan Ole Gerster from making his first feature, A Coffee in Berlin, about a young and unemployed grad-school dropout and his meanderings through the German capital. Berlin remains a popular nesting ground for aimless youth, and what keeps the film energized is the way our protagonist Niko (Tom Schilling) fits right in his homeland, the paradigmatic lost boy in his carefree habitat. It’s yet another tribute to being young, confused, and alone in a big city—a cinematic elegy that feels formulaic but is still budding with the special kind of poetic love a filmmaker shares with his favorite city.
The proverbial pain in the ass that plagues Niko throughout the film is that nobody will give him a cup of coffee. It’s supposed to be funny, but the gimmick feels almost patronizingly clichéd, distracting from the stronger aspects of the film. Some stylistic flourishes liven things up—an original jazz score by Cherilyn MacNeil and The Major Minors (which is sweet and snappy but could use a little heat), and crisp black-and-white vignettes of Berlin, shot in digital by Philipp Kirsamer. But like the plot, these choices feel a little overdone, as if they were taken from a director’s manual of reliable techniques for expressing nostalgia in movies (spanning from Italian neorealism, to the French New Wave, to more recent “mumblecore” films).
Even so, A Coffee in Berlin redeems itself thematically by offering some intriguing new insights into being young today. The screenplay highlights how so many adults assume in advance that they’re dealing with a bunch of entitled brats, when really it’s not so simple. Gerster’s seriocomic dialogue between Niko and his superiors—including a harsh psychologist (Andreas Schröders), a grandiose actor friend (Marc Hosemann), his rich dad (Ulrich Noethen)—is harrowingly accurate when it comes to capturing the mutual air of condescension that often wafts between younger and older people. Niko might be a dropout and a smart aleck, but it’s clear that he means well, and maybe that’s why so many people keep spilling their souls to him—for example, his neighbor Karl (Justus von Dohnányi), who brings Niko meatballs as a pretext to rant about his lousy marriage, and a high-school peer Julika (Friederike Kempter), who is quick to open up about severe trauma from her past. With Niko as a witness, the story produces a series of unflattering characterizations of men and women whose dreams of romance, fame, and riches never came true.
Part of the film’s nostalgic charm is how the characters sometimes communicate a great deal without dialogue through subtle changes in countenance, like Buster Keaton but a bit more subdued. A modern mime hardened by cynicism, Schilling manages to capture the worn-out sentiments of his generation in a few frowns and eye rolls. Gerster’s comic pacing often ends scenes with just the right touch of pathos. One memorable sequence involves Niko giving the last of his change to a sleeping homeless man, only to reach back in his cup after the ATM swallows his cash card, all the while observed from the sidelines by a pretty girl with deadpan eyes. At such moments, watching Niko is both funny and poignant, like watching a lethargic cat chase a laser pointer, caught up in a losing game from the start.
The theme of feeling lost in the real world, I think, has been better expressed by mumblecore pioneers—A Coffee in Berlin is too on the nose with its metaphors and brimming with archetypes to feel believable. Then again, Gerster’s embrace of caricature might be intended to tell us that even if life seems like a cruel joke at times, we still have to play by its rules. Niko at one point asks: “You know when you get the feeling that the people all around you are kinda strange somehow? But when you think about it a little longer, you realize it’s not the others but you who’s the problem?” As we mull over melancholic thoughts evoked by the sentiment, the film lapses into reveries of Berlin in all its graffitied splendor, and for a fleeting moment none of it seems to matter.